The Language of the Gawain Poet
It can be misleading to speak of the Middle English of the Gawain poet as a “language” in the contemporary sense, since neither written nor oral communication was standardized. There were, of course, conventions. If anything, the grammar of Middle English was more complicated than that of modern English. There was, however, no correct or incorrect usage. Spelling and pronunciation were subject to considerable local and individual variations.
This meant that the language was more personal and probably, in some respects, more vivid than our own. There are similar qualities in dialects and in languages such as Yiddish which still are not fully standardized today. It also meant, however, that verse forms, involving such matters as syllable counts, had to be used with less precision than in modern times.
The Gawain poet is part of a movement known as the “alliterative revival” of the thirteenth century. Together with some of his contemporaries, he departed from the forms adopted from Latin languages which were based on rhyme and meter. Instead, he followed Anglo-Saxon poetic traditions, which used heavily stressed words at irregular intervals and alliteration.
Some scholars dispute that this constituted a “revival,” since, they maintain, the Anglo-Saxon tradition was never actually eclipsed. We do not have a sufficient number or range of texts to judge with confidence. But such a revival would certainly be consistent with the way in which poetry has developed throughout history. When their immediate predecessors begin to seem either mannered or overly intimidating, poets often react by turning to models in the more distant past.
A similar “alliterative revival” may be found, for example, in the poems of Gerard Manely Hopkins (1844-1889), who used what he called “sprung meter.” This involved, like the Anglo-Saxon poems, strongly stressed words at varied intervals, linked together through repetition of sounds. Here, for example, are some lines from his poem “Spring”:
When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush;
Thrush’s eggs look little low heavens, and thrush
Through the echoing timber does so rise and wring
The ear, it strikes like lighnings to hear him sing....
Although Hopkins was a very subtle and knowledgeable poetic theorist, his pronunciation of such lines, like his syntax, was often idiosyncratic. He intended five stresses per line, but readers could legitimately scan these lines in other ways.
The work of Hopkins, however, is a good place to start, for a reader who wishes to get a sense of the rich verbal texture of alliterative verse. When we come to the Middle English of the Gawain poet, we must also deal with differences in grammar and vocabulary.
The Middle English of the Gawain poet is, perhaps, roughly as close to modern English as the Dutch language. It is similar to that of Chaucer, though most readers find it slightly more difficult. With a little practice, it is still possible for the non-specialist to read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in the original, though slowly and with a dictionary.
Only very enthusiastic or adventurous readers, however, are likely to attempt this. For those who do, the edition of the original text used most frequently is the one edited by J. R. R. Tolkien and E. V. Gordon (New York: Oxford U. Press, 1967). For those who would like to try only a few pages, samples of the original are contained with most translations of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight including those of Maria Borroff and Brian Stone. A good introduction to the language, containing excerpts from many works, is A Book of Middle English by J. A. Burrow and Thorlac Turville-Petre (London: Blackwell, 1993).
Middle English employed approximately the same range of sounds as our current language, but included some symbols that are not used today. Among those symbols are ß/ß (“thorn”) and ð (“eth”), both of which are usually pronounced approximately like the modern English “th” in “that.” At ß/ß times might also be pronounced like the modern English “y” in “yet.”
Like the pronunciation, the poetic form of the Gawain poet can only be approximately reconstructed. It consisted of verses, each of which contained an irregular number of unrhymed long lines, followed by a rhymed quatrain of short lines. Scholars generally believe that the long lines were generally divided into two parts, each of which generally contained two strong stresses and a varied number of weak stresses. The first three of these strong stresses would alliterate, while the last would not, so they may be rendered as a-a/a-b.
The opening lines of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight might, then, be rendered as follows:
Sißen ße sege and ße assaut / watz sesed at Troye,
a a / a b
ße bor brittened and brent / to brondez and askez
a a / a b
ße tulk ßat ße trammes / of tresoun ßer wro t
a a / a b
Watz tried for his tricherie, / ße trewest on erthe,
a a / a b
There are other alternatives, as the first half of line two, for example, could very easily be read as having three strong alliterating stresses.
It is important to remember that the poem was intended more for recitiation than for silent reading. The heavy alliteration is particularly effective in reading narrative verse aloud, since it conveys a sense of vigorous motion and dramatic tension. Though perhaps not as elegant as rhyme and meter, it is very easy to respond to. The appeal is so basic that it can accommodate many variations, and the reader need not worry about too much about correctness.
The Figure of Sir Gawain
Gawain was probably the earliest of the Arthurian heroes. Scholars associate him closely with the Irish hero Cú Chulaind. An adventure of Cú Chulaind in the tale of Bricriu’s Feast, which is usually dated to the eighth or ninth century, appears to be an early version of the story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Cú Chulaind and two other warriors have each claimed to be the champion at the court. To settle the dispute, a judge sends all three to the sorcerer Utath, who proposes a test. The champion must behead Utath, who will then return the next day and cut off the head of the warrior. Only Cú Chulaind has the courage to accept this challenge. After being decapitated, Utath picks up his head and walks away. He returns the next day with his head back on his shoulders, and, fulfilling the bargain, Cú Chulaind stretches out his neck. Utath brings an ax down of Cú Chulaind’s neck three times, but does not hurt him. Instead, the sorcerer tells Cú Chulaind to rise and declares him the champion.
Gawain is mentioned in Geoffrey of Monmoth’s History of the Kings of England as Arthur’s nephew and as the greatest of British warriors. He later retains some of the roughness of his Pagan heritage. In the Arthurian romances of Cretien de Troyes, Gawain is associated with magic and unrestrained sexuality. In later Arthurian romances, he is generally overshadowed by figures such as Lancelot, Percival, Galahad and Bors. He often is described as a knight who is the model of secular virtue but for whom the mystical heights are unattainable. In Mallory’s Mort D’Arthur and other romances, Gawain is given a feature that may go back to a Pagan deity associated with the sun. His strength increases, like that of the sun, in the morning, peaks at noon and then declines.
The portrayals of him vary widely, but one feature is remarkably consistent. Sir Gawain does not appear entirely Christian, at least by comparison with other knights. He belongs to a slightly different world, whether this is one of sorcery, archaic warfare or simply secular concerns.
Perhaps the Gawain poet, in choosing Gawain as his protagonist, was deliberately trying to return to earlier Arthurian traditions. Lancelot and Bors are mentioned in his romance, but they are not given the same prominence as in other tales. Gawain appears to be foremost of Arthur’s knights, just as he was at the beginning of the cycle.
One innovation of the Gawain poet was, however, his handling of Gawain’s alienation at the court of Arthur. While the others at Camelot seem to view chivalry largely as a matter of pageantry and fine manners, Gawain takes the ethical obligations of his code far more seriously. The exploration of alienation as a poetic theme is a remarkably modern feature in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
The Figure of the Green Knight
The mysterious Green Knight is the most unique, and perhaps most memorable, feature of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Scholars have long debated whether he owes more to Pagan mythology, to poetic invention or folkloric ceremony. However that may be, he represents a spirit of vegetation. Trees can live far longer than human beings, and they have regenerative powers that people have always envied. A person who loses a limb is permanently handicapped, but a tree that loses a limb will simply grow in another direction. The Green Knight has this ability. On being decapitated, he simply picks up his head, which continues to speak in his hand. The next year, the head is back on his torso where it belongs.
While he has, as we shall explain later, numerous possible predecessors in literature, the Green Knight is a figure primarily known through the visual arts. The Green Man is a familiar figure in the sculpture of churches, especially from approximately eleventh century on. He would be composed of vegetative forms, often leaves. Sometimes he would grimace at the worshippers. He might also smile or simply stare in front of him. At times, he would be a knight, but he is not consistently identified with any sector of medieval society. It may be that there were legends associated with the Green Man, but he could also have been used primarily for decorative purposes.
Nevertheless, possible literary predecessors of the Green Knight may go back almost to the start of civilization. The earliest is the giant Humbaba, guardian of the cedar forest of Lebanon in the ancient Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh from around the early second millennium B. C. Like the Green Man of medieval Europe, Humbaba was often sculpted grimacing from the facades of buildings. There is also a Muslim Green Man known as Kadr, whose lore was probably carried by crusaders back from the Holy Land. There is only one other popular tale from the European Middle Ages in which the Green Knight plays an important role, the story of the brothers Valentine and Orson at the court King Peppin in France. The Green Knight has captured a princess, and challenged all knights who aspire to rescue her to do battle with him. When he defeats the knights, he hangs them from a tree.
The time comes for Orson, who was raised by a bear, to do battle with the Green Knight. Orson, who has lived as a wild man, at first does not wish to put on armor, but Valentine and his companions insist. After the battle with the Green Knight has begun, Orson notices that any wounds he inflicts on his adversary with lance or sword heal at once. Orson then jumps from his horse, takes off his armor, throws away his weapons, and precedes to battle the Green Knight in his old way, using nothing but a club. Forcing the Green Knight from his horse by sheer strength, Orson is victorious. After being defeated, the Green Knight converts to Christianity and becomes a fairly benevolent figure.
The tale does not enter English literature until the first decade of the sixteenth century with a translation by Henry Watson from the French original published only about a decade before. Scholars, however, believe the tale goes back at least to a lost manuscript in French from the early fourteenth century, perhaps much further. The popular story could certainly have been known to the author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
The Green Knight in Valentine and Orson seems to be partly of Eastern origin, since he initially worships the god Mohammad. Green is the color of Islam. The way this Green Knight has his adversaries hung from a tree, however, suggests a possible connection with the Pagan god Odin or Woton. Human sacrifices to the Norse deity were made in this manner.
It is also possible that the Green Knight, in the form of the hunter Bertilak, may be a version of the Wild Huntsman of European folklore. This is a figure who leads a hunting party through the sky, and he is usually condemned on account of some crime to hunt for all eternity. The wild huntsman has been variously identified as the Norse god Odin, as King Arthur, as Hearn the Hunter and many other figures. The author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight may have drawn the character from many sources, but it was poetic imagination that enabled him to produce such a vivid figure.
Whatever his origins, the Green Man, including his incarnation as a knight, remains prominent in popular culture today. He probably influenced tales of the romantic outlaw Robin Hood, whose men were always dressed in green. Sculptures of the Green Man of stone and plaster are increasingly popular as ornaments for the home and garden. A large produce company has adopted the “Green Giant” as its emblem, and sometimes the Green Man has even been used as a symbol of the ecology movement.