266. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, probably by the Pearl Poet (c.1390)

A giant knight dressed and coloured all in green interrupts King Arthur’s court’s New Year festivities with a challenge that one brave contender may take an unhindered swipe at his neck with an axe. Sir Gawain is the only one willing to take on the task. The stranger’s head is separated from his body, and yet he lives to retrieve his head and ride away. Now Gawain has a year and a day to track the knight down and submit himself to a similar blow …

I had J R R Tolkien’s translation available to me, but instead opted for the slim Penguin Classic by Brian Stone. I had read this many years ago and fell in love with the description of the year turning through its seasons (pp. 40-41) so I wanted to revisit that particular version.

Since first reading Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, it became one of my favourite classics, and you will see that I have given it 10/10; the first time in over 250 books that I felt compelled to give the maximum. I thought about why I so enjoyed this story for some time, so hopefully this post will do it justice.

Firstly the story is a straightforward adventure, but with the usual mixture of medieval Christianity symbolism and Celtic mythology two layers of surprise at the climax. Ok, one surprise could be seen coming a mile away, but the trap within the trap designed to attack another member of Arthur’s court from an unexpected enemy is definitely a revelation. The supernatural nature of the Green Knight, the seduction scenes with the Lady of the Castle, the final battle and Gawain’s sense of shame at the outcome – all are rendered masterfully within the alliterative format of the poem.

Also, Arthur’s court is described at its height of chivalry before the maggot of infidelity creeps in. In comparison to the other Arthurian stories, this is definitely the crowning work so far.

There is far more to be gathered in from reading Gawain. The casual mention of his many adventures and conquests along the way yet almost humbly not detailed, the hunting scenes as the Lord of the castle leaves his young wife to entertain Gawain, and his claiming of any gifts that Gawain has secured in his absence each day, and of course the climax as the Green Knight takes his due.

Secondly the writing and imagery is simply beautiful. I have already mentioned the description of the seasons, and I was not the only one to think these verses special as they have been set to song. The whole section is too long to reproduce in full here but here is a taste:

“Then comes the season of summer with soft winds

When Zephyrus himself breathes on seeds and herbs

In paradise is the plant that springs in the open

When the dripping dew drops from its leaves

and it bears the blissful gleam of the bright sun …

So the year in passing yields its many yesterdays,

and winter returns, as the way of the world is”    

lines 516-520, 529-530.

Also memorable is the initial challenge:

“Let him leap forward and lay hold of this weapon,

Acquiring clear possession of it, no claim from me ensuing,

Then shall I stand up to his stroke, quite still on this floor,

So long as I shall have leave to launch a return blow unchecked.

Yet he shall a year

and a day’s reprieve, I direct

Now hasten and let me hear

Who answers, to what effect”                 lines 292-302

and the climax when Gawain reaches the site of the second encounter in the ruins of the Green Chapel

“Now certainly the place is deserted,” said Gawain

“it is a hideous oratory, all overgrown,”

and well graced for the gallant garbed in green

to deal out his devotions in the Devil’s fashion …

This is a chapel of mischance – checkmate to it!

It is the most evil holy place I ever entered …

No din shall make me dread

Although today I die”              

        lines 2189-2192, 2195-6, 3010-11

and of course the seduction scenes are really quite something

“My young body is yours

Do with it what you will;

My strong necessities force

Me to be your servant still”      lines 1237-1240

and

“for that peerless princess pressed him so hotly

so invited him to the very verge …”      lines 1770-71

Strong lad indeed to resist such allurements!

Personal rating:  Very happily, my first 10/10.

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