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Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
In A Modern English Version
By John Gardner
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 2011 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
The fourteenth century produced two great English poets, Geoffrey Chaucer and the anonymous poet who wrote the Pearl, Purity, Patience, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and St. Erkenwald. The two poets quite obviously differ in depth and scope; whereas Chaucer's art is matched by that of no English poet but Shakespeare, the art of the Gawain-poet, like that of George Herbert, for instance, is minor. The Gawain-poet lacks Chaucer's moral complexity, lacks Chaucer's fascination with men unlike himself and the psychological insight that goes with that fascination, and lacks Chaucer's philosophical and artistic eclecticism. But granting the fundamental difference between them, that is to say the difference in poetic stature of a certain kind, one is nevertheless increasingly struck by similarities as one studies the themes, techniques, and attitudes of the Gawain-poet and Chaucer. It may be simply that they wrote from approximately the same medieval Christian vision, or it may be, as I am at times inclined to believe, that some more direct relationship exists between the poetry of the two men. At all events, one good way of introducing the Gawain-poet is to compare him more or less systematically with his greater contemporary.
We know a good deal about Chaucer considering our distance from him in time, but about the Gawain-poet we know virtually nothing. For some scholars it is not even absolutely certain that the five poems we commonly ascribe to him are all his. More important, whereas we read and enjoy Chaucer's poetry, much of the Gawain-poet's work, despite its excellence, is still hard to appreciate as literature. One reason for this is the difficulty we have with his language—a difficulty which inhibits not only reading but also translation. We read Chaucer in the original with relative ease, for the London dialect in which he wrote evolved in time into modern English; but the Gawain-poet is accessible only to specialists, and not fully accessible even to them, for his northwest Midlands tongue, never adopted in linguistically influential cities, has remained the curious, runish language it probably was to the average Londoner of the poet's own time. The dialect survives, drastically altered, here and there in rural England; in America, traces of it appear among backwoods or mountain people—in rural Missouri, for example, where the expression "I hope" can still mean "I understand, I believe."
The Gawain-poet's dialect is not all that gets in the way of our reading his poetry, for not all of the fourteenth-century poems composed in the northwest Midlands are as difficult as his. Part of our trouble is the temperament of the man. He knows and uses the technical language of hunting, hawking, cooking, chess, and the special terms of the furrier, the architect, the musician, the lawyer, the courtly lover, the priest; he knows the names of the parts of a shield, the adornments of a horse, the zones of a knight's bejeweled helmet; he knows too the names of the parts of a ship, the parts of a coffin, the accouterments of farming; knows the Bible and its commentary (probably even commentary in Hebrew), the chronicles, old legends, the ecclesiastical traditions of London. His knowledge rivals that of Chaucer, but it is in some respects knowledge of a very different kind. Chaucer's technical language comes mainly from books—on astrology, on alchemy, on medicine, and so forth. The Gawain-poet's technical language seems to come less from books than from medieval occupations. One suspects that he was, like Chaucer, gregarious, but what emerges from Chaucer's talk with people, at least in the Canterbury Tales, is less what they do than what they are, have been, and hope to become. The Gawain-poet does not seem much interested in the individualizing traits of people; he gets from them a knowledge of "all trades, their gear and tackle and trim." More than a difference of temperament is involved. In his implicit theory of identity, as in everything else, Chaucer looks forward to the Renaissance. The Gawain-poet is far more a man of the Middle Ages, less influenced by the humanistic strain in classical thought, and he is therefore harder for the modern reader to approach.
Biography might help here, if we knew it. Chaucer—a Londoner, a high-ranking servant of the crown, and a fashionable poet in his day—left the marks of his existence not only in his poetry but also in civil registers, in account books of noble families, among passport records, in court documents, and in the tributes of poetical friends. The Gawain-poet seems to have left no such marks. Dunbar, writing in the next generation, lists by name all but one of the poets he admires, and the one exception is, of course, the man who wrote Sir Gawain. The Gawain-poet probably lived a good distance from London, in Yorkshire or Lancashire most likely, for his language marks him no southern man and everything in his poetry marks him a man who loved the country. He may have visited the city, may conceivably have lived there for a time, since he shows familiarity with obscure old London traditions, but when he speaks of the city or its general environs, as he does in St. Erkenwald and in the Gawain, he speaks as though "beautiful London," or the "New Troy," were far away. What has greatest immediacy in his work is the country: cliffs, rivers, forests, moors, gardens, fields, barns, sleeping towns on a winter's night, animals, birds, storms, seacoasts. Perhaps one's strongest sense of the poet's sensitivity to rural life comes in Purity. When God, in the form of three aristocratic strangers, comes down the road that runs past old Sir Abraham's farm, the knight leaves the shade of the oak in his front yard and goes to meet the three. The weather is unbearably hot, and Abraham invites the strangers to rest under his tree for a while, away from the sun. He tells them he will fix them dinner, and the strangers accept and sit down on a huge surface root of the oak. (The detail is symbolic as well as literal.) Sir Abraham calls instructions to his wife, telling her to move quickly "this once," and then with some servants hurries out to the cowbarn to catch a calf, which he orders skinned and broiled. When he returns to his guests, he finds them sitting in the shade where he left them, and this detail crowns all the rest—they have taken off their sweaty hats.
The poet's metaphors, too, are those of a country man. Throughout his work, men are like wild animals or birds, and emotions and ideas find expression in images of places, animals, weather, plants. Thawed after his deadly winter ride, flushed with wine now and wearing fine robes, Gawain looks and feels like Spring. (Admittedly, Chaucer uses the same device for a similar symbolic purpose in the Troilus, but the effect there seems far more clearly literary and conventional.) Later in the Gawain, when the young knight is waiting for the Green Knight's blow, Gawain stands rooted to the ground like a tree. In the Pearl, when the narrator first sees his daughter on the far side of the river, both his sense that he must not move a muscle and his fear that if he does the vision will shatter take the form of hawking images:
More than I liked my dread arose;
I stood dead still and dared not call—
My eyes wide open, mouth drawn close—
I stood as still as the hawk in the hall;
Ghostly I knew that vision was,
And I feared any moment the dark might fall,
Feared she might yet fly up from the place
Before I had brought her to reach or call.
[st. 16, ll. 181–88]
Even theological argument may find expression through natural images in the Gawain-poet's work. In the Pearl, the child-queen tells her father:
Then make instead the sign of the cross
And love God well, in weal or woe,
For anger will gain you never a cress:
Who needs to be bent He'll bend. Be now
Less proud, for though you dance like a doe
And brandish and bray with all your rage,
When you make no headway to or fro,
Then you'll abide what He will judge.
[st. 29, ll. 341–48]
None of the Gawain-poet's work survives in more than one manuscript. The likelihood is that his poetry was by no means as well known as Chaucer's even in his own day. The reason may be simply that the poet's isolation from London restricted his reputation; but it may also be because he was temperamentally a country man, fully satisfied with the old native meter and uninterested in most of the new poetic genres of Europe, that the Gawain -poet's work was less fashionable than Chaucer's. Some scholars have thought that the poet was relatively unknown in his time because, unlike Chaucer, he was an inconspicuous figure, a private chaplain to a nobleman, or a priest. The theory that the poet was a priest has very little to recommend it. It is true, as Professor Gollancz has observed, that all of his poems except the Gawain are explicitly religious and show a general knowledge of exegetical typology and Scholastic philosophy, and that even the Gawain explores a religious theme; and it may be true that the fact that the poet had a daughter need not work against an identification of the poet as a priest. But as Osgood argued long ago, it seems unlikely that a man who was a priest himself would speak of "God who, in the form of bread and wine, / The priest reveals to us every day"; and the poet's intimate knowledge of—and obvious interest in—courtly flirtation, among other things, may also argue against his identification as a priest.
Others have suggested that the poet may have been a lawyer, possibly (as Gollancz first argued) Chaucer's neighbor "philosophical Strode," Thomist philosopher at Merton College, later well-known London lawyer, and also, as old documents suggest, a poet. Most scholars now agree that, though the poet may indeed have been a lawyer, the claim for Strode is no longer worth serious consideration. Professor René Wellek has summed up the difficulties: "There was, it is true, a poet Ralph Strode who wrote a 'Fantasma Radulphi' before 1360, but there is not the slightest evidence that this Fellow of Merton College, Oxford, was a Northerner or that he even wrote in English or that 'Ralph's Spectre' is in any way identical with the Pearl. Moreover, it has been shown that this Strode was probably not identical with the logician Strode, who played some part in the history of scholastics."
Other attempts to identify the poet have been equally unsuccessful. At the suggestion that our poet is the author of the mediocre "Pistill of the Swete Susane," Huchown, the literary mind must boggle, and there are also strong philological arguments against it. The more recent theory of Oscar Cargill and Margaret Schlauch which seizes on a "minstrel" named John Prat, or else a John Donne, "valet of the king's kitchen," is at best whimsical.
It may be true, however, that the Gawain-poet was a ranking vassal of some powerful western baron, and that, like Chaucer, he hunted with gentlemen, traveled on diplomatic missions, and sometimes wrote poetry for the court he served. There are, in my opinion, indications that Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a poem written for a Christmas festival of some sort, and the descriptions of hunting, feasting, and arming in the poem all sound authentic enough to be the work of a man with firsthand experience in these things. As Gollancz pointed out, the sea descriptions in Patience and Purity sound authentic, even granting that some of them have literary sources; and the poet's knowledge of words like "hurrack" may point to experience on shipboard. In the light of all this, one is inclined to believe that the poet may be speaking literally as well as figuratively when he says in Patience:
If unto this destiny I am duly appointed,
What good can indignation do, or outrage?
For lo, if my liege lord likes, in this life, to command me
Either to ride or to run or to roam on his errand,
What good is my grumbling except to get greater griefs?
And if he commands me to talk, though my tongue be raw,
I must do what his power impels, despite displeasure,
And bow myself to his bidding, be worthy my hire.
[Prologue, sts. 13–14, ll. 49–56]
Whoever the poet may have been, there are certain interesting parallels between his poetry and that of Chaucer which are worth pointing out as indications of the extent to which the two men shared common techniques and concerns.
In the "Squire's Tale," Chaucer writes:
And so bifel that after the thridde cours,
Whil that this kyng sit thus in his nobleye,
Herknynge his mynstralles hir thynges pleye
Biforn hym at the bord deliciously,
In at the halle dore al sodeynly
Ther cam a knyght upon a steede of bras,
And in his hand a brood mirour of glas.
Upon his thombe he hadde of gold a ryng,
And by his syde a naked swerd hangyng;
And up he rideth to the heighe bord.
In al the halle ne was ther spoken a word
For merveille of this knyght; hym to biholde
Ful bisily they wayten, yonge and olde.
This strange knyght, that cam thus sodeynly,
Al armed, save his heed, ful richely,
Saleweth kyng and queene and lordes alle,
By ordre, as they seten in the halle,
With so heigh reverence and obeisaunce,
As wel in speche as in his contenaunce,
That Gawayn, with his olde curteisye,
Though he were comen ayeyn out of Fairye,
Ne koude hym nat amende with a word.
["Squire's Tale," Fragment V (F), ll. 76–97]
Coolidge O. Chapman has pointed out that the pattern of details closely parallels the pattern in Gawain. In both poems the stranger hales in suddenly on a remarkable horse while dinner music is playing; the stranger rides directly to the dais where he is met by absolute silence; the ranked order of the court is noted (hardly a remarkable feature in Chaucer's poem, but quite unusual, given the traditional significance of the Round Table, in the Gawain); in the Gawain we are told that the stranger greets no one, while here a point is made of his greeting all the assembly; and finally Gawain himself is mentioned.
It seems to me that there are also similarities between the Pearl and the Book of the Duchess. In both, the Virgin is identified as the Phoenix of Araby; in both poems de Lorris' religious service of the birds is put to specifically Christian use; in both poems the contrast of grace and works comes up (in the Pearl it is a central argument; in the Book of the Duchess it serves as the basis of a serious joke [ll. 1112–14]). Two or three of the shared features are not conventional and would suggest at the very least a peculiarly English treatment of French poetic material. Both poems are personal elegies, the first in English, and both represent departures from accepted conventions of the dream-vision in that they incorporate to an unusual degree elements of realistic dream psychology—the Pearl in a highly stylized fashion, the Book of the Duchess in more fluid, distinctly realistic terms. Equally interesting is the appearance in both elegies of a vision of that eternal bliss which contrasts with the temporary joy of human love. The narrator in the Pearl is unable to resign himself to the death of his beloved and sees, toward the end of his dream, the New Jerusalem standing on Zion "as it was seen by the Apostle John"; and much the same sort of thing happens in the Book of the Duchess. If we accept (with whatever reservations) B. F. Huppé's reading of the poem, the Black Knight in the Book of the Duchess is unable realistically to accept the death of his lady and is unable to see the parallel between devotion to her and devotion to a love which is immutable. The parallel is indicated by such passages as this one:
As helpe me God, I was as blyve
Reysed [by the lady], as fro deth to lyve,
Of al happes the alderbeste,
The gladdest, and the moste at reste.
[Book of the Duchess, ll. 1277–80]
What the Knight fails to see, according to this reading of the poem, is that Christ's still more puissant love raises man from actual death to life which is eternal. At the end of the Book of the Duchess, when the Knight has finally opened his heart to the narrator—that is, has faced reality by saying, "She is dead"—Chaucer tells us:
With that me thoghte that this kyng
Gan homwardes for to ryde
Unto a place, was there besyde,
Which was from us but a lyte,
A long castel with walles white,
By seynt Johan! on a rych hil....
[Book of the Duchess, ll. 1314–19]
Chaucer does not ordinarily choose saints' names at random, and, as Huppé has shown, there are throughout the poem strong Christian overtones: "seynt Johan" is the apostle by whom the revelation of the New Jerusalem was recorded. And if "this kyng" is, on one level, a dream-symbol for Christ, "the hunter of the heart," and identified in patristic exegesis with the number eight (we are told earlier of the king Octovyan), then the white-walled castle is more than a pun on the name "Lancaster," as critics have thought it, and the hill is more than a pun on "Richmond." According to this view, the castle is, on one level, that same white castle to which the jeweler and Sir Gawain come. The bell in Chaucer's castle rings twelve times. Twelve, in patristic exegesis, is the number of the Church Universal, or salvation (cf. the use of twelve in the Pearl), and the narrator of the Book of the Duchess is expelled from his joyful dream, much as the narrator is expelled from Heaven in the Pearl.
Between the Gawain and the Troilus there are also curious, though much more general, parallels. The two poems have one important theme in common—the courtesy of the cosmos (see my discussion of Sir Gawain below); both make symbolic use of the turning of the seasons; both symbolically identify characters, particularly the central knight in each poem, with particular times of the year; both are to some extent associated with the Fall of Man; both make symbolic and dramatic use of the medieval concept of the tripartite human soul and associate this with the larger concept of feudal interdependence; and both contrast the tenure of mortal kingdoms (beginning with Troy) with the everlasting kingdom.
Excerpted from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by John Gardner. Copyright © 2011 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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