Yuletide Monsters: Christmas Hauntings in Medieval Literature and Modern Popular Culture

When one thinks of modern Christmas, warm images from Christ’s nativity to Santa’s midnight sleigh ride might come to mind. However, Saint Nicholas is not the only thing that goes bump in the night—Yule monsters represent another syncretized and modernized phenomenon, which corresponds to a medieval tradition that presents winter solstice as an ideal setting for monsters to emerge from the darkness of the long night. In celebration of the holiday season, my latest blog in our series on monsters will consider the tradition of Yuletide monsters and discuss some instances of Christmas haunting in vernacular Middle English and Old Norse-Icelandic sources, thereby catching a brief glimpse at a broader medieval tradition of monsters associated with the winter solstice.

Rima Staines, ‘Baba Yaga’ (2014).

Christmas hauntings have a deep cultural and literary history. One seasonal spook, the Slavic Baba Yaga—a present-stealing witch—is generally remembered today as a holiday monster, though her character has only become associated with Christmas and New Years in modern times. Another, perhaps the most famous Yule monster, is Krampus—the notorious, child-stealing Christmas demon and son of Hel (the Norse goddess of the underworld), who is still popular in modern Germany and increasingly abroad. These modern Christmas hauntings align with a robust medieval tradition of Yuletide monsters that come with the cold and specifically the long night of the winter solstice. Even Grendel in Beowulf, who notoriously terrorizes the hall of Heorot, does so for XII wintra tid “twelve winters’ time” (147) specifically. While this phrase surely refers to the monster’s yearlong assault on Denmark, it also seems to stress the dark and snowy season as the prime time for Grendel’s hauntings.

Gruss vom Krampus, 1900s greeting card reading ‘Greetings from Krampus!’

Today, I will mention three popular medieval texts—one poem and two sagas—which feature Christmas hauntings of all types, including by a green man, an undead revenant, a troll woman and a dragon.

Although most of the Christmas monsters discussed in this blog come from popular Old Norse-Icelandic sagas, the Middle English alliterative poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight begins with a mysterious Green Knight, gome gered in grene “a man geared in green” (179), described as half etayn in erde “half-giant on earth” (140) and aluisch mon “elvish man” (681), who appears at Camelot on Christmas riding a green horse and wielding a green axe. Not only does the Green Knight come at Yule (284), he emerges in court wearing a fur-trimmed robe (152-56) and holding a holyn bobbe “holly bundle” (206) in his hand, as if he were the Ghost of Christmas Present from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

Ghost of Christmas Present from film ‘Scrooge’ (1970) directed by Ronald Neame.

Moreover, he explicitly wishes to play a Crystemas gomen “Christmas game” (283). The passage describing the Green Knight’s arrival emphasizes his coming for the Christmas festivities, thereby linking him with the tradition of Yuletide monsters. The Green Knight declares that since there is no warrior who can match him in battle:

I craue in þis court a Crystemas gomen,
For hit is Ȝol and Nwe Ȝer, and here ar ȝep mony:
If any so hardy in þis hous holdez hymseluen,
Be so bolde in his blod, brayn in hys hede,
Þat dar stifly strike a strok for an oþer,
I schal gif hym of my gyft þys giserne ryche,
Þis ax, þat is heué innogh, to hondele as hym lykes,
And I schal bide þe fyrst bur as bare as I sitte (283-290).

“I desire in this court a Christmas game, for it is Yule and New Year, and you here are many. If any in this house holds himself so hardy, be his blood so bold—his brain in his head—that he dare stiffly strike one stroke for another, I shall give him my gift, this rich gisarme—this axe—that is heavy enough to handle as he likes, and I shall abide the first blow, as bare as I sit.”

Manuscript illustration of the headless Green Knight in British Library, Cotton Nero A.x f.94v.

Christmas stays a prominent theme throughout the poem, and it operates as a metric by which to measure time. Gawain spends the following Christmas with Lord and Lady Bertilak in anticipation of the subsequent Christmas game, when the Green Knight will deliver a return blow. Christmas feasting both begins and concludes this Middle English romance, enveloping the narrative with this holiday theme. Indeed, Christmas is mentioned nine times in the poem, demonstrating its role in framing the narrative. Yule is mentioned twice, and the first reference comes from the Green Knight himself as to the reason for his journey to King Arthur’s court.

The next text in our discussion is the Old Norse-Icelandic Grettis saga, which contains multiple Christmas haunting episodes, each featuring a very different type of Yule monster. In Grettis saga, the holiday of Yule is likewise a repeated fixture and marker of time, and Yule is referenced thirty-three times in the saga.

Grettir Ásmundarson as depicted in a 17th-century manuscript illustration, Reykjavík AM 426.

The major and most frequently discussed Yuletide haunting in the saga concerns the undead revenant Glámr, a Swedish herdsman who ignores Christmas traditions:

Nú leið svo þar til er kemr aðfangadagr jóla. Þá stóð Glámr snemma upp ok kallaði til matar síns. Húsfreyja svaraði: “Ekki er það háttr kristinna manna at matast þenna dag því at á morgun er jóladagr hinn fyrsti,” segir hún, “ok er því fyrst skylt at fasta í dag” (chapter 32).

“Now time past there until when comes the eve of Yule. Then Glámr stood up and called for his food. The lady of the house answered: ‘It is not proper that Christian men eat meat on this day, because tomorrow is the first day of Yule,” she says, “and thus they shall first fast today.’”

Glámr’s response marks him as explicitly unchristian, which may serve to foreshadow his untimely demise:

Hann svarar: “Marga hindurvitni hafið þér þá er ek sé til einskis koma. Veit ek eigi at mönnum fari nú betr at heldr en þá er menn fóru ekki með slíkt. Þótti mér þá betri siðr er menn voru heiðnir kallaðir ok vil ek mat minn en öngvar refjar” (32).

“He answers, ‘You have many restrictions, when I see no good come of it. I do not know that men fare better now than when they did not heed such things. It seems to me that the customs of men were better when they were called heathens, and now I want my meat, and no foolishness.”

Michael Davini, “Viking Village” (2011).

After his praise for heathenism, spurring caution, Glámr ventures into a known haunted region at Yuletide, and he never returns. We are told that kom hann ekki heim jólanóttina “he came not home on Yule-night” and soon we learn that he has died. After days of searching and a number of attempts to bring Glámr’s body to the church to be buried, eventually the townsfolk give up and bury Glámr where they find him, and Það drógu menn saman at sú meinvættr er áðr hafði þar verið mundi hafa deytt Glám “men drew from this, that the evil spirit which had been there before will have killed Glámr.” However, shortly thereafter, it is the undead Glámr who perpetrates Yuletide hauntings, as the saga reports:

Litlu síðar urðu menn varir við það at Glámr lá eigi kyrr. Varð mönnum at því mikið mein svo at margir féllu í óvit ef sáu hann en sumir héldu eigi vitinu. Þegar eftir jólin þóttust menn sjá hann heima þar á bænum. Urðu menn ákaflega hræddir. Stukku þá margir menn í burt. Því næst tók Glámr at ríða húsum á nætr svo at lá við brotum (32).

“A little time after men were aware that Glámr did not lay quiet. People become so greatly disturbed by this, that many fell into hysteria when they saw him, and some lost their wits. Even after Yule men thought they saw him at home on the farm. People became extremely scared.  Many men then fled. Next, Glámr took to riding houses at night, so that he nearly broke them.”

John Vernon Lord, illustration of Glámr riding roofs in ‘Icelandic Sagas’ 2, The Folio Society, 2002.

Grettir famously defeats Glámr, who is frequently associated with the Old Norse-Icelandic draugr, but not until the revenant has cursed Grettir with unceasing fear of the dark, as terrible light from Glámr’s eyes haunts Grettir until the end of his days and he becomes nyctophobic forevermore.

Another Yuletide monster discussed in the saga takes place when Grettir arrives at Sandhaug to investing a trǫllagangr “troll-haunting” (chapter 64), and he encounters a trǫllkona “troll woman” (65). This monster enters the halls of Sandhaug on aðfangadag jóla “Yule-eve” (64), and she plunders the halls during the long night:

Nú er frá Gretti það at segja at þá er dró at miðri nótt heyrði hann út dynr miklar. Því næst kom inn í stofuna trǫllkona mikil. Hún hafði í hendi trog en annarri skálm heldr mikla. Hún litast um er hún kom inn ok sá hvar Gestur lá ok hljóp at honum en hann upp í móti ok réðust á grimmlega ok sóttust lengi í stofunni (65).

“Now it is said of Grettir that when it drew towards midnight, he heard a great din outside. Then a great troll woman came into the hall. She had a trough in one hand, and a blade, rather great, in the other. She looked around when she came in and saw where ‘Guest’ [i.e. Grettir] lay and ran towards him, but he jumped up to meet her, and they wrestled fiercely and struggled together for a long time in the hall.”

John Bauer, ‘Troll Cave with Deer’ (1915).

Eventually, she drags Grettir from the hall, carries him off and tries to escape to her lair ofan til árinnar ok allt fram at gljúfrum “up to the river and all the way to the gorges” (65). Grettir is ultimately able to cut her shoulder, slicing off the troll woman’s arm, a fatal blow which sends her off a cliff and to her death. After recovering from his encounter with the troll woman, Grettir sneaks into her cave and slays her companion, a jǫtunn “giant” (66).

The final Yuletide haunting discussed in this blog comes from Hrólfs saga kraka, when a massive flying dýr “beast” (probably a dragon of some kind) threatens the hall. The cowardly Hǫttr explains how this night-terror returns during Yule to haunt the hall of king Hrólfr:

Ok sem leið at jólum, gerðust menn ókátir. Bǫðvarr spyrr Hǫtt, hverju þetta sætti. Hann segir honum, at dýr eitt hafi þar komit tvá vetr í samt, mikit ok ógurligt, “ok hefir vængi á bakinu, ok flýgr þat jafnan. Tvau haust hefir þat nú hingat vitjat ok gert mikinn skaða. Á þat bíta ekki vápn, en kappar konungs koma ekki heim, þeir sem at eru einna mestir.

Bǫðvarr mælti: “Ekki er hǫllin svá vel skipuð sem ek ætlaði, ef eitt dýr skal hér eyða ríki ok fé konungsins.” Hǫttr  sagði: “Þat er ekki dýr, heldr er þat mesta trǫll” (chapter 35).

“And as Yule neared, men became gloomy. Bǫðvarr asked Hǫttr what caused this. He said to him that a beast had come there for two winters in a row, great and monstrous. ‘And it has wings on its back and frequently flies. For two autumns now it has visited and caused great harm. No weapon bites it, and the king’s champions, those who are the greatest, do not come home.’”

Bǫðvarr spoke: ‘the hall is not so well guarded as I thought, if one beast shall here destroy the king’s realm and livestock.’ Hǫttr said: ‘It is not a beast, rather it is the greatest troll.’” 

A Winged Dragon in a bestiary, 1278–1300, Franco-Flemish. Tempera colors, pen and ink, gold leaf, and gold paint on parchment. The J. Paul Getty Museum, MS Ludwig XV 4, f.94.

This warning is quickly validated, for when jólaaptann “Yule-eve” arrives, King Hrólfr commands his warriors to stay inside and forbids them from fighting the monster, proclaiming that it is better to lose his livestock than his people. However, Bǫðvarr Bjarki sneaks into the night, dragging Hǫttr behind him, and the hero quickly slays the Yuletide monster terrorizing the kingdom. Then, at Bǫðvarr’s behest, Hǫttr consumes the flesh and blood of the beast, which strengthens and emboldens him, transforming him into a hero (in a way that recalls Sigurðr’s actions after Fáfnir is slain).

These medieval stories of Yuletide monsters participate in a robust tradition of winter-time (and even Christmas-specific) hauntings, which continued throughout the ages and manifests still today. Dickens’ Christmas Carol is perhaps one of the more memorable, with visitations by four ghosts at the home of the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge on Christmas Eve. Dr. Seuss’s Grinch renders its Scrooge-like antihero in the form of a green Christmas-hating monster bent on stealing Christmas, and Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas explores the theme of Christmas haunting when the pumpkin king and leader of Halloween Town, Jack Skellington, decides he would rather celebrate Christmas one year instead out of sheer boredom with his own holiday. Jack then proceeds to haunt Christmas transforming cozy festivities into a horror show as if he were a Yule monster of old.

Jack Skellington and Santa Claus from Tim Burton’s ‘Nightmare Before Christmas’ (1993).

More recently, in George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire (and HBO’s corresponding TV series Game of Thrones), winter monsters known as the White Walkers (seemingly inspired by Old Norse-Icelandic revenants), led by the fearsome Night King, come with the cold in the long night to terrorize Westeros. Even Netflix’s edgy reboot of Sabrina the Teen-age Witch, appropriately retitled Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (2018), gives a nod to medieval tales of wintertime monsters when during the solstice the Spellmans place a protective candle in the chimney to prevent Yule demons from entering their home; however, this does not stop Grýla—an Icelandic giantess—from visiting during the night when the witches’ protective candle becomes accidentally extinguished.

Night King from season eight of HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ TV series (2018).

Yuletide continues to provide a haunting wintry setting for monster visits. Although often balanced by saccharine images of Christmas as a source of light and warmth against the cold dark, what lurks beyond the illumination of society during the long night seems to readily elicit horror in the modern—as well as medieval—imagination.

Richard Fahey
PhD in English
University of Notre Dame

Further Reading

Billock, Jennifer. “The Origin of Krampus, Europe’s Evil Twist on Santa.” Smithsonian Magazine (2015).

Carrière, Jean Louise. “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight as a Christmas Poem.” Comitatus: A Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies 1.1 (1970): 25-42.

Chadwick, Nora K. “Norse Ghosts (A Study in the Draugr and the Haugúbi).” Folklore 57 (1946): 50–65

—. “Norse Ghosts II (Continued).” Folklore 57 (1946): 106–127

Cereno, Benito. “The Legend of the Baba Yaga Explained.” Grunge (2020).

Fahey, Richard. “Medieval Trolls: Monsters From Scandinavian Myth and Legend.” Medieval Studies Research Blog (2020).

—. “Dragonomics: Smaug and Climate Change.” Medieval Studies Research Blog (2019).

—. “Zombies of the Frozen North: White Walkers and Old Norse Revenants.” Medieval Studies Research Blog (2018).

Firth, Matt. “Berserks, Revenants, and Ghost Seals – Surviving a Saga Christmas. The Postgrad Chronicles (2017).

—. “Monsters and the Monstrous in the Sagas – The Saga of Grettir the Strong.” The Postgrad Chronicles (2017).

Jakobsson, Ármann and Miriam Mayburd. Paranormal Encounters in Iceland 1150–1400. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2020.

—. “Vampires and Watchmen: Categorizing the Medieval Undead.” Journal of English and Germanic Philology 110 (2011): 281–300

—. “The Fearless Vampire Killers: A Note about the Icelandic Draugr and Demonic Contamination in Grettis Saga.” Folklore 120 (2009): 307–316.

Kirk, Elizabeth D. “‘Wel Bycommes Such Craft Upon Cristmasse’: the Festive and the Hermeneutic in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” Arthuriana 4.2 (1994): 93-137.

Palmer, Alex. “Why Iceland’s Christmas Witch Is Much Cooler (and Scarier) Than Krampus.” Smithsonian Magazine (2017).

Phelan, Walter S. The Christmas Hero and Yuletide Tradition in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Lewiston, NY: E. Mellen Press, 1992.

Squires, John. “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina” Brought Christmas Demon Grýla to the Screen for the First Time.” Bloody Disgusting (2018).

Su, Minjie. “Old Norse White Walkers? Draugr, the Walking Dead in Medieval Icelandic Sagas.Medievalist.net (2017).

Troop, Sarah Elizabeth. “Monsters of Christmas.” Atlas Obscura (2013).

Villareal, Daniel. “These 20 Terrifying Christmas Monsters Will Haunt Your Holidays.” Hornet (2019).

Zarka, Emily. “Draugr: The Undead Nordic Zombie.” Monstrum, Public Broadcasting Station (2019).

Undergrad Wednesdays – Poetic Nuance in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

[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.]

source: http://33.media.tumblr.com

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (1.250-278):

Þenn Arþour bifore þe hiȝ dece þat auenture byholdez,
And rekenly hym reuerenced, for rad was he neuer,
And sayde, ‘Wyȝe, welcum iwys to þis place, [folio 94v]
Þe hede of þis ostel Arthour I hat;
Liȝt luflych adoun and lenge, I þe praye,
And quat-so þy wylle is we schal wyt after.’
‘Nay, as help me,’ quoþ þe haþel, ‘he þat on hyȝe syttes,
To wone any quyle in þis won, hit watz not myn ernde;
Bot for þe los of þe, lede, is lyft vp so hyȝe,
And þy burȝ and þy burnes best ar holden,
Stifest vnder stel-gere on stedes to ryde,
Þe wyȝtest and þe worþyest of þe worldes kynde,
Preue for to play wyth in oþer pure laykez,
And here is kydde cortaysye, as I haf herd carp,
And þat hatz wayned me hider, iwyis, at þis tyme.
Ȝe may be seker bi þis braunch þat I bere here
Þat I passe as in pes, and no plyȝt seche;
For had I founded in fere in feȝtyng wyse,
I haue a hauberghe at home and a helme boþe,
A schelde and a scharp spere, schinande bryȝt,
Ande oþer weppenes to welde, I wene wel, als;
Bot for I wolde no were, my wedez ar softer.
Bot if þou be so bold as alle burnez tellen,
Þou wyl grant me godly þe gomen þat I ask
bi ryȝt.’
Arthour con onsware,
And sayd, ‘Sir cortays knyȝt,
If þou craue batayl bare,
Here faylez þou not to fyȝt.’
Source: http://quod.lib.umich.edu

My Translation:

Then Arthur, before the high dais, that adventure/strange happening beheld
And courteously greeted him, for afraid was he never,
And said: “Knight, welcome indeed to this place.
The head of this hostel, Arthur I am called.
Dismount graciously down and stay, I pray thee,
And what your will is, we shall learn after.”
“Nay, so help me,” said the knight, “He that on high sits,
To dwell any while in this abode was not my errand;
But for the renown of thee, Prince, is lifted up so high
And your castle and your knights are held [to be] best,
Stiffest/Strongest under steel-gear on steeds to ride,
The strongest and the worthiest of the world’s offspring,
Valiant to play with in other noble games,
And here is shown that courtesy, as I have heard mention of–
And that has brought me here, certainly, at this time
You may be safe by this branch that I bear here
That I pass as in peace and seek no plight;
For had I set out in company in a fighting fashion,
I have a hauberk [plate of armor] at home and a helmet both,
A shield and a sharp spear, shining bright,
And other weapons to wield, I know [they are] good, also;
But for I don’t want there to be, my clothing is gentler.
But if thou would be so bold as all men say [you are],
Thou will grant me goodly the game that I ask
By right.”
Arthur did answer
And said: “Sir courteous knight,
If thou crave bare battle,
Here you will not fail to fight.”

My Analysis:

The Gawain-poet takes on the Arthurian and the alliterative traditions in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, as is aptly demonstrated in this passage from lines 250-278. In this scene, Arthur addresses the mysterious Green Knight who appears at the entrance to his hall. The poet begins the passage, noting “þat auenture” standing before Arthur’s court (1.250). This adventure, or marvel, alludes to the same “meruayle þat he he myȝt trawe, / Of alderes, of armes, of oþer auenturus” that Arthur seeks earlier before being seated for dinner (1.94-95). Arthur’s request for a tale of adventure is a traditional aspect of Arthurian literature. In this poem, however, it is revealed as a potentially childish request, as the poet takes on the tradition, exaggerating the adventure to one more dangerous and real than Arthur would perhaps have originally desired.

The poet is also successful in portraying the noble courtesy that was traditional behavior for knights. Line 251 emphasizes this type of courtly behavior, utilizing alliteration of three words, as was custom in the alliterative tradition of the time: “And rekenly hym reuerenced, for rad was he neuer.” Arthur applies this same type of courtesy to the green guest, welcoming him, “Wyȝe, welcum iwys to þis place. /…/ Liȝt luflych adoun and lenge, I þe praye” (1.252-254). The alliterated words (wyȝe, welcum, iwys, and liȝt, luflych, lenge) emphasize the chivalric greeting given to the Green Knight, likely because of the high quality materials he wears, described in an earlier passage.

It is important to note that by addressing the Green Knight in a chivalric manner, Arthur employs the formal and respectful “þe” (1.253), in comparison to the Green Knight’s disrespectful use of “þou” (1.272). This foreshadows the sinister intentions of the Green Knight, corresponding with the likewise dual-natured description of his appearance in previous passages: the knight is ominously giant and green, but outfitted like a noble knight and is therefore difficult to define as specifically “good” or “bad.” The Gawain-poet hints at the Green Knight’s deceptive character a second time in this same passage, when the knight says Arthur’s court is “Preue for to play wyth in oþer pure laykez,” alluding to the subsequent beheading game, as “oþer pure laykez” indicates games rather than jousting (1.262). The Green Knight’s cunning deception can be seen as the Green Knight’s “oþer weppenes to welde” (1.270). The poet draws attention to these lines in the notable occurrence of translinear alliteration. Lines 270 and 271 both alliterate on long vowel sounds that begin with “w”: “Ande oþer weppenes to welde, I wene wel, als; / Bot for I wolde no were, my wedez ar softer.” The poet’s emphasis on these lines indicate to the reader that the Green Knight’s focus on appearance of clothing as indicative of his nature is important—should the knights trust that the Green Knight’s clothing and appearance can guarantee his real intent? Yet again, the poet serves at a critic of the court, suggesting a childish gullibility within it.

Marie Borroff handles this passage well in her translation, maintaining most key aspects of the passage’s stylistic nuances. There are, however, significant alterations that sacrifice some of the poem’s integrity. Perhaps most significantly, her translation foregoes much of the allusions to the malevolent character of the Green Knight. Most obviously, this is lost where Borroff replaces both the words “þe” and “þou” with the umbrella-word, “you.” Any nuance in tone is erased with this replacement, resulting in a much more deferential Green Knight. The Green Knight’s previously discussed use of “ȝou” to address Arthur reveals the costume nature of his attire, as his language here disagrees with the noble appearance of his attire. A true knight would be required to behave and speak in the same chivalric fashion Arthur displays.

Her choice of “you” is problematic in another instance in the passage, when Arthur returns the favor to the Green Knight, addressing him, “If þou craue batayl bare, / Here faylez þou not to fyȝt” (277-278). Arthur addresses the Green Knight with a reciprocating “þou” twice within the wheel structure; evidently the poet wants to draw attention to this change in language coming from Arthur. Borroff misses this emphasis on his change in tone when she uses the less nuanced “you,” writing “If contest here you crave, / You shall not fail to fight.” It is, however, important to note that there aren’t many modern equivalents for Borroff to choose from in terms of polite and impolite forms of “you,” so her loss can easily be attributed not to any oversight on her part, but to a true lack of modern equivalent English to select from.

Borroff further fails in her portrayal of the Green Knight when she substitutes words and phrases so as to maintain the alliterative pattern of her translation. She translates “Preue for to play wyth in oþer pure laykez” (1.262) to “And peerless to prove in passages of arms.” While her translation succeeds in maintaining the rhythmic and alliterative integrity of the original, the meaning is twisted in such a way that it loses its original allusion to the beheading game (oþer pure laykez). Yet again, the Green Knight is portrayed without key allusions to his deception, losing the poetic nuance of foreshadowing.

This occurs again in line 266: “Þat I passe as in pes and no plyȝt seche.” Borroff’s translation, “That I pass here in peace, and would part friends,” again prioritizes the alliterative style over meaning, and the Green Knight becomes the friendly giant, wishing to befriend the court before him. He assures them that his bearing of a traditional Christmas branch indicates his desire for peace, as was custom at the time. This is certainly not the case, as he, in reality, wishes to deceive and test them. The original verse is much more ambiguous, for it is unclear as to whose plight he does not seek—probably, he seeks no plight for himself and merely allows the possibility that there be none for the other knights, should they, of course, pass his test. This is yet another key example of the Green Knight waving the falsity of his appearance in the naïve court’s faces; he almost mocks the act of bearing a branch to represent peace and toying with the youthful naïveté of Arthur’s court. These nuances are all sacrificed in Borroff’s representation of the Green Knight, yielding the loss of poetic foreshadowing and poetic critique within the poem.

The poet’s role as a potential critic of the court is made less pronounced in line 250 of Borroff’s translation, where she omits the word “auenture,” choosing “entrance” instead. This decision erases the implication that Arthur’s previously desired tale of marvel and adventure has been presented through the arrival of the Green Knight. The irony of the entire matter is lost and the poet loses one of his key criticisms. It is perhaps fitting, given her failure to portray the Green Knight’s allusions to his dangerous intentions, that she fail to present him as Arthur’s “auenture” to begin with. This alteration, along with many others, is very slight but also very pronounced when closer readings of the original text lend to truly wonderful poetic devices and subtleties that the translation simply lacks. The greatest attributes of the Gawain-poet are his nuanced and intricate style, playing performer, insider, and critic for and of the court, all at once. Borrof’s choices may have reflected ones necessary to best reproduce the poem in its stylistic character with a meaning as close to the original as possible, but her selections reveal the impossibility of doing so while maintaining the original’s subtle and well-crafted overtones.

The knights’ likely attitude upon seeing the Green Knight enter their hall. Source: https://uploads.disquscdn.com.

Original illustration in the Pearl-manuscript. Source: http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/.

Margaret Quinn
University of Notre Dame


Undergrad Wednesdays – Visceral Moments in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

[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.]

My translation of lines 1581-1600:

Til the knight came himself, urging on his horse,
Saw him wait at bay, beside his men.
He dismounts beautifully, leaves his horse,
Draws out a bright sword and strides forth powerfully.
Goes swiftly through the ford where the fierce one waits.
The wild animal was aware of the man with the weapon in hand,
The hair raised up on end; he snorted so fiercely
That the many feared for the knight, lest the worst befall him.
The boar charges straight at the man,
That the man and the boar were both in a heap
In the strongest current of the water. The other had the worst,
For the man marks him well, as they first met,
Firmly sets the blade exactly in the hollow at the base of the throat,
Struck him up to the hilt, that the heart breaks apart
And snarling he yielded to him and was carried downstream
Quite quickly.
A hundred hounds seized him,
That fiercely biting him;
The men brought him to the bank
And the dogs condemn him to death.

Original Text:

Til the knyȜt com hymself, kachande his blonk,
SyȜ hym byde at þe bay, his burnez bysyde.
He lyȜtes luflych adoun, leuez his corsour,
Braydez out a bryȜt bront and brigly forth strydez.
Foundez fast þurȜ þe forth þer þe felle bydez..
þe wylde watz war of þe wyȜe with weppen in honde,
Hef hyȜly þe here; so hetterly he fnast
þat fele ferde for þe freke, lest felle hym þe worre.
þe swyn settez hym out on þe segge euen,
þat þe burne and þe bor were boþe vpon hepez
In þe wyȜtest of þe water. Þe worre hade þat oþer,
For þe mon merkkez hym wel, as þay mette fyrst,
Set sadly þe scharp in þe slot euen,
Hit hym vp to þe hult. Þat þe hert schyndered
And he Ȝarrande hym Ȝelde and Ȝedoun þe water
Ful tyt.
A hundreth houndez hym hent,
þat bremely con hym bite;
Burnez him broȜt to bent
And doggez to dethe endite.


This section of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is from the second hunting scene. These action packed scenes of the men hunting various animals are interjected by scenes of Bertilak’s wife trying to seduce Sir Gawain in his bed each morning. Here we have interesting interplay between two different kinds of aggressors. It presents two manifestations of the passions of raw human nature, the sexual and the violent, while showing their overlap. On the one hand, we have the male aggressors hunting deer and boars for sport, and then we have the female sexual aggressor who is performing her husband’s wishes as she tries to seduce Gawain. The fast-paced violent action of the hunting scenes makes the scenes with Bertilak’s wife all the more intense and intimate. Bertilak also seems to be channeling his sexual energy and frustrations about his quest into the hunt. In the original text, through the vivid imagery and the fact that Bertilak has an audience of men who are holding their breath as he attacks the boar, the reader gets a real sense of the drama of  the scene.

Formally, there is a lot going on in this section of the poem which is true of Gawain as a whole; some elements include effective imagery, intentional alliteration, and allusions to elsewhere in the text. The most important part of this passage for me is how the Gawain-poet elicits visceral reactions through vivid sensual imagery. The reader can see the violent battle between the knight and the boar, experience the fear of both opponents, feel the anxiety rolling off the watching men, and, in the last line, the reader is repulsed and oddly satisfied by the final depiction of the dogs ending the boar. I will look into a few of these images in greater detail in comparison with Marie Borroff’s translation later in this blog post. As is the case throughout the entire poem, alliteration plays a huge part in conveying tone and meaning—and this section is no exception. One of my favorite instances of this occurs at line 1594, which reads, “Hit hym vp to þe hult. Þat þe hert schyndered.” With this forceful repetition of the “h” sound, the reader can almost hear the exhalation or gasp of the boar as Gawain strikes him. This also shows how reading the poem aloud can emphasize this effect of the words. Another interesting aspect to the Gawain-poet is that he cleverly foreshadows and references other moments in the story throughout the entire poem. In line 1593, the Gawain poet writes “Set sadly þe scharp in þe slot euen.” The careful aim and powerful movement of Bertilak in this line recalls the how Gawain beheads the Green Knight at the beginning of the poem.

Overall, in comparing my translation with Marie Borroff’s, I noticed that there are fewer words in her modernized text. In this way, she still makes the encounter seem dramatic, but it is more about the conflict of the generic “Man versus Beast,” rather than the specific knight and boar. If we directly translate the passage, we get Bertilak’s own sense of urgency and the more visceral descriptions of the boar’s death. In this way, the Gawain-poet’s text is more immediate, intense, and personal. By looking at some of the problematic passages I found in the Borroff translation, I will show how her attempt for lyrical and relatable poetic language precludes the reader from gaining a true sense of the poem.

For example, in line 1593, Borroff translates the phrase “Slips in the blade,” while I translated “Firmly sets the blade.” The effect of Borroff’s is to make it sound like Bertilak slipped the blade easily and even gently into the boar’s neck, like sticking a knife in pudding. In my translation, you see how Bertilak has to use force and precision as he makes the killing blow. It gives him greater agency and power, and seems like a more triumphant moment.

Then in line 1595, we see the aftermath of the boar’s shattered heart. Borroff translates the phrase, “he falls in his fury,” while I said “and snarling he yielded.” Borroff’s phrasing recalls the language of epic poetry, with heaven and hell imagery as he falls dramatically. In my more direct translation, the boar’s death is much more rooted in reality. You understand the feeling that the boar is unwillingly yielding to the knight’s wishes. The knight is, once again, more of an active agent inflicting powerful force on the boar, forcing the boar to give in. This boar is violently aggressive and protests vocally until the end.

Another problem for Borroff is her attempt to recreate an alliterative structure. Sometimes she does a nice job with either repeating the same consonant from the original text or choosing a sound with a similar effect, but she is not always that successful. In line 1583, the Middle English reads “He lyȜtes luflych adoun, leuez his corsour.” Instead of writing alliteratively, Borroff tries to retain the language of the Gawain poet by translating, “Lightly he leaps down, leaves his courser.” Because of this, Borroff alienates the modern reader by using an unfamiliar word for horse without even using it for her own alliterative purposes. Then, in line 1596 the Gawain-poet writes, “A hundreth houndez hym hent.” Borroff translates the line, “Hounds hasten by the score.” She has the repetition of the “h” in the two first words, but the latter half of the line completely lacks any alliteration. To her credit, Borroff keeps relatively the same number of syllables and captures the fast pace of the moment in the story. She does not, however, maintain the original effect of the alliteration. In the original, there is a gasping quality of the “h” which makes you hear the hounds pant as they sprint to the kill.

Lastly, in line 1600, Borroff  says, “And dogs pronounce him dead.” The verb choice makes it seem like the dogs ran over to the boar and listened for his failed heartbeat. It completely removes any sense of aggression and action. I, however, chose to phrase it with “and the dogs condemn him to death.” This infuses power in the dog’s instinctual action as well as a sort of dark primal form of justice to the text.

In general, the Borroff translation is softened, with language that is trying to be poetic and flow smoothly, but unfortunately it simply softens the visceral effect of the poem. As is so often the trouble with translation, we have to make choices for what we can keep from an original text. We have to pick and choose certain elements: the original meaning of the words, the formal structure, or the tone- to name a few. Unfortunately, as Billy Murray demonstrates while gallivanting around Toyko with a young Scarlett Johansson, some things are just Lost in Translation.

Elizabeth Kennedy
University of Notre Dame