The Romace Genre

The story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight broadly conforms to the conventions of the romance genre: a feast is interrupted ("rich reuel ory3t and rechles merPes" l.40); a mysterious challenger arrives and a knight sets out on a quest. Conventional romance literature would then have the knight resolve the threat of the challenger and return to much feasting. This is the expectation of the audience and the poet is careful to avoid such an obvious denouement. Barron states that "when [Sir Gawain] was written the romance was already a dying form, sinking under the weight of traditional ideals, traditional subjects, traditional methods of presentation." The poet must therefore energise a disappearing style. He does this through parody and subversion, and through the ambiguity that runs throughout the poem and creates a sense of unease in the audience.

Derrida called to our attention the fact that ambiguity creates discomfort. This is why zombies - half- alive, half-dead - are so repulsive. The Gawain poet uses ambiguity throughout the poem to convey to his audience that all is not as it seems. The most obvious ambiguity is in the 'character' (as much as we can use this word in medieval literature) of the Green Knight himself. He is endowed with the supernatural powers common to the villains of the romance genre: "Half etayn in erde I hope Pat he were" (l.140); "oueral enker-grene" (l.150). However, he also possesses many of the characteristics we are used to finding in the heroic characters: "alle his fetures fol3ande in forme Pat he hade, ful clene" (l.145); "He ferde as freke were fade" (l.149). The poet's skill is in representing the inherent contradictions in Bertilak's character through his physical presentation of him. The resolution at the end of the poem is not the typical destruction of the threat, but its explanation.

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