SIR GAWAIN AND THE GREEN
translated by JESSIE L. WESTON
Preface to First Edition
The poem of which the following
pages offer a prose rendering is contained in a MS., believed to be unique, of the
Cottonian Collection, Nero A.X., preserved in the British Museum. The MS. is of the end of
the fourteenth century, but it is possible that the composition of the poem is somewhat
earlier; the subject-matter is certainly of very old date. There has been a considerable
divergence of opinion among scholars on the question of authorship, but the view now
generally accepted is that it is the work of the same hand as Pearl, another poem
of considerable merit contained in the same MS.
Our poem, or, to speak more
correctly, metrical romance, contains over 2500 lines, and is composed in staves of
varying length, ending in five short rhyming lines, technically known as a bob and a
wheel,--the lines forming the body of the stave being not rhyming, but alliterative. The
dialect in which it is written has been decided to be West Midland, probably Lancashire,
and is by no means easy to understand. Indeed, it is the real difficulty and obscurity of
the language, which, in spite of careful and scholarly editing, will always place the poem
in its original form outside the range of any but professed students of mediæval
literature, which has encouraged me to make an attempt to render it more accessible to the
general public, by giving it a form that shall be easily intelligible, and at the same
time preserve as closely as possible the style of the author.
For that style, in spite of a
certain roughness, unavoidable at a period in which the language was still in a partially
developed and amorphous stage, is really charming. The author has a keen eye for effect; a
talent for description, detailed without becoming wearisome; a genuine love of Nature and
sympathy with her varying moods; and a real refinement and elevation of feeling which
enable him to deal with a risqué: situation with an absence of coarseness, not,
unfortunately, to be always met with in a mediæval writer. Standards of taste vary with
the age, but even judged by that of our own day the author of Sir Gawain and the Green
Knight comes not all too badly out of the ordeal!
The story with which the poem
deals, too, has claims upon our interest. I have shown elsewhere
1 that the beheading challenge is an incident of very
early occurrence in heroic legend, and that the particular form given to it in the English
poem is especially interesting, corresponding as it does to the variations of the story as
preserved in the oldest known version, that of the old Irish Fled Bricrend.
But in no other version is the
incident coupled with that of a temptation and testing of the hero's honour and chastity,
such as meets us here. At first sight one is inclined to assign the episode of the lady of
the castle to the class of stories of which the oldest version is preserved in Biblical
record--the story of Joseph and Potiphar's wife; a motif not unseldom employed by
mediæval writers, and which notably occurs in what we may call the Launfal group
of stories. But there are certain points which may make us hesitate as to whether in its
first conception the tale was really one of this class.
It must be noted that here the
lady is acting throughout with the knowledge and consent of the husband, an important
point of difference. In the second place, it is very doubtful whether her entire attitude
was not a ruse. From the Green Knight's words to Gawain when he finally reveals
himself, "I wot we shall soon make peace with my wife, who was thy bitter
enemy," her conduct hardly seems to have been prompted by real passion.
In my Studies on the Legend
of Sir Gawain, already referred to, I have suggested that the character of the lady
here is, perhaps, a reminiscence of that of the Queen of the Magic Castle or Isle,
daughter or niece of an enchanter, who at an early stage of Gawain's story was undoubtedly
his love. I think it not impossible that she was an integral part of the tale as first
told, and her rôle here was determined by that which she originally played. In
most versions of the story she has dropped out altogether. It is, of course, possible
that, there being but a confused reminiscence of the original tale, her share may
have been modified by the influence of the Launfal group; but I should prefer to
explain the episode on the whole as a somewhat distorted survival of an original feature.
But in any case we may be
thankful for this, that the author of the most important English metrical romance dealing
with Arthurian legend faithfully adheres to the original conception of Gawain's character,
as drawn before the monkish lovers of edification laid their ruthless hands on his legend,
and turned the model of knightly virtues and courtesy into a mere vulgar libertine.
Brave, chivalrous, loyally
faithful to his plighted word, scrupulously heedful of his own and others' honour, Gawain
stands before us in this poem. We take up Malory or Tennyson, and in spite of their charm
of style, in spite of the halo of religious mysticism in which they have striven to enwrap
their characters, we lay them down with a feeling of dissatisfaction. How did the Gawain
of their imagination, this empty-headed, empty-hearted worldling, cruel murderer, and
treacherous friend, ever come to be the typical English hero? For such Gawain certainly
was, even more than Arthur himself. Then we turn back to these faded pages, and read the
quaintly earnest words in which the old writer reveals the hidden meaning of that mystic
symbol, the pentangle, and vindicates Gawain's title to claim it as his badge--and we
smile, perhaps, but we cease to wonder at the widespread popularity of King Arthur's
famous nephew, or at the immense body of romance that claims him as its hero.
Scholars know all this, of
course; they can read the poem for themselves in its original rough and intricate
phraseology; perhaps they will be shocked at an attempt to handle it in simpler form. But
this little book is not for them, and if to those to whom the tale would otherwise be a
sealed treasure these pages bring some new knowledge of the way in which our forefathers
looked on the characters of the Arthurian legend, the tales they told of them
(unconsciously betraying the while how they themselves lived and thought and spoke)--if by
that means they gain a keener appreciation of our national heroes, a wider knowledge of
our national literature,--then the spirit of the long-dead poet will doubtless not be the
slowest to pardon my handling of what was his masterpiece, as it is, in M. Gaston Paris'
words, "The jewel of English mediæval literature."
Bournemouth, June 1898
Preface to Second Edition
In preparing this Second Edition
I have adopted certain suggestions of the late Professor Kölbing, contained in a review
published by him in Englische Studien xxvi. In one or two instances, however, I
have not felt free to follow his reading--e.g., on page 67, in þrynne syþe
must certainly mean "for the third time," not "thrice."
The lady has already kissed Gawain twice during the interview; Professor Kölbing's
suggestion would make him receive five kisses, instead of three, the correct number. Nor
do I think the story would gain anything by reproducing the details of the dissection of
animals on page 46. This little series is not intended for scholars, who can study the
original works for themselves, but for the general public, and I have therefore avoided
any digression from the main thread of the story. In the main, however, I have gladly
availed myself of the late Professor's learned criticisms.
Bournemouth, May 1900.
1. "The Legend of Sir Gawain,"
Grimm Library, Vol. VII. (Chapter IX, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight).