Most people have some favorite traditions to mark the turning of the new year. One of mine, familiar to longtime readers of this blog, is to reread the Middle English alliterative poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The two central events of the story take place on successive New Year’s Days, the first as Arthur and his court are celebrating at Camelot. The poem combines ancient legends and myths with traditions from the Arthurian tales and Medieval romance.
It’s not just a long-ago tale: It’s poetry of a high order, although it’s difficult for us to read. Writing at the same time as Middle English authors you may have encountered in school, Chaucer and Langland (Piers Plowman), the unknown “Gawain Poet” wrote in a dialect of Middle English from the north of England with unusual words and spelling.
I’ve written a lot about the the language, the story and the remarkable poetry of Sir Gawain in this blog since 2009. Links to those articles are below.
Great literature always bears more consideration. This year let’s look at a few things that make this poem (for me at least), endlessly interesting to read and think about.
First, it is an actual thing: one unique manuscript that sat undiscovered for hundreds of years in the collection that also contained the sole manuscript of Beowulf, and barely escaped the same fire that burned that library and noticeably scorched Beowulf. Today it’s on display in the British Museum, near Beowulf, but you can see a digital facsimile online.
The MS has several illustrations. Here’s one:
At the bottom is the decapitated Green Knight holding his own head, which is speaking to Gawain, who’s in red, holding the awesome ax he’s just used to remove said head. Arthur, Guinevere and the court are looking on from their table at the feast.
The text is written by hand, of course, on parchment. Here’s a full page:
I’m glad it’s never been my job to read that script. Here’s a closeup with part of line 1186 highlighted:
Those highlighted words are:
Wyth such a crakkande kry
No, I can’t decipher it, either. Others have, and this is one of innumerable artful passages in the poem. The poet is particularly aware of sounds, including the sound of water rushing over rocks and of little birds peeping in the frozen winter. When Gawain tracks down the Green Knight at the Green Chapel, he hears a terrifying noise: an ax being honed to razor sharpness. During several hunting scenes we get the baying of hounds, the blowing of horns and — in that passage above — the calls of the hunters echoing through the woods and against the cliffs. Here’s the full line:
Wyth such a crakkande kry as klyffes haden brusten
“With such a clamour and cry as if cliffs had been riven” (Tolkein, trans.)
I think that’s excellent stuff.
The majority of words in the poem are familiar to us in some way. I never tire of exploring the origins of the language.
Gawain, Arthur and other individuals are often referred to as being hende, a common word in both Old and Middle English meaning admirable or attractive, in a noble way. We still have the word “handy,” but we use it only in the sense of being clever or useful. The original sense of the word was still around in the Revolutionary War era in “Yankee Doodle Dandy:”
Mind the music and the step and with the girls be handy.
In those days a girl could still consider a guy “handy” — attractive in a way that didn’t involve using his hands (although it may have led to that).
Alliterative poetry required many synonyms for the same meaning, but with different initial sounds. There are several hunting scenes in Sir Gawain. Words for hunting dogs include not only “dogs” but “hounds” and “greyhounds,” and a word no longer in use, rachches, which are smaller than greyhounds:
And ay rachches in a res radly hem folwes
“And always the hounds are hard on their heels” (Armitage trans.)
Rachches was in use throughout Old and Middle English, probably inherited from the Vikings and Old Norse, and lasted into the 19th Century. If it’s still extant, it’s only in limited dialectical use.
One hunt described in the poem is a fox hunt. I’m always delighted that six hundred years ago the poet used exactly the same word we still have to define the fox’s elusive nature: “wily.”
Another hunt is for a large, fierce boar. When the lord, Bertilak, gets off his horse, grabs his sword and goes in after the beast, it paws the ground and snorts, which in the poem is a fascinating word: “fnast.”
Fnast was a familiar word in Old English and Middle English. We also got that from Old Norse, but have let it fade. Too bad. It’s a great sound for an angry snort.
Late in the poem, Gawain is invited back to Bertilak’s castle, just after Bertilak has spared Gawain himself from being beheaded. Gawain doesn’t just decline this invitation. As the poet says,
He nykked him naye …. “He nixed him with ‘nay’.” (my translation)
That’s saying “no” in no uncertain terms.
I enjoy these words and phrases in which a man whose name we’ll almost certainly never know wrote something that still resonates within all of us: connects us to him in the way that great writing has the power to do.
Happy Nwe Yere to you all.
Your public library almost certainly has a copy of at least one of the scores or hundreds of published translations of the poem that exist. Three we recommend are:
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Marie Borroff translator, 1967
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Simon Armitage translator, 2008. A noted British poet’s version provides facing pages with the Middle English original text, and is terrifically fun to read.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, Sir Orfeo, J.R.R. Tolkein translator, 1975. Professor Tolkein’s translation is artful and enjoyable.
To view the online facsimile pages above, and the entire manuscript, CLICK HERE.
Here are my other posts about Sir Gawain:
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
Another Visit with the Green Knight, Dec. 10, 2012
Sir Gawain vs. the Poets Jan. 1, 2017
Do you have an observation about Sir Gawain? Any other literary New Year’s traditions out there? I’d love to have your comment.
© Brad Nixon 2015, 2017
Facsimile pages © The British Library Board and used within the non-commercial restrictions thereof. All rights reserved.