Undergrad Wednesdays – Gawain lines 1150-1177: Mirrored Pursuits

[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.]

Original text of Fitt III, lines 1150-1177

At þe fyrst quethe of þe quest quaked þe wylde.
Der drof in þe dame doted for drede,
Hiȝed to þe hyȝe bot heterly þay were
Restayed with þe stablye, þat stoutly ascryed.
Þay let þe herttez haf þe gate, with þe hyȝe hedes,
Þe breme bucket also, with or brode paumez;
For þe free lorde hade defende in fermysoun tyme
Þat þer schulde no mon meue to þe male dere.
Þe hindez were halden in with ‘Hay!’ and ‘War!’
Þe does dryuen with gret dyn to þe depe sladez.
Þer myȝt mon se, as þay slypte,  slentyng of arwes;
At vche wende vnder wande wapped a flone,
Þat bigly vote one þe broun with ful brode hedez.
What! þay brayen and bleden, bi bonkkez þay deȝen,
And ay rachches in a res radly hem folȝes,
Hunterez wyth hyȝe horne hasted hem folȝes,
Wyth such a crakkande kry as klyffes haden brusten.
What wylde so atwaped wyȝes þat schotten
Watz al toraced and rent at þe resayt,
Bi þay were tened at þe hyȝe and taysed to þe wattrez,
Þe ledez were so learned at þe loȝe trysters;
And þe grehoundez so grete þat geten hem bylyue
And hem tofylched as fast as frekez myȝt loke
Þer ryȝt.
Þe lorde, for blys abloy,
Ful oft con launce and lyȝt,
And drof þat day with joy
Thus to þe dark nyȝt.


At the first word of the quest quaked the wild animals.
Deer drove into the dale, demented by dread,
They hastened to the high ground, but cruelly they were
Turned back by the ring of beaters, that mightily cried out.
They let the harts pass, with their high heads,
And the fierce bucks also, with their broad flat antlers;
For the noble lord had forbidden in the time of the close-season
That any man should rouse the male deer.
The hinds were hailed in with “hey!” and “ware!”
They drive the does with great din to the deep valleys.
There one may see, as they were loosed, the slanting flight of arrows;
At each wind under the boughs swished an arrow,
That powerfully bit into the brown flesh with very broad heads.
What! They bray and bleed, by banks they die,
And all the while hounds in a rush promptly follow them,
Hunters with loud horns hastened after them
With such a cracking cry as if cliffs had burst.
Whatever wild creature eluded the men that shot
Was all pulled down and torn open at the receiving stations,
By the time they were harnessed at the high ground and driven to the waters,
The men were so skilled at the low hunting stations;
And the greyhounds so great that they seized them quickly
And pulled them down as fast as men could look
Right there.
The lord, transported by bliss,
Very often did shoot and dismount,
And passed that day with joy
In this way till the dark night.

This passage from the beginning of the first hunt scene sets the stage for the following seduction attempt scenes in which the enthusiastic and energetic pursuit of the hunt is sublimated in the mirrored pursuit of the bedroom. Alliteration works to convey the urgency and vigor of the action, as in line 1151: “Der drof in þe dale, doted for drede,” where the repetition of the “d” sound mimics the thudding of hooves. The frequency of the alliteration in this line drives home the desperation of the animals’ flight. In another example, alliteration of the “s” sound in line 1160 aurally portrays the whistling of arrows as they “slypte” and go “slentyng” through the air. The scene is then fraught with imagery that is highly charged, masculine, and sensual. Vaguely erotic images describe the chaos and destructive action of the hunt, such as in lines 1161-62, where it is said that “a flone… bigly bote on þe broun” (“an arrow… powerfully pierced the brown flesh”). This is perhaps best exemplified in the bob and wheel, in which “þe lorde, for blys abloy, / ful oft con launce and lyȝt, / And drof þat day wyth joy / Thus to þe derk nyȝt.” The description of the lord’s pleasure in the hunt, apparently so great that he spends the entirety of the day from early morning until dark of night in the pursuit, is evocative of (repetitive) sexual climax.

While he pursues this pleasure outdoors with wild game as the prey, his wife pursues it indoors as she attempts to ensnare Gawain. In the hunt, the male hunters pursue female deer (hinds and does) exclusively as the male deer (harts and bucks) are illegal to shoot. In contrast, the seduction scene reverses the gendered roles of hunter and hunted as the woman pursues the man. The hunt scene is overwhelmingly masculine and virile as it describes men energetically making use of their weapons to lay low their conquests. It is an emphatically loud scene, filled with the clamor of the hunt, the dashing of hooves, braying of hounds, and the cracking cries of the hunters. This is all reversed in the following scene, where the lady makes use of her feminine weapons. In contrast to the hunt, the bedroom seems extraordinarily quiet, as Gawain’s silent room is quietly invaded by the lady, and they humorously exchange light flirtation. Yet the rushing of the hunt scene hangs over that of the bedroom, and tinges it all the more with a sense of restrained lust.

Marie Borroff’s translation is generally successful in the description of the scene, maintenance of the alliteration, and representation of the imagery. While at times it changes for the sake of maintaining meaning in recognizable words, the alliteration for the most part matches the original consonants, successfully maintaining the sonic qualities and their aural imagery. There are, however, some questionable moments, in which the translation fails to be effectively descriptive for modern English. At line 1158, for example, Borroff translates the line as “The hinds were headed up, with “Hey!” and “Ware!” The line is easily translated into modern English, as most of the words remain the same. However, Borroff chooses to translate “halden in” (the literal meaning of which is “hailed in”) as “headed up.” The reasoning for this is unclear – the modern English translation perfectly maintains the meaning and alliteration, and the phrase “hailed in” is easier to understand than “headed up.” While fortunately the import of the line is not altered, Borroff’s translation makes the text slightly less clear and accessible than it is even in its original form.

This same issue of archaic, difficult to access diction occurs just a line above in the case of Borroff’s use of the word “demesne” which Borroff defines in the margin as “kingdom.” Perhaps she deems this important for maintaining the alliteration of the line between words beginning with “d.” Even in this case, however, we might imagine other possible choices, for example, “district,” that might maintain the alliteration of the line and perhaps even better describe the geo-political reality. But the fact remains that in the original line, the “d” is not alliterated – “dere” is the lone “d” word, and the alliterated consonant is instead the “m” of “mon,” “meue,” and “male.” Borroff maintains this alliteration in her translation of these words as “man,” “molest,” and “male,” respectively (although two of these translations are obvious). Furthermore, the original line makes no mention of a kingdom at all. Borroff’s addition of this detail seems more intended for the sake of informing modern readers of the political or legal aspects of land ownership and hunting laws than for the sake of literally representing the lines.

For the most part, though, these changes are slight and the translations are still quite faithful. The largest difference, however, is in Borroff’s translation of the bob and wheel. The general meaning of the lines still comes across, but the powerfully suggestive imagery of the original bob and wheel is significantly diminished. Borroff does try to maintain this sense, with phrases like “sheer delight” and “pleasures rare,” yet unfortunately the originally striking imagery falls apart under the demands of making a translation in modern English that maintains equal syllabic length and comparable rhyme scheme. Overall, though, the translation is impressive, considering the demands on the translator to keep the modern version as close to the original meaning while at the same time replicating original poetic devices. The Middle English is clearly preferable in its ability to convey the ferocity, virility, and sensuality of the hunt all at once, but for readers of modern English, Borroff’s translation is impressive, all things considered.

Angela Bird
University of Notre Dame

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

The Colors of the Pearl-Gawain Manuscript: The Questions that Launched a Scientific Analysis

For this school year’s exciting inaugural post, Maidie Hilmo shares her request for a scientific analysis of the Pearl-Gawain manuscript (British Library, MS Cotton Nero A.x), containing the unique copy of the Middle English poems: Pearl, Cleanness, Patience, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. It shows the kind of questions that help gain access to the viewing of original manuscripts and can result in a technological investigation of specific details. Bringing together science and art history, Hilmo has uncovered evidence that “the scribe was also the draftsperson of the underdrawings. It appears that the painted layers of the miniatures were added by one or more colorists, while the large flourished initials beginning the text of the poems were executed by someone with a different pigment not used in the miniatures.” The results of this request to the British Library—comprising the detailed report on the pigments by Dr. Paul Garside and a set of enhanced images by Dr. Christina Duffy, the Imaging Scientist — will become available on the Cotton Nero A.x Project website and, selectively, in publications by Hilmo, including: “Did the Scribe Draw the Miniatures in British Library, MS Cotton Nero A.x (The Pearl-Gawain Manuscript)?,” forthcoming in the Journal of the Early Book Society; and “Re-conceptualizing the Poems of the Pearl-Gawain Manuscript,” forthcoming in Manuscript Studies. To learn more, check out her special project here on our site.