Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and the Order of the Garter

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FRANCIS INGLEDEW, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and the Order of the Garter. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2006. Pp. xii, 308. ISBN: 0-268-03176-2. $40.

Scholars have long sought to connect Sir Gawain and the Green Knight to the Order of the Garter, a version of whose motto is written after the poem's last line in its sole manuscript, London, Cotton Nero A.x. Since the Garter was founded by Edward III in about 1348, this one line-'shamed be he who thinks evil'-offers an earliest possible date for the scribal text. Nothing else certain can be deduced from it.

Francis Ingledew's thesis in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and the Order of the Garter is not only that the Garter motto is authorial, but that SGGK itself is a cloaked rebuke of sexual wrongdoing in Edward's court in the 1340s. Edward's ambition to create an Arthurian order of knights was, as Ingledew argues, delayed by scandal when, in 1342, the King himself apparently raped the Countess of Salisbury. Inglcdcw finds this scandal obliquely called forth in SGGK by the bedroom scenes between Gawain and Bertilak's wife, where the sexual roles are reversed and Gawain's chastity counters Edward's lechery, and in the Garter motto itself. The color (blue vs. green) and type of garment (garter vs. girdle) distinguishing the Garter from the order founded in SGGK differ because the poet of SGGK displaced his references to the Garter just enough to avoid incrimination but not enough to prevent recognition by a knowing audience.

Scholars already agree that the poem is at least a generation earlier than the late fourteenth-century scribal text, and some have judged the motto-hand and text-hand to be the same, which may mean that the motto is from the scribe's (presumably authorial) exemplar. Scholars have also placed the material culture of SGGK at mid-century, and they have already made some striking connections between the poem and the Garter; for example, Gawain's clothing in lines 1928-31 resembles the Order's formal attire. Instead of looking back to mid-century, SGGK may have originated in mid-century, and if it is meant to comment on a fourteenth-century English king, Edward III, known for Arthurian-themed feasts, jousts, and castles, is the most likely model.

Ingledew sets himself two formidable tasks in this learned and thoughtful book. …