The Arthurian Legends are one of the most mysterious of Middle English literature. For many years historians have tried to match King Arthur to one of the Early Kings of Britain, however, all attempts have met without success. It is now generally accepted that King Arthur and the other Knights of the Round table represent a composite of the behaviors and attitudes of people of that time period. The same can be said of the character of Sir Gawain in "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight." As social attitudes changed, so do the ideal characteristics that exemplify virtue and purity. The character Sir Gawain appears in many versions of the Arthurian Legends. The characteristics and attitudes of Sir Gawain seem to shoe a shift over time. The most widely accepted version of the character of Sir Gawain is the version that is attributed to the poet known as the Pearl Poet. The Pearl Poet paints a picture of Sir Gawain that is virtuous and kind, and embodies all of the qualities that are favorable for a good knight. However, other version, particularly earlier French and English versions portray Sir Gawain as a lech and a rapist.
The Pearl Poet shows us a very young Arthurian court (the Green knight calls them "beardless children") and a young and idealistic Gawain. Gawain is tested and found wanting to a certain degree and the Arthurian court and their belief in the ideal of the perfect knight is found to be wanting as well. Why would the Pearl poet give us a young court and a young Gawain, especially after the court and Gawain had been increasingly portrayed as dysfunctional by writers previous to the Pearl poet? The following research will support the primary thesis that at the time when the Pearl Poet was writing his version of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, several versions of the story were already in existence and that the Pearl Poet takes this opportunity to examine what went wrong with Arthur's court. In doing this he blames a very young and inexperienced Arthurian Court and posits that for this reason it was doomed from the beginning.
The Pearl Poet may have been attempting to demonstrate that the code of conduct to which the knights were held was impossible for anyone to follow in reality. Yet these young people thought that they truly could live up to these unrealistic standards. In this respect, the Pearl Poet was engaging in revisionist history. The Pearl poet takes an intensely Christian perspective and his suggests that the young court is doomed because they are trying to give themselves God-like qualities or perhaps portray themselves as Christ-like figures. In the Pearl poet's eyes they were trying to achieve obtain perfection by living up to a code of perfection and this is impossibility in the Pearl poet's eyes.
In this respect, the ultimate good Sir Gawain painted by the Pearl poet can serve as an early type of political satire. His idea that he can live up to this impossible code may serve to demonstrate just how absurd these expectations truly are. Gawain's failing of the Pentangle and knightly code and the resulting disillusionment can be seen as the beginning of the end for Sir Gawain and for King Arthur's court as well. One prime example of this is when Sir Gawain took the Green Girdle. King Arthur's court saw it as a fashion statement and nor a sign of Gawain's failing. This example illustrates the inability of an immature court to see the moral failings of the code in lieu of the quest for worldly possessions.
The Pearl poet attempted to point out the flaws in King Arthur's court by exaggeration. He exaggerated this inflated ideal of moral ethics to highlight its flaws. The Pearl poet in essence agreed with earlier version of Sir Gawain but chose to express this idea in a led direct manner than his predecessors. He used literary technique to make his point, embracing a literary technique that would not become popular until much later. The Sir Gawain of the Pearl poet may seem to embody to knightly qualities held close by the Arthurian Court, but in reality, the picture is painted to demonstrate the futility in trying to attain it.
What do we know of the Pearl Poet?
We do not know the name of the Pearl Poet, but we can deduce many of his characteristics from an examination of his works. He works exist in a manuscript containing four poems, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, Patience, and Purity. These four poems appear to have been written by the same author. The following can be deduced by a close examination of the four known poems by this author.
The dialect of the poem reveals that they were written in the Northwest Midlands of England. The dialect of the Pearl poet places him somewhere in Lancashire, may more north, but not farther than tweed around 1330. The scenery in Sir Gawain also suggests this location. We know that Pearl had read Virgil, and classic Latin works as well (Szarmach, Tavormina, and Rosenthal, 1998)
As any author knows, it is nearly impossible to write about something or a subject of which one knows very little. For this reason, the content of the poem would suggest that the poet knows something about aristocratic life and that he took both Christianity and chivalry very seriously. However, as the exaggerated godliness of Sir Gawain suggests, he also is not immune to viewing its absurdities as well and is not afraid to poke fun at them. He was not afraid to express opinions in an open manner even if they went against Typical Medieval beliefs, such as the ideal of courtly love seen in Sir Gawain. The Pearl poet shows us a character that is quite different from the conventional ideal of courtly virtues.
The manuscript of Pearl poet is housed in the Cottonian manuscripts in the British Museum is a small volume numbered Nero A.x (Gollancz and Litt, 1907-21). The manuscript can be dated to around the later fourteenth or early fifteenth century, judging from the hand and style of English used.
The meter and technical analysis of the Pearl poet suggests that he was well educated and familiar with the mastery of the stanza. He used a meter and rhyme scheme familiar to his contemporaries. The form shows some of the rudimentary characteristics of the sonnet. The Pearl poet seems to have no technical difficulties and has a rich vocabulary at his disposal (Bishop, 1968). The Pearl poet draws his diction from English, Scandinavian and Romance elements of English speech, which may at times make the poem seem a bit choppy. These elements would suggest that the Pearl poet is highly educated and has traveled to foreign lands where he could hear the native tongue spoken. These factors would suggest that the Pearl poet came from an upper class family (Malcolm and Waldron, 1953)
What were Pearl's Sources?
The author himself states that the story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight had been "Locked in lettered lore." This hints at some lost original, which was no doubt in French or Anglo French. The oldest form of the challenge and beheading as depicted in the Sir Gawain story is found in an Old Irish heroic legend. This legend can be traced to the late eleventh or early twelfth century and was set during Fled Bricend (the Feast of Bricriu). The story is told by Cuchulinn, the giant in the story is Uath Mac Denomain who lived near the lake. The Cuchulinn episode became ingrained in the Arthurian Legend (Szarmach, Tavormina, and Rosenthal, 1998)
The basic elements of the Arthurian legend can be found in Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Brittaniae (written around 1139). The poetic translation of this work by Layamon, called Roman de Brut (1205), introduced the legends of Excalibur. The French author Chretien de Troyes introduced the figure of Lancelot and the English knight Sir Thomas Malory summarized the Arthurian legends in Morte D'Arthur (circa 1485) (Szarmach, Tavormina, and Rosenthal, 1998).
The French version that most closely resembles the Gawain story was found by Madden in he first continuation of Gautier de Doulens of Chretien's Conte del Graal. This story is connected with Carados, Arthur's nephew. There are some that do not consider this to be a source for the Pearl poet as it differs in many respects from the English version of the romance. However, regardless of the differences, the main plot of the story remains, the beheading and test at the castle. It is evident that the Pearl poet knew of Conte del Graal, but that he placed his own twist on the theme.
It is widely accepted that the Pearl poet is the true author of the four poems contained in the Cottonian manuscripts. However, there has been one theorist who disputed this claim. It is only being mentioned due…