Five Reasons for Teaching Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Medieval British Literature might not be your thing, but it’s time to give the Pearl Poet’s masterpiece Sir Gawain and the Green Knight a second look! Here are five reasons to teach Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
- The Green Knight himself is one of literature’s best characters. An enormous, hairy, green knight rides into King Arthur’s court and challenges him to a head-chopping contest. Who does stuff like that? The Green Knight—that’s who! The Green Knight’s appearance aside, his motives alone make him an interesting character study. Is he a villain or a benefactor? At first it seems like he is a villain, but by the end of the poem, he seems more like a supernatural mentor. His testing of Gawain reveals the knight’s weakness—resulting in a medieval learning moment. So is he a villain or a mentor? It makes for a great classroom debate.
- The poem is one of Middle English’s greatest hits. While you can easily use Beowulf to teach your students a bit about Old English, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is one of the most famous works of Middle English—right up there with The Canterbury Tales. Although we don’t go too in-depth, my students enjoy learning a bit about the various stages of the development of the English language. Reading an excerpt from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in its original language gives them a chance to pick out any words that they recognize from Middle English. It’s a fun activity that might generate an interest in how languages developed.
- The story is a great springboard for discussing priorities. Gawain’s struggle at the Green Knight’s castle brings two priorities into conflict. On one hand, Gawain’s code of chivalry commands him to serve women and comply with even their most absurd requests. On the other hand, that same code of chivalry commands him to remain pure. When the lady of the castle attempts to seduce Gawain, he has to decide which priority is most important. For young people this can be a great discussion. In life we often feel pulled between obligations, but choosing a moral center (and sticking to it) can make these decisions easier. I preface the story by asking my students to answer the question: “What do you do when your priorities come into conflict?”
- The story is shockingly off-color (in a good way). I should tell you that the version of the story that I read with my students is much less risqué than the actual poem. The scenes involving Gawain and Lord Bertilak’s wife are toned down. (In the original poem the lady of the castle appears in Gawain’s room with most of her body bared while Gawain is still naked under his sheets and then suggests tying him to the bed. Fifty Shades of Gawain?) Even using the tamer version of the story that I do, it’s still a risqué premise—sleeping with another man’s wife while he is away. My students are usually shocked (or at least surprised) that this scenario is in classic literature. For some of them it’s a realization that “classic” doesn’t equate to “boring” or “sanitized,” and that’s a valuable learning moment.
- The story teaches a great lesson about dishonesty. Although Gawain survives the lady of the castle’s advances, which he later learns were definitely a trap, he actually fails another test: He accepts a sash that will protect him on his quest and does not reveal this to his host—therefore breaking a promise to his host. It seems like a small thing, but when his host turns out to be the Green Knight in disguise, he calls Gawain out for his cowardice and dishonesty. Gawain realizes that honor requires all kinds of honesty. While he avoided the larger sin of sleeping with the lord’s wife, he fell into the smaller sin of lying. Sin is sin, Gawain learns, and he admits his defeat. It’s an important lesson for young people to learn: copying math homework or cheating on a test may not be on the same level as other crimes, but dishonesty is still dishonesty.
- Bonus reason: Ye olde twist ending! A noble knight goes on a quest to defeat a mysterious opponent, but the opponent ends up beating him! What a twist! Turns out, the Green Knight isn’t such a monster after all. In fact, he doesn’t cut Gawain’s head off when he totally could have. I don’t know about you, but I didn’t see that one coming!
In my own classroom before I read excerpts from the actual poem, I read a script-story version with my students to give them the gist of the story. This builds comprehension and generates interest in the story before we tackle the original text. To purchase this version of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight along with 13 other tales from the legends of King Arthur, click here. To purchase the script as a stand-alone activity, follow this link.