Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

I have a huge interest in the history and mythology of King Arthur. Most of my serious studies of that material, often called “Arthuriana,” came before I had a blog, so I’ve said very little about it here. Today, I want to start fixing this terrible oversight.

One of my favorite characters in the Arthurian mythos is Gawain. Like all the oldest of Arthur’s companions, he originated in Welsh legends. His name in that tongue was “Gwalchmai.” His father was Lot of Lothian, an area of southern Scotland that includes modern Edinburgh, but was Welsh-speaking at the time and known as Gododdin. According to the old Welsh tales, Gwalchmai ended up migrating south at some point in his life, and ended it as something of a saintly hermit on the Pembrokeshire coast.

At any rate, Gawain is Arthur’s nephew in most stories, and known both for his fierce fighting abilities and for defending women. In French versions of the stories, he defends women for about the same reasons as James Bond, but in the English versions he is far more chaste and virtuous. Which leads us to one of my favorite Gawain stories.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was written in the late 14th century, at about the same time Chaucer was writing the Canterbury Tales. This means the poem was written in Middle English, a dialect old enough to make Shakespeare look downright Millennial. But where Chaucer’s Middle English is what gave us Shakespeare, and eventually modern English, the author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was from a different part of the country, and spoke something very different. The difference between the two is something like switching back and forth between an Australian and a Deep Southern accent.

Fortunately for us, there are people trained to understand weird regional dialects of Middle English. Enter J.R.R. Tolkien. The author of The Lord of the Rings came from the same region as the poet who wrote Gawain, and when he became a professor of the English language, this was a dialect he specialized in. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was found in a manuscript with two other poems Pearl and Sir Orfeo, which all seem to have been written by the same anonymous person. Tolkien translated all three into modern English, and his version is widely available.

The story begins with a great feast on New Year’s Day in King Arthur’s Court. It is the habit of the noble knights and ladies of that court not to eat until they have either seen or heard of some exciting adventure. On cue, a giant green man with a monstrous axe enters the room. He says he wants to play a Christmas game. First, someone will chop his head off with then axe. Then, in a year and a day, he and his challenger will meet at the Green Chapel, and the Green Knight will get to return the blow.

If this were not the world of King Arthur, this challenge would be somewhere between horrific and laughable. Because it is, the knights stay silent. They know something shady is going down. At last, it seems like Arthur will accept the challenge, but Gawain stands up instead, shames the other knights, then goes down and retrieves the axe. The Green Knight exposes his neck, Gawain brings the axe down, and the head goes rolling away. Then the Green Knight stands up, retrieves his head, and exits, reminding Gawain of the terms of their little game.

Naturally, Gawain keeps his word. He arrives in the vicinity of the Green Chapel early, and receives the hospitality of one Lord Bertilak. Bertilak also likes to play Christmas games. He will go out each day hunting, and Gawain will receive whatever he catches. In exchange, Gawain, who is recovering from his journey, must give Bertilak whatever he catches while lounging about the castle.

This gets very uncomfortable when Lady Bertilak starts putting the moves on our noble knight.

The rest of the poem becomes a test of both Gawain’s courtesy and his chastity as the game winds on for three days. This is played against the backdrop of his all but certain demise as the appointment with the Green Knight draws nearer, and his courage is tested as well. The resolution is thought-provoking and unexpected, and has inspired quite a lot of scholarly commentary. I won’t spoil it here, but instead highly recommend you read it for yourself. The poem is not too long, and very much worth the time you put in.

Having baited the hook, let me point you in the direction of further resources:

Here is the excellent and affordable Tolkien translation of all three poems.
Here is the original Middle English version, which more bold adventurers should definitely take a crack at.

Corey Olsen, widely known as the Tolkien Professor, taught a course on medieval stories of Faerie and modern fantasy back in 2011. Recordings of his lectures are available, and I recommend both his Introduction to Middle English and his four lectures on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight itself.

More recently, Alan Jacobs wrote short posts on Sir Gawain over the first seven of the twelve days of Christmas. There’s a lot of good stuff there, but I particularly enjoyed his perspective on the story as a lesson in humility for the knights of Camelot. Here are links to those posts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7.

He also wrote an eighth post, but it’s less part of the series than it is a reflection on and response to the thoughts of his friend, Adam Roberts. This one is fascinating, because Roberts takes it as a tale about circumcision, and then Jacobs runs with that, treating the code of chivalry the way the Apostle Paul treats the Law, and pointing out how the story uses the code/Law to expose the sin within even the best of knights.

This is a great introduction to Gawain as a knight, and to King Arthur’s court in general. It is a true tale of Faerie, in the old sense of the word. There are not silken-winged miniature ladies, but there is a true, super-human, verdant weirdness coming out of the wild to test mortal men in a world truly other than the everyday. I love it, and highly recommend it.

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Arthur Was No God

When I have the time (or the willingness to waste it) I stick my nose in books and articles on King Arthur and his world–historical and fictional. I am firmly of the opinion that Arthur was a real, living man (and one from the North), and that can be a tricky thing to assert. There are lots of arguments that go into that debate, but one in particular caught my eye the other day when I should have been reading something not Wikipedia.

Some folks believe that Arthur was a mythical figure, an old god that got reverse-euhemerized into a British king. I’ve even had a somewhat lively discussion with a PhD’d historian who had organized a significant portion of his scholarly career around that idea. As support, proponents of this view cite such early British sources as “The Spoils of Annwn” in which King Arthur goes into a semi-mythical Otherworld and interacts with figures once considered deities. Such sources do exist, and I trust their origins more than the abundance of later French tripe. But I think this argument is flawed.

As an example, take a look at one of the most famous ancient British poets, and Arthur’s near-contemporary, Taliesin. Taliesin is known to have actually existed, served as bard in the courts of men we can locate, and wrote poems about battles we can date. A collection of poems under his name survive to this day, some of which still effect pop culture. Taliesin lived.

But if we believe the legends told about him, he received his poetic (and prophetic) abilities from stealing a bit of a witch’s brew and then transforming himself into various animals to escape. He failed at this plan by becoming a single grain which the witch ate after becoming a hen. She then became pregnant with him, and resolved to kill him when he was born. However, he was such a beautiful baby that she could not, but threw him into some large body of water instead. He was then found by a king who was fishing for salmon, and raised in his court. What stark realism.

Furthermore, some stories make Taliesin Arthur’s bard, despite every historian agreeing he lived well after anyone claims a historical Arthur would have died. The legends that grew up around this man are incredible and otherworldly, in the mold of what little we know of old Celtic paganism. But despite his mythologization, we know he was a historical figure. Why then could Arthur not have undergone the same process? If his countryman could be transformed into a larger-than-life resident of a magical realm, why could not the king himself?

This in itself is no argument for Arthur’s historicity, but it does mean we can’t rule it out. Great men have always bred legends, and some societies are more prone to exaggeration than others. Arthur may never have raided the Otherworld, but there is no reason he could not have raided the Angles.