Project Introduction 


Representing Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a research hub funded by Middlesex University dedicated to creative output that has responded to the medieval poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (circa 1370) by the anonymous Pearl (or Gawain) Poet. In the first instance, this site supports a critical text of the same name written by artist and MDX researcher Michael Eden by housing many of the images referred to there and allowing interested parties to see in one place the visual language that has accompanied various iterations of the poem.

 

The paper examines:

  • The original images (present in the medieval codex).

  • What is referred to as the established visual language (notable illustrations that have accompanied the various translations of the poem).

  • Attempts to adapt the poem into film and television (inclusive of The Green Knight, 2021 by David Lowery) 

  • And finally presents new works created in response to this project by contemporary artists, Natalie Andrews, David Treloar, Adam Dix, Graeme Spurr, Roxana Halls and Michael Eden. 


Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (circa 1370) is a late medieval alliterative poem written in Middle English by an anonymous author (the Pearl Poet) contained in the Pearl Manuscript (held at the British Library). The object is an illustrated codex that contains three other religious narrative poems: Pearl, Cleanness, and Patience. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight recounts the testing of the young knight Gawain (the nephew of King Arthur) by the monstrous and enigmatic Green Knight. The Green Knight enters Arthur’s famous court interrupting a self-congratulatory Christmas celebration and issues a challenge to the assembled lords and knights: does any man have the courage to strike him and be struck in return? Gawain takes up this challenge to save his uncle (the king) from having to engage the monster as the other knights are dumbfounded and cuts off the Green Knights head as he calmly kneels. However, to the horror of the court the Green Knight survives decapitation and his severed head reiterates the challenge, explaining Gawain will receive the return blow a year later at the Green Chapel, which he must find.

 

The poem then charts Gawain’s journey to seek out the Green Chapel, his trials and finally his confrontation with the Green Knight in the wilderness. It is a highly ambiguous text of which many conflicting readings are possible, for example, the worthy and moral individual Gawain has his failings and inexperience brutally highlighted during his quest, the monstrous Green Knight is frightening, ridiculous and reverend, preventing definitive interpretations. This uncertain quality regarding the exact meaning of the poem and its skilful construction have given it a long life. Interest in its themes and characters continue.


Notable illustrators who have added to the visual language (and who are explored in my essay, Representing Sir Gawain and the Green Knight ) include: Frederic Lawrence, Herbert Cole, Dorothea Braby, Roy Morgan RCA, Cyril Satorsky, John Howe, Michael Smith, Diana Sudyka, and Clive Hicks-Jenkins. This project takes as a founding principle the observation of Paul F. Reichardt (1997) in his text for the journal, Studies in Iconography, that the visual responses in the original codex form a ‘fifth text’ that ‘transcend[s] the separateness of the four poems’ (136 parenthesis mine) creating links between them ‘to broaden its interpretive scope’ (Hilmo, 2017:126). Furthermore, as Angela Florchuetz asserts in the journal, Transformative Works and Cultures (2019) Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is intertextual, encouraging interpretation and expansion. ‘Literature that draws and builds upon previously existing textual worlds…allows for unlimited expansions to the textual conglomeration or archive’ (11). This project seeks to show the archive of visual representations that have accentuated and extended the poem's themes, as well as to add to this by way of new works and intertextual links.
 

References


Florschuetz, A. (2019) "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight," canonicity, and audience participation. Transformative Works and Cultures, [online] 30. Available at: https://journal.transformativeworks.org/index.php/twc/article/view/1631/2243.
 

Hilmo, M. (2017) Did the Scribe Draw the Miniatures in British Library, MS Cotton Nero A.x (The Pearl-Gawain Manuscript)? 1. Journal of the Early Book Society for the Study of Manuscripts and Printing History; New York Vol. 20: 111-136,337

Reichardt, P. F. (1997) “Several Illuminations, Coarsely Executed”: The Illustrations of The “Pearl” Manuscript. Studies in Iconography, 18:119–142.