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NA286512 - Flynn, B.: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Unabridged)

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight


Sir Gawain and the Green Knight are fortunate to be with us. Their survival, like that of Beowulf’s, is a story of luck and literary providence. The sole Beowulf manuscript narrowly escaped destruction by fire in 1731. The only copy of the Gawain poem lay untitled in the same collection, forgotten for over two hundred years before it re-surfaced in 1839. Both are now, one hopes, safe for posterity, in the British Library.

The Gawain poet has been less fortunate than his hero. We know next to nothing of him, not even a name. He was probably a man, given the detailed knowledge of hunting and armour in the poem, and it is likely that he wrote the three other devotional poems bound with the Gawain manuscript. One, known as Pearl, is a mysterious and moving allegory about a father’s grief at the death of his two year old daughter.

Although the Gawain poet was a contemporary of Chaucer, writing in the fourteenth century, Gawain is an altogether different proposition to Chaucer’s work. Chaucer was a master of the form and style of French and Italian poetry in English. Gawain has a wilder, archaic feel, familiar and strange at the same time, but definitely more Norse saga than Canterbury Tale.

The reason is geographical. Chaucer’s culture was centred on London. Gawain was written for an audience in the north of England, an area around Cheshire, Derbyshire and ‘the wilderness of Wirral’. This flourishing northern culture retained more Anglo-Saxon elements, both in ethos and language, than Chaucer’s southern world.

Gawain’s quest does take place in a saga setting. It is a grimly realistic winter landscape that the poet evokes through a dialect with words of Norse origin that were not, or rarely, part of Chaucer’s vocabulary.

But the most important difference between them, and source of the archaic feel of Gawain, comes from the northern poet’s preference for alliteration, a central component of Anglo-Saxon poetry. As Chaucer mockingly makes the Parson in his Canterbury Tale say, ‘I am a Southren man. I can nat geeste ‘rum, ram, ruf,’ by lettre.’ (‘I cannot recite “rum, ram, ruf’ letter by letter’).

We rarely come across alliteration today, but for centuries it was the poetic norm. The rules are complex, but the basic line of Anglo-Saxon poetry has four stresses, three of which begin with the same consonant, with a break after the first two. In the Gawain poet’s expert hands the repeating consonants reinforce the drama, the sense of the words and their emotional content.

He does not avoid rhyme, every stanza finishes with an ancient rhyming device known as the ‘bob and wheel’. The bob is a very short alliterative line of only two syllables. The rhyming wheel which follows is a counterpoint of four lines, used to create suspense or offer an ironic commentary on what has gone before.

To a translator of Gawain, attempting to reproduce the effect of the original in modern English, keeping to the rules of alliteration without inserting anachronisms or making a nonsense of the word order is the central problem. The pitter-patter of consonants may sound strange to our ears, yet without it much of what the Gawain poet intended his audience to hear in listening to his poem is lost. Gawain demands to be heard, and the alliteration gives Gawain its distinctive quality: an Old English form bearing a Romance tale of chivalry and courtly love.

The story begins at Camelot when the Christmas festivities of Arthur’s court are interrupted by the appearance of a green knight. Not merely a knight in green, but entirely of green, riding an equally green horse. The intruder throws down a monstrous challenge: strike him a blow now, in return for his striking a blow a year hence.

Sir Gawain, Arthur’s young nephew, accepts. He takes up the Green Knight’s monstrous axe, and beheads him. To the horror of the court, the body, still living, picks up the head. It instructs Gawain to be at the Green Chapel, to receive a return blow, in twelve months time.

What follows, as Gawain searches for the Green Chapel, is a cracking story in four parts or ‘fitts’ that weave together three different narratives.

The beheading game, the main plot, has its roots in ancient pagan folklore. The earliest version is an eighth century Irish story, Briciu’s Feast, where Gawain’s role is played by the Irish hero Cuchulain.

The narrative tension is increased by two other tests of the hero’s honesty, loyalty and chastity: Gawain’s exchange of winnings with his host Sir Bertilak, and his attempted seduction by Sir Bertilak’s lusty wife.

The theme of temptation by the hostess appears in a number of medieval romances. The closest analogue to Gawain’s experience of staving off the hostess is Yder, an Anglo-Norman romance, where the wife attempts to seduce the guest so that her husband may have power over him.

The exchange of winnings was a real part of Germanic culture, much like an American Indian potlatch ceremony. A man, given a gift, had to return an equal or better one to the giver or risk losing honour. In Gawain the emphasis is on the exchange as a game of truth and keeping true to one’s word.

In the telling of the story the exchange of winnings and the hostess temptation appear to be unconnected with the beheading game. The Gawain poet’s originality lies in the way he combines all three so that the hero’s survival in the beheading game depends on his honesty and chastity in the others. The whole poem becomes a test of truth.

As Gawain faces his trials, the fateful New Year’s Day meeting at the Green Chapel draws closer, and we are aware with Gawain of the near-certainty that he will lose his head. The story’s conclusion, though moral and didactic, is no less thrilling a denouement for that. And, as ever with the stories of Camelot, we find the powerful sorceress Morgan le Faye, Arthur’s half sister, working in the background to destroy the Round Table.

One of the greatest stories of English literature from any period, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a magical medieval combination of the epic and the uncanny. As the Gawain poet says, since Brutus first came to Britain from Troy, long before we were born, there have many been tales like this. It is a tribute to his skill that very few have been as well told.

Benedict Flynn

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