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Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Poems, King Arthur, medieval literature


Classical Literature and Philology | Literature in English, British Isles | Medieval Studies | Translation Studies


The MS Cotton Nero A.x. is a late fourteenth-century vellum manuscript that stands roughly 167 millimeters tall and 118 millimeters wide and resides for viewing pleasure, though safely secured from prying fingers, at the British Library in London. Within its pages lie four poems, presumably by the same anonymous author who is variously referred to as either the Pearl-poet or the Gawain-poet in credit to the manuscript's two most famous works respectively. It is the latter, an alliterative poem titled Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, that this paper humbly, yet eagerly, pays court. An Arthurian tale that follows the holiday adventures of King Arthur's nephew, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight constitutes the final of the four poems within the MS Cotton Nero A.x. I have approached this analysis from a stance rooted in the hermeneutics of the sacred, an old-fashioned type of close reading that endeavors to recapture and "make manifest...a meaning, understood as a message, a proclamation, or a kerygma. It tries to make sense of what was once understood but has become obscure because of distantiation." Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is an excellent candidate for such an application of hermeneutics by Paul Ricoeur's standards as an "instance(s) in which there exists a surplus of meaning, or when multi-vocal expressions are employed," as in the use of symbolism which Ricoeur identifies as "any structure of signification in which a direct, primary, literal meaning designates, in addition, another meaning that is indirect, secondary, and figurative and can be apprehended only through the first." This "retrieval" of meaning will be accomplished in this paper by considering the language and symbolism of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight within its historical material context- the Cotton Nero A.x. manuscript. In this manuscript Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is preceded by three other poems: Pearl, Purity and Patience. This literary company which it keeps influences the way in which a reader approaches and, most certainly, understands the poem. The understanding a Fourteenth century reader or a more modern reader would have of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight when read as part of an anthology of other tales either medieval, romantic, Arthurian, etc...will be entirely distinct from the understanding a reader may have reading it along side its manuscript fellows. A reader response approach is also heavily utilized throughout the paper. In addition tot he hermeneutic approach, however, as a twenty first-century reader I fully acknowledge that this "surplus of meaning" cannot be nailed down to a singular 'correct' interpretation. There are a multitude of valid interpretations surrounding Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, of which, the typological is but one. Furthermore, I posit, that this 'retrieval' of meaning occurs through the retrospection that arises from a consideration of reader response in both religious and secular terms.

Department 1 Awarding Honors Status

English: Literature and Writing

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Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 4.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 4.0 License