Key Ideas in Tolkien's W. P. Ker Memorial Lecture, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight 
(15 April 1953, University of Glasgow)

Tolkien's lecture on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight reveals in part his own thinking about the 14th century work of the Middle English Alliterative Revival at the time he had completed his own translation of the poem into Modern English. Keeping his own reading of the poem in mind can help the alert reader note Tolkien's word choices in translation. For example, not every translator of the poem would agree with his use of archaisms or the older personal pronouns thee, thy, thou. What effect is Tolkien seeking as a translator by employing these?

[Click here for an online version of the original Middle English text of the poem that Tolkien edited with E.V. Gordon: Middle English Text of Sir Gawain .]

Key Ideas

  1. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (hereafter GGK) is a "deep-rooted tale," meaning it is one that by inheriting older tales and myths, it is an unconscious fairy-tale and has both a particular power and an imperfect structure.

  2. Gawain's temptation is the center of the poem because it shows the knight's actions to be moral in nature. Gawain's humility and courtesy are to be assessed within a particular ethos.

  3. Gawain must be understood as one who seeks to keep faith with both his king and his host. 

  4. His piety is in evidence by the symbol of his shield, his prayers, and his good character, all of which must be put to the test. Gawain's temptations only make sense within a medieval Christendom.

  5. Faerie, rather than a simple realism, is necessary to reveal the true nature of Gawain's temptation amidst his hidden foes.

  6. Courtesy traps Gawain in his attempt to flee temptation, and he must come to the place that he can distinguish courtesy and sin.

  7. Gawain's confession in stanza 75 is essential to interpreting GGK correctly. Likewise, his keeping of the girdle must be seen within the context of a culture that takes games seriously.

  8. Gawain suffers because he must violate the game, but it is not a sin, whereas adultery even in the name of courtesy would be so. He must come to realize that games of courtesy are not essential for Christian salvation.

  9. So while Gawain fails in regards to courtesy by keeping the girdle, he does not violate the true spirit of courtesy in his speech or actions. 

  10. Gawain's burning shame and self-condemnation of cowardice, covetousness, and treachery are really out of proportion to his fault, but this is literary realism.

  11. Likewise, it should not surprise us then that he makes this a public badge of shame, or that it becomes a source of communal glory for the court.

  12. Postscript (on lines 1885-1892): Gawain's joyful, hopeful mood after sacramental reception and his weak faith, even distrust, in the girdle only further illustrates that Gawain undertook his mission for fealty's sake and that his difficult tryst was not a moral violation. That sacrament outweighs the girdle as magical talisman only further illustrates the author's point about Eternal Law outweighing temporal courtly courtesy.

Discussion Questions

  • Do you find Tolkien's overall reading of the temptation convincing? Why or why not?

  • Would GGK be equally successful without the element of faerie?

  • How important are the overall religious references in the poem?

  • Do you find Tolkien's description and defense of Gawain's psychology convincing?

  • How important is stanza 75 to interpreting the work? (see below)

  • What does this essay suggest about Tolkien's attitudes towards his own fiction, especially his own characters' moral lessons?


Stanza 75

  1. thenne lachchez ho hir leue and leuez hym şere
  2. for more myrşe of şat mon mo3t ho not gete
  3. when he atz gon sir gawayn gerez hym sone
  4. rises and riches hym in araye noble
  5. lays vp şe luf lace şe lady hym ra3t
  6. hid hit ful holdely şer he hit eft fonde
  7. syşen cheuely* to şe chapel choses he şe waye
  8. preuely aproched to a prest and prayed hym şere
  9. şat he wolde lyfte his lyf and lern hym better
  10. how his sawle schulde be saued when he schuld seye heşen
  11. şere he schrof hym schyrly and schewed his  mysdedez
  12. of şe more and şe mynne and merci besechez
  13. and of absolucioun he on şe segge calles
  14. and he asoyled hym surely and sette hym so clene
  15. as domezday schulde haf ben di3t on şe morn
  16. and syşen he mace hym as mery among şe fre ladyes [line 1885]
  17. with comlych caroles and alle kynnes ioye*
  18. as neuer he did bot şat to şe derk ny3t with blys 
  19. vche mon hade daynte şare
  20. of hym and sayde iwysse
  21. şus myry he watz neuer are
  22. syn he com hider er şis [line 1892]

[Trans. Marie Borroff (1967)]

  1. Then the lady took her leave, and left him there,
  2. For more mirth with that man she might not have.
  3. When she was gone, Sir Gawain got from his bed,
  4. Arose and arrayed him in his rich attire;
  5. Tucked away the token the temptress had left,
  6. Laid it reliably where he looked for it after.
  7. And then with good cheer to the chapel he goes,
  8. Approached a priest in private, and prayed to be taught
  9. To lead a better life and lift up his mind,
  10. Lest he be among the lost when he must leave this world.
  11. And shamefaced at shrift he showed his misdeeds
  12. From the largest to the least, and asked the Lord's mercy,
  13. And called on his confessor to cleanse his soul,
  14. And he absolved him of his sins as safe and as clean
  15. As if the dread Day of Doom were to dawn on the morrow.
  16. And then he made merry amid the fine ladies  [line 1885]
  17. With deft-footed dances and daliance light,
  18. As never until now, while the afternoon wore away.
  19. He delighted all around him,
  20. And all agreed, that day,
  21. They never before had found him
  22. So gracious and so gay. [line 1892]
Tolkien's definitions from A Middle English Reader & Vocabulary

* cheue v. to acquire, control, bring about

* kynne n sg. kindred, relatives; kind, sort

* ioie io(y)e n. joy

 

"All manner of thing shall be well/ When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one." -- T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding