Luminarium: Anthology of English Literature Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Middle English Literature | Sir Gawain | Introduction | SGGK Texts | Essays and Articles | Links | Books | Discussion Forum



Seventeenth Century

Eighteenth Century



John Larson
[Written while the author was a freshman at
The University of Oregon, and should be read
with understanding of the same. —JL]


Sir Gawain in a Grey State

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, written by an unknown author in the 14th century, can be called a timeless work of poetry. It exudes a certain fantastic quality that, despite its age of over 500 years, still appeals to modern audiences. Because of this application to all eras, would it be reasonable to state that this poem could be classified with modern fantasy fiction? Because of the similarities in plot and style with so much modern fantasy, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight could be placed in the same category with that genre, though the uses of doing so are questionable.

     In plot, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight has elements which are similar to much modern fantasy. Its emphasis on chivalry (in the values of Sir Gawain's character through the entire poem) is similar to contemporary High Fantasy, a subgenre filled with such present top industry names as Robert Jordan and Terry Brooks. For an even greater glimpse of the popular appeal of King Arthur's court, Marion Zimmer Bradley's retelling of the Arthurian legends in her bestselling series beginning with The Mists of Avalon.

     In addition to the type of character exemplified by Sir Gawain, magic is an important element in modern fantasy—as important as it is to the plot in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. From when the Green Knight is beheaded and proceeds to pick up his head, give a wicked grin, and say essentially, "I'll see you in a year," (ll. 423-456) it is clear that magic will play in integral part in the narrative. The confirmation of enchantment by Morgan le Faye (ll. 2446-2462) finishes the plot as it began it: in a state of magical unreality. Such enchantment is typical of modern fantasy, particularly from writers of modern fairy tales. Indeed, Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling have essentially made their careers editing compilations of these tales, such as the popular Snow White, Blood Red and its several follow-ups. To increase the fairy-tale style feel of the story, the Green Knight is called an elf (ll. 680, 2461) and faery. (l. 240) There is clear indication that this can easily be called a fairy tale.

     Stylistically, the visual and concrete nature of the poem lends itself to modern comparison as well. The delightful accounts of the changing of the seasons are in part to indicate the passage of time, but also add mood to the whole of the piece. Present-day fantasy writer Patricia McKillip has been critically lauded for "lush imagery" and stories described as "atmospheric... and filled with rich imagery." Clearly the descriptions are an important part of the style that makes modern fantasy.

     Yet for all of this similarity and concrete evidence, at some point the basic usefulness of classifying Sir Gawain and the Green Knight with modern fantasy fiction must be questioned. It is true that in many ways it is similar, but that can be attributed to the deep impact this romance has on modern fantasy. It makes up the roots of the tree that is today's fantasy literature. Would classifying them in the same genre be helpful? Not particularly. The comparison is more an academic pursuit than an important categorization.

     In whole, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight bears many shared traits with modern fantasy in plot to style. Still, clumping one into the field of the other in some way detracts from both by ignoring the details. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a great poem, a great fantasy, and a great romance. Separation and placement in any one of these genres hides facets of the others.

Text copyright ©1999-2010 John Larson. All Rights Reserved.
Published by Luminarium through express written permission.

Backto Gawain Essays
Backto Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Backto Middle English Literature

Site copyright ©1996-2010 Anniina Jokinen. All Rights Reserved.
Copying of the site source code and/or content is expressly prohibited.
Links and printing for personal or classroom use are acceptable.

Created on February 10, 2003 by Anniina Jokinen. Last updated on January 26, 2010.


Middle English Literature
Geoffrey Chaucer
John Gower
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
William Langland / Piers Plowman
Julian of Norwich
Margery Kempe
Thomas Malory / Morte D'Arthur
John Lydgate
Thomas Hoccleve
Paston Letters
Medieval Plays
Middle English Lyrics
Essays and Articles

Medieval Cosmology

Historical Events and Persons

Hundred Years' War (1337-1453)
Edward III
Edward, Black Prince of Wales
Lionel of Antwerp, Duke of Clarence
John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster
Edmund of Langley, Duke of York
Thomas of Woodstock, Gloucester
Richard of York, E. of Cambridge
Richard II
Henry IV
Edward, Duke of York
Henry V
Thomas, Duke of Clarence
John, Duke of Bedford
Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester
Catherine of Valois
Charles VII, King of France
Joan of Arc
Louis XI, King of France
Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy

The Wars of the Roses (1455-1485)
Causes of the Wars of the Roses
The House of Lancaster
The House of York
The House of Beaufort
The House of Neville

Henry VI
Margaret of Anjou

Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York
Edward IV
Elizabeth Woodville
Edward V
Richard III
George, Duke of Clarence

More at Encyclopedia    

Luminarium | Encyclopedia | What's New | Letter from the Editor | Bookstore | Poster Store | Discussion Forums | Search