Sermons in Colours: the Exquisite Art of the Gawain-Poet

Mitra Sannigrahi

M. Phil. research scholar, University of Calcutta

 Volume II, 2016 | Full Text PDF


Though of unknown authorship, Pearl, Cleanness, Patience, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight are highly regarded as examples of Middle English alliterative verse. They are interesting in both subject matter and style, and much of the fame of their poet rests on his exquisite art of blending religious truths with the throbbing spirit of life.

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If the barrier of a somewhat unfamiliar-looking language can be overcome, Middle English literature can offer us a treasure house of wonders. There is much poetry — of various kinds, and a rich corpus of prose also. The language was in a stage of rapid evolution, and towards attaining a developed shape with the influx of Scandinavian and French loanwords, and the influence of different dialect areas. There were verse chronicles, religious and didactic verse and romances, an examination of which provides one with insight into a formative stage in the development of the English language. The romances, according to their subjects, have been classified into a number of groups: “The Matter of England”, “The Matter of Britain”, “The Matter of Rome the Great”, “The Matter of France”, and miscellaneous romances on various themes. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight falls into the second category. Romances in “The Matter of Britain” are connected closely or loosely with the exploits of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is widely regarded as the finest of Middle English romances. It is of anonymous authorship, and is preserved in a manuscript which contains three other important poems: Pearl, Cleanness, and Patience. The four works are assumed to have been written by a single poet. His identity, though not yet determined with certainty, is a source of profound interest for critics and academicians.

            In Pearl, using the mode of dream-vision, the poet talks about a father whose baby-daughter is dead. Coming to her grave, the father falls asleep in grief, and in his dream, sees a fair land and a maiden adorned with bright white pearls. However, he cannot approach her. She mildly reproaches him for his grief, telling him that she is in pure bliss in Paradise, and that no living person can come there. The father gradually seems to learn that the gap between his Pearl and himself cannot be bridged. But he has a momentary vision of Paradise as described in the Revelation of St John. After the vision passes, he wakes on the hillside. Pearl is the symbol of purity in this poem, and the poet also suggests the contrast between the heavenly things with their eternal quality and the fading, transient beauties of the world. Cleanness (or Purity) deals with the virtues of physical cleanliness and the joy of married love. The poet glorifies purity and warns the readers of the dangers of defilement. He draws upon the Bible, taking three subjects: the Flood, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and the fall of Belshazzar. Patience is based on the Old Testament account of the suffering of the Prophet Jonah because of his impatience. Patience is seen in opposition to sloth. And there is a note of warning about grumbling against the fate ordained for each and every creature.

            In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the Green Knight arrives at King Arthur’s Court during the revelry one new year. He has an axe, and challenges anyone present at the court to strike him a blow with it, on condition that the striker will face a return blow a year later. Gawain, the king’s nephew, accepts the challenge and cuts off the Green Knight’s head. The Green Knight picks up the head and leaves, telling Gawain to look for him at the Green Chapel in a year’s time. Months pass, and on All Saints’ Day Gawain sets off for his destination. On Christmas Eve, he finds a castle. The lord of the castle invites him to stay there for Christmas and New Year because the Green Chapel is nearby. The lord proposes that he will offer Gawain whatever he hunts and in exchange, Gawain will have to give him whatever he gains at the castle. On three successive hunts, the lord kills a deer, a boar, and a fox, giving them to Gawain. On each of these days, his wife comes to Gawain and tries to seduce him, without success. Gawain duly returns to his host the kisses given by the lady. But he conceals from his host the green girdle which the lady gives him on the third day, saying that it will preserve the wearer from death. Gawain leaves the castle, and led by a guide, goes to the Green Chapel. He receives three feinted blows from the Green Knight. The third stroke wounds him slightly. Then the Green Knight tells him that he is his host, that the first two feinted blows are for the occasions on which Gawain duly honoured their deal of exchange, and that the third blow is for Gawain’s concealment of the girdle. Gawain is ashamed and laments his fault. He returns to King Arthur’s Court. There the Knights wear green girdles in his honour.

            It is difficult to sum up the factors that constitute the Gawain-poet’s importance in literature. To take up the content part, even though sources of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight have been traced, the poet’s conception has much originality. Brian Stone talks about three main component themes of the poem: the Beheading Game, the Temptation by the Hostess, and a game of truth. He points out that a combination of these three elements, such as we find in this poem, is unparalleled in medieval literature.

            The concise quality of the poem is also noteworthy. There is no garrulity on the narrator’s part. Each and every word is appropriate, and has a perfect place in the structure of the text. Not all romances are so succinct and well-written at the same time.

            The mingling of pagan and Christian elements is another point of profound interest in the poem. Christian festivals are there, and Gawain is an almost perfect Christian knight. But the Green Knight has “some of the pagan attributes of stock figures from primitive folklore” (Stone 14). His green colour, tremendous strength and energy, hairiness, earthiness, and predominantly rough, imperative speeches remind us of two common medieval types: the “wodwose” or the wild man of the woods and a rural deity.

            The complexity of the characters heightens the Gawain-poet’s mastery. Neither Gawain nor the Green Knight falls into the categories of easily recognizable stock characters. Gawain is not a paragon of absolute perfection. He fails in maintaining the fairness of the deal of exchange. Instinct of self-preservation compels him to hide the gift of the green girdle from his host. On the other hand, the Green Knight is not an absolutely demoniac creation full of malignity. He is Gawain’s humorous host, and gives him a warm welcome. Towards the end of the poem, he cordially invites Gawain to his castle again, and sadly accepts Gawain’s refusal.

            The Gawain-poet sings hymns to Christian virtues in his works. The overall impression that we get from his works is one of praise of innocence, cleanliness of body and purity of soul, and rejection of filth and impurities. But he is never dully didactic. His works breathe the throbbing spirit of life itself. They celebrate the colours and joys of life, presenting the readers with a wonderful vista of men and women. Gawain fails because of his love of life. But this failure brings him nearer common readers, who share his feelings. He is not a remote, wooden figure who is all virtue. His failure endears him to us, as it imparts to him a lifelike quality.

            The formal aspect of the poems also deserves careful attention. The works are alliterative, and written in a West Midland dialect. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the poet makes use of rhymed quatrains that impose periods on the flow of the alliterative verse.

            The poet’s style is enriched by his wonderful way of balancing the material. There are descriptions — sometimes similar, sometimes different — of arming, journeys, and places of arrival, which are presented in a parallel fashion. But the most remarkable patterning can be found in the way the poet describes the scenes of hunting and of the lady’s attempts to seduce Gawain. There are parallels between each hunt and bedroom scene, and this contributes to the structural harmony of the poem.

            It is useful to look at the appreciation of the Gawain-poet by  J. R. R. Tolkien and E. V. Gordon, who view him as a “man of serious and devout mind, though not without humour”, who had an interest in and some amateur knowledge of theology (Tolkien and Gordon xv).

The variety and richness of critical response to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight suggests the range of its possible significance. Apart from the Christian analysis, the poem has been interpreted from feminist, postcolonial, and homoerotic perspectives. There have been numerous adaptations — in past and in recent times, and in various media like books — children’s literature as well as young adult fiction, films, theatre productions, opera, and television shows — even an animated version. Its appeal has not diminished over the years. Even after so many ages, it is still revived, and presented with success. This attests to its relevance in today’s world. The Gawain-poet has given us something that can never get totally outdated because he deals with topics that can fascinate people of all time, and because he deals with them in a manner which sustains their interest. Even though the essential spirit of his works is didactic, his manner of presentation is delightfully close to the life of common people. He uses colours in writing his sermons and celebrates life, keeping abstruse theories away. That is what enhances the brilliance of his literary creations.

Works Cited:

Stone, Brian. Ed. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1974. Print.

Tolkien, J. R. R. and E.V. Gordon. Ed. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, 1925. Oxford: Clarendon Press. Print.

Mitra Sannigrahi obtained B. A. (Honours) in English (Ist Class, 1st rank holder) from University of Kalyani in 2013. She obtained M.A. in English (Ist Class) from University of Calcutta in 2015. She qualified UGC-CBSE-NET for lectureship in English in 2015. Presently she is an M. Phil. research scholar at University of Calcutta.

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