In the course of my annual holiday season reading of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, I was keeping a brain cell or two alert to wonder what, if anything, might be of interest in the poem to Under Western Skies readers. Yesterday’s piece (CLICK HERE) was easy: the poem takes place at Christmastide, so in the previous article I examined how our anonymous 14th-Century poet imagined Christmas at Camelot with King Arthur and the Round Table (already a dim legend of the past, even 700 years ago).
I’ve been following the news of this winter’s terrible weather in northern Europe, and that provided another correspondence with SG&tGK. If you think winter is tough now, marooned at an airport or unable to catch the chunnel train for Paris, just imagine trying to endure a harsh winter if you lived in an unheated wooden hut in the 14th Century! And it was, indeed bad weather in northern Europe for much of that century, which, coupled with plagues and wars and famines and no microwave popcorn made it a very rough period all ’round. Europe, in fact, endured what has been called a “mini Ice Age” back then. For long spans of time, there was persistent cloud cover, heavy rain, cool summers and very cold winters. Crops did not mature, and, in some years, could not even be planted. Eventually, many farmers (and nearly everyone was a farmer, then) had to eat their seed stocks, which meant they were at the final pitch of desperation, because they’d have no crop the next year, either, and they’d join the ranks of former peasants thronging the early cities of that era, looking for work. The absence of hay harvests and the scant forage available took a catastrophic toll on livestock — which weren’t plentiful to begin with — meaning the loss of another food source as well as fewer draft animals for agriculture. It was a vicious cycle. There was outright famine in many years, resulting in the virtual elimination of hundreds of small villages, exacerbated by the deaths of between twenty-five and 50 per cent of the population of northern Europe in recurring outbreaks of bubonic and pneumonic plague (if you’re offered a choice, get the former; the latter is almost always fatal).
The end of the horrific 14th Century finds our anonymous poet writing Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Because of his vow to exchange blows of a mighty axe with the mysterious Green Knight, Gawain must set out from Camelot and, somewhere in the wilderness, find the Green Chapel, where he’ll encounter the Green Knight. Almost certainly, that encounter will conclude with Gawain having his head chopped off. But, since he’d gotten in the first blow the previous year and chopped off the Green Knight’s head, chivalric honor binds Gawain to keep the bargain he made to give the ol’ G.K. the next blow (a deal he made not realizing that the G.K. would simply pick up his own severed head, reattach it, and ride off.)
That’s why, as the poem continues, we find Gawain riding his mighty steed, Gringolet, both of them clad in their best fighting armor, which serves them in good stead, because once they leave the safety of Camelot, they encounter every kind of wild animal, dragons, wild men (“woodwoses“) and, at every river crossing or bridge, some fell guardian determined to let no one pass (a proud tradition in all chivalric stories, although most of you will think of the “I’ll bite your knee” scene from “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.”) So, for fending off wolves, dragons and vicious knights: armor good. But, for riding and camping out in freezing rain and sleet while encased in hammered iron: less good.
Our poet gives us a compelling account of the lonely Gawain, wandering hopelessly in a forbidding land, searching for a mysterious place where he’ll meet almost certain death, in the midst of a terrible winter.
As with yesterday’s passage, I’ll provide the Middle English original first, and then a more modern version. Remember to stress the repeating, alliterating words in each line, don’t pronounce the ending “e”s, but do pronounce the endings like -ed and -es.
Nade he ben dughty and dryye, and dryghtyn had served,
Douteles he hade ben ded and dreped ful ofte,
For werre wrathed hym not so much, that winter was wors,
When the colde cler water fro the cloudes schadde,
And fres er hit falle might to the fale erthe.
Ner slayn wyth the slete he sleped in his yrnes
Mo nyghtes then innoghe in naked rokkes,
Ther as claterande fro the crest the colde borne rennes,
And henged heghe over his hede in hard ysse-ikkles.
Here’s a Modern English version:
Had he never been doughty and dour and the Deity served,
Doubtless he had been dead and dispatched full often.
For war wracked him not so much but that winter was worse,
When the cold clear water from the clouds showered down
And froze ere it might fall to the fallow earth.
Near-slain with sleet, he slept in his armor
More nights than enough in naked rocks,
Where as clattering from the crest the cold stream ran,
Hanging over his head in hard icicles.
That is good poetry, I think, and our poet portrays the discomfort of Gawain’s journey in compelling language. Let’s skip a few lines further into the poem. It’s now Christmas Eve, and Gawain is still wandering the bleak winter wilds, with no sight of any dwelling or church where he can hear mass (Gawain, like all that Round Table gang, is very devout), let alone find any comfort. First, we follow Gawain into an oak forest (I translate):
In the morning he rides merrily by a mountain
Into a forest full deep, that fairly was wild,
High hills on either side and hollows below
Of hoary oaks full huge, a hundred together,
The hazel and the hawthorne were heaped all together,
With rough ragged moss ranging everywhere.
And now our poet pulls a writerly trick that still works today, giving us a tiny, telling detail that says everything we need to know about this bitterly cold day. I’ll give you the original Middle English, which scans better. “Bryddes” are birds and “unblythe” means severely unhappy:
With mony bryddes unblythe upon bare twyges,
That pitosly piped for pyne of the colde.
That image of the little miserable birds, peeping in the frozen air, is wonderful (the word was pronounced “peeped” then, too). Here is a great artist at work, finding even the sound of words — “piteously peeped for pain” — to convey a memorable moment. It’s that spark of brilliance that ignites all great poetry, and lets us, for a moment, at least, feel the human drama from centuries ago.
We’ll rejoin Gawain for a final time as he reaches the Green Chapel on New Year’s Day.
© Brad Nixon 2010, 2017
Here are my other posts about Sir Gawain and the Green Knight:
Silent Night, Green Knight Dec. 13, 2009
A 14th-Century Christmas Dec. 24, 2010
Another Visit with the Green Knight Dec. 10, 2012
When Worlds Collide Jan. 6, 2012
New Year’s Knight Dec. 31 2015
Sir Gawain vs. the Poets Jan. 1, 2017