Gawain and History

Wednesday, September 14th, 2005

One of the significant issues we’re going after in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is the importance of context, not just for the reader but also for the poet. An Arthurian romance in the Middle English style and mode comes with all kinds of significant ideas: why Arthur, why Gawain, and why that structure to the poem.

The Gawain or Pearl poet is very much aware of his subject, just as Chaucer is aware of biblical parallels and anecdote, but he’s also very much aware of his structure, both internal to the poem’s narrative and in the poem itself. He’s aware that he’s “constructing” a poem that tells Gawain’s story. But we always begin at the beginning–ah the play on the things–just as the poet does. The poet begins, as did the Beowulf skald, with mention of “how we got here” and “with those figures significant to the figures in the story.” Mark Anastasio, just after we left off with the Green Knight’s intro words, caught me outside of class and suggested possible reasoning behind Rome, Aeneas, and Brutus. (I’ll let him inform the class about what he told me.)

Arthur in the romance tradition is a figure who brings order to world. He unites and governs as a servant of Christ, and he deserves the loyalty of the knight-thane, just as Beowulf did. Implicit to order and its figures, however, is a threat: the threat is disorder and death. The grand narrative of Arthur is the narrative of Rome. It is great but it also falls. Beowulf is great, but just like his fathers, he will die–then what? In cyclical history, Rome always falls. Arthur’s story always ends the same way. Rise and fall, ascent and descent. If you’re a Christian, Christ always dies on the cross, and you’re helpless to prevent it. From the poet’s perspective, we need to learn from the story that always ends the same way (and it’s not as easy as it sounds).

Questions of Time
The Gawain poet treats time as a force. Consider these lines from part 2, 24

Then the summer season when the west breeze blows
After þe sesoun of somer wyth þe soft wyndez

and soft winds sigh on seed and stem.
Quen Zeferus syflez hymself on sedez and erbez,

How the green things glory in their urgent growth
Wela wynne is þe wort þat waxes þeroute,

when the dripping dew drops from the leaves,
When þe donkande dewe dropez of þe leuez,

waiting for the warm sun’s welcome glance.
To bide a blysful blusch of þe bryt sunne.

But then Fall flies in, and fills their hearts,
Bot þen hyes heruest, and hardenes hym sone,

Bidding them be rich, ripe, and ready for winter.
Warnez hym for þe wynter to wax ful rype;

The autumn drought drives up dust
He dryues wyth drot þe dust for to ryse,

that billows in clouds above the broad earth.
Fro þe face of þe folde to flye ful hye;

Wild winds whistle, wrestling the sun;
Wroþe wynde of þe welkyn wrastelez with þe sunne,

Leaves launch from each limb and land on the soil,
Þe leuez lancen fro þe lynde and lyten on þe grounde,

while the green grass fades to grey.
And al grayes þe gres þat grene watz ere;

What rose at the first now ripens and rots
Þenne al rypez and rotez þat ros vpon fyrst,

till the year has gathered its full yield of yesterdays.
And þus irnez þe ere in isterdayez mony,

In this Deane text, which differs profoundly from the strong translation of Barroff and that makes corny decisions in translation (thus I’ve added the Tolkien version in its Middle English), we can note the cyclic power and inevitability of time and its tropes. The summer is “glad” but the “hard harvest” always follows and “ripe” always moves to rot. The context here is also the many yesterdays. Under the governance of this natural pattern Gawain must prepare for his journey and “travails yet to try” (535).

Time runs throughout the text. It’s marked by calendar, ritual, point of view, and season. Gawain moves into it as the story plays out. The birth of Rome is tied to Troy and linked to the birth of Britain.

But what is the warning here?


3 responses to “Gawain and History”

  1. Neha says:

    Change is the only thing that is permanent, here and anywhere else. I’m coming across a lot of this theme this year..from Hawthorne to Shakespeare and then again into Achebe. It’s wonderful and amazing how connected things can be.

    By the way, I’m jumping with joy because I can now read Middle English!

  2. Mark says:

    The warning is that Camelot, like these other great Empires, will fall.

    The opening of Beowulf lays out a historical map that takes a much less foreboding tone. It states the achievements of past rulers and gives the listener a sence of how great these men were, but for the sole purpose of setting example. The Thanes wanted to live up to the reputations of thier ancestors, never exceeding them or ever falling short. We get the idea that based on the history of the text , Beowulf will certainly succeed, its in his blood to do so.

    In Gawain the history is given, but with the mention of Troy and Rome and societies that paved the way for Camelot we can’t help but feel a little doomed from the start. On the one hand all of these civilizations were quite wealthy, powerful and prosperous in thier day, yet on the other they all came crashing down.

    The histories of both these texts are very strong tools of foreshaddow, however the shaddow over Sir Gawains head is much darker.

  3. Lisa says:

    Its interesting on how all the past societies that have been deemed themseleves to be so great because of the things they have accomplished have fallen.
    Troy, Rome and the Literary Camelot all fell. The French Empire under Napolean fell and France is no longer the power it once was, the same goes for other countries like England and China.
    I wonder if The United States, like the great nations of the past, will fall. The United States has come to consider itself one of the greatest nations in the history of the world, yet so did other nations that have fallen. We have built such strong country not only economically and politically but also military wise. The US has also built up the egos of its citizens to think that we are the best nation and no one could touch us. However, it seems to me that after September 11, 2001 we would realize that people can hurt us.
    The nations of the past that have fallen never thought that they could be taken down and neither does the US today, what happens when a bigger empire comes and knocks us down or we just crumble? Is the United States doomed to be another Troy, Greece or Rome?
    “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” ~ George Santayana.