Revisiting the Canon With Susannah! Of Wonders and Mervayls: Travels with Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

By Susannah Mandel

This month I'd like to talk to you about Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which is pretty much my favorite piece of Middle English literature, right after Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. This story involves several characters from the Arthurian Camelot legends, but it mixes them up with some otherwise unusual and surprising settings and people. The story has a knight, some wanderings, and a confrontation with a fearsome enemy; and in this respect it has a few things in common with Beowulf, the last topic of discussion in this column. "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight," though, all knightliness aside, is not a heroic epic. Instead, it's an example of the medieval genre called the romance. One consequence is that it has a lot more sex than Beowulf. And it also has a heck of lot more moral and symbolic ambiguity—which is part of why both researchers and casual readers, like me, are still so enamored of Sir Gawain six hundred years on.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight comes to us from the late fourteenth century, and is written in Middle English: a transitional form of our language that evolved after the French Normans invaded England, in 1066, and added their Latinate language to the Germanic and Scandinavian mix. Middle English is a lot easier for the modern person to read than is the Anglo-Saxon Old English of Beowulf: for instance, Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales were also written around this time, and many people find that they can read parts of it—in school, or for fun—without any particular training. There's a twist to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, though, which is that while Geoffrey Chaucer lived in London—meaning that he spoke and wrote the influential London dialect of his language, which eventually evolved into modern English—the anonymous author of Sir Gawain was not a Londoner. Analysis of his usage and vocabulary shows us more or less where he came from: the north west Midlands of England, or "somewhere between north Staffordshire and south Lancashire," as the contemporary translator Simon Armitage specifies.[1]

What this means—not surprisingly, since there have been significant differences between the southern and northern dialects of England as long as we have records of the language—is that the Gawain poet poses a real challenge for the modern reader, even a reader who can handle Chaucer. Here, for example, are a few lines from the end of the poem's first verse, when the poet is summing up the history of the nation of England:

"Where were and wrake and wonder
Bi sythes has wont therinne,
And oft bothe blysse and blunder
Ful skete has skyfted synne."

Simon Armitage, the English poet and translator whose version of Sir Gawain I've recently been reading, gives the following (somewhat free) translation:

"[W]onder, dread and war
have lingered in that land
where loss and love in turn
have held the upper hand."
(ll. 16-19)

To my eye, the Middle English version of the poem often, almost, makes sense. But it sure doesn't make for easy reading—far too much of the language is just baffling. ("Ful skete has skyfted synne"?)

So I rely on a translation for my reading, as most modern readers do. Although, I admit, I sometimes have to fight off the feeling that this somehow makes me a failure as someone who majored in English. "What was all that education for?" my bad angel whispers in my ear. "Six hundred years old in an obscure dialect? Pfah! If the Italians and Icelanders can read six-hundred-year-old works, why can't we?"

The bad angel is easy to answer, as it turns out—the Italian and Icelandic languages have changed a lot less than English, and their speakers were invaded far less often. But that feeling of inadequacy does carry the valuable implication that Sir Gawain's language actually isn't impossible to read, especially with a handy translation right at hand, and it's one of the reasons I think it's more fun to read it with a parallel or side-by-side translation. The 2007 version by Simon Armitage that I've been using is just such a translation, and I think it really adds something to be able to glance over from the right-hand page to the left and see what words the original author used—weird and archaic as they may be.

Anyway. Sir Gawain has a respectable history of translation since it was "rediscovered" in the nineteenth century—among others, one well-known interpreter was J.R.R. Tolkien, darling of fantasy fans and language nerds across the English-speaking world. Simon Armitage's translation has attracted a lot of critical praise, and I've been finding it fresh and fun to read. (It also has the attraction that, as an English Northwesterner himself, Armitage tries to find connections between his own dialect and that used by the anonymous Gawain poet in a neighboring region so many centuries ago.)

There are a few more details about Sir Gawain And the Green Knight that might be useful to know when looking at the story. As is also the case with Beowulf and other treasures of English literature, we get the tale of Sir Gawain from exactly one manuscript copy, which is jealously guarded in an inner sanctum of the British Library under the catalog name "Cotton Nero A.x." (This has a peculiar charm to my ears; it sounds like some kind of Puritan secret agent.) The manuscript's dramatically calligraphed first page, and some of its medieval illustrations, can be seen online

Sir Gawain is written in a curious verse style; its lines follow no particular meter or syllable count, but instead use stress and alliteration—the second point, though not the first, it shares in common with the Old English verse of Beowulf—and is broken into stanzas, also with no fixed number of lines. Each stanza, however, ends with a funny little tag called the "bob and wheel," a set of five very short lines that round out the stanza, and which, oddly enough, do rhyme. (Historical critics point out that, for Britons at this time, the use of rhyme in poetry would have been characteristic of French and other European Romantic languages; the Anglo-Norman poet may therefore have been trying to show or to prove that he was also capable of mastering this new-fangled trend [2]). Finally, the poem is also broken into four larger subsections called fits (or fitts, or fyttes), which was once a common enough way to demarcate the sections of a poem. In the nineteenth century, Lewis Carroll used that term to comic effect in "The Hunting of the Snark," but originally the word doesn't seem to have had any connection to seizures or spasms, and we can be pretty confident that the Gawain poet used it without any particular humorous intent.

So, with no further ado: into the story! I'll be going in a more or less chronological order, because that's how the poem is structured and its forward movement gives it momentum and dramatic tension, and digging into the parts that I find most intriguing and, if you would, fantastic. I'll be using a mix of quotations from the Armitage translation, my own paraphrases, and occasional snippets from the actual Middle English. (If you're interested in following along, you can check out the medieval text or a modern translation).

In Which We Meet a Green Giant.

The story opens in excellent medieval-romance style: right in the middle of King Arthur's court, at Camelot, during the Christmas feasts and revels. (Well, actually, that's not quite true. The story puts us almost right into Camelot, but it takes a stanza first to remind us all what we as good fourteenth-century English listeners might be expected to know: that Arthur's reign is descended directly from that of Brutus, a grandson of Aeneas of Troy—thus establishing a fittingly heroic background for the English realm, and an appropriate framework for a story set in the mytho-historical world of Camelot.)

After that, though, the winter festivities are described in loving detail.

It was Christmas at Camelot—King Arthur's court,
where the great and the good of the land had gathered,
all the righteous lords of the ranks of the Round Table
quite properly carousing and reveling in pleasure.
(ll. 37-40)

The description of the feasts goes on for a while. There is pretty much everything you could want from a medieval shindig here: a whole fortnight of feasting, complete with jousts, drums and caroling, trumpets, banners, and beautifully dressed lords and ladies engaging in flirting and love play. (Because love play, after all, was a major part of "chivalric" fun—a significant point, and vital to the unfolding of this particular story.)

Our story opens on New Year's Day, after the lords and ladies have exchanged gifts—this was still part of the Christmas season—and sat down to a luxurious feast. All the usual suspects are there: Arthur is flanked by Guinevere and by his nephews, Agravain and Gawain; we also get (later on) a list of some of the other members of the "cream of Camelot": Lancelot, Ywain, Sir Dodinal, Sir Bors and Sir Bedevere (ll. 550-55)—many of the names familiar to anyone who's read Camelot stories (or, for that matter, seen Monty Python and the Holy Grail).

We see that Arthur is dignified and happy, as befits a king. But he also has a curious habit: on a holiday, he refuses to eat a bite until he's heard some fabulous story, or, better yet, seen a knight challenged by a rival. In one of those Middle English lines that we can still understand, the poet explains that this is because "[s]o bisied him his yonge blod and his brayn wylde" (l. 89). To me, that makes sense: Arthur is, after all, still not much more than a boy. Of course it's all about young blood and wild brains.

The feast is served and everyone digs in, except for Arthur. But just as the meal has gotten well underway, the hall abruptly falls silent—because an astonishing apparition has appeared before them!

[A] fearful form appeared, framed in the door:
a mountain of a man, immeasurably high,
a hulk of a human from head to hips,
so long and thick in his loins and his limbs
I should genuinely judge him to be a half giant,
or a most massive man, the mightiest of mortals.
(ll. 136-141).

Still, the poet underlines, the man isn't repulsive: "despite the bulk and brawn of his body / his stomach and waist were slender and sleek. / In fact in all features he was finely formed / it seemed" (ll. 143-46).

The intruder is elaborately arrayed in the gear and attire of a noble knight. He rides a mighty warhorse, similarly accoutered. But what's really strange about this knight, beyond even his enormous size, is that . . . well, after all, you and I are expecting it from the title. But remember that poor Arthur and his people have no such preparation. This knight, you see, both man and horse, are green.

And not just a little green, but really green: amazingly, brilliantly, verdantly green. The man's skin is green. His hair and beard are green. Every hair on the horse's body is green. And every bit of cloth and clothing on man or horse is green, as well. The only break in the color scheme is the requisite bits of metal, which are cast in silver, gold, or steel with a greenish tint, and set with green gems. The man's clothes are decorated, too, in green and gold, with themes of butterflies and birds.

At the same time, this Green Knight wears no armor, which the lords of Camelot must necessarily find strange, or at least surprising. Nor does the Knight carry a shield. Instead, in one hand he holds a sprig of holly—"of all the evergreens the greenest ever" (207). In the other, he holds a most remarkable weapon (as Armitage renders it in good modern style):

[T]he other hand held the mother of all axes,
a cruel piece of kit I kid you not:
the head was an ell
[about four feet] in length at least
and forged in green steel with a gilt finish;
the skull-busting blade was so stropped and buffed
it could shear a man's scalp and shave him to boot.
(ll. 208-213)

Without pausing for a reaction shot from Arthur or his court, the poet pushes the Green Knight right into action. He spurs his horse and rides right up to the main table. (Yes, he is riding inside the banquet hall. I'm not sure how that's supposed to work—it strikes me as a little odd that you can giddy-up right into King Arthur's dining room. Presumably the guards outside didn't feel like they could keep him from coming in.)

Anyway, the Knight clatters right up to Arthur's table, looks around, and bellows (I'm paraphrasing here): "Who's in charge here? I want to talk to the guy in charge."

The reaction of Arthur's assembled guests is, as we might expect, amazed. Everyone's jaw has dropped: no one can think of anything to say. Per the poet:

No waking man had witnessed such a warrior
or weird warhorse—otherworldly, yet flesh
and bone . . .
The guests looked on. They gaped and they gawked
And were mute with amazement: what did it mean
That human and horse could develop this hue,
Should grow to be grass-green or greener still,
Like green enamel emboldened by bright gold?
(ll. 196-98, 232-36)

Quite understandably, the poet continues, "the hall fell hushed, as if all who were present / had slipped into sleep or some trancelike state" (ll. 243-44). (The poet also, with the literary equivalent of a straight face, slips in an ironical dig at Arthur's courtiers: the lords, he mentions, have frozen stock-still, but he's sure it's not out of dread—they're just giving Arthur that chance to respond first.)

I have to say, and I hope you don't mind my pausing for a moment to do it, that I really love the way the Gawain poet handles this scene. Think about it: He's given us all this vivid, luxuriant description of the Christmas feasting, everyone getting jolly, and Arthur in the middle of it longing for something special to happen. And then, without warning, this bizarre, alarming figure appears. I really like how the poet doesn't directly tell us what anyone thinks about it—not even the main characters, not Arthur, not Guenevere, not Gawain. Instead, he simply describes the knight in detailed, specific terms. It's as if the poet is assuming that the description itself will do the work: Our eyes travel up and down this remarkable person, as if we were someone standing in that hall ourselves. After all, how would we feel if we saw such a man—bursting into our home in the midst of a party, no less? The words that the poet does use to describe reactions are applicable to all the assembled guests: "Amazement seized their minds," Armitage translates, and "[t]he guests . . . were mute with amazement" (ll. 149, 232-33).

To my mind, the words the poet is actually using are even more evocative. "For wonder of his hwe men hade," he writes—i.e., "for men wondered at his color" (l. 149)—and, "For uch mon had mervayle quat hit mene myght / That a hathel and a horse myght such a hwe lach": "For each man marvelled [as to] what it might mean / That a man and a horse might have such a hue" (ll. 232-33). These words, "wonder" and "mervayle" (variously spelled), recur throughout the section. I've used them as the subtitle of the column up top, because for me they capture what's so, well, fantastic about this story. And about this scene in particular. Here you are, you're at Camelot, you live inside a world of myth and chivalry—what does it take to make you wonder and marvel?

There are two particularly interesting lines, almost immediately following. Armitage translates them as: "[The courtiers had] seen some sights, but this was something special, / a miracle or magic, or so they imagined" (ll. 239-40). The original words are neither "miracle" nor "magic," though. In the Middle English, it's "[F]or fantoum and fayryye the folk there hit demed." "Fantoum" and "fayryye": great words, and both pretty self-explanatory. And both, apparently, what you might hypothesize if you lived at Camelot and a giant green knight rode into the room.

So: after all this marvel and wonder, how does the rest of the scene play out?

Well, King Arthur finally gets his kingly self together. He announces himself, and invites their unexpected guest to descend from the saddle and share their feast—which, I gather, is what the chivalric laws of hospitality demand, even if your visitor is a menacing and obviously supernatural giant.

"No thanks," replies the Knight. "I'm not here for shilly-shallying around." (I'm paraphrasing here again.) "I'm looking for a game. Everyone talks about how honorable the knights of Camelot are," the Knight adds, with a touch of irony, "so I figured for sure I could find someone to take my challenge."

"Of course!" says Arthur. "You'll find a knight willing to meet you in contest, if you like." (Arthur is must be pretty excited at this point, of course, because a challenge is exactly what he's been hoping for to make his Christmas complete.)

The Green Knight laughs. "You've misunderstood!" he says. "I'm not looking for a fight. If I were, I wouldn't have left my armor at home!"

And then, he issues his challenge: "If anyone here," he says, "is man enough to strike me one blow with this here axe, and then receive a blow in return, then he'll get to keep the axe, with my compliments. The way we'll do it is this: I'll take the first blow, in the neck, right here and now. Then, in a year's time, I'll return the favor upon him. Well? Anyone up for it?"

The hall, as might be expected, falls dead silent (no pun intended).

Well, the Green Knight turns from side to side in his saddle, looking over the assembled folks. Then he scoffs at them—"'So here is the House of Arthur! . . . Where's the fortitude and fearlessness you're so famous for?'" And he "laughed so loud that their leader saw red" (ll. 309-316).

Why is Arthur so mad? Well, the thing is that even though this "challenge" sounds insane—how can a challenger take an axe-blow to the neck, and then strike back?—it is, nonetheless, a challenge, and for medieval knights a challenge is sacrosanct. Which puts Arthur in an unfortunate position. If this challenge were posed by a normal man, it would seems crazy and probably suicidal. Since this challenger is clearly far from normal, it seems possible he might have an ace up his sleeve, in which case agreeing to the challenge might be tantamount to suicide for the knight who entered into it.

But, nonetheless, it's a formally posed challenge, and that means that if Arthur doesn't answer it, the Green Knight gets to call him and his men cowards. The social constructs of chivalry allow for games of chicken of this kind: reason and self-preservation here must take a back seat to preserving one's reputation as a fighter. (It's not exactly a construct unique to the Middle Ages, and it's not really one that we can say has been left behind today; in such wise and for such reasons are gauntlets thrown down, challenges accepted, and wars begun.)

In any event, Arthur won't stand for an insult. Faced with the frozen silence of his men, and the loud laughter of the Knight, "Give me that axe!" he says, "and I'll cut off your head my bleeding self."

And this is the point at which Gawain, who's been sitting silently by for the first fifteen stanzas of the poem, gets up, bows to Arthur and says: "Oh, sir, won't you please let me do it instead?"

This is the first we really see of Gawain, who has to this point been sitting by very quietly. We haven't learned much about him, although the medieval English audience would have been expected to know more. But really, at this point in the tale there isn't much to know. He's young, he's gallant, he's a blood relation of King Arthur (a nephew; these things matter at Camelot), and he is very virtuous.

By stepping up here, Gawain is behaving well. It's mannerly—nay, even chivalrous—of him to spare the king from having to defend Camelot's honor by himself. What's more, the challenge will reflect well on Gawain's courage, creating another story that can be told about him. (There's also another element, though, that I wonder about. This is such a wacky challenge. . . is it possible that Gawain suspects that this challenge might be a gimme? After all, it appears that a madman has just requested him to cut off his head. As challenges go, this one seems relatively low-risk, if a little bit creepy. So it's also possible that Gawain is being a little wimpy here. Or maybe I'm just cynical.)

With Arthur's blessing and the approval of the court, Gawain now steps up to the plate. The Green Knight asks him to repeat the terms of the contract they're agreeing to: Gawain will get one swing at the Knight's neck now, and twelve months later, Gawain is obliged to come find the Green Knight, seeking him out at his home, and receive a blow of the axe in return.

Gawain agrees. The knight leans forward and bares his neck, pulling his long green hair—his "longe lovelych lokkes"—up onto the crown of his head . . .

Incidentally, I love these little details, don't you? It's the sort of thing that makes the relation of fantastic events really effective: bizarre, oneiric events combined with realistic detail Flaubert could be proud of. I think it's interesting to compare this technique with the definition of "magical realism," that so-often-misused and -overused term. In the recent past, it's been used to discuss works of fiction from Latin American and other "non-European" cultures, in which realistic detail and fantastic or dreamlike content co-exist. But of course you don't have to look there to find this kind of cohabitation. It also exists in the pre-modern and the folk traditions of lots of other cultures, including the Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Norman traditions that gave us the Camelot stories, Sir Gawain, and eventually, our own modern language.

So, anyway, back to the story. The Green Knight leans forward, pulling up his long lovely hair . . .

Actually, because this seems like a good moment to point it out, here's another thing I like about Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: more so than a lot of the texts that remain to us from this period, it's got an awful lot going on with regard to gender and sexuality. This becomes more obvious in the third part of the poem—even if you're not a queer theorist or a feminist critic—but one of the things I find interesting about Simon Armitage's translation is that it opens the poem to a point that critical scholarship has been discussing lately, which is that is that as fourteenth-century poems go, this one has more than a few overtones of homoeroticism. Although these issues aren't crystallized until later in the poem, the early passages are not entirely non-suggestive. There's a lot of admiring description of the Green Knight's body and face, for example, which is interesting—because whose point of view is that supposed to be from? Certainly not a woman's; women don't get any point-of-view interiority in this story at all.

As a brief example, here's Armitage's translation of the sequence as the Green Knight prepares to receive Gawain's blow, beginning with an exchange between Gawain and the Knight:

'Now grasp that gruesome axe
and show your striking style.'
He answered, 'Since you ask,'
and touched the tempered steel.

In the standing position he prepared to be struck,
bent forward, revealing a flash of green flesh
as he heaped his hair to the crown of his head,
the nape of his neck now naked and ready.
(ll. 386-89, 412-420)

I'm not saying it's necessarily gay, I'm just saying it leaves itself open to interpretation. You can decide for yourself.

So! The knight leans forward, heaping his long lovely hair up on top of his head. He's bent and braced, his neck bared for the stroke. King Arthur has blessed his young cousin (and suggested that he'd better make this one stroke count). Gawain braces himself, hefts the axe, and swings.

Gawain's aim is good. The blade slices cleanly through bone and flesh. The Green Knight's head is sheared clean off. Blood spurts all over the Knight's fine clothing: "the blod brayd fro the body, that blykked on the grene" (l. 429). The "handsome head" rolls on the floor, and Arthur's men kick at it as it rolls past (ll. 427-28). (This, incidentally, has never struck me as a particularly sporting thing to do, but I guess that's Camelot for you).

But what happens now? Does the Green Knight's body stagger, fold double, collapse to the floor?

Of course, that's what you'd expect it to do. And, of course, it doesn't. Instead, the headless corpse begins, slowly but steadily, to walk toward Arthur's table.

There, it bends to the floor. It "rummages around, reaches at their feet / and cops hold of his head, and hoists it high, / and strides to his steed, snatches the bridle,/ steps into the stirrup and swings into the saddle" (ll. 432-36). The Green Knight is now sitting high on his steed, holding his own head in his hands, gripping it by the hair, as easy as you please.

And when he wheeled about
his bloody neck still bled.
His point was proved. The court
was deadened now with dread.

For that scalp and skull now swung from his fist;
towards the top table he turned the face
and it opened its eyelids, stared straight ahead
and spoke this speech . . .
'Sir Gawain, be wise enough to keep your word
and faithfully follow me until I'm found
as you vowed in this hall within hearing of these horsemen.
You're charged with getting to the Green Chapel,
to reap what you've sown. You'll rightfully receive
the justice you are due just as January dawns.
Men know me as the Green Chapel knight
and even a fool couldn't fail to find me.
So come, or be called a coward forever.'
With a tug of the reins he twisted around
and, head still in hand, galloped out of the hall,
so the hooves brought fire from the flame in the flint.
(ll. 440-459)

Arthur and his court are left (as who would not be?) absolutely dumbfounded. They stare after him, and, as he disappears, the hoof-beats fading in the distance, they realize that they still don't know this knight's real name, nor do they have any idea where he came from or where he's going now.

You might think that, after such an experience, they would talk soberly about what had just happened, or maybe consult a wizard or a priest. But that's not what happens. In one of the little moments I love in this poem, because of the poet's perceptiveness about psychology and the way people behave and think—not so different in the fourteenth century to the way it is in the twenty-first—what the courtiers do instead is that, as soon as the green man has disappeared, they start to laugh and grin about him. They make light of his appearance; they tell jokes. And Arthur, who, the poet tells us, is secretly "awestruck at heart" (467), lets no sign of it show. Instead, he tells Guenevere not to worry, and points out loudly that at least now he can eat—he's seen something strange enough!

In fact, the way Arthur speaks to Guenevere about what they've just seen actually puts it in the context of the usual Christmas entertainments, or "enterludes." Some critics suggest that Arthur is trying to imply to Guenevere that the "marvel" they've just seen was a product of stagecraft, something designed to wow the warriors—something he ordered up and has been in control of the whole time.

In any case, Arthur sure doesn't want to talk about it any more. He has Gawain hang up the axe (behind the dais, admittedly, where everyone can see it), and they all sit down to eat, and then to sing and dance and make merry until the sun goes down. But Arthur and Gawain, like the other courtiers in that hall, know in their hearts that something amazing has happened: they are full of "mervayl" and "wonder." And the poet ends the Fitt with an consideration of Gawain's internal state, and an admonition to the young knight to think well on what he's gotten himself into:

But mind your mood, Gawain,
keep blacker thoughts at bay,
or loose this lethal game
you've promised you will play.
(ll. 487-490).

After all, Gawain now has a tit-for-tat hanging over him. He has one year, and then . . . well, and then what happens?

Next time: Wolves and serpents, etaynes and woodwos, and all the other horrors of Wales in November. Will Gawain and Gringolet make it through? Stay tuned!


[1] : Armitage, in the "Introduction" to his translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight; p. 10.

[2] : James Simpson, "A Note on Middle English Meter"; in Armitage, p. 18.


Armitage, Simon. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2007.

Susannah Mandel has lived for ten years in Boston, two years in France, and several months in Philadelphia. She hopes never to move back to the suburbs. Her favorite hobbies include stories, sunlight, looking at stuff, and going into detail. Please feel free to tell her interesting things.