Anne Rooney writes short books for short children, and longer books for longer children and adults. After a PhD in medieval literature it took her only three months to realize being an academic is not all it's cracked up to be and probably took academia less than three months to realize Anne Rooney is not all she's cracked up to be. After working for a balloon, starting an electronic publishing company 15 years too early, and failing to take to journalism, she settled for the job her younger daughter describes as 'telling lies about an imaginary bird'. She has written around 120 books and occasionally does something serious, like writing for The New Humanist (but not often). Anne is currently working on The Story of Physics, a history of physics from Mesopotamia to M-theory for adults (2011), and a picture book about a cat and a witch for very short people (probably 2012). Here she writes about Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
Anne Rooney on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
My love affair with Sir Gawain began in October 1978. How can a girl resist when a knight in shining armour tosses a newly-liberated green head in her path? My first Cambridge supervisor chucked me into the deep end of the Middle Ages on the principle that immediate drowning would relieve her of the responsibility of teaching me. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: I didn't even recognize half the letters, never mind the words. But hacking through the thorny yoghs to delights such as snow that 'snickers ful snart' (still part of my winter vocabulary) I fell thoroughly under his spell. By the end of that first week, I wanted only to be a medievalist and later, when the rest of my cohort rushed off to well-paid jobs, or to languish in Hollywood bars waiting to be discovered, I knuckled down to three years of a PhD that had Gawain and his headless green antagonist at its heart. I sat in the British Library Manuscripts Room (when it was still in the British Museum) with the snow snickering full snart outside and read the poem in manuscript. We were blissfully happy together.
To cut a short story shorter... It's Christmas at Camelot and everyone's looking for a bit of excitement. In the days before the Queen's Speech and Dr Who, dinner has to wait on 'some wonder', so the hungry courtiers are not displeased when a huge knight rides into the court. Oh, and it helps the excitement that he's 'overal enker grene' - bright green all over. Even more shocking than his appearance is his idea of a game, which is a bit more energetic than Trivial Pursuit. He wants an exchange of blows with any knight brave enough to take a swipe at him, and a year later, visit his own home and receive a blow in exchange. None of the supposedly-brave knights rises immediately to the challenge, all being somewhat nonplussed by both the greenness and the apparent stupidity of the Green Knight. (Of course they're not scared - how could you think such a thing?) Young and rash, Gawain gets the gig.
If confronted by a gigantic green knight who threatened to swipe you with an axe a year later, you'd probably do what Gawain did, and slice his head straight off. All well and good, no return blow, right? Wrong. In the first known Stephen-King moment in English literature, the knight coolly retrieves his head, ignominiously and provocatively used as a football by the court, and reminds Gawain not to be late for his appointment. He gives his address enigmatically as the Green Chapel, which Gawain will find if he looks for it.
The year passes, and Gawain begins to get a tad edgy about his appointment. Not having SatNav on his horse, he can't find the chapel, but is persuaded to spend the Christmas festival in the castle of one Sir Bertilak, who assures him his destination is only a short ride away. Gawain finds it hard to relax, but courtesy demands that he keep his head (as it were) and join in the festivities. Bertilak challenges Gawain to a gentler exchange game - for the next three days, the two men will exchange in the evening whatever they have won during the day. While Bertilak hunts manfully in the frozen forest, Gawain lolls about in bed all morning. But his snoozing is disturbed by Bertilak's beautiful wife, who tries to seduce Gawain (he has a reputation as a great lover - she has obviously read or heard plenty of verse romances about Sir Gawain, as the poem's audience would have done). Gawain realizes that just because you're living in the same house as someone is no good reason to sleep with them, even if they're clearly up for it, and he parries with polite flirting and escapes with a few kisses: one on the first day, two on the second and three on the third day. Bertilak meanwhile kills a host of deer on the first day, a fierce boar on the second and a puny fox on the third day. They exchange these winnings in the evenings, Gawain bestowing kisses on the beardy Bertilak. He is thoroughly unmanned by this game, a real test of his mettle as knights are big show-offs about their bravery and manliness. It's a wonderful counterpoint to the test of his physical and emotional bravery in the enclosing exchange game. All is not quite as it seems, though. On the third day, the lady acknowledges that Gawain won't let her into his bed and offers him a keepsake - a green girdle which will prevent his death by violence. What a lucky coincidence! Reader, he kept it.
The next morning, Gawain finds the Green Chapel - a grassy knoll (anachronistic misgivings should be laid aside) with 'nobut an old cave' in it. He can hear the chilling sound of the Green Knight sharpening his axe. Gulp. Gawain lays his bare neck on the chopping block but, not trusting entirely in his green girdle, he flinches. What a wimp! The Green Knight is angry, reminding Gawain that he hadn't flinched the previous year when Gawain had struck his head right off. The same happens again. The third time, Gawain doesn't flinch, but the Green Knight only nicks his neck. In a wonderfully comic release of tension, Gawain leaps up saying the knight has had his chance and blown it and he (Gawain) can go now. The Green Knight leans on his axe and watches like a patient (if green) head teacher. Then the Green Knight reveals (you saw this coming, didn't you?) that he was Bertilak, he put his wife up to the seduction trick, the two feints were for his honourable behaviour in passing on the kisses on the first two evenings and the final nick was for concealing and retaining the belt on the last evening. But he didn't lose his head because love of life is understandable.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a verse romance. It doesn't rhyme particularly (only a bit), but in the tradition of the time and place of its composition it is alliterative, and would have been recited, probably from memory, to an audience. The poetry is stunning, even in modern English translation if you're not up to those unfamiliar letters. But most touching is the gentle humanity with which Gawain is depicted. The blend of heroism, pride, fear, love of life, self-doubt, shame and smugness make him the first fully-drawn character in English literature. The hunts, the bedroom scenes, the unearthly decapitation and Gawain's terrible journey towards apparently inevitable death through a cold and hostile landscape are masterpieces of description and evocation. The poem shines like a jewel through the intervening centuries and says, as clearly as Chaucer does, that human beings are as they have always been. We share Gawain's despair and his triumph, tread every step of the way with him in full recognition of how he feels and responds. It is a golden thread that holds us to our past, and it raises issues as relevant now as when it was written, over 600 years ago.
But it so nearly didn't link us to our past. The author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is unknown. The poem is preserved in a single manuscript which now lies safely in the British Library but narrowly escaped being lost forever when it was singed in the Cotton library fire of 1731. I spent three years untangling the symbolism of the hunts in Sir Gawain and other Middle English literature (no, it's not primarily about sex – it's about mortality) and the poem never lost its charm, just became increasingly jewel-like and complex. Its anonymity and quality of lost-ness make it seem ethereal and precious. It was not read between 1400 and the 19th century, was unknown to Shakespeare, Milton, Pope, Samuel Johnson and all the others who might have had something to say about it and so has none of the accreted crust of use and misuse of Chaucer or other medieval poets who remained in circulation. It is clear, clean, complex, self-contained and perfect - especially at Christmas.
(Go for the Simon Armitage translation if you're not up to speed with the thorns and yoghs.)
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]