Friday, October 9, 2009

The Continued Adventures Of--

One of my favorite pieces of literature is the Middle English "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight." The hero is depicted so realistically that one is never sure that all will end well; he is, like the rest of us, a human being, all too capable of falling or failing. This is all the more reason why the story sustains its interest. The enumeration of Gawain's trials does not come across as a distant, predictable catalog of obligatory events, like an obstacle course far beneath the skill of a runner, but as a set of very real problems. And even while such real problems as the threat of a beheading seem to be glossed over lightly enough in many of the old romances, the unknown talent which gave us this poem took the time to draw a human being, afraid of death, conscious of sin, aware of his own weaknesses. The real chance of failure makes his successes all the more glorious.

I thought to improve my mind some weeks ago (it has yet to actually improve) so I checked out an armload of poetry books from the library (I have yet to give them much serious consideration). The Oxford Book of Scottish Poetry did get a cursory flip-through, however, and there, much to my amazement, was a selection from another poem about Gawain, this time, not in Middle English, but in Middle Scots. It is called The Knightly Tale of Golagros and Gawane. To my unsuspecting self, perhaps the most amazing part is, it was written in exactly the same style as the Green Knight--alliterative stanzas, each ending with a rhyming bob-and-wheel. I haven't read enough Medieval pieces to confirm that this was the latest rage at the time; I suspect that must have been a fairly popular format, as it does leave a writer enough freedom to spin a good yarn, while maintaining a bit of a poem's structure. Still, it is interesting to speculate on the popularity of the Green Knight poem, which is supposed to have been written in northern England. Did the Scot who wrote Golagros and Gawane some years later hear or read it? Aside from the structure, the poem, though not of such a reflective tone as the Green Knight, treats strongly of the virtue of courtesy. I suspect this was an expected attribute in the non-Frenchified, non-Maloryized version of Gawain, but given its central place in Golagros and Gawane, the poem, though not permitting such an intimate view of the knight's mind, does seem to continue the same likable hero of the Green Knight.

Below is the entire poem in Middle Scots with commentary that will likely answer most of my questions when I get around to reading it. I'll see if there is a modern translation floating around too (I haven't tried it all the way through in Scots yet--I borrowed a translation from the library), but I picked a bad time for this post. I need to run to work.

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