Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

About Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, its form and content

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a stunning alliterative poem written in the North West of England during the final quarter of the fourteenth century. Written in the long-line alliterative form with a “bob and wheel” at the end of each stanza its poetic ingenuity and astonishing use of language rightly make it a masterpiece of English literature.

Cotton Nero A.x and the Gawain-poet

The only example of the poem is contained within a small volume of other works known today as Cotton Nero A.x and housed at the British Library in London.

The manuscript contains two religious works, “Patience” and “Cleanness” as well as the hauntingly beautiful “Pearl“, in which the author laments the loss of his daughter and, in a dream, sees her in the kingdom of Christ.

All four works are thought all to have been written by the same person. It is on account of their exquisite quality that the author of all four works is referred to as either the Gawain-poet or the Pearl-poet.

Contemporary illustrations

Cotton Nero A.x also contains a number of illuminated images recreating scenes from each of the four works.

These illuminations, at one time thought of as “child-like” and “gaudy” are now recognised as indicative of a particular English school of illumination; recent analysis has revealed that they were produced almost at the same time as the poems themselves.

Forming whole-page illustrations, the imagery is not confined by scribal intervention (e.g. blocks left within the text to be completed by an illuminator). Each image’s detail reflects an illuminator at one with the content of the work, possibly someone close either to the scribe or the author himself.

The influence of the Gawain-poet

There are a number of medieval poems featuring elements of the Gawain story contained within the Cotton Nero MS, including the stanzaic Awntyrs off Arthure. This late fourteenth century text contains elements clearly drawn from Gawain and its rhyme scheme shows a level of sophistication indicative of a group of poet-authors engaging at some level with each other.

Nonetheless, no other work of this period matches Gawain for its literary and poetic sophistication, its complexity of plot and its rich use of English. Its influence, even in its own time, was profound; it is testament to its quality that it still engages the reader today.

A modern, illuminated edition of Sir Gawain for your library

In 2018, Michael Smith’s translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was published by Unbound. Combining a modern translation with a series of bespoke linocut prints featuring scenes from the romance, it the book became what Michael calls “an illuminated manuscript for the modern age”.

“This book is a beautiful artefact in its own right … a total Gawain experience for the contemporary reader”

Shiny New Books

The book contains a stanza by stanza translation of the poem as well as an historical introduction and a summary of the survival of the manuscript.

The text also contains a glossary and detailed notes, as well as an assessment of the possible inspiration behind both Hautdesert and the Green Chapel.

Following the alliterative style of the original, the book also contains linocut reproductions of each of the nine illuminated letters which appear in Cotton Nero A.x.

These illuminated capitals take two forms in the manuscript – the larger ones appear to divide the work into four sections or “fitts”.

It is possible to see the remaining five capitals may suggests an additional breakdown of the text to enable the contemporary reader to structure a narration into convenient sections for his or her audience..

order your copy

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, translated and illustrated by Michael Smith is published by Unbound and available through all good bookshops and online.

Signed and dedicated copies are available direct from the author. To order your copy, in addition to a range of original linocut prints and greetings cards, please click the button below: