Anon*2: Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

The books for discussion and comparison were “Beowulf” and “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”.

Opening the discussion, the proposer said that he had read “Beowulf” in his teens, and it seemed appropriate to revisit it at a time when Beowulf was being performed at the Edinburgh Festival and was also being made into a film. His university had not, however, been one of those that made Beowulf a compulsory text for students of English.

It used to be firmly believed that Beowulf had been written in the eighth century, but nowadays scholars would only state that it was written sometime between the 7th and 10th centuries. It was written in Anglo-Saxon (or “Old English”), a language largely inaccessible to the non-scholar. It was a “heroic” work, about a warrior in a Scandinavian warrior culture, where fame and honour are sought. The Christian elements of the poem did not seem integral to the imagination at work, and had possibly been added by a later hand.

Beowulf was an epic, of which there were few examples in English literature, and it was sometimes referred to as “the English epic”. However, Beowulf was not part of the canon, as it was not printed until 1815, and not translated into English until 1837. It was therefore not part of the intellectual furniture of the majority of the great English authors in the way that the Iliad, Odyssey and Aeneid were, nor was it of the same stature.

Beowulf was written in poetry, and “poetry is what gets lost in translation”. Having first read Beowulf in Wright’s prose version, he had enjoyed it very much more in Seamus Heaney’s verse translation, which he thought brilliant. It had taken time to adjust to the rhythms being used, a watered-down version of the original alliterative form. It was only once one emphasised the mid-line pause (the “caesura”) that the pattern of stresses worked as verse, although occasionally it lapsed into straight prose. It very seldom fell into bathos, compared to the prose version. The use of alliteration was restrained and subtle. The diction was muscular and direct (although the same could not be said of Heaney’s overblown critical introduction to the poem).

In the Heaney poem the monsters now seemed less prominent than the sense of foreboding, melancholy and fate. The digressions into history and legend illuminated man’s predisposition to argument and war. The measured rhythm of the poetry gave a gravitas, balance and sense of inevitability to the work. The end of the poem was particularly moving, as it became clear that all of Beowulf’s achievements as a king would quickly be reversed on his death.

In discussion, members said they had enjoyed the insight into an earlier society, and exposure to a work earlier than Chaucer. The main incidents were portrayed brilliantly.

One of the interesting facets of the poem was the tension between the primitive, violent society on the one hand, and the Christian religious sentiments imposed on to it. It was not brutally done – it was an Old Testament God – but it felt artificial. The consensus in discussion was that a later hand had added the Christian elements. It seemed quite plausible that a monk had written down an epic poem originally passed on in oral tradition. He would have kept it in Anglo-Saxon rather than translating it into Latin in order to retain the poetry of the original, but might well have added some Christian elements in keeping with his background. Was it possible that the original contained references to Scandinavian gods that had been replaced by Christian references?

Not everyone liked the Heaney translation. For one it was rather clumsy; and another gave up on it as poetry. However, another felt there was great beauty in some of the passages, such as the burial, and going off to sea. Despite the official line that rhyme was not used in the original, one had found the suggestion of some rhyme in looking at the Anglo-Saxon, and felt this might have helped the translation. We wondered whether 5 different translators would come up with 5 different versions of the Beowulf story – a quick comparison of the Wright version and the Heaney version had showed substantial differences.

A feature of the poem was that it offered advice to kings on how to conduct themselves – in the way that Machiavelli’s “The Prince” did, even if the advice was less cynical. We wondered if there were originally a political patron who was to be influenced or flattered by what was said about the good behaviour of rulers.

The poem attached a lot of importance to the gold objects that Beowulf received as a reward. Yet at the end, in the final battle with the dragon, all the gold in the dragon’s lair is tarnished, and it is buried with Beowulf. Is this an allegory of Beowulf’s life? Is the pursuit of gold not a good idea? Is it a misplaced philosophy? Heaney suggests this is evidence of Christian influence. On the other hand, Beowulf does not pursue gold as an objective, even if he does seem to value it very highly when he receives it.

The various asides about history and legend disrupted the flow of the narrative. But we wondered how familiar the original audience were with this history – what were their reference points? Was Wright correct in suggesting that the history of the Swedish/Danish wars would be as familiar to the audience as the Napoleonic wars to us? In any event, the purpose of the history sections did seem to be educational, bringing out the flaws of bad leaders, and the poet’s bleak world-view in which violence begets more violence in a never-ending cycle.

Turning to “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”, the proposer said that as with Beowulf he had first read it in his teens, but in this case he had gone on to study it at university. It had made a lasting impact on his imagination. It had real mythic power, and he found it haunting and resonant.

Again the poem had come down to us in just one manuscript, which had nearly been burnt, showing the fragility of great art. As with Beowulf it had not formed part of the traditional canon, first being published in 1839, although obviously Arthurian myth in general was part of the literary heritage. The story of Gawain and the Green Knight also existed in a rhyming version by another writer.

The poem was written in Middle English, which was easier for the modern reader to tackle than Anglo-Saxon. There had been a remarkable flowering of medieval English literature in the late fourteenth century. The best known example was Chaucer, who had written in the East Midlands dialect which went on to form the basis of modern English. The Gawain poet (who may also have written the remarkable “Pearl”) had written in West Midlands dialect (also used in the north). He and other poets of the time from that region (such as William Langland, who wrote the superb “Piers Plowman”) had resurrected the Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse form, and also used old-fashioned vocabulary.

The poem had various sources – the beheading myth, and the temptations story, both of which can be found in Irish and Welsh fables; the chivalric tradition and courtly love, of which adultery was an accepted part; and Christianity, which was opposed to adultery. The poem fused together all these elements in the context of Arthurian legend to create a remarkable whole.

Reacting to the poem, one member had thought it wonderful, with graphic, toe-curling imagery. The descriptions of nature were particularly fine. It would make a great film. It had more layers of meaning and was richer than Beowulf. For another it was a great narrative that pulled you along. Another admired the very disciplined, cohesive structure, which was only as long as was necessary to get all the layers in. There was coruscating tension throughout the poem.

One found it difficult to judge such a historical relic. It had taken time to get into, but proved more readable than expected. The descriptions of nature were more convincing for him than those of courtly love.

Unfortunately, most members of the Book Group had been unable to track down a modern version which reproduced the original text in legible form (in the way that Heaney’s edition did for Beowulf). Tolkein’s translation was found to be fairly unsatisfactory, often lapsing into bathos, suggesting Tolkein was a better writer of prose than poetry. In fairness to him though, he had not authorised his translation for publication. Simon Armitage’s 2007 translation into poetry was much more successful.

The alliteration in the original could produce very powerful effects, such as, in describing winter:

“Ther as claterande fro the crest the cold borne rennes,

And hanged heghe over his hede in hard ysse-ikkles”

Or in describing misty weather:

“Mist mugged on the mor, malt on the mountes,

Uch hille had a hatte, a myst hakel [cloak] huge.”

Yet the alliterative verse could also achieve subtlety in describing interpersonal relations, particularly between Gawain and the Lord’s wife.

What were the themes of the poem? On the face of it, the main theme is that of moral testing. Gawain is naïve enough to think that moral perfection – the symmetry of the pentangle – is possible, whereas the poem shows it is not. He fails, and is shamed, but is given a second chance. But deeper, troubling themes are also present – such as the archetypal fear that sex will lead to death, and the male fear of the power of women and their capacity for deceit.

Symbolism ran throughout the poem. For example the use of the colour green –the Green Knight appearing at dead of winter echoed the green man of fertility symbolism. The pentangle on Gawain’s shield was an important symbol, which the poet suggests derived from Solomon and symbolised loyalty, virtue and kindness.

Why was so much weight given to the hunting scenes, and so much detail given on the butchering of the bodies? The hunting scenes are interspersed with, and echo, the seduction scenes. The butchery increased the fear of the impending beheading, but perhaps there was also a fear of women and a fear of the carnality of sex reflected in their juxtaposition with the seduction scenes. The hunting of the deer, boar, and then fox could also be seen as hunting for food, hunting requiring bravery, and hunting requiring intelligence – thus reflecting three sides of man. And the poem was carefully constructed in threes – three sections, three temptations, and so on.

Whereas Beowulf was about war, this could be seen as being about the leisure pursuits of the upper classes. Gawain takes up the challenge for his own personal satisfaction. Yet the poem did not seek to give a picture of society of the day – it was more of a fairy tale or a fantasy, moving with dream logic. And most literature was about how we should behave, and both Beowulf and Gawain fell into this category.

There was undoubtedly rashness and naivety in the way Gawain took up the challenge. Yet Arthur and his court came out worse, with Arthur easily being wound up by the Green Knight to accept an unnecessary challenge, yet equally easily letting Gawain accept the challenge on his behalf. And at the end of the poem Arthur and his court emerge as superficial in the light-hearted way they treat the tale of Gawain’s ordeal.

Both Beowulf and Gawain reflected a pessimistic view of the world. Beowulf lived in a world beset by monsters, and for all Beowulf’s virtues as a king, man’s natural predisposition to violence was set to undo all his good work as soon as he died, and even the gold that he cherished was tarnished. Gawain moved through a harsh natural environment, populated with deceitful women and a knight with unnatural power, and found that his ideal of perfect moral behaviour – his pentangle – was impossible to maintain.

The (by now) well-lubricated discussion then wandered more broadly. Weren’t the epics of Homer closer to the world of Gawain than to Beowulf? Why were there monsters in myth but not in the Bible? Where did monsters come from – as archetypes from the unconsciousness? …And what might have happened if Gawain had succumbed to the temptation of his host’s wife?