Undergrad Wednesdays – Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: The Opening Passage

[This post, part of an effort to merge our undergraduate and graduate blogs, was written in response to an essay prompt for Kathryn Kerby-Fulton's undergraduate course on "Chaucer's Biggest Rivals: The Alliterative Poets." It comes from the former "Medieval Undergraduate Research" website.]

Since the siege and the assault was ceased at Troy,
The city demolished and burnt to embers and ashes,
The hero by whom the plots of treason were wrought
Was tried for his treachery, the truest on earth.
It was Aeneas the warrior and his noble peers,
That since conquered provinces, and became patrons
Of almost all the wealth in the lands of the west.
Rich Romulus went to Rome swiftly,
With great splendor that city he built upon first
And gave it his own name, as it now has;
Ticius went to Tuscany and began to dwell,
Langaberde in Lombardy raised up homes,
And far over the French Sea, Felix Brutus
On the many broad hills of Britain he set
To conquer,
Where war and wrack and wonder
By shifts have occurred therein
And often both bliss and blunder
Swiftly have skillfully sinned.

And when this Britain was built up by this rich soldier,
He boldly spread out there, enjoying fights,
In time he wrought many injuries.
More wonders on this land have occurred more often
Than in any other that I know, since that time.
But of all that built here, of the kings of Britain,
Arthur was always the most noble, as I have heard tell of.
Therefore, an adventure I will tell to sow (grow, spread),
A wondrous sight some men beheld
And an outrageous adventure of Arthur’s wonders.
If you will listen to this tale but a little while,
I shall tell it promptly, as I heard it in town […]

The opening passage of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight serves to establish the story’s mythic nature, parallels between Gawain and Aeneas, and the inherent nobility of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.  By beginning his brief history of Britain with the end of the Trojan War, the poet introduces a mythic, legendary tone to his story.  Similar to beginning a tale with “Once upon a time…”, this opening alerts the reader or listener as to what kind of story it is, and also lends a sense of importance to it.  The third and fourth lines introduce crucial elements of Sir Gawain as well, in particular, the connection between the great hero Aeneas and Gawain and the question of whether someone who has committed “trammes of tresoun” can really be “þe trewest on erthe,” (3, 4).  Further, the focus the poet places on lineage in this passage invokes the New Testament tradition of tracing Jesus’ ancestors back to King David, thus creating the allusion of Gawain as a Christ-like figure in Camelot.  The transition from the history of Britain into the tale of Sir Gawain occurs in the second half of this passage, signaled by the “wheel”.  Here the wheel acts as a transition between the two stanzas, from the Trojan heroes settling cities in Europe to specifically the establishment of Britain.  The narrator shifts his focus to King Arthur and elevates him above the other kings of Britain by mentioning his name in line 26.  This may seem obvious; however, until this point in the poem, no one else has been named except for the great warriors of Troy.  He is not named among other kings, nor even among his knights, and no one else is mentioned by name for another fifty lines.  Additionally, the inverted construction of, “Bretaygne kynges,” (25) serves to draw attention to the line following it, “Ay watz Arthur,” (26).  By so prominently naming King Arthur in the opening of the poem, the author raises him, and therefore his court, to the ranks of Aeneas and Brutus.

Marie Boroff’s translation relentlessly preserves the alliterative style of the original poem, often, it seems, at the expense of maintaining the content.  Her translation of lines three and four, for example, significantly alter the original and give them almost an entirely new meaning.  In her version, it is not Aeneas that is the truest on earth, but his treason that is, “proven most true.”  This effectively eliminates the theme of a flawed knight who is still able to be heroic, and therefore also the connection between Aeneas and Gawain.  This motif is made clear throughout the poem, but having it right at the very beginning lends significance to it, and in translating it this way, she takes away that significance.  It seems that this choice of translation is made solely for the sake of alliterating “proven” with “impeached” and “perfidy”.  She also takes a lot of liberty in the third line in order to make it alliterative.  Although in this case it ultimately has more or less the same meaning as the original, it is a clear demonstration of the way in which she favors the alliterative style over the actual content of the poem.  Boroff also adds words that are not in the original text in order to achieve alliteration.  Her translation of line 20 reads, “Bold boys bred there, in broils delighting.”  However, “to beget” is the third interpretation of “bredden” supplied by the Middle English Dictionary, whereas “to spread out or over” is the second.  This would suggest that the latter definition was more likely.  Therefore, it seems that she chose the former definition in order to be able to include “boys” in the line, again for the purpose of alliteration.  Similarly, in line 23 she writes, “More marvels have happened in this merry land,” even though there is nothing in the original poem to suggest the land is “merry” as the Pearl poet merely refers to it as “þis folde”.  However, by adding “merry” she is able to maintain the a-a-a-x alliterative structure, with “More,” “marvels,” “merry,” “land.” In these instances, nothing critical is lost or gained.  However, it does imply that Boroff’s insistence on alliteration could potentially take away from or change the poem’s meaning in other passages.

Colleen Benson
University of Notre Dame

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