A few weeks back, I wrote a poem review for “Pearl“, which is a short, Christian poem originally written in Middle English. As I mentioned then, the anonymous poet who wrote “Pearl”, has had three other texts attributed to them: “Patience”, “Cleanness” and “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”. The latter of these is much longer, and also happens to be the most famous, which is why I thought I should see what all the fuss was about.
“It has often been said that Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (c. 1380) is one of the two great long poems in Middle English, the other being Geoffrey Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde (c. 1385). Yet the experience of the two poems in the history of English Literature could hardly be more different.” – Bernard O’Donoghue.
The name ‘Chaucer’ is level to that of ‘Shakespeare’; his work in Middle English is said to be revolutionary, forever influencing English Literature. However, whilst Chaucer’s works have purposefully been preserved throughout the centuries, experts going to great lengths to preserve manuscripts, along with copying out the words to keep a record of them, “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” has survived by complete chance. Because there was no name attributed to the poem, it was not deemed important at the time, which is why so many anonymous works from this period were lost. It just so happened, however, that a single manuscript of the poem resurfaced in the nineteenth century, after which point it was printed for the first time, and began to grow the huge readership which it has today.
Small disclaimer: whilst I read “Pearl“ in the original Middle English, I didn’t dare attempt this with “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”; the issue is not only the age of the terms and the lack of a standardised spelling of the time, but is due to the fact that the North-Western dialect adopted by this poet did not become the dominant English dialect. There are therefore some terms that are completely unrelated to modern English, making them impossible to translate without considerable amounts of expertise, or many hours dedicated to Middle English dictionaries.
The poem itself is fascinating; it is set in the court of King Arthur, and depicts the journey of one particular knight, Sir Gawain, who faces many challenges as he attempts to prove himself to his kingdom. Without giving too much away about the plot, I will say that one of the challenges that Gawain faces, is that of seduction; he attempts to resist the advances of one beautiful woman, who consistently attempts to seduce him, demanding kisses from him behind her husband’s back. It is this event that has labelled the poem a Medieval, or Arthurian, romance, and provides an interesting twist to the plot as the values of the knight, including chivalry and compassion, are put to the test.
Indeed, the interactions between Gawain and the Lady make up a good part of the poem, yet they are juxtaposed to the harsh scenes of hunts, which the Lady’s husband has embarked on. This makes an interesting contrast, as Gawain and the Lady enjoy fine food by the fire, and then the Lord races through the undergrowth in pursuit of some wild beast. The poet has here been commended on their ability to question the roles between the interior and the exterior, as, upon reflection, it becomes clear that whilst there is a hunt outside the castle, there is also a hunt inside, as the woman pursues Gawain. In fact, the Lord is arguably safer away from the castle, than Gawain is within it, as the latter doesn’t stand even as nearly as good of a chance of escaping. What this could be suggesting, is that we overestimate the dangers of the wild, and that, in fact, we pose much greater dangers to ourselves, than the outside world ever could. This makes an interesting contrast to the much earlier Beowulf, which is said to have been composed between 700AD and 1000AD. This poem depicts the dangers of the outside, the monster Grendel causing chaos in a castle, much like the Green Knight causes chaos in Arthur’s castle. However, Grendel is purely monstrous, unrefined and bestial. His equivalent in “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”, the Green Knight, who interrupts Arthur’s festivities to challenge Gawain, is sophisticated, seemingly more honourable than many of the knights present. The poem thus subverts these older values, and asks us to question where the danger truly is: is with the wild animals outside, or is with ourselves?
Another interesting thing about the poem, is how it presents human nature. As Gawain rides out to face his trials, he brandishes a pentangle symbol on his shield, which the author explains in full, and which I have attempted to replicate on the diagram below:
These are the values expected to be held by the knights of Arthur’s court, although, interestingly, “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” holds the only reference to this symbol, which is surprising considering the detail that it entails. What this symbol does suggest, however, is that the knights held stable, stationary identities, always adhering to these values, because, due to the structure of the pentangle, if they lost one value, the others would no longer align, and they would be left with nothing, at all. Their only option was then to either be perfect, or to entirely imperfect; arguably, this would provide a fair amount of pressure.
I enjoyed my time reading “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”, and would certainly recommend it more than I would “Pearl“, although I must add that, if you do decide to give this fantastic, although somewhat underrated, poem a go, it would be better to read the O’Donoghue translation, or else some other translation, rather than attempting to decipher inauspicious language of the original Middle English.