Hadet with an aluisch mon and britned to no3t: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, death, and the devil

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Until recently, readers of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (henceforth SGGK) judged Gawain to be a devout Christian whose religion informed the poem's representation of chivalry in definitively medieval ways. Even those who considered Gawain sinful for accepting and then concealing the green girdle regarded Gawain as a good Christian knight. Not surprisingly, this view held sway when the influence of D. W. Robertson and R. E. Kaske was at its height from the 1960s to the 1980s, but it was not at all unique to the so-called ‘exegetical school’ of criticism. J. A. W. Bennett's treatment of SGGK in the Oxford History of English Literature series speaks for this period as a whole: SGGK's ‘story of the testing of Sir Gawain shows how an exemplary knight's piety has been given a deeper, firmer base. … It is this fusion of chivalry, magic, and a firmly-held orthodoxy that gives Gawain its special flavour’ (my emphasis). Comparing him to Chrétien's Perceval, Bennett saw Gawain as ‘a knight compact of all chivalric virtues and boasting the Christian virtues that his blazon denotes, who has yet to face the supreme test of “trawthe”; who fails the test yet, in failing, learns self-knowledge and the most Christian of all virtues – humility’. Bertilak's decree that Gawain was as spiritually clean as a newborn (line 2394) guided this reading of Gawain's performance at the Green Chapel.

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The Arthurian Way of Death: The English Tradition

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