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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

§ 4. Sources of Sir Gawayne

The author derived his materials from some lost original; he states that the story had long been “locked in lettered lore.” His original was, no doubt, in French or Anglo French. The oldest form of the challenge and the beheading is an Old Irish heroic legend, Fled Bricrend (the feast of Bricriu), preserved in a MS. of the end of the eleventh or the beginning of the twelfth century, where the story is told by Cuchulinn, the giant being Uath Mac Denomain, who dwelt near the lake. The Cuchulinn episode had, in due course, become incorporated in Arthurian literature. The French version nearest to the Gawain story that has so far been pointed out was discovered by Madden in the first continuation by Gautier de Doulens of Chrétien’s Conte del Graal, where the story is connected with Carados, Arthur’s nephew, and differs in many important respects from the English version of the romance. There is much to be said in favour of Miss Weston’s conclusion that “it seems difficult to understand how anyone could have regarded this version, ill-motived as it is, and utterly lacking in the archaic details of the English poem, as the source of that work. It should probably rather be considered as the latest in form, if not in date, of all the versions.” There is, of course, no doubt whatsoever that we have in the French romance substantially the same story, with the two main episodes, namely, the beheading and the test at the castle; our poet’s direct original is evidently lost—he no doubt well knew the Conte del Graal—but we are able to judge that whatever other source he may have used, he brought his own genius to bear in the treatment of the theme. It would seem as though the figure of Gawain, “the falcon of the month of May,” the traditional type and embodiment of all that was chivalrous and knightly, is drawn from some contemporary knight, and the whole poem may be connected with the foundation of the order of the Garter, which is generally assigned to about the year 1345. From this standpoint it is significant that at the end of the MS., in a somewhat later hand, is found the famous legend of the order: honi soit qui mal (y) penc; just as a later poet, to whom we are indebted for a ballad of the Green Knight (a rifacimento of this romance, or of some intermediate form of it), has used the same story to account for the origin of the order of the Bath. The romance may be taken not to have been written before the year 1345.

The charm of Sir Gawayne is to be found in its description of nature, more especially of wild nature; in the author’s enjoyment of all that appertains to the bright side of medieval life; in its details of dress, armour, wood-craft, architecture; and in the artistic arrangement of the story, three parallel episodes being so treated as to avoid all risk of monotony or reiteration. As a characteristic passage the following may be quoted:

  • O’er a mound on the morrow he merrily rides
  • into a forest full deep and wondrously wild;
  • high hills on each side and holt-woods beneath,
  • with huge hoary oaks, a hundred together;
  • hazel and hawthorn hung clustering there,
  • with rough ragged moss o’ergrown all around;
  • unblithe, on bare twigs, sang many a bird,
  • piteously piping for pain of the cold.
  • Under them Gawayne on Gringolet glideth,
  • through marsh and through mire, a mortal full lonesome,
  • cumbered with care, lest ne’er he should come
  • to that Sire’s service, who on that same night
  • was born of a bride to vanquish our bale.
  • Wherefore sighing he said: “I beseech Thee, O Lord,
  • and Mary, thou mildest mother so dear!
  • some homestead, where holily I may hear mass
  • and matins to-morrow, full meekly I ask;
  • thereto promptly I pray pater, ave,
  • and creed.”
  • He rode on in his prayer,
  • And cried for each misdeed;
  • He crossed him ofttimes there,
  • And said: “Christ’s cross me speed!”
  • But, much as Sir Gawayne shows us of the poet’s delight in his art, the main purpose of the poem is didactic. Gawain, the knight of chastity, is but another study by the author of Cleanness. On the workmanship of his romance he has lavished all care, only that thereby his readers may the more readily grasp the spirit of the work. Sir Gawain may best, perhaps, be understood as the Sir Calidor of an earlier Spenser.

    In the brief summary of the romance, one striking passage has been noted linking the poem to Pearl, namely, the comparison of Gawain to the pearl; but, even without this reference the tests of language, technique and spirit, would render identity of authorship incontestable; the relation which this Spenserian romance bears to the elegy as regards time of composition cannot be definitely determined; but, judging by parallelism of expression, it is clear that the interval between the two poems must have been very short.