Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a late 14th century alliterative chivalric romance outlining an adventure of Sir Gawain, a knight of King Arthur's Round Table. The poem survives on a single manuscript, the Cotton Nero A.x., along with three pieces of a religious character, all written by the "Pearl poet" or "Gawain poet," an unknown author. The four narrative poems are written in a North West Midland dialect of Middle English. The manuscript is currently in the British Library.
In the story, Sir Gawain, a knight of King Arthur's Round Table, accepts a challenge from a mysterious warrior who is completely green. The "Green Knight" offers to allow anyone to strike him with his axe if he will take a return blow in a year and a day. Gawain accepts the challenge, and beheads him in one blow, only to have the Knight stand up, pick up his head, and remind Gawain to meet him at the appointed time. Gawain's struggle to meet the appointment, and the adventures involved, cause this work to be classified as an Arthurian tale involving themes of chivalry and loyalty.
Alongside its advanced plot and rich language, the poem's chief interest in the critical and historical worlds is in the symbolism and themes which place it in its historical context. Everything, from the Green Knight, to the beheading game, to the girdle given Gawain as a protection from the axe, is richly symbolic and steeped in Celtic, Germanic, and other historical cultures and folklores. As a result, critics often compare Gawain to similar, older works, such as the Irish tales of Cúchulainn, in order to find possible meanings and contexts for the symbolism and themes within the poem. A later poem, The Greene Knight, tells essentially the same story as Sir Gawain, though the relationship between them is not clear.
The following is a break down of our first two discussions with the tutors on the text of Sir Gawain:
Wednesday, 10 October
F. An exploratory module – we need input. Highly associative. Idea to move out as far as possible from the two core texts. Gawain is a romance because it takes a martial context and turns it into something else.
R. Distinctly English. Heathen roots.
F. Romance or anti-romance – adopting chivalry or parodying it? Laughter in the bedroom. Laughter in the court at the end. Impossible to decide.
A. Language is odder than Chaucer because Chaucer is Southern – this is Northern dialect. The character that looks like a P is pronounced ‘th’ and as the ‘y’ in ‘ye olde’ should be pronounced ‘th’. The character that looks like an oldfashioned z has various sounds – a ‘y’ at the start of the word, an ‘s’ or a ‘gh’ at the middle or end. It’s contemporary with Chaucer: every area had a different language form. It is part of the same ‘alliterative revival’. Chaucer is more French influenced.
F. There exists one ms only, in the British Library. There would have been more destroyed in the dissolution of the monasteries. It was lost from Henry VIII, wasn’t even heard of, and then discovered in the 1820s. First edition 1829. So lots of authors in between didn’t know it, e.g. Walter Scott didn’t. But Scott echoes its ideas. It is based on other, diverse sources, but the story was not otherwise known while it was lost.
A. Literature is exciting because we can’t easily understand it. It was written before early printing, so the text is unstandardised, transcribed from the sound particular to the region. Runic – Anglo-Saxon – 1150 Middle English – 1500 Modern English.
F. Gawain is central to this work. In later Arthurian writing Lancelot and Tristram are, and Gawain is portrayed as more of a sexual predator. This is played with and alluded to here.
Iris Murdoch’s penultimate novel is called The green knight, and is rarely reviewed.
E. Found himself on page 211 of Sebald!!
Wednesday, 17 October, session with Anthony.
All translations are versions – none can capture everything in the original. It is good to know as many translations as possible. Armitage has also done the Odyssey. Christopher Logue’s version of the Ilyad is loved by classical scholars. Edmund knows a children’s version of Gawain.
I found by comparing all translations of odd lines that appealed to me that Brian Stone’s seems to be most accurate, though Armitage best captures the spirit.
This was written as performance art – to produce laughter, arousal, fear. This is Middle-English rap.
Tolkein (the journey is all) vs Gawain (the journey is skated over). The narrative time projects a wider time framework.
Homer – is not a history of Troy, but about Achilles – starting in medias res.
Gawain’s three temptations – what do the three types of hunted animal tell us? The deer stands for cruelty and innocence – encirclement; the boar for fear/danger/confidence/aggression – fight; the fox for flight and cunning/wiliness – chase. The most innocent animal is killed most brutally and viscerally on the page, the next less so, the last less so again. Gawain can escape; the animals can’t. Man (hunted by the devil) has a soul, a choice. Animals have neither.
Christ in the wilderness: temptation, death, resurrection.
Chivalry? Idols other than God are punished?
The lady may be innocent, enthralled by Morgan le Fey’s magic arts.
How to live a good life before we all get to the Green Chapel.
The court of Camelot fails the first test by agreeing to murder the knight.
The court wears the sash at the end. [To me this is a mark of sin and mortality, that they unthinkingly treat lightly.]
Gawain is not rewarded, he is reprieved.
The other books we are reading – were they selected because they connect? No, says Anthony. But they will nevertheless generate connections (the principle of connection: our sense of being able to forge something from the random, our need for a shaping spirit).
Sebald – another translation! He lives in Britain, but writes in German.
A creative response could be to translate something. Or to tell the story of how the court refused to murder the Green Knight – Sliding doors – what happened then? Would it end up the same way, or not? Guinevere could tempt the Green Knight...
Shall we read Iris Murdoch The Green Knight for next time?
Creative writers translate all the time, imperfectly, from our heads into prose. And then are translated imperfectly again into a reader’s head – a unique reading of our intention.
Catullus ...? Louis Ktoffsky... Skoffsky... ??
ABBA – fit a language they don’t speak to the music. Napoleon did surrender, and I have found my destiny in quite a similar way. Again, a performance piece.
Maybe the original of Gawain was as awkward as Abba to its contemporaries, and now we revere it, like the bad bits of Shakespeare. Context governs.
Wodwo. Ted Hughes. Wodwo is an untranslatable word from Gawain. Armitage leaves it as wodwo. Invented words get adopted into the language. Keats, darkling. Lewis Carroll, brillig etc.
Line 725 – how is Dryghtyn translated as God?
- My thanks to Bobbie D for taking the notes. And to Sophie for discovering:
As far as this word for God in Gawain ll 724. As far as I can see, it is a traditional word, written as Dryghtyn and used by pagans and Wiccans as well as Christians. As it is sometimes referred to as the godhead, I thought it might come from some kind of Triton reference, with the 'three' connection and so originate from the Greek.