Looking Westward: Poetry, Landscape, and Politics in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Looking Westward: Poetry, Landscape, and Politics in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Looking Westward: Poetry, Landscape, and Politics in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Looking Westward: Poetry, Landscape, and Politics in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Synopsis

This is a close study of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight from the perspective of the poetry, landscape, and politics of late 13th and 14th century Wales and the Welsh March.

Excerpt

When I began this study a number of years ago, I was focusing only on the possible connection between the Gawain-poet and Henry Grosmont, first Duke of Lancaster, arguably the most important fourteenth-century aristocrat who was not a member of the royal family. But as I explored Grosmont’s life, I gradually came to terms with the fact that there is no direct evidence, either external or internal, that could link him to the Gawain-poet. What my study of Grosmont did reveal to me was his Welsh connection, and this led me in turn to reflect on how contiguous the Welsh and the English cultures were in the fourteenth century. I still contend that Henry Grosmont, a western man, must be reckoned with as a possible influence on and a model for the poem but only as a part of the poet’s total cultural milieu, an environment that I define as the literature, the landscape, the politics, and the legacy of memories in western England, Wales, and the border areas. I argue that a better understanding of this environment will give us a better understanding of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

Most of the studies of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in the last seventy-five years tend to look eastward, to France as well as to other cultural influences of England and the Continent. The result has often been to draw an imaginary boundary at a place in “SE Cheshire or just over the border in NE Staffordshire” as the provenance of the Cotton Nero Ax MS, west of which one need not look for any understanding of the poem. In Looking Westward, I argue for another way of reading Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a perspective that broadens both the place and the time of the poet’s world. Because Gawain’s journey to find the Green Chapel passes through Anglesey (the far west point of Wales), across northern Wales, and into the Wirral Peninsula— the only identifiable place-names in the poem—I look at Wales and the Welsh borderland, the March, near which the Gawain-poet lived, in order to understand Gawain’s physical journey and the poet’s culture. Moreover, looking westward, I explore the time period that . . .

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