The Terrifying Journey of Gawain

Saturday, 11 November 2017

Image: The uncertainty of travelling alone is writ large in Gawain's first journey.

One of the astonishing elements of the sheer genius of the Gawain-poet is his ability to place the reader/listener in the mind of the hero, preparing us for what is to come. This is no more so than when Gawain first travels across the land of Logres in search of the Green Knight.

The dangers of travel in the middle ages

Travel in the middle ages was a risky and jeopardous affair. Roads were un-metalled. Paths and trackways were dangerous places – particularly through woodland or maintain passes. Inns and known places of rest were few and far between. At a time when the religious calendar and deep spirituality governed existence, to travel and not to worship was terrifying.

Clearly, long distance travel was common. Chaucer tells us of the Canterbury pilgrims moving from town to town. Armies marched across the land. Kings made processions over their kingdom. Yet, for the traveller venturing alone, journeys were almost an existential experience. This is the experience the Gawain-poet shares with us.

When he travels from Camelot on Michaelmas morning, Gawain leaves behind him a court mourning for him. They know he will face perils on his way and they fear he may never return. This is not mere dramatic artifice, it is a statement of fact which contemporary readers would well have understood.

More than life and death

If Gawain fails to find shelter, he may freeze to death. If he fails to find food, he will starve to death. If he is weak, he may be killed by bandits. If he is overcome by these things, or by weakness, he will lose his spirituality and be damned. To coin a phrase of the great Bill Shankly, the poet is telling us that Gawain’s journey is not just a matter of life and death, it is much more important than that.

As the poet relates (lines 693-7):

Often friendless, alone, long nights he endures

Where he found naught before him of the fare that he liked.

He had no friend but his horse through forest and field,

Nor no guide as he goes to speak with but God,

As he crosses the land he is most definitely a man alone (713-4):

Many cliffs he climbs over in strange countryside;

And far-flung from his friends as a foreigner he rides.

One can imagine Gawain in his armour, relying on his sense of honour and his duty to God, venturing on an apparently fruitless mission. In his head, he must be thinking how he might achieve his mission while at the same time he is conscious that Christmas draws near when he must celebrate the birth of Christ. Yet the weather gets ever colder; the poet builds the tension – will Gawain survive at all (729-732)?:

Near slain with the sleet, he slept in his irons

More nights than enough in the naked rocks,

Where clattering from the crests came the cold-born rains,

And hung in hard icicles high over his head.

The poet tells us in no uncertain terms that on many occasions Gawain is not able to find any shelter at all, and nor is he able to find food. His journey is taking the form of one of religious penance (which indeed it is, if we reflect on the fact that Gawain – in accepting the pact with the Green Knight – is fulfilling a contract made with a devilish figure). Yet still he knows his duty in the icy cold (lines 746-52):

And much baleful were birds on those bare twigs,

That piteously piped there for pain of the cold.

Sir Gawain upon Gringolet glides under them,

Through marsh and through mire, this man all alone,

Concerned for his courtesy lest he not keep his promise

To worship our Saviour who on that same night

Was born of a virgin, our burdens to quell.

In the end, of course, he finds harbour at the mysterious castle of Hautdesert where now he must confront new trials and tests. He has come through his first test: a journey of ice cold, starvation and spiritual challenge – not unlike Christ in the desert – and now he must face other great challenges which he must overcome if he is to be a true knight.

In this first test, his great journey from Camelot, the Gawain-poet has already drawn us subtly into the mind of Gawain. More, he has drawn us into ourselves. As we question whether Gawain can survive we also now feel challenged. We feel cold, hungry and desperate – eager to find resolution.

This is the power of the Gawain-poet and why he is so special. These few lines have given you a flavour of his mastery; the joy of the whole work awaits when publication comes in July!

Thank you for supporting the publication of this new illustrated translation. As well as featuring a host of linocut illustrations, the book will also include detailed notes and explanations of the historical context of the poem which I hope will not only give you a detailed insight into the age of the Gawain-poet but also encourage you to read more about this wonderful period of history.

Michael Smith

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