Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
By Michael Smith
A new and handsomely illustrated translation of the Arthurian mediaeval masterpiece.
Saturday, 15 April 2023
Sir Bredbeddle, the Green Knight who strikes again!
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (SGGK) contained within Cotton Nero A.x in the British Library in London is without doubt a literary masterpiece of great poetic skill and depth. While also unique in Middle English (earlier French romances containing many core elements), its influence on the literary scene in England was nonetheless profound; a hundred years after its first appearance, a different version of the story -The Greene Knight - appeared and in a different poetic form.
Similar but not the same
The Greene Knight, written ca.1500 and contained within London, British Library, MS Additional 27879 (Percy Folio), takes the long-line alliterative romance of the Gawain-poet and renders it as a brief stanzaic poem of just over 500 lines.
Although delivered in two distinct parts instead of SGGK’s putative four, The Greene Knight is clearly derived from the Gawain-poet’s much longer alliterative work (including in the use of certain phrases). However, it contains subtleties in plot which, while differentiating it, also hint at it being imitative rather than a poetic restatement of the romance.
Familiar themes, differently presented
In the first part of the story, the wife of Sir Bredbeddle, a knight from the “west country”, is smitten by Sir Gawain despite the fact that she has never met him; his reputation goes before him. When Arthur’s knights assemble at Carlisle at Christmas, her mother – the equivalent figure to Morgan le Fay in SGGK – sends a transformed green Sir Bredbeddle to court to offer his beheading challenge.
The second part of the story brings together all the remaining three “fitts” of SGGK into one: the journey in search of the Green Knight; the stay at the castle; and the final denouement.
However, during the stay, the poet renders down the exquisite tension of the earlier work, creating the lord’s hunting and the lady’s love making as single episodes rather than emphasising them as a trinity.
Similarly, although Gawain accepts his minor punishment in the Green Chapel after the trickery of the lace is revealed, it is both Bredbeddle and Gawain who then return to Arthur at Carlisle.
What is fascinating about The Greene Knight is the way the complex themes of SGGK have been simplified by the poet. This suggests that the story was well known; an edited down poetic version being presented as an alternative around a line-end rhyme scheme of aabccbddbeeb delivered over each pair of two stanzas, as below:
He looked after the Greene Chappell:
He saw itt stand under a hill
Covered with evyes about.
He looked after the Greene Knight:
He hard him wehett a fauchion bright,
That the hills rang about.
The knight spake with strong cheere,
Said, "Yee be welcome, Sir Gawaine, heere;
It behooveth thee to lowte."
He stroke, and litle perced the skin,
Unneth the flesh within.
Then Sir Gawaine had noe doubt.
It is clear that The Greene Knight is a short performance piece, one in which the audience is familiar with the themes of the story and wishes to hear them condensed for maximum enjoyment. Contrived around a holdiing pattern of its rhyme scheme, it operates in the way of an abridged telling of a classic tale.
In the above passage, Gawain sees the Chapel, hears the whetting of the blade (a falchion, as in the French tradition, not an axe), and receives the “nicking” blow. In the original, the whole passage is filled with terror and tension, including – once more – a trinity of blows before Gawain receives the cut to the neck.
Similarly, instead of the green girdle of the original, we are later shown instead a silk lace which, this romance tells us, is to be worn by those in the Order of the Bath who have not yet won their spurs, possibly indicative of the household readership of the time.
Clearly, for this audience, brevity of message equals maximum power. All the tension of the original masterpiece is contained and leveraged for the pleasure of the household.
Yet, despite its abridging of its evident source, The Greene Knight’s brevity is not indicative of a poverty of form. Rather, it implies the success of an original work of great power being enjoyed by different audiences in later years.
Particularly fascinating is the localisation of the narrative around Carlisle, whereas in SGGK Arthur lives at Camelot. Carlisle is a feature of a number of northern Arthurian redactions including the Alliterative Morte Arthure (King Arthur's Death), the Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle, and the Awntyrs off Arthure (the Adventures of Arthur).
Tantalisingly, this suggests that the original poetic redaction of SGGK to which this is a witness may once have had its origins in the same scribal landscape of those northern romances. Especially interesting in this regard is the mention of Hutton castle towards the end of the poem:
Now are the knights accorded thore.
To the Castle of Hutton can they fare,
To lodge there all that night.
Earlye on the other day
To Arthurs court they tooke the way
With harts blyth and light.
If Hutton is SGGK’s Hautdesert, we have an intriguing possibility that this is Sheriff Hutton (below), a magnificent ruin 10 miles out of York and once home to the great Neville family whose estates stretched into Westmorland.
It is possible that this poetic abridgement of the fourteenth century alliterative masterpiece was originally created to please the household of that powerful family.
Booklets of delight
Medieval romances operate on many levels. For me their greatest charm is the light they shine on those who once knew them and enjoyed them. Their interpretation lets us see into a world so very different from the images of knights and ladies we see in the illuminated manuscripts of the wealthy.
Instead, we are in touch with the emotions of the everyday: the dreams and fantasies of a world we hardly know but which, through the words of some old poems scrivened on cracked parchment, now somehow seem so vibrant.
Author, translator, printmaker
PS - IMPORTANT NEWS !
If you've not yet done so, you may like to support my forthcoming translation of William and the Werewolf, which as of last weekend is now 100% funded and moves the next stage in the publishing cycle. The book is the third in my series of medieval Middle English alliterative romances (below). If you support the book, you will be a patron of what I believe is the first ever translation of this work into modern English - a true first edition! Don't miss out - please join me again on this special journey and become a named patron HERE
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