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Representing Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

by Michael Eden (2023)



In this paper, I explore creative responses to the medieval alliterative poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (circa 1370) discussing the illustrations of the original codex and those produced for subsequent popular translations. I suggest those illustrations comprise an established visual language which is extended by film and television adaptations, and to which this project directly contributes by inviting several contemporary fine artists to respond to the poem with new original works, also discussed. 

I argue that the intertextual nature of the poem is a direct consequence of its ideation by the Pearl Poet drawing on, as they did, existing narratives and in the chance physical manifestation of a multi-authored codex. A key aim of the paper is to show that the illustrations produced represent in and of themselves interpretations of the text at least as interesting and complex as the extant and varied academic appreciation that has existed since the first half of the 20th century. I explore the increased emphasis on horror motifs and landscape representation in contemporary responses that in their extremity attempt to bring the radical implications of the text to a modern audience. I conclude by suggesting that the assumption of audience responsibility (rather than attribution to the author) concerning the meaning of the text, has the effect of making it an unstable entity that changes upon re-reading. Furthermore, I suggest the desire to fix meaning and settle it, is a retreat from the experience of the text, mirroring ironically Gawain’s disappointment with his burgeoning interiority and his inability to fully assume the position of a dehumanising ideal.

This investigation is part of a project funded by Middlesex University which includes an online research hub of the same name (see Eden 2022). The website comprises all the images referred to here as well as other examples of work by the illustrators and artists that have responded to the poem, there are also resources, biographies of the illustrators and artists, and an extended discussion of the film and television adaptations of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

When the text is published a link will be made available here.



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