English 245 with Dr. G @ SUNY TC3
2. Beowulf 1
3. Beowulf 2
4. Middle Ages
6. Sir Gawain
9. Wife of Bath
11. Biblical Drama
12. Play of Mankind
14. Thomas More
15. Philip Sidney
16. Print Culture
17. Walter Raleigh
18. Twelfth Night 1
19. Twelfth Night 2
20. Civil War
22. Aphra Behn
23. Reading Papers
25. Rape of the Lock
27. New God
6. Gawain and the Green Knight
Two heads are better than one!
READINGS FOR THIS LESSON
Longman 3rd ed Vol. 1A, pages
ASSIGNMENTS FOR THIS LESSON
An internet version of "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight," translated by J.R.R. Tolkien and E.V. Gordon is available from University of Michigan. Other translations and materials are available online at Luminarium
The lesson includes both a quiz and a journal writing assignment to be submitted on the interactive course site at SUNY Learning Network.
Write for an hour (or more if you have time). In your own words, summarize the reading. If time remains after you finish your summary, tackle one of the following questions--or deal with a question of your own which arose during your reading.
See General instructions on Journaling for this course. For a sample journal, see Dr. G's 2007 Brit Lit 1 Journal.
It is only by extension that we speak of "English
romances." In its origin, English is not a romance language but a Germanic
one. Nevertheless, by the end of the twelfth century, English writers
began imitating French romances and telling native stories in
continental forms and styles. These generally rustic English romances
are Saxon accommodations to Norman culture: they include such
primitive fare as
Bevis of Hampton,
Guy of Warwick,
Havelok the Dane,
King Richard. More sophisticated and famous romances
in English came later in the time of
Malory (d. 1471),
Shakespeare (d. 1616), and these were self-conscious revivals of an
old fashioned form.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is among these pseudo-relics
which are wonderful but fantastic.
No medieval king could survive
without knights, but in peacetime a king was better off with cavaliers.
For a kingdom to remain at peace, the court
needed just the sort of man as SGGK's Gawain, not simply a loyal
vassal and brave
risk taker, but one who is skilled in jousting, tournaments and games, a
fellow who speaks politely and knows how to have a good time without
making a scandal. Kings across Europe sponsored chivalric orders for
this reason, to control the self-image of powerful aristocrats who might
become unruly. Edward III’s
Order of the
Garter, whose motto is invoked at the end of
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (SGGK), was just such a
Left: Gawain and Bercilak's lady, from a medieval manuscript illustration. In service to Morgan, her temptation will help awaken him from his fear of death.
|Left: effigy of Richard I (c. 1199) at Fontevraud Abbey, Anjou . The abbey churches and great cathedrals were burial ground of the rich and famous of the past, many of whom placed their images in plain view, never to be forgotten.|
14th Century Disease
You understand the demand for fantasy in the fourteenth century when you understand the suffering. With cooler weather, there had been a mass starvation across Europe, "the Great Famine." This catastrophe soon was followed by the greatest plague since Beowulf's time, "the Black Death." It is thought that one-third of the British population perished from this epidemic. The Hundred Years' War, terrible and ultimately pointless campaigns in France, then emptied the royal treasury several times over. Parliament levied a series of Poll Taxes while also restricting the wages of the common people in the most infamous inflation control law prior to central banking, the Statute of Laborers. The people responded with the first successful tax revolt in British history, the so-called "Peasants' Revolt." The Poll Tax was repealed but the leaders (Wat Tyler, John Ball, Jack Straw) were killed. And through the whole century, the church was ineffectual: two popes ruled simultaneously, and the one in Avignon was seen by many British as a puppet of their enemies in France. Some of the disaffected became the first Protestants ("Lollards" and "Wycliffites"), apparently at the instigation of the Devil, so the church began its search for witches and Parliament authorized death by burning at the stake.
A tough century, as I say. Nobody at the time could understand it, but the modern world was emerging. Urban merchants were beginning to grow richer than knights, and mercantile families had begun to rise from untitled gentry into the aristocracy. The older model of aristocratic power based on provincial land tenure was shifting as nobles around the king became more like a paid bureaucracy. The importance of the mounted knight declined with military innovations, such as new longbow and crossbow technologies that produced the slaughters at Crécy and Poitiers. All of these novelties contributed to nostalgia for the old days, at least among the threatened old guard for whom the romancers worked.
Celtic references are dense in the description
of the Green Knight
himself. The green man is a common figure of Welsh folklore, the pivotal
figure who represents simultaneously the dying of the old year and the
birth of the new.
the Goddess” (or
Morrigan?) is a figure from pre-Christian Celtic
myth, the witch who reveals the spirit world and realm of death.
Her place of nature, beyond the artifice of courts and
castles, becomes ever more frightening, raw, and lonely as Gawain
naively approaches his supposed beheading by the Green Knight.
Despite its strangeness to Gawain, Bercilak’s world (really Morgan's) is more powerful and illuminating than Arthur’s world. Women appear in extreme old age as well as youthful beauty, nature in the wider view is barren as well as bountiful, and the hunt is as violent as it is ritualized. Morgan reveals and helps to cure the fears of death in Arthur's court. "None power and pride possess too high for her to tame" (l 2456-7). The Celtic otherworld, the barrow tomb, winter, and "the old woman of Beare" are nowhere more wonderfully evoked than in this romance.
a medieval manuscript illumination for "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight"
depicts the beheading scene at Arthur's court. A green knight's
fearlessness of death is a wonder of chivalry.
(Recall Caesar's comment
that the British are fearless warriors because they believe in the
immortality of the soul and reincarnation of the body.)
Left: the boy king Richard II (ruled 1377-1399) attempted to assert his supremacy over Parliament, but he also promoted English literature and presided over an era that included the "Gawain" poet, Chaucer, Langland, and Gower. The usurper Bolingbroke who deposed Richard in 1399 charged him with personal immorality and inattention to serious duties of the state and the church.
Green Are The Dead
Think about the meaning of this great poem in terms of Caesar's comment about Celtic warriors. Caesar says they are completely fearless in war because they believe in the immortality of the soul. But Gawain fears death so he accepts the girdle and hides the gift from Birtilak--this is his only flaw, which shames him. He does not understand the spirituality of the green world of Morgan and company. This is Celtic man no longer living in Celtic society with Celtic beliefs and no longer understanding that belief system when he journeys back to a place where he happens to encounter it.
It is most interesting feature of the poem that the reader shares this adventure in general from Gawain's conventional point of view. This limited understanding of the situation allows the suspense and mystery to build, as it is clear from the outset that we are not in a conventional story. It makes a masterful puzzle of the reading.
OTHER RESOURCES & AMUSEMENTS
Reading of the opening lines in Middle English from the Norton Anthology web site.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, ed. Tolkein and Gordon, rev. Davis (Oxford 1967) from the Corpus of Middle English Prose and Verse from University of Michigan.
The beheading game in Sir Gawin and the Green Knight is an old Celtic story. A version with Cu Chulainn as the hero appears in a story from the Ulster Cycle called Bricriu's Feast.
Courtly Love Study Guide
Epic tradition. The Norman French Brut (cir. 1155) by the poet Wace, a Norman epic that greatly expands on Geoffrey of Monmouth, was translated into early Middle English as early as 1215 by Layamon, and this mythic pseudo-history was further popularized in fourteenth century retellings. Middle English versions of the Troy story were written in alliterative verse, in the same general time and area that produced SGGK and likely for the same provincial courts, loyal to the crown. Geoffrey Chaucer wrote his Troilus and Criseyde, an episode of the Troy story, while working within the government of Richard II.
Relief sculpture of Eve (or is
it Morgan?), a door lintel over the north entry on Autun Cathedral,
Saint Lazare, Burgundy (cir. 1130).
Know of an excellent website that would wonderfully complement this lesson? Please send it to Dr. G.
|Copyright 2008 by Gary Homer Gutchess|