In the early 1970s two young Englishmen were making their way in the Sahara Desert on camels. They had left Agadez and were heading northwards on a 7-day trip. As they went, they found themselves discussing the poem, ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’. They were far from home and at those times the mind finds comfort in the familiar and well-known. Gawain’s journey was on his horse, Gryngolet, and he was looking for the Green Chapel and what awaited him there. Their journey was to a small Touareg settlement of a few tents. I still have the poem on my favourite bookshelf.
The music of the poem comes not from rhyme but from alliteration, the repetition of one sound. Here are some lines as an example. It is winter and Gawain is on the road looking for the chapel of the Green Knight. The weather is bitterly cold.
“Near slain with the sleet he slept in his irons
More nights than enough in the naked rocks.” (lines 729/30)
Here ‘his irons’ refers to his armour. What a picture these two lines summon up! Gawain finds a little shelter among the rocks and sleeps in the falling sleet not in a blanket but in the cold metal of his armour!
The birds are freezing too.
“With many birds unblithe upon bare twigs,
That piteously there piped for pain of the cold.” (lines746/7)
I have never forgotten the last line. Each time winter comes round, I feel for the birds on the bare twigs, piteously piping for pain of the cold.
When birds are not warm, happy and singing, there is something wrong. There is a line in one of Shakespeare’s sonnets which echoes with sadness.
“Bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang.”
It is not easy to write in rhyme. It must be even harder to write over 2500 lines of verse where each line repeats a single sound.
The author is unknown. The best name people can come up with is ‘the Gawain poet’. This is like calling Shakespeare ‘the Hamlet playwright’. It hardly pins him down. He was writing towards the end of the 14th century which was the same time as Chaucer was writing ‘The Canterbury Tales’. The poem only exists in one manuscript. What a narrow escape! How many poems from that time have since been lost! How many existed in one manuscript that at some point was used to light the fire or lost in a move to another house! Come to that, how many poems and stories in the oral tradition were never written down at all and only lived for a few years as men and women sang or recited them, and then gradually they were sung no more.
Chaucer’s work is closer to modern English simply because he wrote in the London dialect which later grew into the standard variety of English countrywide. The Gawain poet was from the northwest of England, possibly from the Wirral peninsula just west of Liverpool.
My edition was first published in 1925, nearly 100 years ago now. My copy was printed in 1963. One of the editors became famous. It was J.R.R.Tolkien. The other, E.V.Gordon, is less well known, but then he did not write ‘The Hobbit’ and ‘The Lord of the Rings’. These novels came from Tolkien’s background as Professor of English at Oxford University.
In 1925 the degree in English Language and Literature at Oxford had been fairly recently created. The University felt it could not award degrees just for reading poetry and novels. The examiners decided that dipping into Jane Austen and Charles Dickens might be regarded as a very easy option, and so Old English and ‘Beowulf’, Middle English and ‘Gawain’ became an important part of the course.
Here is the story.
King Arthur’s court is gathered at Camelot at Christmas time, when the doors open and in rides a knight on horseback. His flesh and his clothes are green. His horse is entirely green too. He issues a challenge to the knights.
“If anyone dares to step forward and give me a blow, I will return it in one year and a day.”
No one moves, and Arthur is about to take on the challenge himself, but Gawain insists on accepting it.
He takes the axe and in one blow beheads the Green Knight, who promptly picks up his head and reminds Gawain that in a year’s time he has the right to return the blow.
Time passes and after All Saints Day Gawain leaves Camelot to search for the Green Chapel. At Christmas he comes to a castle and meets the lord of the castle and his lady. Gawain asks where the chapel is, and Sir Bertilak tells him it is very close and insists that Gawain stay in his castle over Christmas.
There I must stop. Now it is up to you to find out what happens to Gawain at the castle over the next three days and after that at the Green Chapel.