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Monday, 7 May 2012

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

It occurs to me that while I have read a great many books, I have only shared my thoughts on three of them so far on my blog. That will not do.

I've been so busy the last few months that I have not had much of a chance to read, every precious moment dedicated to school. But, a friend gave me some books for my birthday, and now that I'm out of school, I decided to give one a read.

My friend, a recent graduate with a double major in English and History, recommended Sir Gawain and the Green Knight as an interesting look into chivalry and medieval literature. I, being an avid fan of reading and medieval history and myth, was thrilled at the chance to go outside my normal range of books and try something new!

For more information, and spoilers, check out this link: Sir Gawain and the Green Wiki...err Knight. Written in the 14th century, by an unnamed poet, the story is one of knights, magic, chivalry, and the testing of a hero.

The version I read was edited and translated by James Winny, published by Broadview Literary Texts, with the middle English on one side and the translation on the other. There was also a nice introduction and some notes on the texts, framing the work.

The introduction was quite interesting as it outlines the origin of the work, and discusses a little of the translation process, what can be lost, and some of the challenges of both translating and reading such a work. After reading the whole thing cover to cover, I can agree with the translator that his translation is more faithful to the meaning of the story rather than the form. Some work, I've been told, tries to match the form including the rhyme-scheme, alliteration, and number of syllables, and due to the loss through translation, end up writing a story or play almost entirely novel and quite unlike the original. It's almost like this scene from Friends, which makes me laugh: The trouble with thesauruses...thesaurusi? However, the translation did a marvelous job of making the content clear, while still presenting it in a poetic way.

My approach to reading the work was as follows: read the middle English side first, even going so far as to say some of the lines aloud, or at least mouthing them, to get a feel for the text. After it felt comfortable to switch over, either between lines of dialogue, between descriptions, or in very rare occasions, when I couldn't understand what was going on, I would switch to the modern English side. I would then think about the similarities of the two, sometimes rejoicing as I confirmed a guess from the middle English side of things, and sometimes laughing/raising an eyebrow at the differences between the two.

Now, I must say, the middle English side was not difficult for me to read. Most of the language is familiar; English, with a bit of French thrown in, but once in a while, a word would throw me. Or the poet/the language would make some license in order to maintain alliteration. Additionally, due to my previous reading of fantasy or historical fiction, I was familiar with words, phrases, and terms of which the common person may not have been aware. For example, I play Dungeons and Dragons and have read a lot about horses and knights and the equipment they use. I am an engineer (in training) and find the design of castles to be fascinating. So, when the work described these things, I didn't have to really look anything up, as it was all clear to me. None of the work is that obscure though, and should you find yourself lost, the modern English side is pretty clear and there is a section after the work with some notes on the text.

The work is brilliantly composed. Featuring a heavy use of alliteration, and a particular rhyme scheme, the work has a rhythm which is soothing to the ear and carries you through the work. The particular rhyme scheme is known as a bob and wheel. I had to look this up as it is mentioned in the introduction but I wanted more information on it, simply put, the bob and wheel consists of a short line followed by several lines with a set rhyming pattern. In this case, 2 syllables, followed by 4 lines with an abab rhyme scheme. As the translator points out, the poem has 101 stanzas which was meant to complement the year and a day during which the story is meant to take place. All in all, I found just the composition of the work to be interesting, pleasing to read, and shows considerable skill in word play and poetry.

As for the work itself, I also found it to be quite fascinating and thought provoking. With no knowledge of the work except that it featured a knight of Arthur's Round Table, and that it was apparently a tale about chivalry or at least a different spin on it, and that it was highly recommended, I was not sure what to expect. What I got was a work which featured many expected elements but also some twists I had not expected.

If you only skimmed the Wikipedia article above and you don't want me to give away the plot/ending, stop reading now. Just take away from this the fact that I liked it and recommend it should you be interested in medieval work.

So, basic plot, to get you up to speed: Sir Gawain and the other knights of the Table round are having dinner on New Year's with Arthur and Guinevere. A giant knight, described as the largest man ever seen and an attractive one at that, clad in green, waltzes in and demands a game from one of the knights. He's heard so much about Arthur and his brave knights and wants to see if their reputation is well-earned. The game is simple, if strange: he will allow a knight to attack him with his giant axe (to deal a blow to the green knight), as long as the knight accepts one in return. This upsets everyone as it is absurd and also a bold challenge. Sir Gawain accepts, strikes the blow, cutting off the green knight's head. Not one to complain, the green knight picks up his own head and walks away, instructing Gawain to meet him the following year in the Green Chapel.

Sir Gawain leaves later that year to do just that, taking refuge at a castle at one point. The lord of the castle, a seemingly hospitable host, offers a trade/game with Sir Gawain. While Gawain stays in his fine castle all day, the lord will go out hunting, and at the end of the day, each would trade their earnings with the other. While the lord is away, the lady will play it seems, and she spends most of her time seducing Sir Gawain. Try as he might, he cannot resist her entirely, yielding to kisses and embraces over the course of the first two days. The lord returns each night, giving Sir Gawain the meat he has procured, and each night Gawain kisses him, not telling the lord where the kisses came from. The final night, the lady offers Gawain more than a kiss. She offers him a belt, one which grants the wearer invulnerability. She says no one who wears it can be struck down. While his reserve had been good at not accepting any more gifts from her, Gawain likes the idea of sparing his life, fearing the Green Knight will surely kill him when next they meet. At the end of the night, Gawain does not give the belt to the lord, instead he hides it and rides off the next day. Meeting the Green Knight, who teases Gawain, the tense moment comes where Sir Gawain must allow the Green Knight to strike a blow. Instead of killing Gawain, the Green Knight cuts him a little, chastising the knight for not staying true to his word back at the castle, revealing that the Green Knight and the lord of the castle are one in the same, and that his wife's treachery was all part of the test. Morgan le Fay makes a cameo, being an elderly lady in the castle who sent the Green Knight to torture and scare Arthur and his kingdom. However, the Green Knight, after teasing and teaching Sir Gawain a lesson, says he is free to go and that he too will go his own way. Sir Gawain goes home and wears the belt and his scar proudly as tokens of humility and a reminder of how the mighty can fall.

Wow...okay, so that's what happened. Here are some thoughts on it.

First off, the portrayal of women in this poem is interesting to me. The lady of the castle is smart, devilishly charming, seductive, and not at all a damsel in distress. Now, I am quite unfamiliar with this genre, but I thought the portrayal of women would be simple at best, and not at all on par with the men. Obviously, this is not because I think things should be that way, but I am familiar with knights going off to rescue poor, defenseless women who have nothing going for them except for their beauty. But, I found the lady of the castle to be quite interesting. I mean, you could argue that her power and charm were all an act, and all part of the Green Knight's plan, or you can argue that she knew what she wanted and went for it. I know the story of a woman seducing a man bringing about his downfall isn't too new, but I was glad to see a woman of such strong character in the poem.

Another strong character, whose appearance surprised me at first, was Morgan le Fay. Not appearing until the end of the story, it seems that she's pulling all the strings of this poem. The Green Knight reveals at the end that one of the inhabitants at his castle, described earlier as an old lady, was in fact Arthur's halfsister, Ms. le Fay, as it were, is described as sending the Green Knight to Arthur's Table to make trial of the pride and truth of the great reputation of the Round Table. Apparently, the Green Knight's mission was to drive the knights mad and to scare the Lady Guinevere to death. It's a little odd though, that the Green Knight didn't seem too convinced to carry out his mission. His form was described as attractive, and he paid little attention to Guinevere. Also, once the debt is paid, he leaves Sir Gawain alone and goes his own merry way. What is also interesting, is the fact that a woman holds all the cards here and controls everything. Morgana, as she is also called, is the one who sends the Green Knight to Camelot, is the one who schemes and controls the entire quest, and is in fact responsible for the entire story. While she doesn't work to make her presence known, the idea of women holding power is prevalent here. And not just the power of persuasion, as seen by the lady of the castle, but magical power, as she is able to disguise and grant the Green Knight powers beyond that which is ordinary. I found this to be an interesting look at things, and while part of me thinks it falls under the category of "women are evil, and powerful, beware", it also makes me wonder just what nuances I might be missing, or might be contained in other works, especially involving Morgan le Fay, as it seems her role and character is split, changed, and not exactly consistent in the Arthurian legend, moving from evil witch to helpful sorceress.

Sir Gawain's perception of himself and his portrayal are quite interesting. Seen at first as a seemingly humble knight, claiming to not have been on as many adventures as the others, Sir Gawain seems to be anything other than a lowly knight, if such a thing could exist. He is known wherever he goes, and seems confident, sure of himself, and quite competent. He's even sitting with Guinevere at the start of the text, and you could claim he had such right as he was Arthur's nephew, nevertheless, other than his humble speech to his uncle, or to the lady of the castle later, he seems quite confident.

The concept of chivalry, at least as it is properly defined and represented, is still new to me. But, I found the trials of Sir Gawain to be interesting ones. I mean, he is put in a situation where to not be accommodating to the lady of the house would be quite rude, but to be as accommodating as she would like would be adulterous and improper as well. It added to the forbidden nature of it all and made it exciting, at the very least. It also provides a look at the tests of purity and honour.

In the end, Sir Gawain is not perfect, and fails the final test. The Green Knight is not hard on him, however, saying he blames Gawain less for trying to preserve his own life. Sir Gawain seems to learn from the encounter, forever afterward wearing the belt as a reminder of his failure and adding a sense of humility into his knightly stature.

As I think about this poem, written over 600 years ago, and try to relate it to myself and the world I live in, I think of the tests Sir Gawain endures. We have all been tempted, by love, by lust, and maybe even by self-preservation, but it is how we endure such tests which can define us. I try to live my life as honourably as I can, meaning I give great respect to myself and to those around me. I try to live honestly, and if I give my word, I adhere to it as best I can. Sometimes, in life, we give a promise that ends up being impossible to keep, or only possible at the risk of hurting other people or breaking other promises. Sometimes, we are faced with the choice between societal convention and our own standpoint on things.

For Gawain, he was trapped in one such instance. The customs of the time seemed to dictate that it was considered impolite to not beg for a kiss from the lady. I would like some more insight on this from you medieval experts out there. But, the lady questions Sir Gawain's honour and courtesy saying he does not live up to his good name if he does not ask for a kiss. I guess to not do so is rude as it would be like denying her beauty and charm? Either way, Gawain is stuck. To deny her is proper as she is married, but to deny her is also insulting. Sir Gawain is stuck and does the best he can to keep his honour and his good manners intact.

Finally, the test of safeguarding his own life is interesting. I find the way we regard promises, honour, and death in literature and the like to be quite fascinating and I might go into it some other time. But, it is interesting that through attempting to safeguard his life, Sir Gawain is shown as both dishonourable and untrustworthy. I mean, the first is a little more obvious, as his hiding of the belt was also to cover up the lady's infidelity and Gawain's infidelity to the promise. Both his honour and trust are compromised by trying to cheat the Green Knight out of his end of the deal. One could argue that the test is not fair to begin with, the Green Knight can seemingly put his head back on but the knights cannot, but at the same time, Sir Gawain made a promise and then he tried to cheat his way out of the deal. It's an interesting look at honour and promises, and I find the challenge of it all quite interesting to think about.

As I said before, I try to live honourably, and I try to live as honestly as possible. In fact, this has caused me some trouble with my friends and family. Sometimes, they will ask if I'm available, or when, and I will delay or hesitate to give them an exact answer. My reasoning is never a hesitation to see them, but rather a desire to not cheat anyone out of our time together. I try to be very exact with my language so when someone asks if I'm available, I make it very clear if I am, why I'm not, and when I will be there. Sometimes, my balancing looks like hesitation, looks like less than enthusiasm at seeing them, but I hope my friends and family know by now that this is not the case. I only hesitate to make sure I have everything worked out, that everyone is happy and everything is balanced. Reading this piece put this and several other aspects of my life into a whole new light. I see that one can trap themselves with trying to do the right thing all the time and sometimes, in trying to do the right thing one can accidentally leave no good option open to them.

In the end, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a great read! It is exciting, thought-provoking, a great introduction into some medieval literature, and a story that people can still relate to this day. It's also not very long, so give it a shot and see what you think!

Thanks for reading, and I look forward to more reading and writing this summer!

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