“Reading in a Roundtable, Socratic Dialogue, and Other Strategies for Teaching SIR GAWAIN AND THE GREEN KNIGHT” by Jane Beal

GGK_94.jpgMy pedagogical essay, “Reading in a Roundtable, Socratic Dialogue, and Other Strategies for Teaching Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” now appears in SMART: Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Teaching 23:2 (Fall 2016): 73-100.

Excerpt:

“The lai of Lanval thus shows the complex nature of medieval literary depictions of love in a courtly context as well as how very important chivalric courtesy really is in that context. Just as importantly, our discussion of Lanval introduces the character and reputation of Gawain, “the knight of courtesy,” who appears as Lanval’s friend in the romance and aids him in his difficulties. Therefore, students have a foundation upon which we can build as we discuss the following key questions about Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in our roundtable:

  • What codes govern Gawain’s life, and how do they come into conflict in this poem?
  • What games are played in this poem, and how do they test Gawain’s character?
  • When Gawain makes each of his confessions in the poem (there are three), what level of self-awareness of his choices does he show, especially in relation to the codes governing his actions? What does he confess, what level of responsibility does he take for his actions, and why (and how much) does it matter within the world of the poem?
  • How might we, as readers, interpret the conclusion of this poem, and what might be its relevance for a medieval audience and for us?

These questions are made available to students so they are familiar with them and have reflected on them during their reading prior to coming to class.

In the remainder of this essay, I will give an overview of the contextual information I usually share with my students and the key insights I attempt to evoke from them in response to the questions about the poem. The categories for consideration include the following: (1) the codes of chivalry, courtly love, and Christianity; (2) gaming for glory—the beheading of the Green Knight; (3) Gawain’s identity revealed in the symbolism of his shield; (4) gaming for glory—the exchange of winnings; and 5) Gawain’s spiritual growth—the confessions to the priest, the Green Knight, and King Arthur’s court. My purpose in writing is to give ideas to other teachers who may wish to teach Sir Gawain and the Green Knight using roundtable discussion, Socratic dialogue and other pedagogical strategies. I have found that exploratory discussion, enriched by informal but informative lecture, becomes more meaningful when the world-views of students are compared to the world-views evidenced in medieval poetry. The students tend to learn much more than they expect, and sometimes their views are changed or subtly shifted.”

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