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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).>br>Volume I. From the Beginnings to the Cycles of Romance.

XIII. Metrical Romances, 1200–1500: I

§ 12. Sir Gawayne and Sir Tristrem

The elements of the plot in Sir Gawayne and the Grene Knight are as ancient and unreasonable as are to be found in any mythology. No precise original has been found in French; but the chief adventure, the beheading game proposed by the Green Knight to the reluctant courtiers of King Arthur occurs often in other stories. It comes in one of the stories of Cuchulinn in Irish; it comes more than once in the French romances; e.g. in La Mule sans Frein, one of the best of the shorter stories, a strange old-fashioned chivalrous pilgrim’s progress; and this, too, sets out from King Arthur’s court, and the hero is Gawain. The beheading “jeopardy” is a most successful piece of unreason: “You may cut off my head, if only I may have a stroke at you some other day.” Sir Gawain cuts off the Green Knight’s head; the Green Knight picks it up; he summons Gawain to travel and find him by an appointed day, and submit his neck to the return-stroke. This is good enough, one would imagine, for a grotesque romance; one hears the reader quoting aegrisomnia and reaffirming his contempt for the Middle Ages.

Yet this romance of Sir Gawayne is very different from the ordinary books of chivalry; it is one of the most singular works of the fourteenth century, and it is one of the strongest, both in imagination and in literary art. The author loses nothing of the fantastic value of his plot; on the contrary, he does everything possible to heighten the effect of it, to a grotesque sublimity; while, at the same time, he is concerned, as Shakespeare often is, to transform the folklore with which he is working, and make it play into his moral scheme. He is a great moralist and he can use allegory; but, in his treatment of this story, his imagination is generally too strong for abstract methods. He succeeds (a very remarkable feat) in making his readers accept strange adventures as part of a reasonable man’s life; not smoothing away or suppressing absurdities, but getting out of them everything possible in the way of terror and wonder; and using mockery also, like that of the northern myths of Thor and the giants. Allegory comes in, but accidentally, in the description of Gawain’s shield and its device, the “pentangle,” with its religious motive—Gawain as the servant of Our Lady; thus adding something more to the complexity of the work. It is a different thing from the simple beauty of the fairy tales; and, on the other hand, the common futilities of the minstrels are kept at a safe distance by this author. His landscape is not that of the ordinary books; Sir Gawain is not sent wandering in the conventional romantic scenery, but in the highlands of Wales in winter, all well known and understood by the poet, with through enjoyment of the season, “the flaky shower and whirling drift.” This is not quite exceptional, for, though the winter passages of the Scottish Chaucerians are later, the alliterative poets generally were good at stormy weather; but there is none equal to the poet of Sir Gawayne in this kind of description. The three hunting scenes—of the hart, the boar, and the fox—serve to bring out his talent further, while the way they are placed in contrast with the Christmas revels in the castle, shows, at any rate, the writer’s care for composition; symmetry of this sort may not be very difficult, but it is not too common at this time. The temptation of Sir Gawain and the blandishments of the lady may have been suggested by the French romance of Ider; but, as in the case of the other ordeal—the beheading game—the English poet has given his own rendering.

Sir Tristrem is a great contrast to Sir Gawayne, though both works are ambitious and carefully studied. The author of Sir Gawayne took some old wives’ fables and made them into a magnificent piece of Gothic art; the other writer had one of the noblest stories in the world to deal with, and translated it into thin tinkling rimes.

  • Ysonde of heighe priis,
  • The maiden bright of hewe,
  • That wered fow and griis
  • And scarlet that was newe,
  • In warld was non so wiis
  • Of crafte that men knewe,
  • Withouten Sir Tramtris
  • That al games of grewe
  • On grounde.
  • Hom longeth Tramtris the trewe.
  • For heled was his wounde.
  • The author is so pleased with his command of verse that he loses all proper sense of his tragic theme. Tristram and Iseult had to wait long for their poet, in England.