MS London, B.L. Cotton Nero A.x contains four texts: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Patience, Purity (or Cleanness) and Pearl. These poems, which were almost certainly all composed by the same author, were probably composed for a provincial court somewhere in the North-West Midlands, but they yield nothing in sophistication and subtlety through comparison with contemporary London products such as The Canterbury Tales. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is in genre a romance, but it goes beyond the confines of its genre to challenge the notions of courtly behaviour which governed the behaviour and ethical sense of its probable first audience, a serious-minded provincial noble household. Unlike The Canterbury Tales, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight sustains the old alliterative verse-tradition which (with considerable revision on the way) goes back to OE times. For various reasons, this older tradition was sustained longer in the North and West of the English-speaking area than in the South and East. The passage which follows is at the beginning of the fourth section (“Fitt”) of the poem. The protagonist, Sir Gawain, is about to ride forth to meet the Green Knight, an unearthly being who entered into a strange bargain a year before involving mutual decapitation. At the Green Knight’s request, Gawain had beheaded the Green Knight as part of a challenge-game at Arthur’s court a year before, on condition that he (Gawain) offered himself for execution a year later. Whereas the Green Knight seemed, magically, not to be one whit daunted by losing his head, Gawain is not convinced that he will escape so easily ...
Linguistically, this passage makes a good comparison with the Chaucer texts. In particular, it shows several distinctive Northern features, eg. the verbal inflexions, which are generally a good indication of dialect localisation. It will be observed that it retains the widespread use of þ and 3.
The standard edition of the poem is by J.R.R.Tolkien and E.V.Gordon, rev. N.Davis (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967). This edition includes valuable supplementary material, notably on the sources and analogues of the poem. The text presented here varies from that edition only in a few details of punctuation.
A literal translation of this passage appears immediately after it. An interpretative note to line 21 (signalled by the small Roman numeral (i)) is appended after the translation.
(i) Chain armour was rokked (ie. rolled) to rub the rust off; a traditional method was in a sand-barrel.