In broad terms Sir Gawain is part of an expansive body of literature that typically was intended to entertain a courtly and hence selective audience. If there is any common denominator running throughout the stories, it is the idea of chivalry, a formal, high-stylized system of standards of knightly conduct. This poem is a literary median between Anglo-Saxon and Christian literature. Chivalric ideals of strength and valor became gradually integrated with essentially non-Christian dictates of courtly love.
The two major streams of action and conduct merged into the content of the romance: chivalric ideals of courage and prowess in battle, along with observance of Christian virtues; and courtly love standards of carefully prescribed manners. The three major plot elements – the beheading game or contest the exchange of winnings, and the temptations – occur throughout the romances, but the Gawain-Poet was the first to combine them into a meaningful structure. The latter places the poem in relationship with Anglo-Saxon alliterative poetry, an important part of the Gawain-Poet’s cultural and moral heritage.
Both in the poet’s use of alliterative verse and in his characterization of Gawain, it is apparent that Gawain has much in common with the Anglo-Saxon hero, such as Beowulf. The strange, hostile world he encounters upon leaving Camelot, the many tests he endures, the crafty machinations of the Green Knight, and the sexual temptations that can so easily overcome a man – impress us with the realization that Gawain is an honorable fellow, subject to weakness and ambiguity.
The thematic lines between the poems are of a general nature, rather than that of an integrally connected poem-sequence, and can be summarized as having applicability to the overall moral and spiritual well-being of a man, perhaps a knight, living in a courtly environment toward the end of the fourteenth century. Given this social and political climate, it is not surprising that a poet, sensitive to the spirit of the times, should write for his aristocratic audience poetry that would both examine facets of the moral life and recall the heroic, vigorous ideals of his Anglo-Saxon Christian heritage.
In this sense, a pervasive concern is evident in the poems – a concern with the way a knight, or any Christian man of the world, should live in an uncertain and dangerous time. Patience and Purity exemplify the Christian virtues that have become their titles and these, of course, have obvious relevance to any Christian. The resulting interpretations are grotesque, for example: ‘the Green Knight is thus proposing . . . a veiled invitation to a basically Christian ordeal, to an individual “way of the Passion” of voluntary self-sacrifice, as the christological content of the holly branch seems to suggest’.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is the first that exhibits any ambiguity about the alliance between the quality of truth and the value of the oral pledge. It is also the first to focus specifically on the word trauthe, whereas words such as othe, borwes, and good fey are used in the earlier poems. The fact that the Gawain poet singles out the word trauthe for intense scrutiny signals his conscious dependence on the Anglo Saxon etymology (treowe).
Similarly, the poet’s participation in what has come to be known as “the Alliterative Revival” “hearkens back to the heroic age of English poetry” in his imitation of the strongly oral meter and diction of Anglo Saxon poetry. These stylistic links between the poem and its Anglo Saxon predecessors suggest the possibility of a fundamental thematic connection in their investigation of trauthe as well. In Gawain there are two lines in which the concepts of trauthe and sothe are juxtaposed and contrasted.