Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by J.R.R. Tolkien - Book Review

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight written by an anonymous Anglo-Saxon poet and translated by the renowned J. R. R. Tolkien, author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy, is a very long but very sophisticated medieval poem. It is divided into four chapter-like parts; each ending at a crucial point or high note, thus prompting the reader to carry on.

The tale begins at banquet of King Arthur in Camelot, where all the knights are eating and drinking merrily, when “there passed through the portals a perilous horseman” (Stanza 7, line 7, p. 28) and at his “hue men gaped aghast/in his face and form that showed;/ as a fay-man fell he passed/and green all over glowed”. (Stanza 7, lines 18-21).

Thus, the reader is introduced to the two main characters at the beginning of the story (Gawain is mentioned earlier in stanza 6 to be sitting at Queen Guinevere’s side). In other words, the reader does not have to wait long to be introduced to the two characters mentioned in the title.

The poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight does not rhyme – as opposed to the two other pieces in the book, namely Pearl and Sir Orfeo; however, there is the exception of the last six lines of each stanza. The poem is highly alliterative; most lines consist of at least three alliterating words, with some exceptions, such as:

“Very gay was this great man guised all in green”, (Stanza 9, line 1, p. 30).
Woven in with gold wire about the wondrous green”, (Stanza 9, line 11, p. 30).

The Green Knight presents a challenge to the court of Camelot and Sir Gawain takes it. According to the challenge, Gawain must, before the following New Year’s Day, seek out the Green Knight, who announces that he is the “Knight of the Green Chapel” and fight him.

The second part of the poem begins with Sir Gawain announcing that it is time for him to leave Camelot to fulfill the Green Knight’s challenge. There are several stanzas describing Sir Gawain’s attire and how sad the people of Camelot are to see him go. Then, he begins he quest to find the Green Knight of the Green Chapel. He journeys to lands known and unknown, meets with trolls and ogres (but none of these feats is described). Right before Christmas, he prays to God – and Jesus – to send him to a place where he can attend Christmas Mass. His prayer is answered and he arrives at a castle shortly afterwards.

Towards the end of the second part, Sir Gawain tells the lord of the house that he is on a quest to find the Green Knight and that he has only three days left to New Year’s Day. The lord of the house answers that he knows where this Green Knight lives and that Gawain has nothing to fear for the place he seeks is but two miles away.

Each part of the Sir Gawain and the Green Knight poem ends on a mysterious and suspenseful note that gives a hint of what is to come in the following part. The second part ends with these lines: “Yet ere to bed they came,/he the bargain did oft recall;/ he knew how to play a game/that old governor of that hall” (Stanza 45, lines 18-21, p. 66).

The third part begins where the lord of the house and his men prepare for a hunt. Shortly after they leave, the lady of the house, who is often described as beautiful, enters Sir Gawain’s room and attempts to seduce him. She tells Gawain To my body you will welcome be/of delight to take your fill;/for need constraineth me/ to serve you, and I will.” (Stanza 49, lines 18-21). His response to her is rather awkward as he speaks of honour and being an unworthy knight. To me, it sounds like a strange response to a woman attempting to seduce a man. Moreover, it does not sound like a polite decline.

The whole of the third part is about the games Sir Gawain and the lord of the castle play during Gawain’s three remaining days. They agree that each would give the other what each has won during the day. The stanzas constantly shift between the hunts and what goes on in the castle between Gawain and the lady of house. On the second day, the lady of the castle visits Sir Gawain in his bed and attempts to seduce him once more.

“Here single I come and sit,/a pupil for your play;/come teach me of your wit,/ while my lord is far away” (Stanza 60, lines 24-28, p. 82). I am not sure how what the manner of a knight would be to this kind of approach; nonetheless, I find Sir Gawain’s preliminary response rather awkward. “In good faith” said Gawain “may God reward you!/ Great delight I gain, and am glad beyond measure…”, (Stanza 61, lines 1&2, p. 82). The poet is clearly criticising the lack of chastity and desire, however, the knight’s response or possibly the level of the language appears to be too high a level, making it look and sound rather strange, and which results in the whole situation sounding rather funny.

Twice the lord of the castle gives Sir Gawain the outcome of the hunt, and twice Sir Gawain returns them with kisses, which were his daily winnings from the lady of the castle. On the third day, however, the lady of the house goes to Sir Gawain’s room (again) and when all attempts to seduce him fail, she states that she is heartbroken and asks for a token of his to remember him by. She offers him a green belt; he refuses, but when she claims that whoever wears this belt cannot die, Sir Gawain decides to take it for his confrontation with the Green Knight, wherein he might be slain. On the third night, Gawain gives the lord of the castle three kisses, as the lady had given him earlier that day, but keeps the belt and does not mention where he got those kisses.

The fourth and final part begins with Sir Gawain finally setting out, with a guide, to seek out the Green Knight. He is given a chance to forsake this quest and return to his homeland, but as an honourable knight and a believer in God, he refuses. The guide would not go beyond a certain point for fear of the Green Knight. Thus, Gawain must continue the journey alone.

We finally meet the Green Knight along with an unexpected twist of events.

I will not divulge anymore here because it would give the surprise away. However, it is safe to say that the last few stanzas of the poem contain references to Morgana Le Fey and others from the Arthurian tales. These final stanzas wittingly connect the beginning and ending of the story and give a reason for the Green Knight’s strange challenge.

The final twist is like the leather that binds a book; it answers many questions that come to the reader’s mind whilst reading.

For some unknown reason, though occasionally for alliteration purposes, some of the references to Sir Gawain are written as Sir Wawain.

The poem is very long: 101 stanzas of not less than 20 lines each. I realised that it should be read at a single go or at short time intervals. It is preferable to at least make the stops at the end of each part. There are many boring parts, especially since we meet the Green Knight in the first few pages then we do not see him until the middle of the fourth part.

Tolkien’s style is fairly dominant in the poem (or at least that’s how I felt); the reader cannot tell who would have written the piece better – Tolkien or the anonymous poet. The verse is highly alliterative making it very musical along with the last rhyming six lines of every stanza.

Overall, I would give Tolkien a five-star rating for the strenuous effort undertaken to produce such a piece, but as for the content itself, I would give the original anonymous writer around 2.5 stars, for many parts were dull (that cannot be taken against the translator who cannot omit parts from the original work).

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