Sir Gawain and the Green Knight & the Revival of the Alliterative Tradition No direct statement has come

down to us as to the authorship of these poems, and, in spite of various ably contested theories, it is not possible to assign these four poems (Pearl, Cleanness, Patience and Sir Gawayne... to any known poet. The nameless poet of Pearl and Gawayne has, however, left the impress of his personality on his work; and so vividly is this personality revealed in the poems that it is possible, with some degree of confidence, to evolve something approximating to an account of the author, by piecing together the references and other evidence to be found in his work. The anonymous poet was born about 1330; his birthplace was somewhere in Lancashire, or, perhaps, a little more to the north, but not beyond the Tweed; such is the evidence of dialect. Additional testimony may be found in the descriptions of natural scenery in Gawayne, Cleanness and Patience. The wild solitudes of the Cumbrian coast, near his native home, seem to have had special attraction for him. Like a later and greater poet, he must, while yet a youth, have felt the subtle spell of nature’s varying aspects in the scenes around him. Concerning the condition of life to which the boy belonged we know nothing definite; but it may be inferred that his father was connected, probably in some official capacity, with a family of high rank, and that it was amid the gay scenes that brightened life in a great castle the poet’s earlier years were passed. In later life, he loved to picture this home with its battlements and towers, its stately hall and spacious parks. There, too, perhaps, minstrels’ tales of chivalry first revealed to him the weird world of medieval romance and made him yearn to gain for himself a worthy place among contemporary English poets. The Old English poets were his masters in poetic art; he had also read The Romaunt of the Rose, the chief products of early French literature, Vergil and other Latin writers; to “Clopyngel’s clean rose” he makes direct reference. The intensely religious spirit of the poems, together with the knowledge they everywhere display of Holy Writ and theology, lead one to infer that he was, at first, destined for the service of the church; probably, he became a “clerk,” studying sacred and profane literature at a monastic school, or at one of the universities; and he may have received the first tonsure only. The four poems preserved in the Cottonian MS. seem to belong to a critical period of the poet’s life. Gawayne, possibly the earliest of the four, written, perhaps, in honour of the patron to whose household the poet was attached, is remarkable for the evidence it contains of the writer’s minute knowledge of the higher social life of his time; from his evident enthusiasm it is clear that he wrote from personal experience of the pleasures of the chase, and that he was accustomed to the courtly life described by him. The romance of Gawayne contains what seems to be a ersonal reference where the knight is made to exclaim: “It is no marvel for a man to come to sorrow through a woman’s wiles; so was Adam beguiled, and Solomon, and Samson, and David, and many more. It were, indeed, great bliss for a man to love them well, and love them not—if one but could.” Gawayne is the story of a noble knight triumphing over the sore temptations that beset his vows of chastity: evidently in a musing mood he wrote in the blank space at the head of one of the illustrations in his MS. the suggestive couplet still preserved by the copyist in the extant MS. His love for some woman had brought him one happiness—an only child, a daughter, on whom he lavished all the wealth of his love. He named the child Margery or Marguerite; she was his “Pearl” —his emblem of holiness and innocence; perhaps she was a love-child, hence his privy pearl. His happiness was shortlived; before two years had passed the child was lost to him; his grief found expression in verse; a heavenly vision of his lost jewel brought

him comfort and taught him resignation. It is noteworthy that, throughout the whole poem, there is no single reference to the mother of the child; the first words when the father beholds his transfigured Pearl are significant: “O Pearl,” quoth I “Art thou my Pearl that I have plained, Regretted by me alone” [“bi myn one”]. With the loss of his Pearl, a blight seems to have fallen on the poet’s life, and poetry seems gradually to have lost its charm for him. The minstrel of Gawayne became the stern moralist of Cleanness and Patience. Other troubles, too, seem to have befallen him during the years that intervened between the writing of these companion poems. Patience appears to be almost as autobiographical as Pearl; the poet is evidently preaching to himself the lesson of fortitude and hope, amid misery, pain and poverty. Even the means of subsistence seem to have been denied him. “Poverty and patience,” he exclaims, “are need’s playfellows.” Cleanness and Patience were written probably some few years after Pearl; and the numerous references in these two poems to the sea would lead one to infer that the poet may have sought distraction in travel, and may have weathered the fierce tempests he describes. His wanderings may have brought him even to the holy city whose heavenly prototype he discerned in the visionary scenes of Pearl. We take leave of the poet while he is still in the prime of life; we have no material on which to base even a conjecture as to his future. Perhaps he turned from poetry and gave himself entirely to theology, always with him a favourite study, or to philosophy, at that time so closely linked with the vital questions at issue concerning faith and belief. If the poet took any part in the church controversies then beginning to trouble men’s minds, his attitude would have been in the main conservative. Full of intense hatred towards all forms of vice, especially immorality, he would have spoken out boldly against ignoble priests and friars, and all such servants of the church who, preaching righteousness, lived unrighteously. A fourth poem follows Cleanness and Patience in the MS.—the romance of Sir Gawayne and the Green Knight. At a glance it is clear, as one turns the leaves, that the metre of the poem is a combination of the alliterative measure with the occasional introduction of a lyrical burden, introduced by a short verse of one accent, and riming according to the scheme ababa, which breaks the poem at irregular intervals, evidently marking various stages of the narrative. The metre blends the epic rhythm of Cleanness and Patience with the lyrical strain of Pearl. The illustrations preceding this poem are obviously scenes from medieval romance; above one of the pictures, representing a stolen interview between a lady and a knight, is a couplet not found elsewhere in the MS. The romance deals with a weird adventure that befell Sir Gawain, son of Loth, and nephew of king Arthur, the favourite hero of medieval romance, more especially in the literature of the west and northern parts of England, where, in all probability, traditions of the knight lived on from early times; the depreciation of the hero in later English literature was due to the direct influence of one particular class of French romances. Gaston Paris, in Volume xxx of L’Histoire Litéraire de la France, 1888, has surveyed the whole field of medieval literature dealing with Sir Gawain; according to his view, the present romance is the jewel of English medieval literature, and it may, perhaps, be considered the jewel of medieval romance. The story tells how on a New Year’s Day, when Arthur and his knights are feasting at Camelot, a great knight clad in green, mounted on a green horse, and carrying a Danish axe, enters the hall, and challenges one of Arthur’s knights; the conditions being that the knight must take oath that, after striking the first blow, he will seek the Green Knight twelve months

hence and receive a blow in return. Gawain is allowed to accept the challenge, takes the axe and smites the Green Knight so that the head rolls from the body; the trunk takes up the head, which the hand holds out while it repeats the challenge to Gawain to meet him at the Green Chapel next New Year’s morning, and then departs. Gawain, in due course, journeys north, and wanders through wild districts, unable to find the Green Chapel; on Christmas Eve he reaches a castle, and asks to be allowed to stay there for the night: he is welcomed by the lord of the castle, who tells him that the Green Chapel is near, and invites him to remain for the Christmas feast. The lord, on each of the last three days of the year, goes a-hunting; Gawain is to stay behind with the lady of the castle; the lord makes the bargain that, on his return from hunting, each shall exchange what has been won during the day; the lady puts Gawain’s honour to a severe test during the lord’s absence: he receives a kiss from her; in accordance with the compact, he does not fail to give the kiss to the husband on his return; there is a similar episode on the next day when two kisses are received and given by Gawain; on the third day, in addition to three kisses, Gawain receives a green girdle from the lady, which has the virtue of saving the wearer from harm. Mindful of his next day’s encounter with the Green Knight, Gawain gives the three kisses to his host, but makes no mention of the girdle. Next morning, he rides forth and comes to the Green Chapel, a cave in a wild district; the Green Knight appears with his axe; Gawain kneels; as the axe descends, Gawain flinches, and is twitted by the knight; the second time Gawain stands as still as a stone, and the Green Knight raises the axe,but pauses; the third time the knight strikes him, but, though the axe falls on Gawain’s neck, his wound is only slight. Gawain now declares that he has stood one stroke for another, and that the compact is settled between them. Then the Green Knight reveals himself to Gawain as his host at the castle; he knows all that has taken place. “That woven lace which thou wearest mine own wife wove it; I know it well; I know too thy kisses, and they trials, and the wooing of my wife; I wrought it myself. I sent her to tempt thee, and methinks thou art the most faultless hero that ever walked the earth. As pearls are of more price than white peas, so is Gawain of more price than other gay knights.” But for his concealing the magic girdle he would have escaped unscathed. The name of the Green Knight is given as Bertilak de Hautdesert; the contriver of the test is Morgan le Fay, Arthur’s half-sister, who wished to try the knights and frighten Guinevere; Gawain returns to court and tells the story; and the lords and ladies of the Round Table lovingly agree to wear a bright green lace in token of this adventure, and in honour of Gawain, who disparages himself as cowardly and covetous. And ever more the badge was deemed the glory of the Round Table, and he that had it was held in honour. In conclusion, the author derived his materials from some lost original; he states that the story had long been “locked in lettered lore.” His original was, no doubt, in French or Anglo-French. The oldest form of the challenge and the beheading is an Old Irish heroic legend, Fled Bricrend (The Feast of Bricriu), preserved in a MS. of the end of the Xith or the beginning of the XIIth century, where the story is told by Cuchulinn, the giant being Uath Mac Denomain, who dwelt near the lake. The Cuchulinn episode had, in due course, become incorporated in Arthurian literature. The French version nearest to the Gawain story that has so far been pointed out was discovered by Madden in the first continuation by Gautier de Doulens of Chrétien’s Conte de Graal, where the story is connected with Carados, Arthur’s nephew, and differs in many important respects from the English version of the romance. There is much to be said in favour of Miss Weston’s conclusion that “it seems difficult to understand how anyone could have regarded this version, ill-motived as it is, and utterly lacking in the archaic details of the English poem, as the source of that work. It should probably rather be considered as the latest in form, if not in date, of all the versions.” There is,

of course, no doubt whatsoever that we have in the French romance substantially the same story, with the two main episodes, namely, the beheading and the test at the castle; our poet’s direct original is evidently lost—he no doubt well knew the Conte de Graal—but we are able to judge that whatever other source he may have used, he brought his own genius to bear in the treatment of the theme. It would seem as though the figure of Gawain, “the falcon of the month of May,” the traditional type and embodiment of all that was chivalrous and knightly, is drawn from some contemporary knight, and the whole poem may be connected with the foundation of the Order of the Garter, which is generally assigned to about the year 1345. From this standpoint it is significant that at the end of the MS., in a somewhat later hand, is found the famous legend of the order: honi soit qui mal (y) pence; just as a later poet, to whom we are indebted for a ballad of the Green Knight (a rifacimento of this romance, or of some intermediate form of it), has used the same story to account for the origin of the Order of the Bath. The romance may be taken not to have been written before the year 1345. But, much as Sir Gawayne shows us of the poet’s delight in his art, the main purpose of the poem is didactic. Gawain, the knight of chastity, is but another study by the author of Cleanness. On the workmanship of his romance he has lavished all care, only that thereby his readers may the more readily grasp the spirit of the work. Sir Gawain may best, perhaps, be understood as the Sir Calidor of an earlier Spenser. In the brief summary of the romance, one striking passage has been noted linking the poem to Pearl, namely, the comparison of Gawain to the pearl; but, even without this reference the tests of language, technique and spirit, would render identity of authorship incontestable; the relation which this Spenserian romance bears to the elegy as regards time of composition cannot be definitely determined; but, judging by parallelism of expression, it is clear that the interval between the two poems must have been very short.

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