In Chaucer’s Shadow
Why the masterpiece Sir Gawayn and þe Grene Knyȝt is far less known than the Tales of Caunterbury
As the fourteenth century drew to a close, two enormously talented writers were living in England less than three hundred miles apart. Both were full of insight into human nature and both wrote tales of great power and beauty. Yet today, if we remember either of them at all, we remember one but not the other. Geoffrey Chaucer is a name familiar to most people who’ve a passing acquaintance with English literature but the Gawain poet is literally nameless.
Chaucer was at the center of English cultural life: he was an important government employee, he lived in London, and he had access to the best libraries the day had to offer. The Gawain poet lived in what today is the Wirral district of north-west England and his sources of inspiration were the folk-tales and legends that were part of a great oral tradition stretching back for centuries. Chaucer was a prolific writer whereas we know of the Gawain poet only through this one tale — it is possible he produced other works that did not survive through the centuries.
Yet for all these factors, the principle cause of their disparity in fame arises not from their respective talents or sources of inspiration but from the versions of English in which they wrote.
We have inherited a language closer to Chaucer’s than to that in which the Gawain poet wrote. It is possible to pick up The Canterbury Tales and understand most of it reasonably well. But it is a far more challenging proposition to pick up Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Gawain is written in a form of English closer to what is known as Anglo-Saxon than to the dialect Chaucer used. Gawain is not a midway point between Beowulf and Chaucer’s English but it is sufficiently redolent of Anglo-Saxon to present a barrier to any modern reader.
The barrier exists in two principle forms. The first is the language itself and the second is the structure of each line. Chaucer’s English had largely abandoned the repeating consonant scheme so typical of Anglo-Saxon poetry; it was the language of a culture that took writing for granted. Although the form of the Canterbury Tales is formally oral story-telling by each of the disparate group of pilgrims told in order of social rank, the reality of Chaucer’s work assumes a permanent unchanging record. The Gawain poet, on the other hand, was working with the product of a rich oral tradition.
Oral recitation, especially of well-loved tales originating far back in time, requires mechanisms by means of which to reduce what today we term copy errors. Poetry is, at root, a method for helping the teller memorize the lines so they can be delivered in an error-free way. Nearly all the techniques enumerated by teachers of literature originated to help minimize errors in recitation. Assonance, alliteration, rhymes, meter, and all the rest are first and foremost devices that help the speaker say the right word in the right place, repeating it just as it was told to him or her, to be part of an unbroken chain down the years.
To aid faithful replication, Anglo-Saxon poetry famously utilized alliteration. An example, from Beowulf, is shown below:
When we look at an excerpt from Gawain, we can see this form of poetry showing clearly:
Chaucer’s contemporaneous prose, on the other hand, is much closer to our own:
Chaucer still employs some of the techniques of oral tradition (the alliteration, the assonance) but these are vestiges rather than central to the structure, which now is based around rhyming couplets.
So because Chaucer’s language is easier for us to consume than the language of the Gawain poet, many of us are somewhat familiar with the various tales. Like all good literature, the Tales show us some truths about human nature: the Prioress’ Tale, the Knight’s Tale, and the Summoner’s tale reveal a great deal about their tellers and in so doing enable Chaucer to perform a pointed but still light-hearted critique of the society of his day. In a way, the Tales are not entirely unlike Saturday Night Live: the humor derives from the gap between each character’s self-image and the reality revealed by the story they choose to tell and the way in which they tell it.
Gawain, however, makes no satirical contemporary references. The fable itself is the means whereby an acute psychological critique of human nature is made possible. The Arthurian legends had been around for several hundred years by the time the Gawain poet crafted his poem, and for the most part the legends had been repeated uncritically and even admiringly. The genius of the Gawain poet is his refusal to remain on the surface recounting tales of valorous slaughter but instead to delve into the human reality that, ultimately, deconstructs the traditional messages such tales delivered. The irony of history is that Gawain is much closer to our contemporary modality but due to the fact the language is more difficult we may pass by, quite unaware of the poem’s existence.
In the same way that Shakespeare’s Hamlet originally worked by persistently undermining audience expectations, so Gawain likewise thwarts our preconceptions. To an Elizabethan audience Hamlet starts out seemingly solidly embedded in the revenger genre. For an example of revenger drama, Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy is perfect: there’s a murder at the beginning and most of the play is therefore about the bloody revenge that must inevitably follow in all such plays. Early in Hamlet the eponymous hero learns his father was murdered; ipso facto, Hamlet will now embark on a lethal rampage in which many miscreants will be slaughtered. Except… Hamlet spends almost the entire play prevaricating. The audience’s expectations are defeated over and over again. This is what created, for an Elizabethan audience, an almost intolerable sense of heightened expectation. When will Hamlet start slaughtering people? Surely, any minute now!
With Gawain the effect is more plangent but still as effective. The Gawain poet’s audience grew up on tales of knightly valor in which strong arm slew dragon and bands of brigands were dispatched single-handed by the knight in his shining armor. So when Gawain sets off to find the Green Knight, readers and listeners would be expecting to be regaled with descriptions of monsters slain and robbers vanquished as Gawain travels between Camelot and the Green Knight’s castle. But the Gawain poet shifts the focus: “Yes,” he tells us, “there were dragons and there were brigands, of course; but what truly troubled Gawain was the damp and the cold that chilled his flesh and ate into his bones, and the loneliness he felt as mist covered the moors and seemed to melt the tops of mountains.”
Gawain is, from start to finish, a tale of human frailty. When the Green Knight rides into Arthur’s court while everyone is feasting and drinking, the supposedly valiant knights are afraid and remain silent when the intruder makes his astonishing challenge: he will allow one of Arthur’s knights to cut off his head on the sole condition that a year later that knight will present himself for the Green Knight to return the blow.
What brave knight of Camelot would hesitate to accept such a one-sided proposal? What ought to happen according to the rules of chivalry is for the lowest-ranking knight of the court to take up the challenge. As it seems risk-free, surely this is not too much to ask? Yet the knights, frozen in fear, remain silent. Only the high-ranking Gawain is, ultimately, able to respond and he accepts the challenge that should not have fallen to him.
When the beheading occurs, and to everyone’s astonishment the Green Knight’s body retrieves the severed head, the court gasps and stares as though it were an elaborate entertainment rather than a profound demonstration of their own inadequacies. And the moment the Green Knight rides out with his severed head clasped firmly under his arm, Arthur’s court returns to feasting and music and dancing, eager to consign the unwanted experience to oblivion.
Camelot, in Gawain, is not unlike an adult kindergarten. Pleasure is the primary focus and the rules of chivalry seem forgotten by all except Gawain. Far from being the Camelot of legend, this court is as insubstantial as dandelion seeds. It’s not surprising, therefore, that when Gawain finally meets the Green Knight at the end of his journey he should fail every test of courage, honesty, and chivalry that the Knight sets him. And while Gawain seems to learn from his defeats, returning to Camelot a chastened and wiser man, no one in Arthur’s court has the maturity necessary to understand anything whatsoever of importance arising from Gawain’s quest.
There are very few works of literature that combine deep psychological insight with breathtaking originality. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight ranks among such works, along with the contemporaneous Canterbury Tales. For all the praise Shakespeare habitually receives, I personally have found nothing equivalent in any of his plays or poems despite the fact I can think of few things better than an evening spent at the Globe watching any one of his mid-period or late-period plays. Perhaps not until Les Liaisons Dangereuses do we again see a similar combination of psychological insight and innovative structure. And after that we must wait for Ibsen’s plays for the melding to occur once more.
It is a great shame when important works of art are neglected because the mode in which they were created is no longer accessible to us and the context that informed so much of their content is long gone. When we watch a performance of Antigone we must prepare long in advance, learning not only the language (with pronunciation being a matter of informed guesswork) but we must also study the historical fragments from which scraps of context may be gleaned. We must study the contemporaneous literature in order to be able to understand the evolution of innovation and thus more fully appreciate the craft Sophocles displays.
We don’t have to work as hard to appreciate Gawain. Our primary conception of the Arthurian legend is not so dissimilar from that held by people back when the poem was written. A month or two of study will be sufficient to become familiar with the poet’s dialect.
And what little effort we must make is amply rewarded, because Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a delight for all ages.