Is there a work of art that you admire, perhaps even love, that initially you could not take to, were put off, perhaps by some quite extraneous matter? (And among extraneous matters I would include subject matter, for I have long believed - thought I believed - that the subject of a work of art was not a valid platform from which to praise or decry it, love or hate it; that what mattered was what the artist made of it, how he treated it, transformed it perhaps.) I ask because Simon Armitage recently presented a programme for BBC4 on the background to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. It was a fascinating programme, disappointingly lacking in quotes from his own translation, but really making the poem come alive and setting it reveaingly in its historical and geographical context. It is only recently that I have been able to approach the book with any great pleasure and Armitage has certainly taken me further along that road. For years - decades! - I was put off by all that le Morte d'Arthur stuff at school. Camelot and the Round Table, codes of Chivalry, maidens in distress, dragons and what-not, all that lumber was a big red road sign saying No Entry!.
But there was one further difficulty: the opening scene. Had I ever surmounted all that magic and romance to summoon a modicum of interest, enough perhaps to get a few juices running, that opening would have blown it clean out the window. What happens is that the knights are all assembled at their Camelot gaff when the door crashes open and in rides The Green Knight. He issues a challenge to any of them willing to accept it: he will allow that knight to cut off his head if in a year's time he will seek him out and allow him to return the compliment. As always, it's a youngster who rises to such a preposterous challenge and cuts off The Green Knight's head. The youngster is Sir Gawain. The head rolls across the floor, the knights kicking it to help it on its way, but The Green Knight goes after it, picks it up, replaces it and rides off, reminding Sir Gawain of his promise as he does so. It took me a few decades to get past that one! (Interestingly though, Simon Armitage suggested a theory concerning this: that it might have been based on the legend of St Winifred's Well at Woolaston, Shropshire - well within the area in which this story is set. Winefride was the daughter of a Welsh nobleman, Tyfid ap Eiludd. Her suitor, Caradog, beheaded her when she announced her intention of becoming a nun. The head rolled downhill and where it came to rest there appeared a spring of clear water, which was later found to have healing properties - and is still visited for their sake. Her maternal uncle and a Saint Beuno managed to replace the head and restore her to life.)
What got me into the story, then? The seduction scene! (Wouldn't you know?) Sir Gawain has many adventures on his quest to find The Green Knight. He roams the borderlands between England and Wales - something even the bravest knights would have hesitated to do in those days - and for a time he takes refuge in a castle he comes upon. The owner, Lord Bertilak, is about to begin three-days of hunting, but offers hospitality, as he must. Before leaving, however, he strikes a bargain with Sir Gawain: he will give Gawain everything he wins on the hunt, if when he returns, Sir Gawain will give him in return everything he has won in the castle during his absence. As Armitage says in the programme: seems easy, no reason not to agree. Sir Gawain is resting in the usual four-poster bed, when Lady Bertilak creeps into the room intent upon seducing him. He resists her advances, doing no more than return a single kiss which she gives him, but what the poet does is to cleverly intercut scenes from the attempted seduction with others from the hunt. What the descriptions from the hunt imply in terms of what is supposed to be taking place in the bedroom is clear enough, certainly they leave the reader in no doubt of what was in the poet's mind. It is a perfect film script, using cinematographic devices, but written centuries before the first camera was even thought of. Lord Bertilak returns and gives Gawain the spoils of the hunt. Gawain gives him the kiss he has won from Lady Bertilak, without divulging its source. The following day it is two kisses and on the third day, three. This time Lady Bertilak also gives Gawain a green silk girdle, which she says will protect him from all physical harm. He keeps the girdle for himself and does not pass it on to Lord Bertilak.
The next day Garwain leaves to resume his quest to find The Green Knight and comes upon him in a Green Chapel, sharpening his axe. Garwain bends over to receive the fatal blow, but the knight delivers only a soft stroke which does no more than bruise his neck and leave a small scar. The Green Knight then reveals himself as Lord Bertilak. The entire game had been the creation of Morgan le Fay, Arthur's sister and nemesis. Garwain returns to Camelot wearing the girdle as a badge of shame for not having been able to keep his promise. (A knight who failed to keep his pledge would be regarded as little better than an outlaw.) Arthur decrees that henceforth all his knights will wear a green sash in recognition of Gawain's adventure.
So what, apart from the story, do we know about the poem? Not the poet. He is unknown, but would have been a contemporary of Chaucer, writing in Middle English. There is no title, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is one that has been given to it by common consent over the years. There are four parts to the poem, all of which are very strong on alliteration. Armitage has made it a priority to retain the alliteration, though that has not always been the case in the past. He spoke in the programme of it being the warp and weft holding the poem together, without which it is so many loose threads. Interestingly, he was able to find local dialect-speakers who still use or understand many of the Middle English words from the manuscript, an example being grollocking, meaning the removal of the intestines etc from a slaughtered animal.
Here, then, a couple of extracts from the 1999 translation by Paul Deane.
First, part of the description of The Green Knight from on his arrival atCamelot (Book 1)
He was got up in green from head to heel:
a tunic worn tight, tucked to his ribs;
and a rich cloak cast over it, covered inside
with a fine fur lining, fitted and sewn
with ermine trim that stood out in contrast
from his hair where his hood lay folded flat;
and handsome hose of the same green hue
which clung to his calves, with clustered spurs
of bright gold; beneath them striped embroidered silk
above his bare shanks, for he rode shoeless.
His clothes were all kindled with a clear light like emeralds:
His belt buckles sparkled, and bright stones were set
in rich rows arranged up and down
himself and his saddle. Worked in the silk
were too many trifles to tell the half of:
embroidered birds, butterflies, and other things
in a gaudy glory of green and inlaid gold.
And the bit and bridle, the breastplate on the horse,
and all its tackle were trimmed with green enamel,
even the saddlestraps, the stirrups on which he stood,
and the bows of his saddle with its billowing skirts
which glimmered and glinted with green jewels.
The stallion that bore him was the best of its breed
it was plain,
a green horse great and strong,
that sidled, danced and strained,
but the bridle-braid led it along,
turning as it was trained.
And now some lines from the third section: the attempted seduction.
While the lord found delight in the linden-wood,
that good man Gawain had a grand bed
where he dozed while daylight dappled the walls
and crept through the counterpanes and curtains about him.
As he drifted half-dreaming, a delicate noise
sounded softly at the door, which suddenly opened.
When he heard this he heaved his head from the sheets
and pulled a corner of the curtain carefully aside,
warily wondering what it might be.
It was the lady herself, such a lovely sight,
who closed the door carefully and quietly behind her
and bent toward the bed. Blushing the fellow
lay down and lurked there, looking asleep.
Taking step after step, she stole to the bed,
caught up the curtain and crawling inside
sat down beside him with silent motions.
A long while she lingered there to look at him waking.
The man lay unmoving for more than a while,
for his mind was bemused what to make of this
strange situation. It seemed most amazing.
But he said to himself, "It would suit far better
if I let the lady enlighten me herself."
Then he straightened and stretched and stirring toward her
he opened his eyes and acted astounded.
Then he crossed himself as if he claimed protection
from that sight --
her chin and cheeks were sweet,
blending red and white;
her voice a pleasant treat
where small lips smiled delight.
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