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Category Archives: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Morte Darthur


Illustration from page 306 of The Boy's King A...

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Sir Thomas Malory, author of Morte Darthur, was a trouble maker — breaking in, plundering, extorting and, worse, raping — and the Norton Anthology says he possibly “took the law into his own hands with unnecessary enthusiasm.” (Great line, guys!) He spent lots of time in prison, which is where he crafted Morte Darthur.

The Norton Anthology explains that he was a Lancastrian supporter during the Wars of the Roses, and he was likely persecuted by the Yorks (Edward IV supporters) more harshly than he should have been or that he acted up more because the Yorks were in power. He probably would have been happy to see that the Lancasters finally won the battle in 1487 when Henry Tudor of the House of Lancaster took the throne, ending the Wars of the Roses. But Malory died many years before, in 1471, right after Henry VI of Lancaster resumed the throne then lost it to Edward IV of York. Malory’s Morte Darthur wasn’t printed until 1485.

The Norton Anthology points out that Arthurian legend is similar to the legends of Robin Hood and the American West in that they share the ideal of maintaining order in a lawless land by the efforts of the individual, who fights for the right against overwhelming odds. It parallels this ideal to Malory’s life, in which he tried to enforce what he thought was right by violence, but rather than maintaining order, he disrupted it.

What the Norton Anthology draws attention to with Malory’s writing is his use of naturalistic, down-to-earth dialogue; understatement, in which his characters use few words in times of great emotional tension; and narrative prose, as beautiful as had usually been reserved for poetry. One piece I liked was this one, describing the battle between Arthur and Mordred:

And never since was there never seen a more dolefuller battle in no Christian land, for there was but rushing and riding, foining [lunging] and striking; and many a grim word was there spoken of either to other, and many a deadly stroke.

Then King Arthur looked about and was ware where stood Sir Mordred leaning upon his sword among a great heap of dead men.

Then Sir Lucan took up the King the t’one party and Sir Bedivere the other party; and in the lifting up the King swooned and in the lifting Sir Lucan fell in a swoon that part of his guts fell out of his body, and therewith the noble knight’s heart burst. And when the King awoke he beheld Sir Lucan how he lay foaming at the mouth and part of his guts lay at his feet.

What I read was only an excerpt of what sounds like a very long book. But based on what I read here, it’s probably a very enjoyable book to read. It brought life to characters, specifically King Arthur and Sir Gawain, that I haven’t seen in any movies or in any of the previous writings I’ve read about them. (To clarify, this was a very different picture of Sir Gawain than I read in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. This character was more robust, was followed over a longer period of time than in the Green Knight, and had a much greater loyalty to Arthur and deeper relationship with him than any of the other knights.)

Also, I was thankful to the Norton Anthology for pointing out how difficult Lancelot’s situation was. As a knight, he was very chivalric — loyalty, strength in battle, and romantic love were all very important. It says: “But Lancelot is compromised by his fatal liaison with Arthur’s queen and torn between the incompatible loyalties that bind him as an honorable knight, on the one hand, to his lord Arthur and, on the other, to his lady Guinevere.” It helped me read it with Lancelot’s struggle in mind.

 

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Sir Gawain and the Green Knight


Temptation of Sir Gawain by Lady Bercilak: Cot...

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Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was great! I was so glad that I couldn’t remember how it ended because I really enjoyed reading it and anticipating the outcome. It was very dramatic!

Sir Gawain was written in the late 1300s, and the author is possibly the same one who wrote Pearl, Patience and Purity, three religious poems. The poem is half-comedy, half-religious character study. It combines chivalry and romance.

The language was beautiful. The book says it is written in the alliterative meter of Old English verse. The alliteration in each line is clever throughout. I almost had to skip ahead because the boar-hunting scene was so real that I really felt for the boar:

But in as much haste as he might, he makes his retreat
To a rise on rocky ground, by a rushing stream.
With the bank at his back he scrapes the bare earth,
The froth foams at his jaws, frightful to see.
….

The boar makes for the man with a mighty bound
So that he and his hunter came headlong together
Where the water ran wildest — the worst for the beast,
For the man, when they first met, marked him with care,
Sights well the slot, slips in the blade,
Shoves it home to the hilt, and the heart shattered,
And he falls in his fury and floats down the water,
ill-sped.
Hounds hasten by the score
To maul him, hide and head;
Men drag him in to shore
And dogs pronounce him dead.

Poor little guy! I also enjoyed Sir Gawain’s vanity when he put on some borrowed clothes at the castle where he rested.

When he had found one he fancied, and flung it about,
Well-fashioned for his frame, with flowing skirts,
His face fair and fresh as the flowers of spring,
All the good folk agreed, that gazed on him then,
His limbs arrayed royally in radiant hues,
That so comely a mortal never Christ made
as he.

Plus, it’s hilarious (maybe not meant to be) that he must confess his indiscretion to everyone at home upon his return. “The blood burns in his cheeks, For shame at what must be shown.”

Great story!

 

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