Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight - The Pearl Poet

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is apparently an alliterative romance.... I have no clue what that is (though I imagine I will after the poetry class in the fall).  It's a very long poem about an adventure of one of King Arthur's knights of the Round Table.  It was written sometime in the late 14th century, which is about the time Chaucer was writing Canterbury Tales.  The funny thing about this, and perhaps it's the dialect of Middle English it was written in, is that I can get some sense out of Canterbury Tales without looking at the translation.  For Sir Gawain, I maybe understood under 20%.  I found myself a few times reading the translation and accidentally going a few lines into the original text (there were no breaks or markers between them) and only realizing when I came across a word I didn't know.  I suppose that's ironic in a way, because I really didn't like the translation. 

I'm perhaps not the best person to critique translations in general (though I know how hard they can be), and especially translations of poetry, but it really lacked the sound of the language.  I'm going to assume it had the meaning, though from the lines I looked at to compare, some of the words I thought could have been left in their older forms, since they weren't that different, if only to preserve some of the original feel and sound.  The translation, done by W.S. Merwin, felt empty and a little vague to me.  A lot of the reviews I read (and one of the reasons I chose that version) were full of compliments and awe, but it really felt like it was missing something that, when I looked at the Middle English text, should have been there.  There are several other editions, one by Tolkien which I'd love to get my hands on if only for the collector in me, and I want at some point to go through and read the whole thing in Middle English.  The story seemed to be amazing, but the translation just didn't bring it up to the level I expected, or even close to the other medieval poems and stories I've read.

The story is about Sir Gawain, obviously, and a green knight.  During a feast at Christmas (New Year's Eve, actually), a huge knight, literally solid green from head to foot, skin, hair, and all, bursts in.  His outfit and saddle are elaborately embroidered, and even aside from being all green, he's a stunning knight.  He offers a challenge to the court, he will give his axe for a knight who will give him a blow.  He won't move or fight the blow, and in return, after a year and a day the knight must find him and he will return the blow.  Everyone thinks it's pretty ludicrous, but they also seem a little intimidated by the knight, and Arthur finally moves to accept the challenge.  In his place, Gawain (whom I gather from Le Morte D'Arthur to be Arthur's nephew, but I don't remember what they said he was in this story) takes the challenge and cuts the green knight's head off.  The green knight picks his head up, reminds Gawain to find him by New Year's day the next year to receive his blow, and rides out of the court.

The next year as winter is closing in, Sir Gawain heads off to find the Green Knight.  He travels all over Wales, and as Christmas is coming closer he prays for a place to hear mass and some word of the Green Chapel where he will apparently find the Green Knight.  Not long after, he comes to a castle, and he stays for Christmas and after the feast is about to depart when he is told by the castle's lord that the Green Chapel is less than a day's ride away and he will send a knight to show him the way on New Year's day.  In the meantime the two make a pact.  Gawain will stay in bed and rest, hear mass when he wants to, and hold the company of the ladies of the castle (one is the lord's wife, the other an old woman, and I imagine their companions).  The lord of the castle will go out and hunt and give Gawain whatever he wins.  In return Gawain will give the lord whatever gifts he receives or wins.  Every day the lord's wife comes to Gawain in the morning and tries to sleep with him.  She convinces him to give her a few kisses, which he returns to the lord when he comes back at night and they exchange their winnings.  Finally, on the last morning, she convinces him to take a green sash that will protect its wearer from death and to not tell her husband of the gift.

When New Year's day comes, Gawain leaves the castle, and the knight who is guiding him tries to convince him to leave his quest, since it can only end in death.  Gawain goes on without the knight to the Green Chapel where he finds the Green Knight.  When the Green Knight moves to strike his blow, Gawain sees the blade and unconsciously flinches.  He's chided by the knight, since the Green Knight didn't flinch or move when Gawain struck him.  The third time the Green Knight slices Gawain's neck, but not deeply.  After that, Gawain gets fed up, saying he's already received the one blow he promised and that now they could fight evenly.  It turns out that the Green Knight was the lord of the castle, put up to his antics as the Green Knight by Morgan le Fay, the old woman in his castle, to test King Arthur's knights.  Gawain was wounded because the knight recognized the green sash and explained that he put his wife up to her antics to test Gawain, and had he slept with her or lied to him any more than he did, he would have died.

I have a few reflections on the poem I want to talk about.  This is the first Arthurian text that I've read written in the middle ages.  It wasn't at all what I expected.  It was written likely more than a century after Song of Roland, which had priests and bishops and holy relics.  Their role in Song of Roland was natural to me.  That was practically what the poem was about.  So much of the Arthurian stories around in modern times, and by this I refer to anything on TV, the recent Merlin done by the BBC, the Warlord Chronicles by Bernard Cornwell, The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley, portray Arthur or Uther, his father, as against the church.  If he's not directly against the church, as in Disney's The Sword in the Stone, he's certainly not it's champion.  Merlin is usually represented as a Druid and part of the Old Religion or magic from Avalon or the earth.  Somewhere along the way the story changed, possibly because there's more romance in the idea of magic struggling to survive (at least I personally think so).  At any rate, in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, as well as Le Morte D'Arthur, Arthur and his knights are Catholic and very devout.  Launcelot du Lac speaks in Le Morte D'Arthur about why he will not take a mistress or sleep with any of the women who want him (and there are plenty) as being because doing so is a sin and will turn God against him, and a knight against God doesn't last long in battle.  Sir Gawain in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight hears his mass every morning when he's somewhere with a priest, and when the lord of the castle's wife comes to his room to tempt him, he prays that God would give him the strength to resist her.

All things considered, it shouldn't have surprised me.  Any of the stories written at the time would have been written for those who could read, which meant the nobility, and the nobility were strongly connected to the Catholic church.  Clearly the hero they created in Arthur for the knights and nobles of the court would be as much like them or their ideals as they could make him.  I really didn't see it coming though.  I'll definitely have more to say on that once I'm finished with Le Morte D'Arthur.

The blend of magic and Christianity seems strange in a way.  Morgan le Fay can change a man and have him survive getting his head cut off, and she lives in a castle that has its own chapel and priest.  That seems to be the way these stories work though.  Magic isn't necessarily a bad thing, nor is it a good thing.  It isn't always against the church or for the church.  Most of the time it's just a part of the way the world turns.  It's neutral in and of itself and works with whomever is using it.

I find the ideals of knighthood interesting.  In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Gawain is a legendary knight, renowned for his chivalry and strength.  It's the chivalry part that I'm interested in.  Chivalry and honor to duty to the church, humbleness before God, duty to the king, gaining and protecting one's own honor, being gentle and obedient to ladies, and probably dozens of other things Sir Gawain and the Green Knight doesn't touch on and I still haven't found from other places.  It also extends to one's word.  The Green Knight allows Gawain to strike his head off based on his word that he will come to his own death a year later and do nothing to resist the return blow.  And Gawain does it!  Perhaps it is less surprising when the vow is made in front of the whole court of knights and the king, but this also seems to extend to vows and promises made between two knights when no one else is around.  Gawain receives kisses from the lord's wife in private and returns each one of him to the lord by their promise that whatever the other wins during the day be given to the other.  When he fails to hand over the green sash, he is wounded for the infraction and wears it for the rest of his life, of his own will, to show that he was false.

The idea of courtly love also amuses me.  Gawain can't flat out refuse the lord's wife.  He dodges around her temptations, barely, but he can't flat out say no and begone.  In fact, at the end of the first morning, she tells him he's not the man she'd heard of because that Sir Gawain wouldn't refuse a gentlewoman and would at least give her the kiss she asked for.  The next day she chides him for forgetting her lesson from the day before.  But it's okay for a married woman to come into the chamber of a bachelor while he's sleeping.  It's okay for a husband to send his wife to tempt his guest to sleep with her.  It's an interesting contrast with current ideals.  The way Gawain dealt with her was honorable up until the point he hid the sash from the lord of the castle.

I've made it a goal of mine to one day collect all the old Arthurian stories and fight my way through them in their original dialects.  I want to catalogue the characters and the changes over time.  An example that extends to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is the character of Sir Gawain.  He's a knight of honor and renown.  In Le Morte D'Arthur, however, his own brother prefers not to be around him because, though he's a strong knight, he doesn't live up to the ideals of honor Sir Gareth believes a knight should hold.  I'm also looking at a book of British history, because I'm looking at all these dates and reading about the wars and kings and what's going on, and I have no point of reference.  My British history is pretty vague and has a lot of gaps.  I found one that looks good... next paycheck.  I'm actually sad about my reading list now, because I want to focus on the medieval literature.  I'm in love with it!  But I have to move on to the poets and Renaissance lit soon.  Maybe I can make a thesis out of studying Arthurian legend.  I also need a dictionary of Anglo-Saxon and Middle English, especially if I want to read this one's original text.

Anyway, if you're at all interested in Arthurian legend, this one's worth checking out.  It's not a difficult read translated, and the story's interesting.  Of course, if you read this whole thing, I've given most of the story away so you won't have the fun of trying to figure out what the heck the wife is doing tempting Gawain like I had... but it's still a good read.

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