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Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a late 14th century metrical romance recorded in a manuscript containing three other pieces of an altogether more Christian orientation, which are linked by a commonality of dialect usage. The dialect is the West Midland form of Middle English. The core of the story, however, is far older and embraces many elements, the most prominent being the severed head theme, central to Celtic mythology, although it is also coloured by events of the time, chief amongst which were the Black Death.
The three other pieces found with Gawain, although untitled in their longhand exposition, have come to be known as Pearl, Patience, and Cleanness (alternately Purity). It is understood that the Cotton manuscript is in the hand of the copyist and not the author. There is thus nothing explicit that says all four poems in the manuscript are by the same poet. However, from a comparative analysis of dialect, verse form and diction, it has become generally accepted that each of the four poems does in fact have the same authorship. We of course do not know the name of this poet, but just from an informed reading of his works, we still know a little bit about the man. Tolkien, in the introduction to his posthumous translation, writes
- He was a man of serious and devout mind, though not without humour; he had an interest in theology, and some knowledge of it, though an amateur knowledge perhaps, rather than a professional; he had Latin and French and was well enough read in French books, both romantic and instructive; but his home was in the West Midlands of England; so much his language shows, and his metre, and his scenery.
The manuscript has been dated to the round year of 1400, and it is believed that the poet flourished some short time before that; he was thus a contemporary of Chaucer, although remote from him in almost every other way.
Before the manuscript came into the possession of Robert Cotton, it had found a place in the library of Henry Savile of Bank in Yorkshire, who lived from 1568 - 1617. Nothing is known of it, or its author, before that.
The verse form
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is written in the style of what linguists would later refer to as the Alliterative Revival of the fourteenth century. Instead of focusing on a metrical syllabic count and rhyme, the alliterative form relied on the agreement of (usually a pair of) stressed syllables at the beginning of the line with (usually) a third and fourth at the end of the line. The line always finds a "breath-point" at some point after the first two stresses, dividing the line into two half-lines, separated by a caesura. Although the Gawain-poet was a bit freer with convention than poets of greater antiquity, this more or less had been the form of alliterative poetry going back into the Old English. The Gawain-poet, however, did embellish the form with some end-rhyme, as it happens. His structure has come to be known as the bob and wheel. The poet broke his alliterative lines into variable-length groups and ended these nominal stanzas with four three-beat lines rhyming abab (the wheel) and a one-beat tag that rhymes a (the bob). These lines also alliterate.
As has been noted, the poem is written in the West Midlands dialect of Middle English, and that dialect must be considered as something of a dead tributary to the course of history that the English language would take. As a result, the untranslated poem is only dimly intelligible to those who have not studied Middle English. As Tolkien tells us, "[i]ndeed in their own time the adjectives 'dark' and 'hard' would probably have been applied to these poems by most people who enjoyed the works of Chaucer."
Here are the first four lines of the poem in its untranslated form:
Sižen že sege and že assaut watz sesed at Troye,
že bor3 brittened and brent to brondez and askez,
že tulk žat že trammes of tresoun žer wrot3,
Watz tried for his tricherie, že trewest on erthe;
In the story, Gawain, a knight of King Arthur in Camelot, becomes a guest at Hautdesert Castle. During this sojourn, three hunts take place, and are paralleled by three temptations laid before Gawain by the Green Knight's wife.
The story, set in verse, begins at King Arthur's court at Camelot on New Year's day. As Arthur's court is feasting, a stranger, the gigantic Green Knight, on horseback and armed with an axe, enters the hall and lays down a challenge. One of Arthur's knights may take the axe and strike a single blow against the Green Knight, on the condition that the Green Knight, if he survives, will return the blow one year and one day later. Sir Gawain, the youngest of Arthur's knights, accepts the challenge and chops off the giant's head. The Green Knight, still alive, picks up his own head, reminds Gawain to meet him at the Green Chapel in a year and a day, and rides off.
Sir Gawain's Journey
Almost a year later, on All Hallows Day, Sir Gawain sets off in his finest armour, on his horse Gringalet, to find the Green Chapel and complete his bargain with the Green Knight. His shield is marked with the pentangle, a symbol of Biblical origin, which is to remind him of his knightly obligations. The journey takes him from the isle of Anglesey to a castle somewhere in the West Midlands. Gawain meets the lord of the castle and his beautiful wife, who tell him that the Green Chapel is close by, and suggest that he stay with them.
The Lord's Bargain
The lord, before setting off on a day's hunting, offers a deal to Sir Gawain. The lord will give Gawain whatever he catches, on condition that Gawain gives to the lord, without explanation, whatever he might gain during the day. Gawain accepts. That night, while the lord is still away, the lady of the castle visits Gawain's room and tries to seduce him, claiming that she knows of the reputation of Arthur's knights as great lovers. Gawain, however, keeps to his promise to remain chaste until his mission to the Green Chapel is complete, and yields nothing but a single kiss. When the lord returns with the deer he has killed, he hands it straight to Sir Gawain, as agreed, and Gawain responds by returning the lady's kiss to the lord. According to the lord's bargain, Gawain refuses to explain where he won the kiss.
On his second night, Gawain again receives a visit from the lady, and again politely refuses her advances. Next day, when the lord returns, there is a similar exchange of a hunted boar for two kisses.
On his third night, when the lady visits his chamber, Gawain maintains his chastity but accepts a silk girdle, which is supposed to keep him from harm, as a parting gift. The next day, the lord returns with a fox, which he exchanges with Gawain for three kisses.
The Meeting with the Green Knight
The next day, Gawain leaves for the Green Chapel, with the lady's silk girdle hidden under his armour, and accompanied by a guide from the lord's castle. Leaving the guide, who is afraid to approach the Green Chapel, Gawain finds the Green Knight busy whetting the blade of an axe in readiness for the fight. As arranged, the Green Knight attempts to behead Gawain, but after three attempts Gawain remains only slightly injured, the third blow barely cutting his neck. The Green Knight then reveals himself to be an alter ego of the lord of the castle, Bertilak de Hautdesert, and explains that the three axe blows were for the three occasions when Gawain was visited by the lady. The third blow, which drew blood, was a punishment for Gawain's acceptance of the silk girdle.
The Green Knight explains that Gawain's trial was arranged by Morgan le Fay, mistress of the wizard Merlin and now a guest at Hautdesert castle. The two men part on cordial terms, Gawain returning to Camelot. There, Sir Gawain recounts his adventure to Arthur and explains his shame at having partially succumbed to the lady's attempts, if only in his mind. Arthur refuses to blame Gawain and decrees that all his knights should henceforth wear a green sash in recognition of Gawain's courage and honour.
- Tolkien, J. R. R. and E. V. Gordon eds; 2nd edition by Norman Davis. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967. ISBN 0198114869.
- Andrew, Malcom and Ronald Waldron. The Poems of the Pearl Manuscript. Berkeley: University of California Press. Fourth ed. 2002. ISBN 0859895149.
- Merwin, W.S. Sir Gawain & and the Green Knight: A New Verse Translation. New York: Random House, 2002. ISBN 0375414762.
- Boroff, Marie. Trans. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: A New Verse Translation. New York: W. W. Norton, 1967. ISBN 0393097544.
- Stone, Brian. Trans. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. New York and London: Penguin Books, 1959; second edition 1979. ISBN 0140440925.
- Tolkien, J. R. R. T. Trans. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, and Sir Orfeo. New York: Ballantine Books, 1975; repr. 1988. ISBN 0345277600.
Commentary and criticism
- Benson, Larry. Art and Tradition in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press. 1965.
- Brewer, Elisabeth (trans.) Sources and Analogues of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Cambridge, England: D. S. Brewer. 1992.
- Burrow, J.A. A Reading of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. New York: Barnes and Noble. 1966.
- Condren, E.I. Beyond Phi: The Numerical Universe of the Gawain-Pearl Poet. Gainesville: University Press of Florida. 2002.
- Howard, Donald R. and Christian Zacher. Ed. Critical Studies of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press. 1968.
- Loomis, Laura Hibbard "Gawain and the Green Knight" in Arthurian Literature in the Middle Ages, Roger S. Loomis (ed.). Clarendon Press: Oxford University. 1959. ISBN 0198115881
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