[An English writer and editor of the Penguin Guide to Medieval Europe (1984), Barber has written extensively on medieval subjects. In the following excerpt, he discusses the origins, motifs, and poetic beauty of Sir Gawain, terming it "the only great Middle English Arthurian work."]
One knight above all others at Arthur's court fired the English poets' imagination in the Middle Ages--Gawain. This is witnessed by the relatively large number of romances in which he is the central figure, and by the fact that he is always held up as the epitome of knighthood. In the early French romances, he is indeed of great knightly skill, but he is also lascivious, and not always courteous. To the English, he represents the flower of all courtesy and gentleness and the figure of every virtue; the other knights, with the one exception of Arthur, are usually foils to his prowess and nobility.
Gawain first appears in Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae, where he is called Walgainus. He resembles the Gwalchmai of Welsh legend and Cuchullinn in the Irish epics. Like the latter, he possesses many of the properties of a sun-hero, such as the increase of his strength until midday and its decline thereafter. He was the real owner of Excalibur, which was originally a dazzling sun-weapon. Of all the knights of the Round Table, he has the longest connection with Arthur, save for Kay and Bedivere, appearing as Arthur's nephew in Geoffrey of Monmouth's work. Like Cuchullinn, he is a folk-tale hero, and hence is the central figure in primitive stories rather than artificial literature.
Yet the first of the poems of which he is hero, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, is the most superb accomplishment of this artificial literature, the only great Middle English Arthurian work, and one of the great masterpieces of the poetry of this period as a whole, both in its treatment of the subject-matter and in the strength of its style and imagery, which represents the climax of English alliterative poetry. (pp. 95-6)
In this tale there are two distinct parts which have been skilfully welded into one. The Green Knight's challenge to Gawain is an example of a Celtic episode that we may call the Beheading Game. The approaches of the hostess at the castle, are the other part, the Temptation. Both incidents are of great age and have a long pedigree. In the case of the Beheading Game, the earliest form of the story is to be found in the Irish epic Fled Bricrend (Bricreu's Feast), in which it is part of the contest for the championship of Ulster, with Cuchullinn as its hero. Even here it occurs twice in variant forms, and must have come from an earlier recited version of about the eighth century, for the tale is considerably older than the written form, and the manuscript dates from the tenth century. From Ireland it passed to France, possibly via Wales and Brittany, and by comparing the details of the stories in...