Longtime readers know that every year as Christmas and New Year approach it’s my custom to reread the Middle English alliterative verse romance, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The poem, written sometime just before 1400, is set in and around King Arthur’s court during two consecutive Christmas seasons, so this is a fitting time of year to read it. Each year since I began this blog in 2009, I’ve posted one or two pieces about my annual reading, both as a way to share my enthusiasm for what I think is a wonderful work of literature, and also to help me understand better why I continue to read it so avidly. I’ve posted links at the bottom of this article to those previous blogs in which I described the basic story, the historical setting, and a few details about the Middle English language it employs.
Although I knew I’d read Sir Gawain again this year, I doubted that I had anything more worth sharing with you. I clearly needed some new perspective. In search of a fresh look, I turned to an expert I haven’t consulted in many years, who co-authored a critical edition of the work, and who also wrote a verse translation of Gawain. Early in his academic career he worked on the compilation of the Oxford English Dictionary, eventually becoming a professor at Pembroke College, Oxford, from 1925 – 1952. He was widely read in medieval literature. According to Wikipedia he knew “Middle English, Old English, Finnish, Gothic, Greek, Italian, Old Norse, Spanish, Welsh, and Medieval Welsh. He was also familiar with Danish, Dutch, Lombardic, Norwegian, Russian, Serbian, Swedish and older forms of modern Germanic and Slavonic languages.” One may assume Latin should be listed there, too. In other words, a linguistic scholar of significant accomplishments.
This man also spent a great deal of his time inventing languages, and creating extensive mythologies and histories to people the imaginary worlds where those languages were spoken. The books he wrote in this non-academic aspect of his life included The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion.” Yes, today we’ll turn to J.R.R. Tolkein to give us a fresh look via the edition of Sir Gawain he and E. V. Gordon published in 1925.
So, class, let us gather our resources: our well-worn copy of Cawley, the Tolkein-Gordon Gawain and Tolkein’s posthumously published verse translation. You may also wish to have your Oxford English Dictionary at hand, as well as a good modern English dictionary. One also can download a variety of texts of Gawain, and I have my version by Morris on my Kindle.
Although there’s no compact edition of the staggering Middle English Dictionary available for home use, it’s now available online and is fully searchable: CLICK HERE. There are a number of Anglo-Saxon dictionaries online, including the Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary. Many can be downloaded as .pdfs or to your e-book reader, FREE.
How to start? We have several choices. If, as I do, one has some familiarity with the vocabulary and structure of Middle English, one might start immediately reading the Tolkein-Gordon Middle English text, studying the copious notes they provide. This is fascinating stuff. I did this while comparing their version with Cawley’s edition from 1962. One can find in Cawley’s glosses many of the emendations and readings Tolkein originated.
The scribe who copied down the original Gawain manuscript (and, by the way, there is only one original manuscript of the poem, no other ancient copies) made errors, sometimes miscopying a letter, or transposing words. In some cases the scribe made obvious omissions, and it’s the work of editors to attempt to reconstruct the missing words. Sometimes, for accomplished scholars, it’s relatively easy to find examples of similar phrases from other works of the period, and they can conjecture that the Gawain Poet (as the unknown author is called) used related words or phrases. In other cases, it’s far more difficult or impossible to fill in the blanks.
One can study the notes from a strictly linguistic point of view, following the editors’ examination of related words and how they may have come to appear in the particular dialect of Middle English in which the poem was written. There’s a great deal of technical consideration about the alliterative structure of certain problematic lines. I don’t expect this sort of thing to interest most of my readers very much, but it provides a fascinating look into the immense erudition and linguistic detective work that goes into editing an ancient text. I’d like to give you one example. I’m expanding Prof. Tolkein’s note a bit, mostly to spell out some specialized abbreviations. In the original manuscript, line 46 reads “Such glaumande gle glorious to here.” (trans: such glaumande (?) glee, wonderful to hear). Tolkein’s note says (I’m paraphrasing here), “glaumande is used as a present participle, but there is no evidence of a verb formed from Old Norse glaum-r, ‘merry noise.’ However, ‘glaum and gle’ forms a phrase of the common type of alliterating synonyms (and here he cites examples from Middle English and Old Norse). The copyist evidently confused the conjunction and(e) with the present participial ending.”
So, one merely calls upon one’s knowledge of Old Norse verb forms and figures out that the scribe ran two words together. Easy. Trust me, this is far, far beyond my language ability, but it’s fun to observe the masters at work.
On a more accessible level, Tolkein’s notes include a wealth of information about other versions of Arthurian romances and how the character of Gawain or events similar to the ones in this poem are represented in works in many medieval languages. As an example, when we get to the seating of the knights at Camelot, Tolkein throws in some history about the Round Table. Some legends, he tells us, say that a clever craftsman built the table for Arthur to help him solve arguments about who would be seated at the “head” of the table, and that it could seat 1600 knights. But other sources (and Tolkein details them) say Merlin made the table for Uther, Arthur’s father, seating 150. Uther made a gift of the table to King Leodegan, Guenevere’s father, then Guenevere brought it to Arthur as part of her dowry. That’s more fun than linguistic drudgery. It still demonstrates the scholar’s erudition, without crushing us with the fact that we’ll never learn Old Norse.
But another way to start reading Professor Tolkein’s book is with the Introduction, and that gets me to my main reason for writing for you about Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. As I’ve said in all my previous posts about the poem, it’s wonderful, imaginative storytelling. Tolkein proved that he knew a bit about great storytelling in his memorable works of fantasy. He points out something so simple and so fundamental about Sir Gawain that I’d lost sight of it. The literature of the medieval period is replete with tales of Arthur, Gawain and Camelot, and many of them have episodes similar to those in the plot of Gawain. BUT, as Tolkein eloquently explains, there is no example of any work of imagination in all of medieval literature that so adroitly combines the elements: the New Year’s “game” at Camelot in which Gawain cuts off the head of the Green Knight; Gawain’s journey to the castle where he engages in some sophisticated exchanging of favors involving both the Lord and Lady of the estate; Gawain’s final stage of the journey to the Green Chapel in which he’s to have his own head cut off (according to the original deal) by the same Green Knight (who had ridden away from his own beheading at Camelot carrying his own head by the hair). In meshing all these pieces, the poet introduces some plot twists that make it extremely entertaining. This unknown poet gathered together a wealth of old tales and wove them into something unique and stunningly interesting, using forceful, beautiful language: an impressive work of creative imagination that holds its own among the masterworks of the era.
And, that’s where Professor Tolkein’s other book enters the scene: you can read his verse translation in modern English, in which his goal was to make the story accessible to modern readers, while preserving the sense of the original poet’s lovely language. It’s not a long work, and this is the perfect time of year to read about Gawain as he rides his mighty steed, Gringolet through the frozen land of Wirral in search of the Chapel Grene. One need not be a scholar to enjoy Sir Gawain, when Tolkein, a scholar and master storyteller, has given us an excellent version.
Other translations are available, too. Your library probably has at least one version. Here are a couple we recommend.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Marie Borroff, translator, 1967
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Simon Armitage, 2008
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
The Knight in Winter Dec. 26, 2010
Don We Now Our Green Apparel Jan. 1, 2011
When Worlds Collide Jan. 6, 2012
New Year’s Knight Dec. 31 2015
Sir Gawain vs. the Poets Jan. 1, 2017
I wrote about my personal encounter with the Middle English Dictionary and its longtime editor, my former professor, Sherman Kuhn, HERE.
If you get motivated to give ol’ Sir Gawain a try, I’d love to hear from you about your experience.
© Brad Nixon 2012, 2017