[Written while the author was a freshman at
The University of Oregon, and should be read
with understanding of the same. JL]
Sir Gawain in a Grey State
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, written by an unknown author in the 14th century, can be called a timeless work of poetry. It exudes a certain fantastic quality that, despite its age of over 500 years, still appeals to modern audiences. Because of this application to all eras, would it be reasonable to state that this poem could be classified with modern fantasy fiction? Because of the similarities in plot and style with so much modern fantasy, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight could be placed in the same category with that genre, though the uses of doing so are questionable.
In plot, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight has elements which are similar to much modern fantasy. Its emphasis on chivalry (in the values of Sir Gawain's character through the entire poem) is similar to contemporary High Fantasy, a subgenre filled with such present top industry names as Robert Jordan and Terry Brooks. For an even greater glimpse of the popular appeal of King Arthur's court, Marion Zimmer Bradley's retelling of the Arthurian legends in her bestselling series beginning with The Mists of Avalon.
In addition to the type of character exemplified by Sir Gawain, magic is an important element in modern fantasy—as important as it is to the plot in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. From when the Green Knight is beheaded and proceeds to pick up his head, give a wicked grin, and say essentially, "I'll see you in a year," (ll. 423-456) it is clear that magic will play in integral part in the narrative. The confirmation of enchantment by Morgan le Faye (ll. 2446-2462) finishes the plot as it began it: in a state of magical unreality. Such enchantment is typical of modern fantasy, particularly from writers of modern fairy tales. Indeed, Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling have essentially made their careers editing compilations of these tales, such as the popular Snow White, Blood Red and its several follow-ups. To increase the fairy-tale style feel of the story, the Green Knight is called an elf (ll. 680, 2461) and faery. (l. 240) There is clear indication that this can easily be called a fairy tale.
Stylistically, the visual and concrete nature of the poem lends itself to modern comparison as well. The delightful accounts of the changing of the seasons are in part to indicate the passage of time, but also add mood to the whole of the piece. Present-day fantasy writer Patricia McKillip has been critically lauded for "lush imagery" and stories described as "atmospheric... and filled with rich imagery." Clearly the descriptions are an important part of the style that makes modern fantasy.
Yet for all of this similarity and concrete evidence, at some point the basic usefulness of classifying Sir Gawain and the Green Knight with modern fantasy fiction must be questioned. It is true that in many ways it is similar, but that can be attributed to the deep impact this romance has on modern fantasy. It makes up the roots of the tree that is today's fantasy literature. Would classifying them in the same genre be helpful? Not particularly. The comparison is more an academic pursuit than an important categorization.
In whole, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight bears many shared traits with modern fantasy in plot to style. Still, clumping one into the field of the other in some way detracts from both by ignoring the details. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a great poem, a great fantasy, and a great romance. Separation and placement in any one of these genres hides facets of the others.
Text copyright ©1999-2010
John Larson. All Rights Reserved.
Published by Luminarium
through express written permission.