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Tuesday, September 04, 2018

On Rereading Some Middle English Romances

Recently, I needed to refresh my memory of the mediaeval poem Sir Gawain And The Green Knight for a WIP. I first read it in the original at university, for third-year Middle English, with a nice young English Masters student, Bruce, as my tutor. (We also did Malory’s Arthurian tales with him).

This time, I wanted to read a translation for convenience and speed, though I could probably find my old Penguin edition of the original somewhere on my shelves in the study. I had a story to write! I decided that if I was going to read a translation it might as well be by someone who could write a fabulous mediaeval-type tale himself. I bought and downloaded the J.R.R Tolkien translation. That volume also has Pearl, the elegiac poem written for his little girl by a grieving Dad whom we only know as the Pearl poet, and Sir Orfeo, a mediaeval version of the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, one which has a happy ending!

I had forgotten how wonderful these poems are. I haven’t got around to Pearl yet, but after reading Gawain(written by “the Gawain poet”) I read Sir Orfeo and enjoyed it again. This Orpheus is a powerful mediaeval-style king, with knights, lords and all, ruling the English city of Winchester(then called Tracience, as the poet explains. Thrace, I assume, the country of the original Orpheus, now an English city!), descended from gods. He is, of course, a brilliant harper as the original myth tells us. His beloved Queen, Heurodis, is stolen from him by the King of Faerie, after sleeping under a grafted tree(an ymp  tree in the original Middle English).

Here is where it gets interesting. Faerie is not quite the Underworld, but in some ways it is. When Orfeo gets there, he sees a bunch of people at the gates still horrifically as they died - beheaded, burned, whatever - including his wife asleep under that tree. There were certainly connections back then between the creatures of folklore, the Otherworld and the afterlife. There was no mucking around with this connection in Breton folklore. Their supernatural beings were truly scary and connected with death.  But Sir Orfeo has it both ways. The King of the Underworld is also the King of Faerie.

So, poor Heurodis is gone and King Orfeo decides he can’t live in his kingdom without her. He goes into voluntary exile, leaving the governing to his steward, with instructions to have his lords choose a new king if he hears Orfeo is dead. He goes, taking with him nothing but his harp and what he’s wearing. For ten years he wanders, playing for himself and the wild animals, getting grubby and long-haired, bearded and shabby.  Then, one day, he sees a bunch of Faerie hunters gallop past, his wife among them. He follows them to their mound and slips in behind them. To his amazement, it’s merely the portal to a gorgeous place with plenty of sun and countryside and the castle of the King and Queen. He asks to be admitted and the porter lets him in to see his employers. Orfeo plays for them, impressing the King no end, and is offered whatever he wants as a reward. He asks for his Queen back. The Faerie ruler grumbles a bit, but agrees. No conditions, no “don’t look back or you lose her” in this version. So the couple are reunited and make their way back to Winchester, where he leaves his beloved with a beggar temporarily, while he goes to check out whether his steward was loyal. The man rides past and sees this filthy beggar asking if he can play the harp in the court. Filthy or not, he says, “You know what? My king was an amazing harper and for his sake, by all means come along, and have some hospitality from me while we're about it.” So he goes, and he plays, and moves everyone.

“Tell me, where did you get that harp?” asks the steward. “It looks familiar.” Orfeo tells him he found it with the corpse of a man  killed by lions. The poor steward bursts into tears. "Oh, no! No!" At that point, Orfeo is able to reveal himself, the steward and the knights rejoice and help him clean up. The Queen is brought home in procession. The faithful steward is named heir to the throne(presumably the royal couple are not all that young and won't be producing their own heir). Happily ever after.

Fascinating to see how Greek myth could be transformed into British folklore.

I'm currently reading a book by John Matthews, one of my favourite folkorists, Sir Gawain: Knight of The Goddess. I've had it for ages, and have finally gotten around to reading it properly. Fascinating stuff that will, I think, explain the reasons for the difference between the Gawain of Malory, who is loud and vulgar and bad-tempered, tending to fail all his quests and kill without thinking, and the Gawain of Sir Gawain And The Green Knight, who is courteous and loved by all, and carries a shield with a pentangle device to remind him of the Virgin Mary, the knight who manages to gently turn down Lady Bertilak, the wife of his host, without upsetting her, and keep her talking till she leaves him with no more than a kiss or two - which he then has to pass on to his hearty, jolly host as his "gain" for the day! I recommend this book if you love folklore.

As I recall, in the old folk tales, the hero was the King's nephew, his sister's son. He would have been heir to the throne in those days, too. Check out the stories of the Mabinogion, especially Culhwch and Olwen. And Gawain is, in fact, Arthur's nephew, his older sister's son.

This poem is set in the court of a young Arthur, one who zooms around the hall, being a good host, refusing to eat till something interesting has happened. (There is, by the way, a Robin Hood poem, the Geste of Robin Hood, in which that happens, though in his case the "something interesting" is a poverty-stricken knight who has been badly treated by the local Abbot and will lose everything that very day)

So, imagine Camelot on New Year's Eve. There's a huge party going on. Everyone is having a great time. Arthur is waiting for his amazing event before he can eat. When this huge green knight - literally! Even his skin is green and so is his horse - rides into the hall, dressed festively and unarmed except for a giant green axe, and carrying a bunch of holly, Arthur happily invites him to pull up a chair and eat with them.

No, thanks, says the knight, I have other business here. I want one of you to use this axe on me, to cut off my head and accept a blow from me in exchange a year and a day from now.

Deadly silence for a moment. He has to be kidding! But this is a magical world. If a man with green skin and hair and a green horse can ride in and issue that kind of a challenge, chances are he isn't planning to commit suicide here on New Year's Eve!

As you might guess, the volunteer is Gawain, the king's nephew, his sister's son, presumably the heir for now. Grabbing the axe, he swipes off the Green Knight's head. And then... the arm of a man who should be dead gropes for his head and swings it around, scaring the hell out of everyone.

Come and meet me in a year and a day at the Green Chapel, he tells Gawain. And he rides out. At this point, everyone comes back out of their frozen senses and the party continues, with Gawain and his uncle laughing and joking about the scary thing that just happened. Yeah. Right. Well, there is a whole year...

And then the poet tells us how the year passes, with all its seasons and their warmth and cold. A nice touch. Time is passing, as the poet reminds us. Not so much time left. Gawain still doesn't know where the Green Chapel is and decides he really has to go early enough to find it. He will go after All Hallows(Halloween, you know? The start of winter and the Celtic New Year, when the doors between the worlds were open). At that point, on the day he goes, we are treated to a description of his dressing and arming and even how he dresses his horse, whose name we are told: Gringolet. Gringolet, I believe, was a dapple grey horse, traditionally Gawain's mount. The Gawain and Gringolet who leave Camelot are looking amazing. At that point, I couldn't help thinking it was a sort of finger to the universe - "Stuff you, Green Knight! If I have to do this, I'm going to look good!"

And we might ask, why does he have to do this? It's stupid! What's the Green Knight going to do about it? Well... maybe he'll tell everybody how dishonourable you are. And there's the thing about the whole story: honour. Doing what you promised. Because in the end, what will bring Gawain back to Camelot feeling he has failed is a very small and silly thing for which nobody blames him except himself - not even the Knight. (Well, not too much, anyway)

So he sets off and has some fairly typical knightly adventures which the poet doesn't bother to describe, as it doesn't connect with the main story. Finally, only a few days before he is due at the Green Chapel,  the location of which he still doesn't know, he finds himself at a castle where everyone is celebrating the holidays. The jolly lord who lives there with his beautiful wife and a heap of retainers makes him welcome. He invites him to stay a while. Gawain explains that he can't stay long because he has an appointment at the Green Chapel on New Year's Day. Oh, that? says his host. Hey, it's only two miles away, I'll have someone guide you and you can even sleep in on the day. Gawain accepts happily. You're guessing where this is going, aren't you?

So, the next three days the lord goes off hunting and leaves Gawain to enjoy chatting with his lovely wife. For fun, he suggests, let's exchange at the end of each day whatever we gained during the day. Gawain agrees.

The young wife spends the next three days trying to seduce him, entering his room and plonking herself on his bed, refusing to let him up. He manages to avoid anything more than a kiss the first day, two on the second. On the third morning, she practically tries to rape him, but he manages to avoid it, politely as usual, and she gives him three kisses. But that isn't where it ends. She offers him a ring, which he refuses, then something he just can't refuse: a green girdle that will, she says, keep him from harm. The first two days, he had passed on the kisses, amusing his host, in exchange for a deer and a boar. This time, he passes on the three kisses, but doesn't tell Bertilak about the other thing.

Who can blame him?

Again, we're told he dresses carefully in his best clothes and armour, and is guided to the Green Chapel by a servant who tries to talk him out of it, even offering to keep the secret. "Bugger off and I won't tell anyone! Honestly!"

But Gawain refuses the offer. He agreed to this a year ago and his honour won't let him weasel out of it.

And this is where the poem describes the bleak landscape and reflects what must be Gawain's mood. He approaches the Green Chapel and hears someone grinding and sharpening what he can only assume is the axe that's going to cut off his head. Gulping, he goes forward to his doom.

What excited me this time, as I'd forgotten it from last time I read the poem, in my university days, is the fact that the Green Chapel isn't remotely related to Christianity. It's not even a pagan temple. It's a barrow. You know - an ancient grave mound? The kind that frightened us all so much in the early chapters of Lord Of The Rings? There are plenty of those in Ireland, and I just read about one this morning on The History Girls. But in this poem, it might as well be a portal to the Otherworld.

The Green Knight emerges with his freshly-sharpened axe. Gawain kneels for his execution. The axe comes whistling down - and stops. Whoops! says the Knight. Sorry about that. Let's try again. And again he stops. Gawain tells him angrily to stop messing around and just get on with it. It's becoming harder to be brave. The third time, he does get a cut - but not enough to kill him or even harm him seriously.

At this point, he leaps up, sword in hand, and says, Right! You've had your blow. I'm not letting you try again.

But the Knight doesn't try. He's amused, the bastard! At this point, we find out, if we hadn't already worked it out, that the Green Knight is not an Otherworld creature at all, he is Gawain's jolly host Bertilak, changed by the magic of Arthur's annoying sorceress sister Morgana, who wanted him to scare the hell out of Guinevere. We never really know what was in it for him. But he did do his own test of Gawain, a test the young man has mostly passed. Mostly. That third stroke, when he actually touched Gawain, was for hiding the green girdle on the third day, instead of handing it over.

Poor Gawain! A whole year of stress and he kept his word about coming to the Green Chapel to be beheaded and he has, as he sees it, lost his honour because of a silly little thing, a joke agreement. But it was an agreement, see. And he didn't keep his word. We don't blame him. The Green Knight only blames him a little bit. But he blames himself, the idiot!

He goes home shamed, vowing to wear the green girdle as a sign of his shame. Everyone at home is so pleased to see him, they all get their own green girdles or baldrics to wear as a sign of support. They won't let him wallow.

It doesn't tell you how he reacted, but I imagine he cringed.

The translation: I wonder if it helps when the translator not only knows about the writing of the time but is an artist himself? After all,  Tolkien based his universe on what he knew from his studies. And he did it superbly. I think he did it far better than Professor Nerk of the ANU, someone who was a fine scholar, but not himself/herself an artist, might have done it. When I went to see Shakespeare in Hebrew at the Cameri Theatre in Tel Aviv, it still felt like Shakespeare and no wonder, the translator being one of Israel's top poets.

In any case, I felt through the translator the power of the Gawain poet. It made you feel for the hero, really feel for him,  showed time passing far too fast, reflected his feelings in the bleak landscape and - that nice touch! - the sound of an axe being sharpened when he gets to the grave mound that is called a chapel...

I'm not surprised that writing like this has lasted so long, hundreds of years. I have to wonder if anything written in recent years, the sort of stuff that wins major awards, will even last half a century, let alone more.

I think Lord Of The Rings is a good candidate, don't you? Anything you can think of that might still be in print in the 25th century, if we haven't been wiped out by climate change or World War III?


AJ Blythe said...

Sue, that was a fascinating post! I hadn't heard those tales before. I have an author friend who did tonnes of research into Arthurian legend - she's written a Welsh Arthurian based romance (with dragons) she self-published.

Sue Bursztynski said...

That does sound interesting. Do you have a name for that person/book?

AJ Blythe said...

Gwendolyn Beynon (she's written 20+ romance books for Harlequin as Nikki Logan). Her web page for her Arthurian books is:

She's released books one and two so far of the trilogy: Sacrifice and Ascension.

Sue Bursztynski said...

Thanks, AJ!