Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

AuthorPearl Poet / Gawain Poet
TimeLate 14th Century
LanguageMiddle English
Featured InMedieval Romance: Magic and the Supernatural (YHU2309);
Real and Imagined Animals in Medieval Literature (YHU2330)

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is one of the most renowned Arthurian Romances of all time. Written in alliterative verse, the narrative stars the titular Sir Gawain, one of the knights from King Arthur’s Round Table, who accepts the challenge of a strange entity known as the Green Knight – who invites any courageous knight to strike at him with an axe, knowing that they must allow the Green Knight to return the gesture in a year and a day. The text is written by an unknown author, who is thought to also have penned another famous Middle English poem, Pearl.


The text of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was quite popular across all courses and classes that featured it. A class activity took place in the Spring 2020 iteration where students formed groups to reimagine the text as a movie and to film movie trailers for their different visions.

An example of one of the trailers filmed for the class by YAP JIA YI (’21)NIKKI YEO YING YING (’22), & TOH HONG JIN (’23).


 The Green Knight, by ASHLEY TAN (’25).

“A text is a weave of knowing and not-knowing.”1 As stated by critic Geraldine Heng with regards to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the narrative is full of unanswered questions. The Green Knight is a mysterious character both known and unknowable. His first appearance is a shock to Arthur’s court, and though we eventually glean some insight as to his origins, there still lurks questions, such as: why does Morgan le Fay hate Guinevere? How does Guinevere react? The binaries of knowing and not-knowing form a compelling narrative.

With the text described as a “weave,” I was inspired to embroider. In fact, various narratives refer to embroidery as a medium for communication. For instance, in the Middle English Breton Lai Emare, Emare’s luxuriously embroidered robe plays a central role in the narrative. The robe depicts different pairs of lovers. With its images of true loves, the robe becomes representative of a “gallery of ideals,” integral to the romance of the story.2 Embroidery was a common pastime for women in the Medieval period, akin to a symbol of status. Embroidered items were often created with expensive materials like silk, silver or gold, and given as presents to promote the political interests of the family. A valuable gift, embroidery was a medium of communication, signalling friendly intentions and furthering alliances.3 In embroidery, various stitches are used; the split stitch was popular in Medieval England, and so I mainly used this stitch, as seen in the border and leaves.4

Regarding the Green Knight, what struck me was the ambiguity of what he represented. While at first an ominous appearance in Arthur’s court, by the end of the tale, we learn he is the friendly lord who welcomed Gawain into his court. In fact, the Green Knight possesses many paradoxical qualities, seen in lines 151-220, expounding his appearance in excruciating detail. He is green and supernaturally strong, yet appears human at the same time. He appears offering symbols of peace (the holly sprig) and of violence (the axe). He could be good or evil. As such, I decided to focus on embroidering just the Green Knight, although in the narrative, he enters Arthur’s court on his green horse. Moreover, I kept his face empty, in order to underscore the mystery of his identity—Arthur’s court knows nothing about the Green Knight’s origins when he first arrives.

The most striking aspect of the Green Knight is, as his name suggests, that he is entirely green. Specific shades of green are mentioned; he is the green of nature, be it “forest-green” or “grass-green” (lines 220 and 235). To highlight the greenness of the knight, I decided to use green cloth for the background, overtly highlighting the green-ness of the Green Knight and the overall piece. The only parts of the piece that are not green are the gold accents and the items he wields.



 The Green Knight: The Limitations of Human Capacity, by OSHEA REDDY (’24).

In ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,’ the Green Knight taunts the Arthurian court by using his grandeur to emphasize their shortcomings and haunts Sir Gawain, who comes to fear his mortality at the Green Knight’s hands. As I carried the Pearl poet’s Green Knight in my mind across the weeks, I realized that his existence is a direct challenge to the limitations of human capacity. I hoped to capture this aspect of the Green Knight’s existence in physical recreation. I have created a model out of crushed papers, fallen leaves, and green plastic bags in my creative interpretation. His armor is made of leaves painted over in green to cast them as “evergreen,” and as per the description in the text, the Green Knight remains shoeless. He is beheaded, holding his head – wrapped in green plastic – by his side. He has a red braid around his waist and decapitated head. My creative decisions in making this model are products of much deliberation. As this essay proves, my decisions document the dilemmas I faced as I worked within my own human capacity limitations. 

From the introduction of the Green Knight, he is set apart from the knights of the Arthurian court in how massive his stature is. The first descriptions of the Knight depict him as “a mountain of a man, immeasurably high, / a hulk of a human” (lines 137-138), placing him (literally) a head and shoulders above the other knights. To attempt to capture this “most massive man” (line 141), I set out to create a model as large and sturdy as I could make it. The model is big – I was indeed questioned by passersby, who noticed I was carrying a rather large (and green) model of a man back and forth from the Art Studio. However, I admit he is not as large as I would have liked him to be. Running into issues of storage, transportation, and resource shortages pointed me to the limitations of my own capacity. I also planned to make this model out of wood to give him the bulk and durability that his title as the “mightiest of mortals” (line 141) commands. However, a lack of resources and expertise led me to use crushed papers to construct the base – unfortunately, making my model extremely flimsy. Again, I faced limitations in what I was capable of creating. In this trial-and-error process, I realized that these were uniquely human problems that curtailed how large and sturdy I could make the model I created with my own hands. I doubt nature runs into such issues in creating features of the natural world. Thus, in this failed venture of recreating the physicality of the Green Knight, I paralleled the Arthurian knights in my realization that I could not recreate his build in the same way the knights could not match the Green Knight’s stature.



Heng, Geraldine. “Feminine Knots and the Other Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” PMLA, vol. 106, no. 3, 1991, pp. 500–14, 

Mortimer J. Donovan, “Middle English Emare and the Cloth Worthily Wrought,” in Larry D. Benson, ed., The Learned and the Lewed: Studies in Chaucer and Medieval Literature, Harvard English Studies 5 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1974), p. 339.

3 Diener, Laura Michele. “Sealed with a Stitch: Embroidery and Gift-Giving among Anglo-Saxon Women.” Medieval Prosopography, vol. 29, 2014, pp. 1–22,

4 See for a tutorial.

5 Besserman, Lawrence. “The Idea of the Green Knight.” ELH, vol. 53, no. 2, 1986, pp. 219–39,


Armitage, Simon. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2008.

Besserman, Lawrence. “The Idea of the Green Knight.” ELH, vol. 53, no. 2, 1986, pp. 219–39,

Diener, Laura Michele. “Sealed with a Stitch: Embroidery and Gift-Giving among Anglo-Saxon Women.” Medieval Prosopography, vol. 29, 2014, pp. 1–22,

Heng, Geraldine. “Feminine Knots and the Other Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” PMLA, vol. 106, no. 3, 1991, pp. 500–14,

Mortimer J. Donovan, “Middle English Emare and the Cloth Worthily Wrought,” in Larry D. Benson, ed., The Learned and the Lewed: Studies in Chaucer and Medieval Literature, Harvard English Studies 5 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1974), p. 339.


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CategoryText (Part of The Lais of Marie de France)
FormPoetry (Lai)
AuthorMarie de France
TimeLate 12th Century
LanguageAnglo-Norman French
Featured In
Literature and Humanities 1 (YCC1111);
Medieval Romance: Magic and the Supernatural (YHU2309);
Real and Imagined Animals in Medieval Literature (YHU2330)

Bisclavret,” the fourth of Marie de France’s lais, concerns shape-shifting, metamorphosis, and the liminal space between animal and human. It appears in her collection after “Le Frene” and before “Lanval.”


The lai recounts the story of a noble knight whose wife presses him to explain his weekly disappearances. He insists that revealing his secret to her will cause him to lose both her love and his own self. She persists in questioning him, however, and he finally admits that during his absences he becomes a werewolf, concealing his clothes beside a ruined chapel in the forest. Terrified and revolted, his wife colludes with a neighboring knight to steal her husband’s discarded clothing, without which he will forever remain a werewolf.

The following year, the king catches sight of the werewolf while hunting in the forest. With the royal hunting dogs in pursuit, the werewolf suddenly leaps toward the king and kisses his foot. Moved by this seemingly human gesture, which he interprets as a sign that the werewolf possesses human intelligence, the king decides to bring the werewolf back to his court, where he becomes well-loved for his gentleness. Meanwhile, his wife has married the knight with whom she conspired. When this man appears one day at the court, the werewolf rushes to attack him, and on a separate occasion he attacks his wife, biting off her nose. Perceiving that there must be some motive for this uncharacteristic violence, a wise man at the court suggests that the king interrogate the wife, who then confesses what she has done. Once the werewolf’s clothes are recovered and he is granted the privacy of the king’s bedchamber, the act of dressing allows him to transform himself into (or be recognized as) a man. The treacherous couple is exiled from the kingdom, and henceforth many of their female descendants are born without noses.


Images like this one from the 13th century Rochester Bestiary unsettle the boundary between human and animal: here, we see a man who has been struck dumb by the gaze of a werewolf. In order to regain his speech, he must tear off his clothing and strike two stones together. Rochester Bestiary, London British Library MS 12 F.xiii, folio 29r.

The lai invites us to reflect on the continuum between human and animal, revealing how the same behaviors can be read as human or as bestial in different contexts (biting off his wife’s nose, for instance, is taken as a sign of a human desire for revenge). Through language and naming, Marie implies, we tend to create categories that seem definitive, but these ostensible distinctions may be an illusion based only on what we call things. Marie begins the lai by introducing two “kinds” of werewolf, the “garulf” (the Norman word for werewolf), characterized by violence and aggression toward humans, and the much more sympathetic “bisclavret” (the Breton word for werewolf). As the lai goes on, however, it becomes clear that this distinction may be a difference in name only. Even the line between human and animal turns out to be unstable: humanity is not limited to those with a stable human form, and what counts as humanity and courtliness is a matter of opinion rather than essence. Indeed, it is striking that the werewolf can only “become” human again once he has recovered his clothing, suggesting that humanity resides not in innate nobility of character but in external signifiers.

The world which “Bisclavret” presents is thus one of fluid movement and translatability between forms. In this context, the lai’s title takes on an added significance: the Norman word “garwulf” comes from the Germanic root-words meaning “man” and “wolf,” suggesting a hybrid creature that is half-man, half-wolf. “Bisclavret,” only the other hand, comes from the Breton words bleiz (“wolf”) and claffet (“ill, rabid”), hence “wolf-sick.” Imagining the werewolf state as a temporary affliction of the human, it suggests that animality is not so much a distinct category as a constitutive part of human identity.


Marie de France. Marie de France: Poetry. Translated by Dorothy Gilbert, W. W. Norton & Company, 2015.


The Rochester Bestiary:


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The Lais of Marie de France

FormPoetry (Lai)
AuthorMarie de France
TimeLate 12th Century
LanguageAnglo-Norman French
Featured In

Literature and Humanities 1 (YCC1111);
Medieval Romance: Magic and the Supernatural (YHU2309);
Real and Imagined Animals in Medieval Literature (YHU2330)

The Lais of Marie de France are a series of twelve lai poems written by Marie de France that are primarily concerned with the ideas of courtly love and chivalric romance. They are highly notable for influencing the development of the medieval romance genre, including the renowned Arthurian romance.


Marie’s lais frequently feature two “destined” lovers. True to the chivalric romance conventions, the lais typically depict a nobleman (often a king, or knight) and a beautiful noblewoman (often a queen or an aristocrat’s daughter) who fall in love with each other upon knowing each other’s existence. It is common for one of these lovers to have already been married to another, usually not out of mutual affection but through arrangement. From such a premise, Marie’s lais will go on to focus on the quest for fulfillment of their love, which tends to take the form of illicit affairs and illegitimate children, with the involvement of supernatural and otherworldly elements. One or both lovers may die, and if so, this usually occurs directly or indirectly because of a third party’s jealousy and anger. In these cases, the narrative may shift toward their illegitimate child, who will then seek vengeance and restore the honour of their parents’ love.

The illicit affairs are almost never depicted negatively by Marie, in fact they seem to be deemed righteous when the love between two parties is mutual and purely stemming from affection. This gives Marie’s lais a rather unique brand of morality that can drive unexpected developments in the narrative, with the possibility for both ideal and tragic endings that provide closures without the modern concept of “poetic justice”.


Marie’s lais are written in eight-syllable lines with rhyming couplets. The length of the lais vary greatly, ranging from as brief as 118 lines (“Chevrefoil”) to as long as 1184 lines (“Eliduc”).

The twelve lais are ordered in the following manner:

  1. Guigemar
  2. Equitan
  3. Le Fresne
  4. Bisclavret
  5. Lanval
  6. Les Deus Amanz
  7. Yönec
  8. Laüstic
  9. Milun
  10. Le Chaitivel
  11. Chevrefoil
  12. Eliduc

The Harley 978 manuscript is the only manuscript that contains all twelve of the lais, along with Marie’s prologue. While it cannot be said for certain if the order of the lais is of any significance, there has been speculation that they alternate between positive and negative actions (and consequences) that can arise from love, such that the odd lais tend to conclude with good endings while the even ones tend to conclude with bad endings (Ferrante 53).

Manuscript of Marie’s Lais.

Nonetheless, due to the lack of sufficient information, the abovementioned conjectures remain open to debate. More importantly, such structural concerns about the arrangement of Marie’s lais constitute more of a problem for the modern reader than her audience in the Middle Ages. It is also noteworthy that while Marie’s lais could be read as secular, there had yet to be any real distinction between secular and religious cultures in the late 12th century. Neither are Marie’s works in any way truly against the religious establishment. While the lais may present some form of critique or deviation, they also show a keen interest in exploring the possibilities of fiction, the joy and relief of escapism, and alternate realities. Therefore, Marie’s writing could be seen more as a thought experiment that allows her to assume different vantage points to examine themes that were of interest to her.

“Eliduc” does not seem to fit within this theory, however, though it is possible that Marie wished to end the collection on a good note and with a religious acclamation – a common trend in poetry during that period of time. However, this appears to contradict the world of Marie’s lais, which has been argued to be consistently and firmly secular (Kinoshita and McCracken 51). The case of the uncharacteristically devout ending of “Eliduc” has thus been seen as palinode for the collection’s various radical propositions (Kinoshita and McCracken 91), perhaps to avoid persecution from authorities. Others have read the range of attitudes toward dominant feudal and patriarchal structures across individual lais—some submissive, others subtly subversive or overtly resistant—as ideally suited to twelfth-century reading culture, in which subsequent discussion and debate was a crucial element of the reception of texts (Fisher 209).


Prior to the time of Marie’s writing, literary narratives tended to focus either on the quest for martial glory or on the spiritual experience of devotion. By contrast, Marie’s Lais represent a radical transformation of subject matter: while Marie retains some elements of adventure, quest, and journey from epics, she shifts much of the focus to the experience of an idealised, refined, courtly love. The emphasis on inner feeling and self-fulfilment through secular love, to which earlier texts had given little importance, would fundamentally reshape literary representations of human experience.

In addition, Marie’s lais are notable for being written in the vernacular instead of Latin, which would have been the formal language of writing in many areas during that period. In Marie’s prologue to the lais, she claims that she is translating Breton lais that she has heard. In order to keep these stories from being forgotten, she will set them in writing and in verse, at the same time translating them into Old French. The lais thus occupy a liminal position between orality and writing and at the intersection of multiple languages: derived originally from Welsh narratives, preserved in Brittany, then rewritten in England by a French-speaking author for an audience that primarily spoke Anglo-Norman.

Preserving the tone of the Breton lais and making these tales accessible to a wider readership could have been reasons for the use of vernacular French, although whether Marie was merely engaging in translation work remains debatable. It was not uncommon for writers of the time to state that they were translating tales from other sources to claim some form of authority and legitimacy for their work. While none of the “original” lais that Marie claimed to have referenced survived to modern day, it should be noted that the medieval literary culture was at its core, a culture of translation (Kinoshita and McCracken 19). This, alongside the clear artfulness in Marie’s writing, suggest that the lais likely contained much original input from Marie; in fact, she may even have made up the stories herself and invented a fictional origin for them.


Marie’s lais were written in England around a century after the Norman Conquest of 1066, which resulted in significant social, political, and cultural change. Important implications brought about by the occupation of England include the shift in the language of the elite and an unprecedented contact with the European continent, especially France.

The Norman Conquest

Anglo-Norman French became the dominant language in literature, law, administration, and more, so much so that English nearly disappeared as a distinct language. It did not fully resurface until at least another century later in the form of Middle English, which came to resemble French more than the English of 200 years ago, thus rendering Old English practically unrecognisable to speakers and writers of Middle English.

It is plausible that Marie was based at the court of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, and this was the kind of French-speaking English aristocracy whom Marie wrote for. Being a French writer situated in England would have allowed her greater access to the highly mobile exchange of cultures and tales incited by the Norman Conquest, more so than her alleged contemporaries such as Chrétien de Troyes who wrote in France. This may explain how Marie could have personally come across the Breton lais and other Celtic sources that inspired her translation and writing. Although Marie was geographically closer to Wales than Brittany, where the mostly oral language of Breton was spoken, the movement of peoples and cultures then was not limited to between the British Isles and continental France, but also within Britain itself. Thus, this is perhaps how Marie’s lais could claim to be of Breton origin yet contain Welsh motifs and settings, and be told through the Anglo-Norman courtly register and perspective, all at the same time.

The question of linguistic and cultural origins is also complicated by the ambiguity of the word “Breton.” While the term now refers specifically to the inhabitants of Brittany in north-western France, in Marie’s time it could also designate the people of ancient Britain now known as the Welsh. (In eliding these related but distinct languages and cultures, the term is perhaps closer to the modern word “Celtic.”) Writing in England, Marie would have been in much closer geographic proximity to Welsh culture, and this is likely what she means by “Breton”. Marie’s relationship to Welsh culture is informed by both the political reality of conquest and the exoticisation of Celtic culture (especially ideas of magic and the Otherworld) by the politically dominant Anglo-Normans.


A depiction of chivalric romance. Edmund Leighton, “God Speed”, 1900, Oil on canvas.

It is evident that love is the key focus in Marie’s lais. Every lai presents a certain situation that a pair of lovers, a parent and child, or lord and vassal, must overcome. True and mutual love is akin to virtue, which is rewarded with happiness. Whereas love that is selfish often yields misfortune. Additionally, love in Marie’s lais comes with implicit rules of polite, courtly interaction; indeed, the true lovers of each lai are always identified as “courteous”, which comes from the Old French word corteis, meaning “courtly”. It is a condition that must be fulfilled before their love can be further strengthened through trials and suffering, which is distinct from classical and other romance depictions of love as an affliction of irrationality that brings about havoc and tragedy (Ashe 246, 261).

In Marie’s lais, love seems almost whimsical. Unlike the classical concept of “fate”, there is no divine will guiding the narrative and love between two people, and their encounter often occurs by chance. The same can be said about the tokens of love in many of the lais. These tokens usually do not possess any distinctive qualities at all. However, once they are recognised by a character, often entirely coincidentally, they allow separated lovers or kin to rendezvous or reunite with each other. Such ambiguous yet miraculous fulfilment of love in the lais thus make the tokens seem super-charged in significance, as though they are magical.

Loyalty and Justice
Loyalty, or the lack thereof, tends to drive conflict in the narrative, whether it be romantic or non-romantic in nature. For romantic relations, loyalty takes the form of fidelity. Most interestingly, illicit affairs are not considered infidelity within Marie’s lais so long as the love is true. In fact, if a character’s preexisting marital commitment was established not out of love but other agendas, said marriage is not considered the true marriage in the narrative (Ashe 248). Breaking away from such unhappy unions to pursue a true lover is thus encouraged and justified, as seen in lais such as “Yönec” and “Milun”. For non-romantic relations, Marie frequently examines the loyalty between lord and vassal, drawing sympathy for those who are not reciprocated despite being loyal, seen in lais such as “Lanval” and “Eliduc”.

Beauty and Desire
While courage, generosity, and worthiness tend to be the indicators of good character for men in the lais, outward beauty seems to be the indicator and reflection of good character and interiority in women. It is beauty that signals to the men their supposed lover, where the more unparalleled the beauty, the more desirable the woman. In “Lanval”, this idea is taken to the extreme with the fae-like lady from Avalon, as beauty becomes the basis of the legal system that tries Lanval, and the bedrock whereupon the honour of King Arthur and his court rests. Marie does not, however, reduce the women in her lais to mere beautiful objects; rather, they are empowered by their beauty, possessing a degree of agency to influence others and even challenge rigid societal structures.

Origins and Names
Although most characters in the lais are not given names, Marie pays a great deal of attention to the names of each lai, some of which are named after characters in the narrative. Nearly every lai comes with an introduction or closing about the various ways it is referred to across different cultures and different languages, such that at times Marie even steers away from the main narrative, devoting a considerable number of lines solely to discuss its naming and what each name identifies. Lais such as “Bisclavret” show the instability and difficulty of precise designation in naming because the same word (“bisclavret”) could refer to a supernatural creature (the werewolf), the name of the character who turns into said creature, the text itself, the concept of turning into such a creature, a story originating from a certain culture, or even the genre of such tales in general. This is further complicated in translation when an alternative title in a different language is presented, for it inevitably carries its own set of connotations that may or may not differ greatly from the original. Marie’s consideration of names and their implications thus undermines the certainty of any definitive categorisation into singular identities, reflecting the shifting and complex nature of linguistic and cultural identity in the setting in which she was writing.

Human / Animal
Marie invites contemplation of what truly constitutes human identity through human / animal transformations in the lais of “Bisclavret” and “Yönec”. Just like the instability of name designation, the characters resist being identified as either properly human or animal. Rather, the lais depict the external form in a state of flux, suggesting humanity to be more of a process and an ongoing transformation, than something intrinsic (Campbell 106). Conditions of humanity include courtly behaviour, belief in God, and in some ways, social inclusion. However, this treatment is notably less applicable to Marie’s female characters, who often undergo a parallel transformation that is less controllable, more exposed, visible, and closer to the classical tradition of depicting physical appearances as manifestations of a character’s inner state (106).

Marie’s focus on love, an emotional experience, naturally places more weight in her narrative towards interiority. This is seen from how the lais centre on small, select groups of characters often in settings away from society, from their concerns about privacy and being discreet, and from the amount of detail dedicated to the courtly exchanges between lovers, which stands in stark contrast to the brief and anticlimactic descriptions of martial exploits. By shifting the traditional emphasis of the quest for glory to obtaining the lady’s love and self-fulfilment, Marie promotes celebration of the personal qualities, skills, and nobility of characters without them always having to be kings or saintly martyrs. This is in line with developments in theology and knighthood during the 12th century, which enabled writers (including Marie) to be recognised by their individual artistry instead of solely by the authority of their sources or religious truths (Ashe 243-244). Although the lais do not engage as extensively in the characters’ emotional states as some other romances, their concern with inner human experiences may offer insights on early ideas about individuality.


Ashe, Laura. “It Is Different with Us: Love, Individuality, and Fiction.” 1000-1350: Conquest and Transformation, special issue of The Oxford English Literary History, vol. 1, no. 5, 2017, pp. 241-291. Oxford Scholarship Online, doi:10.1093/oso/9780199575381.003.0006.

Ferrante, Joan M. “Marie de France.” A New History of French Literature, edited by Denis Hollier, Harvard University Press, 1994, pp. 50-55.

Fisher, Marianne. “Culture, Ethnicity, and Assimilation in Anglo-Norman Britain: The Evidence from Marie de France’s Lais,” Exemplaria 24.3: 195-213.

Gilbert, Dorothy, translator. Marie de France: Poetry. By Marie de France, W. W. Norton & Company, 2015.

Kinoshita, Sharon, and McCracken, Peggy. Marie de France: A Critical Companion, Boydell & Brewer, 2012.


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