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 – Momentum and Power Swing in the Confrontation

[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.]

The following is taken from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, as Gawain and the Green Knight honor their agreement set a year prior.

Original Text, lines 2309-2329

He lyftes lyȝtly his lome, and let hit doun fayre                                  [2309]
( vs: He gathered the grim axe and guided it well)
With þe barbe of þe bitte bi þe bare nek;
Þaȝ he homered heterly, hurt hym no more
Bot snyrt hym on þat on syde, þat seuered þe hyde.
Þe scharp schrank to þe flesche þurȝ þe schyre grece,                         [2313]
Þat þe schene blod ouer his schulderes schot to þe erþe;
And quen þe burne seȝ þe blode blenk on þe snawe,
He sprit forth spenne-fote more þen a spere lenþe,
Hent heterly his helme, and on his hed cast,                                         [2317]
Schot with his schulderez his fayre schelde vnder,
Braydez out a bryȝt sworde, and bremely he spekez–
Neuer syn þat he watz burne borne of his moder
Watz he neuer in þis worlde wyȝe half so blyþe–                             [2321]
‘Blynne, burne, of þy bur, bede me no mo!
I haf a stroke in þis sted withoute stryf hent,
And if þow rechez me any mo, I redyly schal quyte,
And ȝelde ȝederly aȝayn–and þerto ȝe tryst–                                [2325]
and foo.
Bot on stroke here me fallez–
Þe couenaunt schop ryȝt so,
Fermed in Arþurez hallez–
And þerfore, hende, now hoo!’                                                   [2329]

My Modern Translation

He lifts lightly his axe, and let it down fair
With the barbe of the blade by the bare neck.
Though he hammered heartily, hurt him no more
But save a cut to the side that severed the hide.
The sharp sank into the flesh parting the white flesh,
That the sheen of blood over his shoulders shot to the earth.
And when he saw the blood blank on the snow,
He jumped forth with feet together more than the length of a spear,
Grabbing heartily his helmet and putting it on,
Covering with his shoulders his fair shield behind,
Brandished a bright sword and fiercely he spoke—
Never since he was born of his mother
Was he never in this world half so happy–
‘Happily put away your sword, bid me no more!
I have a stroke in this stead without receiving strife
And if you reach me any more, I readily shall repay
And I say quickly again—and thereto the trust—
and wickedly.
But one strike here falls on me–
The covenant stops correctly so
That was formed in Arthur’s halls–
And therefore, noble, now stop!

British Library MS Cotton Nero A.x; f. 125/129v.

This passage signifies a release from the bounds of duty and agreement. With it comes a physical element—the cutting of Gawain’s neck to bear testament to his encounter and compliance. This sign also marks a transition in the passage, as Gawain understands the significance of the bloody visual. In Marie Borroff’s translation, however, Gawain’s injury is described in more muted language, and as a result, transfers less weight to Sir Gawain’s courageous rebuke.

In its original form, the passage is immediately characterized by the alliteration seen throughout the entirety of the work. While alliteration serves many purposes, its use within this passage is primarily to direct momentum and illustrate power. In the first line, the text reads, “He lyftes lyȝtly his lome, and let hit doun fayre” (2309). Immediately a sense of fluidity and elegance surrounds the Green Knight as he lifts his axe. This is due solely to the softness of the “l” sounds that fill the line, as repetition of these words creates a rolling sensation, providing an audible momentum to match the motion of the axe. The next line serves as stark contrast, since words such as “barbe”, and “bitte” (2310) have closed sounds that oppose the open fluidity of the line before it. As such, the first two lines together bear opposite tonal qualities and hint at broader significance. The parity of openness and closure fit both with the theme of execution—as one’s life is ended, and with the termination of Gawain’s covenant—as his contract is closed. These two possibilities are inherently at odds with each other. This is fitting, as in many ways, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a tale of opposites; chivalry and courtesy, loyalty and preservation, and desire and chastity are but a few pairs of conflicting forces that come to define the work. Within the sonic contrast in the first two lines, the poet embeds the struggle between Gawain and The Green Knight within the thematic structure of direct opposition.

The Green Knight is dominant in the beginning of this passage. However, the distribution of power quickly shifts when Gawain sees his own blood splatter on the snow. To mark this transition, the poet begins the line with “and,” a word that has little sonic magnitude, making the word to a neutral marker. Both lines before this begin with “Þe” and “Þat” (2313,2314), while the two lines following begin with “He” and “Hent” (2315, 2316), respectively, and thus serves to further isolate this transitional line. Upon seeing the blood, Gawain realizes his pact is fulfilled and is thus placed on even ground with the Green Knight. The poet gives him an increasing amount of power as he speaks out against the knight. “Braydez out a bryȝt sworde, and bremely he spekez” (2319), writes the poet, mimicking the “b sound” that defined the action of the axe only moments before. This is further compounded in Gawain’s language, as he commands, “Blynne, burne, of þy bur, bede me no mo!” (2322). In total transition, and demonstrated through alliteration, the power held by the Green Knight now lies in the armored hands of Gawain.

This transition of power and tonal clash, while still present in the Borroff translation, is not as stylistically developed. In place of soft “l” sounds, Marie Borroff opts for a line filled with “g” words that are more reconcilable with the “b” sounds that follow. Furthermore, Gawain’s moment of realization is softened in Borroff’s translation. The vivid—and grotesque—desription of bloodshed is greatly diminished in the translation, and as a result the moment of freedom, and thus the lynchpin on which power swings is transitively cast into shadow. What should be translated as a “stream” of blood “[shooting] to earth,” is written as a “little blood lightly leapt to earth” (2314). Such a softening of language mutes the gravity of the situation, thus undermining the theme of Gawain’s inescapable mortality that runs throughout the work. As such, Gawain’s transition into a bold figure is dramatically lessened in Marie Borroff’s translation and does not allow him to fully embrace the knightly values of courage and bravery.

Michael Duffey
University of Notre Dame

Undergrad Wednesdays – War and Tests of Will

[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.]

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Lines 279-300
“Nay, frayst I no fyȝt, in fayth I þe telle;
Hit arn aboute on þis bench bot berdlez chylder.
If I were hasped in armes on a heȝe stede,
Here is no mon me to mach, for myȝtez so wayke.
Forþy 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 anoþer,
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.
If any freke be so felle to fonde þat I telle,
Lepe lyȝtly me to, and lach þis weppen–
I quit-clayme hit for euer, kepe hit as his auen–
And I schal stonde hym a strok, stif on þis flet,
Ellez þou wyl diȝt me þe dom to dele hym an oþer
And ȝet gif hym respite,
A twelmonyth and a day.
Now hyȝe, and let se tite
Dar any herinne oȝt say.”

My Translation:
“Nay, I do not seek to fight, in truth I tell you;
There are about on these benches only beardless children.
Were I in full arms on a high steed,
There is nobody here to match me, for their powers are so weak.
Therefore, I ask for a Christmas game in this court,
For it is Yule and New Year, and there are many brisk youths.
If anyone in this house considers himself so bold,
Be so bold in his blood, so mad in his head,
That dares to fearlessly exchange one strike for another,
I shall give him as my gift this battle axe,
This ax, that is heavy enough, to handle as he likes,
And I shall bide the first blow as I sit without armor.
If any man be so bold as to try what I propose,
Leap swiftly to me, and grab hold of this weapon,
I renounce it forever, let him keep it as his own,
And I shall stand and take a stroke from him, unflinching on the floor,
Provided that he will give me the right to deal him another
In my turn,
And yet give him respite,
Twelve months and a day.
Now hasten, and let me quickly see
If anyone dare to take up the game.”

British Library MS Cotton Nero A.x; f.90/94v.

King Arthur’s laughter danced through his great hall, infusing all the knights and ladies with such mirth, before a giant of a green man and his steed burst through the doors. He wore neither a helmet nor hauberk, and his gaze was so lightning sharp it seemed as if no man could survive his glances. This Green Knight then began to speak: “The praise of you, prince, is puffed up so high, / And your court and your company are counted the best” (Borroff 258-9). He proceeds by presenting a challenge to King Arthur’s Round Table, asking not for a fight, but rather for a game in order to test Camelot’s powerful reputation. This passage in which the Green Knight dares any man bold enough to enter his game serves as a prime example of the author’s talented use of consonance and alliteration as well as warlike imagery to sculpt his poem.

Each alliterative line in this passage contains the repetition of a consonant. Prefacing his proposal, the Green Knight says, “frayst I no fyȝt, in fayth I þe telle” (279), which translates to “to fight, in good faith, is far from my thought” (Borroff 279). The combination of consonance and alliteration works not only to highlight the statement but also to give the knight a strong, almost harsh tone with the “f” repetition. His tone is established in other lines as well: “Here is no mon me to mach, for myȝtez so wayke” (282), the Green Knight claims, meaning, “For measured against mine, their might is puny.” Every “m” word, each repetition, gives rise to the opportunity to re-emphasize the power of the Green Knight over the court of Camelot at this moment due to his superior “myȝtez.” When he explains how the game works, how whoever comes forward will strike at him with his axe, the knight again talks of his strength of character: “And I schal stonde hym a strok, stif on þis flet” (294), which translates as, “And I shall stand him a stroke, steady on this floor.” Essentially, by focusing on the lines within this passage that feature alliteration and consonance, a better understanding of the Green Knight as a very strong and very confident character emerges.

In addition, this passage contains engaging warlike imagery that helps to create a picture in the reader’s mind of how sharply the Green Knight’s savage game contrasts with the youthful mirth of King Arthur’s court. Take, for instance, how the knight calls the people of the court “beardless children” (280). These gentlemen and ladies are meant to stand as examples of the true greatness of the realm; yet within moments the Green Knight bluntly dismisses them as frivolous children who do not possess the strength or the boldness to defend Camelot. Another example are the lines: “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” (285-7), or, “If any in this house such hardihood claims, / Be so bold in his blood, his brain so wild, / As stoutly to strike one stroke for another.” Here, the knight further describes the sense of daring and courage necessary for a man to enter the game, and he does so in such a way as to inspire an image of a man like himself, an almost-giant who boldly ventures into his enemy’s territory without armor. Readers can then call upon the prolific descriptions of the Green Knight and his horse earlier in the poem to enhance the imagery of both the confrontation between the knight and the court as well as the kind of knight who will step forward to take up the axe. These two examples serve to underscore how the author of the poem skillfully selects words that together paint a visual picture of the court, its people, the Green Knight, and the perfect knight who will accept the challenge.

The above English translations of the poem come from Marie Borroff, a renowned poetic translator. In the introduction to her translation, she writes, “I have done my best during the entire process of translation to attend carefully and respectfully to the exact sense of the poem at every turn, though I have inevitably had at times to decide what was essential in a given line” (Borroff xiii). Despite even Borroff’s best efforts, disagreements over her choices exist. For instance, she translates “myȝtez” (282) as “might” where I chose “powers” in my translation. By using “might,” Borroff maintains the consonant alliteration, but I decided on “powers” because I wanted to refer to the idea of an overarching power game between good and evil throughout the poem. “Might” did not convey that same meaning in my opinion. Another example is the word “hardy” (285), which Borroff and I translate as “bold.” Even though she and I both ultimately chose “bold,” it is important to highlight the other potential translations of the word “hardy”: brave, harsh, stubborn, oppressive, and violent. Each of these describes the Green Knight more than his future opponent, Gawain; yet perhaps these words describe what Gawain might become during and after the challenge. Overall, Borroff provides a solid translation of this passage, though in some cases, the layers of meanings are lost along with the stylistic devices.

The Green Knight fearlessly throws down the gauntlet before King Arthur and his knights of the Round Table. Through the alliteration of consonants, the warlike imagery, and the word choices in the poem and its translation, the knight stands as an indomitable force that tests the seemingly superior reputation of Camelot.

Shannon Bugos
University of Notre Dame