Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

Illustration from the Gawain manuscript.
I've been meaning to read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Sir Gawayn and þe Grene Knyȝt) for years. It was composed in the mid to late 14th century by an unknown author who is referred to as 'the Pearl Poet' (the manuscript contains three other poems: Pearl, Purity, and Patience, but it is not absolutely certain all of these poems share a common author).

It's based on Arthurian legend and begins on New Year's Eve during a celebratory feast at King Arthur's court. A stranger arrives - the Green Knight - with a challenge: whoever brave enough may strike the Green Knight with the Green Knight's own axe, but on the condition that a year and a day later the Green Knight may return and the striker is to receive a blow in return. Sir Gawain takes up the challenge, striking the Green Knight and severing his head, but to the amazement of the court the Green Knight picks up his head and rides away after reminding Sir Gawain,
Be prepared to perform what you promised, Gawain,
Seek faithfully till you find me, my fine fellow,
According to your oath in this hall in these knight's hearing.
Lady Bertilak and Sir Gawain.
Autumn approaches and Gawain leaves the court in search of the Green Knight. Having battled with monsters and the bitter elements Gawain eventually arrives at the castle of Sir Bertilak. He is welcomed, and the two play a game, deciding that when Sir Bertilak goes hunting on his return he will exchange with Gawain whatever Gawain has 'won' during his day at the castle. What Gawain 'wins' is the kisses of Lady Bertilak, which he exchanges with Sir Bertilak, however on the third day Lady Bertilak gives him her green sash which she promises will make him invisible and unable to be killed. With the impending battle with the Green Knight Gawain keeps it to himself, not exchanging it with Sir Bertilak.

The following morning Sir Gawain sees a green chapel and, despite his guide begging him not to, he approaches it and comes face to face with the Green Knight. The Knight moves to strike him twice however stops before hitting him. On the third time he strikes again, breaking Gawain's skin but not killing him: it is revealed the Green Knight is Sir Bertilak - the two aims falling short were in reference to the kisses from Lady Bertilak, and the scar Gawain will be left with is to pay him back for keeping the green sash. Gawain explains he kept it not to be deceitful but to save his life. Sir Bertilak forgives him, and tells him that this was all the doings of Morgan Le Fay, the enchantress of Arthurian legend, who wished to test the honour of the Arthurian Knights. Gawain then keeps the sash and returns to the court to tell them of his adventures; he will, he says, continue to wear the sash as a reminder of his failing to behave honourably and give it to Sir Bertilak as agreed.

Morgan Le Fay by Frederick Sandys (1864).
One of the most exciting reasons for me reading this poem was the original text: when I bought this I hadn't checked the book out properly (something I'm frequently guilty of doing) and I was disappointed to see that it was a translation. I have read Chaucer's works in Middle English and the Peal Poet is a contemporary of Chaucer's, so there was no reason for me not to read the original. Except there was: there was every reason! I'll start first with Chaucer: these are the famous opening lines of The Canterbury Tales (General Prologue) in Middle English:
Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open eye-
(So priketh hem Nature in hir corages);
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes
To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
And specially from every shires ende
Of Engelond, to Caunterbury they wende,
The hooly blisful martir for to seke
That hem hath holpen, whan that they were seeke.
This is not an easy read, but it is on the whole possible (though when I first read it I found myself consulting the glossary a great deal). Now, here's a sample of the original text of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the first verse of Part I:
SIÞEN þe sege and þe assaut watz sesed at Troye,
Þe borȝ brittened and brent to brondeȝ and askez,
Þe tulk þat þe trammes of tresoun þer wroȝt
Watz tried for his tricherie, þe trewest on erthe:
Hit watz Ennias þe athel, and his highe kynde,
Þat siþen depreced prouinces, and patrounes bicome
Welneȝe of al þe wele in þe west iles.
Fro riche Romulus to Rome ricchis hym swyþe,
With gret bobbaunce þat burȝe he biges vpon fyrst,
And neuenes hit his aune nome, as hit now hat;
Tirius to Tuskan and teldes bigynnes,
Langaberde in Lumbardie lyftes vp homes,
And fer ouer þe French flod Felix Brutus
On mony bonkkes ful brode Bretayn he settez
wyth wynne,
Where werre and wrake and wonder
Bi syþez hatz wont þerinne,
And oft boþe blysse and blunder
Ful skete hatz skyfted synne.
The Heptarchy by J. G. Bartholomew (1914). 
This, for the average reader, is impossible! Certain words can be worked out: 'Troye' must be 'Troy', "sege and þe assaut" must surely relate to war; siege and assault, "tricherie" "trickery", "Bretayn" for "Britain", and there's "Rome", "French", and "Felix Brutus". Looking closely some works can in fact be understood; some of it is familiarly English, however I think it would take quite some study to be able to really understand it, or even just get the gist. The question, though, is why? Why would a contemporary of Chaucer's write in what almost looks to be another language? The answer is quite simply down to location. Chaucer was a Londoner, and the Pearl Poet was from the North-West Midlands: the Lancashire or Cheshire region (the settings of some of Elizabeth Gaskell's novels, for example). Northumberland, or Northumbria as it was then, also had its own distinctive dialect. Here, for example, is the Lord's Prayer in Northumbrian:
FADER USÆR ðu arðin heofnu
Sie gehalgad NOMA ÐIN.
Tocymeð RÍC ÐIN.
suæ is in heofne and in eorðo.
HLAF USERNE of'wistlic sel ús todæg,
and f'gef us SCYLDA USRA,
suæ uoe f'gefon SCYLDGUM USUM.
And ne inlæd usih in costunge,
ah gefrig usich from yfle.
From a little reading I've learned that the English we speak today, and the Middle English that is the most understandable to us, is Chaucer's 'London dialect'. Though the 'seven kingdoms of England' (what is called 'The Heptarchy':  East Anglia, Essex, Kent, Mercia, Northumbria, Sussex, and Wessex) had been united for quite some time differences in language still persisted and part of the unification of our language is down to the invention of the printing press which was introduced in Europe by Johannes Gutenberg in 1440. This introduced a 'standard' of language based on the London dialect, which is known as the Chancery Standard, which is most similar (but not identical) to Chaucer's dialect (for example, in the quoted verse above, Chaucer wrote "So priketh hem Nature in hir corages" - "hir" would later be standardised as "their"). That, then, is why Chaucer and the Pearl Poet's language appears so different!

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is, I believe, only the second Arthurian legend I've read (the first being The Epic and Le Morte D'Arthur by Tennyson). I'm still very much a  novice but I have enjoyed them and hope to start Tennyson's The Idylls of the King (1859) this year. I fear I'm a while off being ready to read Mallory's Le Morte D'Arthur however!


  1. I'm being a killjoy by asking this question, but here it is: What is the relevance to readers in 21st century (or is this simply a museum piece)? That is the question that always occurs to me with classics. If the killjoy-factor is too high, tell me to sod off.

    1. The text may be old, but the enjoyment is universal :) And I do think the themes of many classics are timeless.

  2. I studied this poem in my university class and it's one of my favourites. There is a significance to the mention of green throughout the poem and we had lots of discussion about Gawain's distress at the end of the poem; even though he is exonerated, he still feels quite convicted about his behaviour. It also really helps to read about the emphasis on courtly love at the time, as it brings certain behaviours to light. Obviously, my memory is rather spotty so I guess it's time for a re-read.

    Your information about the different dialects is so interesting ...... The Lord's Prayer is completely unintelligible! Wow!

    1. I loved that Lord's Prayer :) Now I know what it actually says I can make out words, but before that I wouldn't have guessed exactly what it was.

      I felt so sorry for Gawain at the end. It was very touching.

  3. My goodness, that original text sure is a puzzle compared to Chaucer. I didn't know all that about the different dialect of Middle English. Look, you made me learn something new on a Friday afternoon while I'm avoiding my actual work, haha!

    1. Lol :) I didn't know about the different dialects either. I suppose it's obvious on reflection, but it took me reading this to learn about it :)

  4. I love this poem too, but I've never even tried to read it in the original, just looked at it with dismay. It's possible that my mom once puzzled some out. Ennias must be Aeneas, and bobbaunce is now my new favorite word. :)

    I suppose you probably would want to read Malory in the original too? He's not at all difficult, easier than Chaucer, but it would be tedious, what with the constant never-ending fighting and blood brasting. Ooh, do read Chretien someday, though!

    1. bobbaunce - yes, I liked that too!

      I don't think I'll read Malory in the original. If I love the translation I might, but currently no plans to be that ambitious! :)

      I'll be sure to check out Chretien - but who is he / she? I've googled it and all I'm getting is Jean Chrétien the Prime Minister of Canada! :)

    2. chretien de troyes, a french author, well, jongleur type rather, who collected romaunces in the early medieval period. interesting book it is, yes...

  5. fascinating stuff!.. if i had it to do over, i'd really have liked to study those early languages. you do a great job of explaining a lot in a few words. tx!

    1. Thank you! I'm with you on studying the early languages... I might get myself a book on the subject, I think I'd enjoy it :)

  6. A really interesting review, o! I remember reading this in class a few years ago. We were officially supposed to read the original, but it was almost impossible for us to read the whole thing. I had an edition with a translation and the original side-by-side, so I kind of flicked between the two, which was an interesting experience in itself. I had no idea that the pearl poet was from the north of England, although given some of the descriptions of landscape I think it makes a lot of sense.

    1. I think it would take me years to read it all in the original! I wish I could, though. A side-by-side would have been good - I'll try and get that edition just out of interest really. I loved learning about these different dialects :)

  7. Chretien de Troyes is one of the big names in Arthurian literature. He was a French poet, and he wrote romances--the cult of courtly love was just getting going. He wrote 4 or 5 Arthurian romances, and he invented the character of Lancelot. Much of what we might consider 'canon' today came from Chretien's pen.

    1. more accurate than what i said above; tx...

    2. Ah, thank you! I'll try and order something, definitely want to check that out :)


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