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Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Symbolism and Moral Seriousness Essay

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In the opening lines of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the Gawain-poet predicates the numerous dualities—which lead the reader through questions of moral seriousness—that exist in the poem. The opening historical recounting, according to Richard Hamilton Green, reminds the reader that “the greatness of the past is marred by reminders of failure” (179). The paradox of triumph and greatness arising out of failure foreshadows Sir Gawain following the same pattern of fate as his predecessors. While the completion of Gawain’s quest reaffirms the historical paradox of greatness, his journey to renown is fraught with situations and symbols that develop the poem’s main concern of moral seriousness. The Gawain-poet skillfully reveals his theme by leading Gawain on a journey in which nothing is what it seems. Sir Gawain and the reader are confronted with several contrasts of characters’ actions and intentions, symbolic meanings, and Christian and secular virtues. Mainly by showing the difference between actions and attitudes while inside in a social situation and outside in a more wild, untamed environment, these contrasts help to emphasize the importance of unbending faith and loyalty.
Although one might expect a literary work with moral seriousness as its theme to be homiletic, GGK lacks the preachy tone because the Gawain¬-poet chooses to write the poem as a romance inspired by Arthurian legend rather than following the same format of the poems Patience and Cleanness. This, perhaps, is what leads Sandra Pierson Prior to her assertion that for the most part, romance poets care more about telling a good story than “spending time examining the implications of those events,” and consequently, GGK should just be read for the romanc...


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...rre Toelken. “Gawain and the Green Girdle.” Critical Studies of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Eds. Donald R. Howard and Christian Zacher. Notre Dame: UP of Notre Dame, 1968: 236-244.
Mills, M. “Christian Significance and Romance Tradition in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” Critical Studies of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Eds. Donald R. Howard and Christian Zacher. Notre Dame: UP of Notre Dame, 1968: 85-105.
Prior, Sandra Pierson. The Pearl Poet Revisited. Ed. George D. Economou. New York: Twayne, 1994.
Putter, Ad. An Introduction to the Gawain-Poet. New York: Longman, 1996.
Savage, Henry, Lyttleton. The Gawain-Poet. Chapel Hill: UP of North Carolina, 1956.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Trans. Keith Harrison. Medieval English Literature. Ed. J.B. Trapp, Douglas Gray, and Julia Boffey. New York: Oxford UP, 2002: 356-416.


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