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Sir Gawain and St Winifred: hagiography and miracle in West Mercia Sir Gawain and the Green Knight belongs to that literary kind which has deep roots in the past ... it is made of tales often told before . . . . Behind our poem stalk the figures of elder myth . . . . His story is not about those old things, but it receives part of its life, its vividness, its tension from them.I From the earliest serious scholarship of the mediaeval romance, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, seekers of source and editors alike have been teased by the problem of a possible earlier analogue posited by the here-joined but otherwise separate motifs of beheading and of the restoration of life, alongside that of the temptation of a knight. G.L. Kittredge found his answer to this linking by postulating for such an antecedent version an otherwise unknown author, "the genial Frenchman who made the plot of Gawain and the Green Knight by combining two entirely independent stories, the Challenge and the Temptation".2 This explanation had the poem preceded by such a lost French original, and it was accepted in total by J.R.R. Tolkien and E.V. Gordon in their 1925 edition3 of the work, although N. Davis, in his revised second edition of their text, is very much more cautious, and states that "though elements of the two adventures, and others in some ways like them ... (are) scattered fairly widely in Arthurian story . . . they are nowhere organically linked as in Gawain".4 Professor Davis came to the issue of sources more circumspectly than the earlier Oxford editors and found "incidents resembling both the adventures . . . separately in other romances earlier than Gawain", but he agreed with them that, "the theme of the beheading match occurs first in a Middle Irish prose narrative called Fled Bricrend, 'Bricriu's Feast', the earliest manuscript (of which) dates from about 1100".5 The most interesting aspect of the fourteenth-century Middle English story is that the two parts of it are united by what has been called "the Exchange of Winnings", which is found in no other analogue, and which, if the parts were originally distinct, appears 1 J.R.R. Tolkien, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, in The Monsters and the Critics and other Essays, ed. C. Tolkien, London, 1983, 7273 ; the lecture was delivered in 1953. 2 A Study of Gawain and the Green Knight, Cambridge, Mass., 1916, 137. 3 J.R.R. Tolkien and E.V. Gordon, edd., Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Oxford, 1925, xi-xvii (hereafter, Sir Gawain, 1925). 4 N. Davis, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, revised 2nd edn., Oxford, 1957, xix-xx (hereafter, Davis, Sir Gawain, 1957); subsequent textual quotations are from this edition. 5 Ibid., xv. 50 J.S. Ryan either to have been invented to connect them, or else adapted from, for example, some fabliau, much as the forms of exchange or rewardretribution , which are to be found in anecdotes like the Tales told by Chaucer's Merchant, and his Reeve, or, more sensitively, by his Franklin. In all these instances of "exchange" there is a test to be faced, and the moral obligation or consequence of one's behaviour and/or of one's pledged word, even though, in both fabliau and romance, the cost or consequence of one's actions, or of keeping one's promise, is much more serious than might have seemed the case at the outset. This result may be bawdy and shame-making in the fabliau-style plot, but is concerned with moral virtue in Chaucer's Franklin's Tale, as it is also in the anonymous West Midland romance, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The stern morality of the exchanges in the Gawain poem thus brings the plot into line with the other works by the same author (notably Purity and Patience), as well as with other poems in the general western alliterative tradition, such as St Erkenwald; each of which illustrates a moral virtue, the first two by showing God's punishment of the opposite vice, the last by exhibiting the character of a man who, in the face or many temptations, kept to...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1832-8334
Print ISSN
0313-6221
Pages
pp. 49-64
Launched on MUSE
2013-04-03
Open Access
No
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