Gawain in Middle English and Middle High German. A Cross Linguistic Study of Nouns and Adjectives in Regard to Semantic Features

Bachelor Thesis, 2014
76 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Method
2.1 Choice of Works
2.2 Choice of Word Classes
2.3 Collection of Data
2.4 Evaluation of Data

3. Summaries for Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Parzival
3.1 Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
3.2 Parzival

4. Gawain in Middle English
4.1 Overview of Expressions in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
4.2 Expressions Used by Gawain
4.3 Expressions Used by Other Characters
4.4 Expressions Used by the Narrator

5. Gawain in Middle High German
5.1 Overview of Expressions in Parzival
5.2 Expressions Used by Gawain
5.3 Expressions Used by Other Characters
5.4 Expressions Used by the Narrator

6. Discussion
6.1 Differences and Similarities in Both Works
6.2 Discussion of the Advantages of a Lexico-Semantic Analysis

7. Conclusion

Primary Sources

Secondary Sources

Index of Figures

Index of Tables

I. Complete Data for Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
II. Semantic Features in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
III. Complete Data for Parzival
IV. Semantic Features in Parzival
V. Comparison of Semantic Features

1. Introduction

The tales of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table have fascinated people throughout the centuries and are still today adapted for books, films and TV series. While Arthur and Merlin are perceived as special characters, the different Knights of the Round Table seem to have faded into a more blurry assemblage of men.

In the Middle Ages, however, Gawain was seen as the perfect Arthurian knight who clearly sets himself apart and embodies the principles and values of the Round Table. "The earlier French romances present [him] as the standard of courtesy and discretion against whom all others are measured" (Thompson/ Busby 2006: 27) and due to French literature being the source for many other Arthurian romances, this image of Gawain can also be found in the works of Middle High German writers as well as Middle English ones. But is Gawain depicted in exactly the same way in those two cultures or do the authors focus on different aspects of his personality? Where are the differences and similarities in the nouns and adjectives used to describe the protagonist? Do some expressions only occur for a distinct user, like the narrator? And additionally, are there nouns and adjectives which only appear before or after a certain event? Considering several aspects (see 2.1 Choice of Works), Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by the Gawain -Poet and Parzival by Wolfram von Eschenbach were selected for analysis.

In research literature, hardly any efforts were made to find an answer to those questions. Regarding Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, nouns are only discussed with focus on alliterative verse. So, Turville-Petre argues that alliteration demands a broad variety of synonyms that can be filled into the alliterative scheme (1977: 70), and thus, that the nouns burne, freke, gome, ha þel, lede, renk, schalk, segge and wy ʒe (1977: 78) – he misses "tulk" (SGGK[1], 18) – for man and warrior are not distinguishable by their meaning. "[T]he special status of these words is their function and position in the alliterative line" (Turville-Petre 1977: 82). In regard to semantic features, gome, renk and schalk could indeed be categorized as synonyms as they all determine [warrior]. Freke, however, adds the feature [brave] whereas ha þel and burne can be further distinguished by the feature [noble].[2] It is thus rejected here to call those expressions synonyms as they convey not the exact same meaning.

In addition, Turville-Petre deals with the use of nominalized adjectives which, according to him, enable the poet "to draw attention very economically to one particular aspect of the object that he wishes to emphasise" (1977: 81). In contrast to nouns, nominalized adjectives have a "very sharply defined" (1977: 81) meaning and "[t]heir function is to stress the aspect of the character that is relevant to the reader at that point in the poem" (1977: 81).

Alliterative adjectives are analyzed by Marie Borroff. Her focus is on gode and gay in connection with Gawain and will therefore be discussed in section 4.1 of this thesis.

For Parzival, it is Dietrich Homberger's dissertation which offers a detailed characterization of Gawain. The hero's behavior in different situations, his strengths and weaknesses and his relationship with women or God are taken into account. Homberger's findings, however, are only partially based on single expressions due to his more literary approach. Problems occur in regard to his data. On the one hand, for his chapter "Beinamen, Epitheta" (see Homberger 1970: 118), he adds a detailed appendix (Homberger 1970: 236). On the other hand, there is no explanation available why firstly, this chapter is limited to the expressions degen, helt, wîgant, kurtoys, wirt and bote and secondly, why not every occurrence of a word is taken into account. For kurtois, which he mentions for lines 380,28 and 619,25 but can also be found in line 619,25, this might just be an error due to eye skip. For wirt, however, he mentions only two examples while it actually occurs six times.[3]

In his appendix about adjectives (see Homberger 1970: 238), similar problems exist. Due to the comparison of Parzival to other German works, Homberger probably limited his choice of adjectives in order to get the biggest possible overlap. For direct references to Gawain, the adjectives ahtbære, edel, liep, tum and vremde are missing. On the other hand, his list is extended by adjectives which relate to attributes of Gawain, like "vester mout" (Eschenbach 1961: 571,04) 'unchanging courage'. As Homberger does not indicate any verse lines, it is difficult to follow his results. Moreover, it does not become exactly clear what Homberger draws from his findings in regard to adjectives. Apart from an implication that they would extend Gawain's image and praise for Eschenbach due to his broad variation of adjectives (Homberger 1970: 118), there seem no further insights to be gained for him.

While the works mentioned above deal with Gawain in only one particular language, Gawain: A Casebook or The Oxford Guide to Arthurian Literature and Legend consider his figure in different cultures, especially in English, French, German and Dutch literature. As their focus is on one language at a time, cross linguistic comparisons of Gawain could not be found.

In order to fill this gap, this bachelor thesis will examine the nouns and adjectives used by the Gawain -Poet and Eschenbach to characterize their protagonists. It is the aim of this study to determine the differences and similarities in the depiction of Gawain and to discuss possible reasons for certain word choices. The following chapter will therefore describe how the works for this analysis were chosen, why the focus is on nouns and attributive adjectives as well as how and which data was collected. The first half of the main part will start with an overview of the different expressions that were used in the text Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The next part will deal with references Gawain uses for himself, followed by how other characters address and talk about the knight. After that, the narrators' ways to describe the protagonists will be analyzed. The second half of the main part will then be about the same aspects for Parzival, followed by a discussion of the differences and similarities of both works. Moreover, it will be dealt with the question whether a lexico-semantic approach offers further insights into the characterization of Gawain. In the conclusion, the findings of this study will be summarized.

2. Method

2.1 Choice of Works

In order to be well comparable, the sources for Middle English and Middle High German should have as many characteristics in common as possible. For the English text, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight offers not only the advantage of Gawain being the main character – it is also written in verse. Due to the German sources being all poems, choosing Sir Gawain and the Green Knight allows to look for the best possible counterpart in Middle High German literature.

Although Diu Crône by Heinrich von dem Türlin also has Gawain as the main hero, he "undergoes neither evolution nor crisis" (Thompson/Busby 2006: 10) and is, in contrast to Gawain in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, already a fixed character. For this reason, Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival was preferred to Diu Crône, despite the fact that Gawain is only the second main character there. Parzival and Gâwân, as he is called in Middle High German, go on different adventures and therefore have their own episodes. This allows seeing Gâwân as the main character in his parts of the story, making Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Parzival comparable.

Another important aspect in regard to comparability is the time in which both works occurred. For the manuscript of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, it seems certain that it was created around 1400 (Brewer D. 1997:1 & Bennet 1997:71). However, the manuscript is a transcription of the original poem and it is unknown in which year the actual work was written. While Bennet suggests that it might have been produced "as early as the 1360s or as late as the manuscript itself" (1997:71), Edwards argues that the poem surely existed before the manuscript. Furthermore, he concludes from the inscription "HONY SOYT QUI MAL PENCE" (SGGK, 69) that the year 1348 "provides the earliest possible date for the transcription of the manuscript itself" (1997:198). However, he comments that the inscription might not have been "copied at the same time as the text or by the same scribe" (1997:198) and Barron adds that "there is no evidence that the poet himself intended any reference" (1994: 181) to the Garter motto. Moreover, he writes that because of the armor and equipment described in the story it is concluded that the work was written "in the last ten or fifteen years of the fourteenth century" (1994: 25).

In contrast to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the dating of Parzival seems less complicated. In the seventh book of his work, Eschenbach writes about the still bad condition of Erfurt's wine gardens, which were trampled down by horses (Eschenbach 1961: 379,18[4] ). According to Bumke, this refers to the siege of Erfurt in the spring of 1203 and he concludes that the smaller part of Parzival was written before 1203/1204 (1970: 11). On the other hand, he takes into account that the work might have been edited several times which opens up the possibility that comments like this have been included at a later time. As a result, he dates the poem between 1200 and 1210 (Bumke 1970: 12).

Even if, in conclusion, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Parzival are up to 200 years apart, the two works share a connecting feature. Both of them are influenced by the French writer Chrétien de Troyes. Though Eschenbach's indication of sources is rather unclear, comparisons with Chrétien's Conte du Graal showed that his Perceval can be seen as Parzival 's main source (Bumke 1970: 33).

In her article "The Sources of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight", Elizabeth Brewer writes that it would be almost "virtually certain" (1997: 245) that the Gawain -Poet was familiar with the episode of the Beheading-game in the First Continuation of Perceval.

In summary, the aspects of verse, date, source and Gawain being a main character led to the decision that Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Parzival were suitable works in order to answer the research question of how the figures' character is presented in Middle English and Middle High German literature.

2.2 Choice of Word Classes

There are four word classes which allow characterizing Gawain: nouns, adjectives, verbs and adverbs. The nouns can be split into two groups. On the one hand, there are nouns which replace the name 'Gawain', like "kniʒt" (SGGK, 11) 'knight' or "degen" (Eschenbach 1961: 299,30) 'warrior'. On the other hand, nouns that in some way describe his manner can be found. While it is a rather easy choice to include "kraft" (Eschenbach 1961: 558,22) 'strength' or "honour" (SGGK, 34) 'honor', it is difficult to decide what to do with "Your [Gawain's] worde" (SGGK, 42). As Gawain's talent for speeches is regularly mentioned, it seems important to be included. Yet, the noun worde itself does not transport the information that his talks were outstanding or much appreciated by others. Due to this problematic differentiation, only those types of nouns which replace Gawain's name were taken into account. Consequently, only the attributive adjectives that refer to Gawain or the according replacement expressions were collected for the data.

For verbs, it would be necessary to find rules by which expressions are accepted into the corpus. Otherwise, the amount of verbs like say or go and their conjugated forms that are used to describe basic actions but do not have a greater meaning for Gawain's character would be too high. However, as Gawain's talent for speech is a characteristic of him, verbs that express the idea of saying something are important to be added. Here, the problem arises to decide which verbs have more meaning for the protagonist's character than others.

To limit the amount of verbs accepted into the corpus, it would also be possible, for example, to distinguish between verbs that describe an activity or a state. At first glance, one might decide to collect only activity verbs as people can be well characterized by their actions. On the other hand, for Gawain and the Green Knight, the significance of Gawain staying in bed all day while his host is on a hunt cannot be denied. Consequently, one can conclude that state verbs can also be important for analysis. Again, the question arises on how to determine verbs that are significant for the depiction of Gawain's character and, thus, need to be added to the corpus. For this reason, the focus will be on adjectives and on nouns as described above.

2.3 Collection of Data

In a first approach, both texts were read in order to collect a basis of nouns and adjectives as well as declined forms which are used to refer to Gawain. Especially for the Middle English text, attention was paid to alternative forms of spelling. In a second approach, search functions were used to assure a complete collection of data.

Nouns like the Middle English sir and the Middle High German her, which are used by the narrator and in direct speech to address Gawain, were not taken into account as they only stress the protagonist's nobility or are a formal form of politeness and respect, but do not add further characteristics to the concept of Gawain.

Plural forms were included when a direct reference to Gawain existed. In "There gode Gawan watz grayþed Gwenore bisyde,/And Agrauayn a la dure mayn on þat oþer syde sittes,/Boþe þe kynges sistersunes and ful siker kniȝtes" (SGGK, 4) 'There, good Gawain was seated next to Guinevere, and Agravain with the hard hand sits on the other side – both the king's sister's sons and very doughty knights', for example, it is clear that sistersunes and kniȝtes refer to 'Gawain and Agravain' due to their mentioning two verse lines before and were thus added to the data. General references to knights or else, however, where Gawain might possibly – but not for sure – be part of, were omitted. This, of course, accounts for the Middle High German text as well.

Nouns and adjectives used in sentences with a conjunctive verb form were only taken into account, when the conjunctive's function was to indicate indirect speech. If, however, it was used to signalize a possibility for Gawain to be or become, for example, a coward due to his actions, it was not included as it did not express a fact in the present of the story. The same accounts for nouns and adjectives that occurred in a negated sentence.

All collected terms were extended by user information. Those which were mentioned by the narrator were marked with 'N', those used by Gawain to refer to himself were labeled with 'G' and those which were brought up by minor characters were marked with 'O' for 'others', together with the character's name if available. Being able to sort nouns and adjectives by those parameters offers the possibility to discover if certain expressions are limited to particular users only.

The indication of verse lines enables to determine whether nouns or adjectives are connected to distinct events in the story and do only appear before or after them.

All expressions were assigned to three different groups: Adjectives, Nouns and Appositions. As the two categories 'Nouns' and 'Appositions' overlap, the differences between them will be explained in the following.

An apposition is seen as "a noun phrase immediately after another noun phrase that refers to the same person" (OAAD) and in the context of this thesis, to Gawain. Though it is not restrictive, the apposition is not separated with a comma. All expressions categorized as an apposition follow the scheme 'Gawain' + 'article' + 'nominalized adjective/noun', e.g. "Gawayn þe gode" (SGGK, 31) 'Gawain the Good' or "Gâwân der wirt" (Eschenbach 1961: 764,08) 'Gawain the Host'. An exception to this rule is the Middle High German "von Norwæge Gâwân" (Eschenbach 1961: 651,10), where the apposition precedes the name due to the less strict syntax. Relative clauses like "Gâwân der ellenthafte degen" (Eschenbach 1961: 418,03) 'Gawain, the brave warrior' were split up into adjective and noun.

2.4 Evaluation of Data

To find out which characteristics of Gawain were especially important for the authors and to make these findings comparable, one has to take a look at the semantic features of the expressions. For this, dictionaries were consulted and the definitions given were used to determine the semantic features. As nouns can have different meanings according to their use, the context of each expression was considered to ensure a thorough evaluation. In case of the Middle High German gast, for example, a differentiation was made between its meanings 'guest' and 'stranger'.

In the next step, every semantic feature of a noun or adjective was multiplied by the word's number of occurrences in the text. The result allows to determine which aspects of Gawain are predominant in the work examined. To contrast Sir Gawain and the Green Knight with Parzival, the results' percentage for the total of semantic features was calculated respectively[5].

Redundant semantic features like [human], [male], [adult] were not added to concentrate on the more defining aspects of the protagonist. This, in turn, automatically leads to words like man having no relevant semantic features. To avoid that such words drop out of the analysis, they will be discussed independently and added to statistics as neutral expressions.

The term reference is used to describe the way characters express their thoughts about the protagonist and is not used with its pragmatic meaning.

3. Summaries for Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Parzival

In order to understand the differences in regard to the characterization of Gawain in both works, it is important to know the context in which both interact. Therefore, the following abstracts will provide a brief overview of the two plots.

3.1 Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Celebrating Christmas at Arthur's court, the court society is interrupted by the Green Knight, who demands a Christmas game: a member of the Knights of the Round Table shall hit him with his axe but will receive a blow in return after one year. It is Gawain, who in the end accepts the challenge and beheads the Green Knight. Still alive, the stranger demands Gawain to keep his word and to meet him at the Green Chapel in a year's time.

When the set date comes near, Gawain leaves Arthur's court to look for the Green Chapel. On his way, he comes to Bertilak's castle and is welcomed as a guest. The lord and the knight agree to exchange every evening what the host achieves during a hunt while Gawain will give him everything he receives at the castle.

Three days in a row, Bertilak's wife comes to Gawain's chamber and kisses him, but on the third day also gives him a green girdle, which has the power to protect from death. While the protagonist exchanges the kisses for the hunting trophies, he keeps the green girdle to protect himself because he has to face the fight against the Green Knight the next day.

When arriving at the Green Chapel, the Green Knight fakes two blows but cuts Gawain's neck with a third. He then reveals that he is Bertilak and that Gawain has received the cut for keeping the girdle, which was against their agreement. Full of shame, Gawain returns to Arthur's court, wearing the girdle as a visible sign for his fault.

3.2 Parzival

In Parzival, Gawain occurs rather late in the story. In the presence of Arthur's court, he is accused by Kingrimursel of killing someone without reason and is thus asked to come to Schampfanzun to solve the matter by a fight.

On his way, Gawain passes a castle, which is under attack because the daughter of the castle's lord rejected King Meljanz' love. Gawain is able to settle the dispute between the couple and moves on.

In Schampfanzun, he is seen kissing King Vergulaht's sister which results in a fight between him and the king's men. The knight is supported by Kingrimursel, who had guaranteed Gawain would be safe before their fight. The matter can be settled when the protagonist agrees to take over Vergulaht's task to search for the Holy Grail.

Travelling further, he meets the lady Orgelûse and instantly falls in love with her. She rejects him, but Gawain does not give up. Thus, she grabs the opportunity when she gets the chance to leave him behind, but allows him to see her again if he wins a fight against a certain knight. In the course of this task, Gawain learns about an enchanted castle where noble ladies are held captive. He is the first to survive the adventures in the castle and as a result becomes lord of it. Orgelûse meets Gawain again and gets healed from her bitterness when the hero declares to fight King Gramoflanz, the murderer of Orgelûse's husband. The twist here is that Gramoflanz is the love of Gawain's sister and in case of a fight, Itonjê would either lose her beloved or her brother. Artus thus intervenes and both couples get married.

4. Gawain in Middle English

In the following chapters, the different findings of the analysis will be presented and discussed. There will be a detailed look onto the users of certain expressions and terms related to a distinct event, but for a start, a general overview of the expressions for the Middle English work will be given.

4.1 Overview of Expressions in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

In total, 210 expressions were found referring to the hero in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.[6] The biggest group is formed by nouns, making up 173 words, followed by 32 adjectives and 5 appositions.

For nouns, 24 different terms can be found referring to Gawain. The most frequent ones, which occur more than 10 times, are represented in Figure 1 below.

Figure 1 - Most Frequent Nouns for Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Freke is followed by ha þel 'warrior' (6 times), prynce 'prince' (6), renk 'soldier' (4), hende 'courtly' (3), dere 'dear' (2) and – one time respectively – by comly 'handsome', cosyn 'cousin', feble '(mentally) weak', gome 'warrior', ientyle 'gentle', noble 'noble', schalk 'warrior', stalworth 'strong', tulk 'soldier', wlonk 'noble' , wok 'weak' and sistersun 'sister's son'.

While there is quite a variety of different terms, their frequency is quickly descending. This is similar for the group of adjectives. Here, gode 'good' is the most frequent expression with 7 occurrences, followed by bolde 'brave' and comli 'handsome' with 3. The adjectives fre 'noble', gentyle 'gentle', hende 'courtly', luflych 'lovely', and stif 'strong' can be found two times each, while derf 'brave', fautles 'faultless', gay 'cheerful', myry 'cheerful', noble 'noble', siker 'doughty', trwe 'loyal', welcome 'welcome' and vnwor þy 'unworthy' occur only once. For appositions, the phrases þe gode 'the good' (2 times), þe hende 'the courtly' (1), þe noble 'the noble' (1) and þe blyþe 'the joyful' (1) could be found.

When semantic features are assigned to these expressions[7], it becomes apparent that his noble descent and being a fighter are the most important aspects of Gawain's character and define him most (see Table 1). They set the basis for a further enhancement of qualities: the features of bravery and strength add more detail to his knighthood and his power corresponds with his aristocratic and royal status in society.

Table 1 - Distribution of Semantic Features in SGGK

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Another important feature is Gawain's goodness, indicated by the adjective gode. It occurs frequently in combination with the protagonist's name: gode Gawain. The alliteration strengthens this aspect in such a way that Borroff claims it becomes almost redundant (1996: 125). The goodness of Gawain "'goes without saying' [and] can be 'taken for granted'" (Borroff 1996: 125) as she describes it. It is strengthened even more by the protagonist's impeccable manners, a semantic component expressed by the adjective fautles.

In regard to his relationship with others, the hero is ascribed the semantic features of politeness, kindness and loyalty. He seems to be a rather cheerful man and the fact that he is good looking is also expressed several times. Being such a pleasant person, minor characters welcome Gawain and hold him dear.

Though the most frequent features deal to a large extend with the hero's social position as a warrior and nobleman and focus less on his contact with others, in general, these entire features picture a protagonist with ideal knightly qualities. It is thus striking to also find the semantic features [weak] and [unworthy] which seem to completely stand in contrast to the other characteristics. They are even more noteworthy because it is Gawain himself who uses the corresponding expressions – the wakkest and vnwor þy – to refer to himself. The following chapter will therefore deal with the analysis of expressions the hero uses for himself.

4.2 Expressions Used by Gawain

When the Green Knight enters Arthur's court and asks for someone to challenge him in a Christmas game, no one volunteers and the king is so embarrassed that he offers to strike the blow demanded himself. It is Gawain then, who decides to stand in Arthur's place and reasons it with: "I am þe wakkest, I wot, and of wyt feblest,/ […] Bot for as much as ȝe ar myn em I am only to prayse" [emphasis mine] (SGGK, 10) 'I know, I am the weakest and have the weakest mind. I am only praised because you are my uncle.' He stresses both his physical and mental lack of strength and argues that the only reason for being regarded as a respectable person is due to his kinship with Arthur. The way the narrator describes Gawain, however, is totally different: "Gawan watz for gode knawen, and as golde pured,/Voyded of vche vylany, wyth vertuez ennourned/in mote" (SGGK, 18) 'Gawain was known to be good and to be like purified gold, free from all imperfection, equipped with values in heart'. This is not a description suitable for any ordinary Knight of the Round Table but an outstanding member. Yet, the hero does not regard himself as such a man but sees himself as quite the contrary. Being told otherwise, he even actively refuses to accept the ascribed features, as the following example shows.

When Bertilak's wife tells him "Þat alle þe worlde worchipez quere-so ȝe ride;/Your honour, your hendelayk is hendely praysed/ With lordez, wyth ladyes, with alle þat lyf bere." (SGGK, 34) 'that the whole world worships you wherever you ride; your honor, your courtliness are nobly praised by the lords, the ladies and everyone who lives there', he vehemently denies being the man she talks about and even adds: "To reche to such reuerence as ȝe reherce here/I am wyȝe vnworþy" [emphasis mine] (SGGK, 35) ('I am unworthy to receive such respect as you describe here'). Again, the image Gawain has of himself is strangely at odds with the way others perceive him. Regarding the nouns he uses to refer to himself, he also seems to have no interest in stressing his nobility and takes a rather neutral stance towards his social status.[8]

In contrast to the previous examples, the protagonist nevertheless uses a positively connoted adjective as well. When Gawain reaches the Green Chapel and finds no one there, he shouts: "Who stiȝtlez in þis sted me steuen to holde?/For now is gode Gawayn goande ryȝt here." [emphasis mine] (SGGK, 62) 'Who rules this place to hold a meeting with me? Because now, good Gawain has come right here'. It can be doubted that Gawain mentioned the adjective because he actually regards himself as being good and wants to add this aspect when introducing himself. Gode is also not used to distinct himself from another, probably bad, Gawain, as his name alone is enough to make unmistakably clear who he is (cp. SGGK, 11). Moreover, the Green Knight expects only one person called Gawain to show up at the chapel that day. Therefore, gode is – when regarded as an official enhancement of his name – superfluous in this scene. When translating Gawain's words, Barron encountered the same problem and chose to change it to "Gawain, true to his word" (1994: 149). While it is very well possible that gode is meant in that way, it would mean a rather ironic twist for the protagonist's character. Though Gawain might be good in the sense of 'keeping his word', he is nevertheless cheating in a game that was meant to be equal for both participants: he is wearing the green girdle in order to protect himself from death. Accordingly, Gawain would use his excellent reputation to knowingly cover his unfair action. Judging from how downcast and ashamed he is, when the Green Knight reveals to him that he got only cut because of his cheating, it seems rather unlikely that Gawain wanted to put special emphasis on how good he is while knowing he actually is not. That is why it is argued here that gode is not used in the sense suggested by Barron, but is rather a redundant addition to his name. This claim is also supported by Gawain's distinctive habit to understate himself, as seen in the analysis of wakkest, feblest and vnwor þ y.

4.3 Expressions Used by Other Characters

The self-image and the way other people perceive a person often differ. This is also the case for Gawain. The analysis of the expressions he used for himself has shown that the hero tends to understate himself and the evidence that other figures do not share his view could also be found. In the following abstract, it will be looked into how minor characters express this different stance and what features they convey with the nouns and adjectives they use. However, for the Middle English work, only few references could be found.

The usage of the nominalized adjective hende is especially characteristic of Lord Bertilak's wife. It contains the semantic features [noble], [powerful], [brave] and [handsome] and is used as a polite form of address (cp. SGGK, 35). One time, is even enhanced with "of hyȝe honours" (SGGk, 50) 'of high honors'. While hende implies not only nobility and bravery, it also contains the meaning of handsomeness, which offers an explanation why this expression is so predominant for the lady. Gawain's attractiveness is of great significance to her which becomes especially apparent when she refers to him with the superlative form of the adjective comly. She calls him the 'most handsome knight' of his time (cp. SGGK, 42). This is not only her subjective view, as will become clear when analyzing the expressions the narrator uses.

For the lady's husband, other features of the protagonist are of importance. What the hero says about himself clearly shows a downgrading of his person even before Lord Bertilak reveals that he knows about Gawain keeping the girdle. This aberration, however, does not keep Bertilak from addressing the protagonist as "[b]olde burne" (SGGK, 64) 'brave warrior', though not everyone might consider using a girdle to stay alive to be a brave action. Therefore, one might think this to be mere politeness but the Green Knight proofs this thought to be wrong: he tells Gawain that he was the "þe fautlest freke þat euer on fote ȝede" [emphasis mine] (SGGK, 65) 'most faultless warrior who ever walked on earth', though he admitted he had cut the knight for not exchanging the girdle and hence, for not being without fault. The status he ascribes to Gawain is thus a fixed fact. This feature cannot be changed by any event or action and is similar to the protagonist's goodness.

For King Arthur, the usage of cosyn, here 'nephew', could be found (cp. SGGK, 11). It is the only time this term occurs and the sole occasion in which another character mentions the relationship between the hero and himself. It can thus be concluded, that kinship is not that important for Gawain's image.

4.4 Expressions Used by the Narrator

While minor characters and the protagonist have only little influence on the general image of the hero due to the rather few occasions for their direct speeches in the story, the narrator takes over a major part in shaping the concept of his main figure.

The most frequent terms referring to Gawain mirror the distribution of nouns in general with slight changes in their order (see Figure 2). They are also used by Gawain and the other characters and especially focus on the features [warrior], [noble] and [brave]: kny ʒt, burne, freke and ha þel. It becomes apparent here that it is especially the narrator's credit that being a fighter and nobility are such predominant features of Gawain's character. These aspects are further stressed by the according semantic features of the adjectives fre, gentyle, hende, derf, noble and stif. Nevertheless, the narrator completes his vocabulary with neutral expressions like mon, wy ʒe, segge and lede as well.

Figure 2 – Distribution of Nouns Used by the Narrator in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight [9]

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Expressions which are exclusively used by the narrator might offer further characteristics. Those are prynce 'prince', noble 'noble' , sistersun 'sister's son', the nominalized adjectives ientyle 'gentle', wlonk 'noble', stalworth 'strong' and those nouns which denote 'warrior': renk, gome, schalk, and tulk. For the biggest part, they simply strengthen the already established features described above. However, they also contribute to a more detailed portray of the protagonist as they ascribe him the features of strength and power.

Sistersun, moreover, is the second mentioning of a noun which refers to the relationship between the main hero and a minor character. Concluding from such rare occurrences, kinship is not only of little importance in the world of the story but also in the world of the reader. Contrary to Gawain's claim that he was only a respected member of the Round Table because of Arthur being his uncle (cp. SGGK, 10), family relations are not a major aspect which defines a person.


[1] Sir Gawain and the Green Knight will be shortened to SGGK for quotations in the text.

[2] See appendix 'Table 6 - Semantic Features of Nouns in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight ', page 52.

[3] See appendix 'Table 9 - Collection of Nouns for Parzival ', page 56.

[4] All quotes from Parzival are indicated with 'stanza,verse line' to make them searchable on the TITUS website.

[5] See appendix 'Figure 5 - Distribution of Semantic Features in Percent', page 76.

[6] See appendix 'I. Complete Data for Sir Gawain and the Green Knight ', page 47.

[7] See appendix 'II. Semantic Features in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight ', page 52.

[8] Compare appendix 'Table 3 - Collection of Nouns for Sir Gawain and the Green Knight ', page 47 (User 'G') and 'Table 6 - Semantic Features of Nouns in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight ', page 52.

[9] Expressions exclusively used by the narrator are marked with green.

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Gawain in Middle English and Middle High German. A Cross Linguistic Study of Nouns and Adjectives in Regard to Semantic Features
University of Augsburg
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gawain, middle, english, high, german, cross, linguistic, study, nouns, adjectives, regard, semantic, features, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Parzival, Eschenbach, Poet, personality
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Bettina Breitenberger (Author), 2014, Gawain in Middle English and Middle High German. A Cross Linguistic Study of Nouns and Adjectives in Regard to Semantic Features, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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