A Lovely Brief Introduction to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

An illustration from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight from the British Library.

I’m happily back in my wheelhouse with this new series on the fantastical medieval poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. 

I first want to address the elephant in the room. We all have limited time in our lives. So why read this (or any) medieval poem together, or listen to me discuss it? After all, there’s an endless amount of other things we could be reading or consuming, philosophy, theology, literature, the Bible, the latest work of literary beauty, or a comforting old friend of a novel. Let me make a case to you for Gawain.

I have now been studying medieval literature for a decade. And nothing, outside of Jesus and my family, has more opened up to me my humanity in both its created beauty, community, and profound limitation. The humanities are called the humanities in part because in reading works from a time alien to us, we learn our human selves locked in these fascinating, other human histories and moments. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a profoundly human poem, which is kind of hilarious given that it’s about mythical kings and queens, monsters, sorceresses, beheadings that don’t stick, a strip of cloth that possesses magical powers. But what makes discovering our shared humanity with all its gifts and curses alongside medieval folks more fun is all that magic stuff, and the absolutely stunning poetry which is its vehicle. Plus, it’s spooky season, and this poem is delightfully spooky without being scary. So let’s read Gawain and discover ourselves, consider the image of God and human imperfection, think hard about what we put value in, find friends and teachers who lived seven hundred years ago, and also have a lot of fun in that process. We’re all Gawain, as you shall see.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was written in the late fourteenth century. To put that in context, the poet writes at least two hundred years before Shakespeare writes Romeo and Juliet, at least one hundred and twenty-five years before Martin Luther ignites the Reformation with his theses. He is writing during a particularly calamitous and dramatic time in England. The church is divided over who the pope is in the great Papal Schism, England and France are constantly at war, oh and bubonic plague just killed a third of Europe in what we now call the Black Death. Ethical issues over war and violence? Corrupt secular and religious power? Living through a pandemic? This all sounds very relevant. We can perhaps barely begin to imagine what life looked like when a third of your friends and family had just died from a grotesque and painful illness. Yet none of this appears directly in the poem. It is set in the fantasy of the ancient past, the world of King Arthur and his knights.

It is New Year’s Day, and the court has gathered to feast. Arthur and Guinevere are in their youth, strong, beautiful, full of righteous conviction about what knighthood and virtue mean. Gawain, Arthur’s nephew, is the hot young thing of that hot young court. He’s known for his bravery, chivalry, courtesy, way with women. Into this dazzling setting strides a massive knight upon his horse. And from head to toe, he’s green. And he’s rather rude. Here we begin this strange little poem.

We all know about King Arthur today. The legend lives on. But in the fourteenth century, Arthur was even more wildly popular. Arthurian legends could be best compared to the Marvel Cinematic Universe today, the comic and film behemoth. Within Marvel, there are multiple storylines, wildly varying foci and personalities even within the main characters, even different universes and outcomes, but it’s all understood to be part of the mythology of Marvel Comics. The tales of King Arthur, Queen Guinevere, and the Round Table were the fourteenth-century Marvel, with different storylines, styles, emphases, and characters, but all taking place within this commonly recognized England of the distant, legendary past. Also like Marvel: some of these poems and songs are powerful and well-crafted, and others are definitely more like cheesy B-movies.

Despite the poem’s incredible virtuosity, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was not a blockbuster “bestseller” of its day, like The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer. While The Canterbury Tales survives today in about one hundred manuscripts from the medieval era, only one copy of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight survives, and it rests in precious solitude and solicitude in the British Library. This poem is older than the printing press, so it appears in a handwritten manuscript called Cotton Nero A.X. with three other poems—Pearl, Patience, and Cleanness—that scholars assume are by the same poet(For what it’s worth, Pearl might be my favorite poem in the entire world. I love it so much I named my eldest daughter Margaret, which means pearl. Sometime we will read it together in this space.) You may be able to see the manuscript if you go to visit London, peering in at the precious artifact in its climate-controlled box with bulletproof glass. But for those of us stuck in the States or elsewhere, you can look at the digitized manuscript if you’re curious.

You probably have noticed that I have yet to mention the poet’s name. That’s because we have no clue who wrote this. There are theories but nothing close to definitive. It’s likely that the poet was a cleric of some kind, because he had an education and knew Latin quite well. I do say he, though we don’t know for sure, because of the poems’ content and the high level of education evident in the poetry—sadly, women just did not have the same access to books and education that men did. I would love to get to Heaven and be wrong on that one. Some scholars believe that he had read the latest Italian poetry, like Boccaccio and Dante, and it influenced him. He was not a Londoner nor a Southerner. He lived in the Northwest of England, and he writes in a dialect from that area in Middle English. 

Middle English is what scholars call the English of the Middle Ages, and it looks and sounds very different from today’s English. This English already is fairly difficult for readers today to understand without some training and practice. But one can still struggle through some medieval writers like Julian of Norwich or Geoffrey Chaucer without a ton of experience, because the dialect of these writers was London or close to it, which is the linguistic ancestor of modern standard English. This poet’s Northern dialect makes his writing far more difficult. Today our regional differences in language have become so smoothed out by the dominance of radio and television. But imagine a world where it took days to get from town to town. Neighboring regions in England could sometimes barely understand one another. It’s like when I, a clueless Arizonan, went to Boston when I was twelve and stared blankly when a woman at a donut shop asked me for my order with her thick, incredible New England accent. She laughed at me and said, “You’re not from here!”

In a perfect world, you’d be able to pick up this poem and enjoy it by itself, but the language barrier makes it far too difficult. Here are lines 1998-2005:

Now neȝes the Nw Ȝere and the nyȝt passez,
The day dryuez to the dark, as Dryȝtyn biddez.
Bot wylde wyderez of the worlde wakned theroute;
Clowdes kesten kenly the colde to the erthe,
Wyth nyȝe innoghe of the north the naked to tene.
The snawe snittered ful snart, that snayped the wilde;
The werbelande wynde wapped fro the hyȝe
And drof vche dale ful of dryftes ful grete.
 

Pretty incomprehensible, right? If you’d like to hear this read aloud, it’s on the podcast. You may have noticed that strange character that looks like a three. It’s called a yogh, and it didn’t survive into modern English. These lines describe a particular moment: Gawain is waking up in bed on the morning he faces potential death, and the world outside, New Year’s Day, is shatteringly cold, snowblown, and unwelcoming. I’ll share a translation with you in a minute, but let’s sit with this wild, snapping, weather poetry for a moment. Did you note the repeating sounds in lines? “The snawe snittered ful snart,” is one of my favorite lines in this poem, with its “sn” repetation sounds like a horse snorting and pawing in the snow, like a man sniffing with drippy nose as snowflakes catch in his eyelashes. The entire poem is alliterative like this, to varying extents. Each line has a letter or sound that it repeats again and again, both at the starts of words and prominently in their middles. 

In English, alliterative poetry is a much older tradition than rhyming poetry. Rhyming poetry in English comes originally from French and Latin sources—languages with an abundance of end-rhymes in their words (as you may remember from high school Spanish or French classes). English doesn’t offer such wealth in rhyming. Instead, early English poets created rhythm and harnessed sound through alliteration, as in the famous poem Beowulf.

Here’s Simon Armitage’s translation of the same lines:

Now night passes and New Year draws nere,
drawing off darkness as our Deity decrees.
 But wild-looking weather was about in the world:
clouds decanted their cold rain earthwards;
the nithering north needled man’s very nature,
creatures were scattered by the stinging sleet.
Then a whip-cracking wind comes whistling between hills,
driving snow into deepening drifts in the dales.

As with any poetry written in a different language, translations cannot fully reproduce the original. But Armitage’s, though not literal, gets very close to the sound and feel. He uses alliteration to great effect. If you’re wanting to follow along with the poem, be careful what translation you use—make sure it’s alliterative to get closer to that original poem. However, that’s not necessary at all. I’ll be working to make this poem accessible to you whether you’re reading or not, so I hope you’ll think with me about this medieval poem regardless.

For those who are going to read: I’d recommend either Armitage, with J.R.R. Tolkien’s as a fun second place. There are also free translations online if you’d like to follow along with ease. For those who are not going to read, welcome! I’m so excited you’re here to think with me and enjoy the Gawain-Poet.

We may never build a time machine that can take us back into the past. Old books are the closest thing we have. Poems like these are a precious gift. Not only is Gawain constantly beautiful and even funny at times, it’s a window back into a time so different from and yet so similar to our own. How are we special today? How are we not at all? How can we confront our hidden biases and beliefs about being in the world? How can we learn to live a virtuous life? How can we face our failures and our triumphs without letting either define us as creatures of God? These are the questions I hope to think about with you, led by our sneaky, anonymous poet-friend from depths of the fourteenth century. Come along with me, let’s enter King Arthur’s castle on New Year’s Day, sidling in behind the giant green knight on his enormous green horse. No one will notice us in his wake.

You can also listen to this series wherever you get your podcasts.

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