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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.

XV. Pearl, Cleanness, Patience and Sir Gawayne

§ 3. Sir Gawayne and the Grene Knight

A fourth poem follows Cleanness and Patience in the MS.—the romance of Sir Gawayne and the Grene Knight. At a glance it is clear, as one turns the leaves, that the metre of the poem is a combination of the alliterative measure with the occasional introduction of a lyrical burden, introduced by a short verse of one accent, and riming according to the scheme ababa, which breaks the poem at irregular intervals, evidently marking various stages of the narrative. The metre blends the epic rhythm of Cleanness and Patience with the lyrical strain of Pearl. The illustrations preceding this poem are obviously scenes from medieval romance; above one of the pictures, representing a stolen interview between a lady and a knight, is a couplet not found elsewhere in the MS.:

  • Mi mind is mukel on on, that wil me noght amende: Sum time was trewe as ston, and fro schame couthe her defende.
  • The romance deals with a weird adventure that befell Sir Gawain, son of Loth, and nephew of king Arthur, the favourite hero of medieval romance, more especially in the literature of the west and northern parts of England, where, in all probability, traditions of the knight lived on from early times; the depreciation of the hero in later English literature was due to the direct influence of one particular class of French romances. Gaston Paris, in Volume xxx of L’Histoire Litéeraire de la France, 1888, has surveyed the whole field of medieval literature dealing with Sir Gawain; according to his view, the present romance is the jewel of English medieval literature, and it may, perhaps, be considered the jewel of medieval romance. To Madden belongs the honour of first having discovered the poem, and of having brought it out in his great collection, Syr Gawayne…Ancient Romance poems by Scottish and English Authors relating to that celebrated Knight of the Round Table, published by the Bannatyne Club, 1839. The place of Sir Gawayne in the history of English metrical romances is treated of elsewhere; in the present chapter Sir Gawayne is considered mainly as the work of the author of Pearl.

    The story tells how on a New Year’s Day, when Arthur and his knights are feasting at Camelot, a great knight clad in green, mounted on a green horse, and carrying a Danish axe, enters thehall, and challenges one of Arthur’s knights; the conditions being that the knight must take oath that, after striking the first blow, he will seek the Green Knight twelve months hence and receive a blow in return. Gawain is allowed to accept the challenge, takes the axe and smites the Green Knight so that the head rolls from the body; the trunk takes up the head, which the hand holds out while it repeats the challenge to Gawain to meet him at the Green Chapel next New Year’s morning, and then departs. Gawain, in due course, journeys north, and wanders through wild districts, unable to find the Green Chapel; on Christmas Eve he reaches a castle, and asks to be allowed to stay there for the night: he is welcomed by the lord of the castle, who tells him that the Green Chapel is near, and invites him to remain for the Christmas feast. The lord, on each of the last three days of the year, goes a-hunting; Gawain is to stay behind with the lady of the castle; the lord makes the bargain that, on his return from hunting, each shall exchange what has been won during the day; the lady puts Gawain’s honour to a severe test during the lord’s absence: he receives a kiss from her; in accordance with the compact, he does not fail to give the kiss to the husband on his return; there is a similar episode on the next day when two kisses are received and given by Gawain; on the third day, in addition to three kisses, Gawain receives a green lace from the lady, which has the virtue of saving the wearer from harm. Mindful of his next day’s encounter with the Green Knight, Gawain gives the three kisses to his host, but makes no mention of the lace. Next morning, he rides forth and comes to the Green Chapel, a cave in a wild district; the Green Knight appears with his axe; Gawain kneels; as the axe descends, Gawain flinches, and is twitted by the knight; the second time Gawain stands as still as a stone, and the Green Knight raises the axe, but pauses; the third time the knight strikes him, but, though the axe falls on Gawain’s neck, his wound is only slight. Gawain now declares that he has stood one stroke for another, and that the compact is settled between them. Then the Green Knight reveals himself to Gawain as his host at the castle; he knows all that has taken place. “That woven lace which thou wearest mine own wife wove it; I know it well; I know too thy kisses, and they trials, and the wooing of my wife; I wrought it myself. I sent her to tempt thee, and methinks thou art the most faultless hero that ever walked the earth. As pearls are of more price than white peas, so is Gawain of more price than other gay knights.” But for his concealing the magic lace he would have escaped unscathed. The name of the Green Knight is given as Bernlak de Hautdesert; the contriver of the test is Morgan le Fay, Arthur’s half-sister, who wished to try the knights and frighten Guinevere; Gawain returns to court and tells the story; and the lords and ladies of the Round Table lovingly agree to wear a bright green lace in token of this adventure, and in honour of Gawain, who disparages himself as cowardly and covetous. And ever more the badge was deemed the glory of the Round Table, and he that had it was held in honour.