Into the Woods: Nature and the Divine in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Linberg, Renu, English - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Fowler, Elizabeth, English, University of Virginia


How was nature perceived in the late 14th century? What is the relation between nature and divinity in the late medieval period? How might we, and indeed, why might we, attempt a green reading of popular medieval texts? The focus of this thesis is to examine nature as a divine, vivifying force in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, one that propels Gawain towards a higher state of consciousness. Early Western thinkers defined nature as a source of movement, a process of becoming, an ordering principle, a force or energy acting upon the will of humankind, urging them towards their best possible state, an intermediary between the divine and the terrestrial, a soul, and even a creative power through which (or whom) God acts. Alain de Lille and Geoffrey Chaucer are two medieval poets who explore and develop the personification of nature most forcefully. Their versions of the goddess Nature embody the longevity of classical characterizations of nature: nature as a force acting upon humankind, a divine intermediary, and as a personified being ordained by God. As such, this paper will examine the Gawain Poet’s predecessors and contemporaries, as well as the literary tradition of nature from antiquity to the Middle Ages. In doing this, we'll see more clearly where he adheres to this tradition, and where he deviates. The first chapter will explore early Western philosophical antecedents. It will then explore how nature, as a movement or force, connects to the medieval poetic tradition as seen in Alain and Chaucer. The second chapter will examine Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Early and late medieval poets often used wilderness motifs to represent one’s interiority or consciousness. As such, Gawain’s interior progress and spiritual development is mapped by the movement and geography of his journey. This project looks at his movement throughout the poem, examining Gawain's encounters with wilderness, weather, and the temptations set before him at Hautdesert. And it will explore ways in which we might read the Green Knight as both a courtly—albeit green—figure, ultimately benevolent but certainly at times menacing, and as a representative of nature's divine force—if not exactly a personified Nature—the force behind Gawain's journey from Camelot on his often-uncomfortable path towards self-awareness.

MA (Master of Arts)
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, The Gawain Poet, divine nature, medieval , Geoffrey Chaucer, Alain de Lille, spirituality
All rights reserved (no additional license for public reuse)
Issued Date: