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An Introduction to the Gawain Poet by John M. Bowers (review)
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John M. Bowers’s An Introduction to the Gawain Poet offers a comprehensive survey of the poems ascribed to the Gawain poet, including St. Erkenwald, a work not always included in or attributed to the poet’s collection. In the tradition of A. C. Spearing’s The “Gawain” Poet: A Critical Study (1970) and J. A. Burrow’s The “Gawain” Poet (2001), Bowers combines a historicist methodology with close readings of the poems to supply undergraduate and graduate students, as well as independent scholars and readers, with a useful background to the prolific fourteenth-century alliterative poet and a succinct guide to the five works he presumably composed. The introduction to the author in chapter 1 is remarkably exhaustive and satisfying in spite of the little that is known of the anonymous poet. Bowers addresses the political and social background which might have influenced the composition of his poems and, disputing Spearing’s contention that the Gawain-poet was estranged from the royal and urban cultural influences of fourteenth-century London life, he boldly claims that the Cheshire-born poet actually might have composed his works during visits to the royal court of Richard II in London. Despite the limitations of this speculation, Bowers proceeds to draw connections between the court of Arthur in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Richard II’s court, and between the king-less capital of Erkenwald and the city of London in the 1380s, plagued by hostile divisions between the king and his detractors. This chapter elaborates on such a historical context for the poems by examining the relevance of the poet’s Cheshire dialect to his social identity, as Cheshire origins would help to explain the poet’s “obsession over heraldic identity” and “concern for the design and meaning of the pentangle as Sir Gawain’s coat of arms” (4). A look at the history of medieval Cheshire indicates “the patterns of military service, courtly connections, and clerical advancement that brought Cheshiremen to the center of English culture in the last decades of the fourteenth century” (4). Theories about the Gawain-poet’s clerical education, and the historical background of Lollardy and heretical responses to priestly corruption, also inform readings of Cleanness, Patience, and Pearl, according to Bowers.

The discussion of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight traces the “fitts” of the poem and the symmetrical events, characters, and phenomena that organize the romance. Close readings of the opening frame of the fall of Troy, the Green Knight’s challenge, the Pentangle, and the Green Chapel ground historical claims in the language of the poet’s best-known work. Bowers’s commentaries explore the poem’s universal, timeless themes, like testing, and relate the Gawain narrative to Foucault’s Discipline and Punish and even Monty Python and the Holy Grail (through the episode of the sexual temptation of Sir Galahad in the Castle Anthrax), showing why and how this text is pedagogically useful. This chapter posits this poetry as a foundation for famous works including Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing and Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, encouraging students to read the beheading game, the courtly festivities of Arthur’s world, and the exilic experience of the knight-protagonist as timeless literary moments that have since been reimagined and replayed.

Bowers’s introductions to the lesser-known works of the Gawain poet, particularly the three included in London, British Library MS Cotton Nero A.x, are equally useful and inspire a similar treatment of the poems alongside Sir Gawain and the Green Knight for the classroom. Cleanness is discussed in the context of a proliferation of vernacular sermons in the wake of the Fourth Lateran Council, the poet’s own clerical values, and even Richard II’s fastidious concerns about personal hygiene. In Patience, as well, Bowers identifies reverberations of the king’s concerns about virtue and his embrace of the medieval homiletic tradition. The subsequent treatment of St. Erkenwald is justified by the way it fits into the canon aesthetically and poetically more suitably than the dream vision Pearl does, despite that it survives in a separate, late fifteenth-century collection, London, British Library MS Harley 2250. According to Bowers...

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