Category Archives: Arthurian myth

A notable. A knight.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, by Simon Armitage and an unknown original author

Recently I read and enjoyed Peter Ackroyd’s take on Malory’s The Once and Future King. One of my few disappointments with it was that it didn’t include one of my favourite Arthurian myths (f0r the very good reason that it’s not from Malory, but I didn’t know that then). That myth was the tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which originates in a 14th Century poem of unknown authorship.

Simon Armitage is one of the UK’s leading contemporary poets, and a while back I caught a tv programme presented by him in which he talked about the poem and about his own modern translation of it. For Armitage key elements of the poem were its relationship with the landscape from which it originated, and its use of alliteration. He wanted his translation to capture that that Northern voice and that use of alliteration, as well as the excitement he found in the poem.

The essence of the poem is simple. Arthur hosts a great Christmas feast, and all are merry. They are interrupted in their revels though by a massive knight, a mountain of a man clad in green and with green skin, beard and horse. He is a perilously ambiguous figure wearing no armour and carrying in one hand a sprig of holly:

and in the other hand held the mother of all axes,

a cruel piece of kit I kid you not:

the head was an ell in length at least

and forged in green steel with a gilt finish;

the skull-busting blade was so stropped and buffed

it could shear a man’s scalp and shave him to boot.

The handle which fitted that fiend’s great fist

was inlaid with iron, end to end,

with green pigment picking out impressive designs.

Immediately there you can get a sense of Armitage’s style. He’s not afraid of modern references (“the mother of all axes”, “I kid you not”), but at the same time this is fine visual (and visceral) poetry. The whole scene comes richly to life and I’m already considering buying a second version of this poem, in audio form read by Armitage himself (I have Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf on audio read by Heaney, and it’s a marvel to listen to).

Arthur’s court is daunted by this figure, who offers doubtful reassurance:

‘I’m spoiling for no scrap, I swear. Besides,

the bodies on these benches are just bum-fluffed bairns.

If I’d ridden to your castle rigged out for a ruck

these lightweight adolescents wouldn’t last a minute.

But it’s Yuletide – a time of youthfulness, yes?

So at Christmas in this court I lay down a challenge:

if a person here present, within these premises,

is big or bold or red-blooded enough

to strike me one stroke and be struck in return,

I shall give him as a gift this gigantic cleaver

and the axe shall be his to handle how he likes.

I’ll kneel, bare my neck and take the first knock.

So who has the gall? The gumption? The guts?

Who’ll spring from his seat and snatch this weapon?

I offer the axe – who’ll have it as his own?

I’ll afford one free hit from which I won’t flinch,

and promise that twelve months will pass in peace,                

then claim        

the duty I deserve        

in one year and one day.        

Does no one have the nerve

to wager in this way?’

The Northern voice is clear here, with references to “bum-fluffed bairn’s” and being “rigged out for a ruck” (for my non-native English readers bum-fluffed bairns are boys barely able to grow a beard, rigged out for a ruck means ready for a fight). This is regional poetry, born of a particular place and culture. That final cascade of words by the way (starting from “then claim”) is how each section of the poem ends. It should be indented but WordPress doesn’t yet allow me to do that (or if it does I don’t know how to do it).

Arthur’s knights are naturally reluctant, and it even looks like Arthur himself might have to take the task, but Sir Gawain is not content to endanger his king in that fashion and so accepts the challenge. He takes the axe, strikes the Green Knight and beheads him cleanly. Naturally though that is not the end of the matter. The Green Knight’s body remains standing, and picks up its head from the floor.

For that scalp and skull now swung from his fist;

towards the top table he turned the face

and it opened its eyelids, stared straight ahead

and spoke this speech, which you’ll hear for yourselves:

‘Sir Gawain, be wise enough to keep your word

and faithfully follow me until I’m found

This is of course a manifestation of that classic creature from English folklore, the headless horseman. It’s more than that though: the time is Christmas, the anniversary of the birth of Christ. The Green Knight bears a sprig of holly, an evergreen image of renewal. Though slain he rises again and now Sir Gawain must reenact the scene a year hence, but this time taking the Green Knight’s place. We’re in deeply symbolic territory here, winter, death and rebirth. This is Christian, but with Pagan elements too (the Green Knight being too a form of Green Man, itself an ancient personification of rebirth and renewal).

What follows is Sir Gawain’s quest to find the home of the Green Knight, and fulfil his side of the bargain. As the time for his appointment draws near he finds himself in another lord’s hall, where a great knight feasts him and makes him welcome. Sir Gawain spends his days entertained by this knight’s lady, who seeks to seduce Sir Gawain, while her husband rides out to hunt. Sir Gawain’s host says that whatever he wins at the hunt he will gift to Sir Gawain, but whatever Sir Gawain wins in the castle he must gift in turn to the host.

Sir Gawain then here faces a number of tests. Of courage certainly, but also of honesty and of virtue. Will Sir Gawain dally with his host’s wife? If he does will he give what is gained to his host? As Sir Gawain resides in comfort his host reassures him that none will judge him should he not face his challenge. Will Sir Gawain falter?

There’s little mystery in these questions, but that doesn’t make them any the less resonant or meaningful. Sir Gawain is a perfect knight, but even a perfect knight is mortal and open to temptation. The poem here serves as allegory, showing an idealised figure facing tests which while not literally like those the poem’s original listeners would face are nonetheless true in spirit to the challenges we all face.

Can we live up to our word and our image of ourselves? Can we resist the draw to do that which we desire, but know to be wrong? How do we behave in the face of what appears to be certain ruin, even death? Most tellingly perhaps for a medieval listener, can we hold on to both our faith in the next world and our loyalty in this one against both terror and temptation?

I talked above about this being one of my favourite Arthurian myths, and hopefully now you can see why. There’s just so much in this. It’s a richly allegorical tale but run through with romance, adventure and peril. It’s a meditation on death and resurrection, wrapped in magic and mystery.

Armitage takes these elements and brings them to life with language that sizzles along. His use of alliteration makes the poem a rich word-fest which is a pleasure to read and at times is positively playful. There are occasional jarring moments; Armitage isn’t afraid of anachronisms and even puns (“A human could not hear a headier music than the roaring which was raised for the soul of Reynard/who croaked!”, and at one point a reference to a “mega-blow”), but overall this left me with a new enthusiasm both for the work itself and for Armitage’s poetry more generally.

I wanted to include at least one quote describing the landscape, which Armitage makes as integral a part of the poem as any of the above. This final quote is short, but even though I don’t actually know what the word “mizzle” means I found it hugely evocative and it’s a tremendous example of Armitage’s use of alliteration. Here it is:

The clouds which had climbed now cooled and dropped

So the moors and the mountains were muzzy with mist

And every hill wore a hat of mizzle on its head.

The streams on the slopes seemed to fume and foam,

Whitening the wayside with spume and spray.

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Filed under Armitage, Simon, Arthurian myth, Epics and Sagas, Poetry

… the once and future king

The Death of King Arthur, by Peter Ackroyd (based on La Morte d’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory)

In the old wild days of the world there was a king of England known as Uther Pendragon; he was a dragon in wrath as well as in power. There were various regions in his kingdom, many of them warring one against another, and so it came about that one day he summoned a mighty duke to his court at Winchester. This nobleman was of Cornwall, and he was called Duke of Tintagel; he reigned over a western tribe from the fastness of his castle on the rocks, where he looked down upon the violent sea. Uther Pendragon asked the duke to bring with him to court his wife, Igraine, who had the reputation of being a great beauty, and it was said that she could read the secrets of any man’s heart on the instant she looked at him.

So starts Peter Ackroyd’s version of Sir Thomas Malory’s La Morte d’Arthur. Within a page or so the king has lusted for Igraine, she has seen that lust within him and the Duke and Igraine have fled back to Tintagel. When Uther learns of their departuure he is furious. “And, as the people of England know well enough, the wrath of the king is death.”

The story of the birth, reign and death of Arthur is of course a cornerstone of British myth. Most people know at least parts of it, and many of the central characters are still household names – King Arthur, Guinevere, Merlin, Lancelot. It’s an incredibly enduring tale but in the original text (and yes, I know there are problems with calling Malory’s work an original text) it’s hard to read.

La Morte d’Arthur is around 900 pages long. It’s written in poetic and now rather archaic language. It’s often very repetitive and its assumed audience bears no resemblance to anyone who might read it today. None of that stops some people from still reading it, but it’s likely that a great many are put off.

Enter Peter Ackroyd. This is in part a translation of the Malory, in part a retelling of it. It’s not wholly faithful (particularly in the detail) to the earlier work, but it is largely so. That means it’s not a novel in any meaningful sense. It’s a sequence of tales rich with sex and death and the occasional bit of magic – all those things that a fifteenth century courtly audience held so dear.

So Ulfius rode out, whispering the name of ‘Merlin’ under his breath many times; he knew that the magician was aware of the secret life of all things, and would know that his name was being murmured in the wind. The birds, or the singing grasses, would tell him. As Ulfius rode on he suddenly encountered a beggar standing in the high road; the beggar wore a hood, and his back was turned to the knight. He seemed to be peering at something lying on the ground. ‘Move,’ Ulfius told him. ‘Get out of my way.’ ‘Do you begrudge a poor man the space of a dusty road?’ the beggar replied. ‘Move on, or I will cut you with my sword. It is not right for a knight to argue with one such as you.’ ‘Even if I know for whom you seek? Even if I know that your name is Ulfius?’ ‘Who are you?’ ‘I am the one you wish for. I am Merlin.’ He put out his hands, palms outward, and his beggar’s clothes were transformed into robes of white satin. ‘I am the man of magic.’

Most translations seek to preserve something of the style of the original. Here my impression is that Ackroyd is more concerned with the substance – the content of the tales. Malory’s language is rich and sonorous. Ackroyd’s version is is often flatter and Adam Thorpe in the Guardian found it “deadpan” and lacking in the grace and subtlety of the original. I’ve quoted extensively here because the extent to which anyone will enjoy this book will largely depend on how they engage with Ackroyd’s prose.

I’ve not read the original in depth, but on its own terms I found Ackroyd’s version to have the feel of a Norse saga, or a Beowulf or Song of Roland. The language has a formal, often ritual, quality to it which for me matched the material. Malory is notoriously repetitive. Ackroyd avoids that but still includes some repetition where it aids that sense of a ritualised text – for example lengthy battles always seem to last for two hours which is clearly a figurative rather than literal period of time.

So they rode until they came to a fair lake with placid waters. ‘Look,’ Merlin said. ‘There is your sword.’ And, at that moment, from the surface of the water there emerged an arm clothed in white that in its hand held a shining sword. The air was filled with sweet sounds, and the light from the sword suffused the whole lake. Then Arthur saw a lady sailing towards him in a dark boat; she was wearing a black cape, and her hair was covered with a hood. ‘This is the Lady of the Lake,’ Merlin told him. ‘She lives in a great palace within a cavern. Speak graciously to her, and she will give you the sword.’

There’s little by way of characterisation. Personalities are broadbrush and often defined by a handful of traits. Sir Palomides is a skilled and powerful Saracen knight who is in love with Isolde, but she loves Tristram and so Sir Palomides is his enemy. That’s about it for Sir Palomides. Uther is a great warlord but lustful and prone to rage. That’s about it for him.

Much of what happens bears no relation to any wider narrative. Knights meet other knights waiting at crossroads or are waylaid in mysterious castles but many of these vignettes are self-contained. Where there is a larger story it’s one any reader will already know: the sword and the stone; the grail quest; the death of Arthur.

These may seem like fundamental flaws, but as noted above this isn’t a novel and it doesn’t aim for story or character. This is myth. The characters are widely drawn because they are epic. Their actions sometimes make little sense because their motives are not ours but are the motives of heroic figures driven by heroic passions.

So Griflet took up his shield and spear, and galloped into the wood. When he came up to the spring he saw a richly painted pavilion; beside it was a horse, well saddled and bridled, and on a tree was hanging a shield decorated with all manner of devices. Griflet struck the shield with his spear, and knocked it to the ground. The king came out at once from the pavilion. ‘Fair knight,’ he said, ‘why did you strike down my shield?’ ‘I wish to joust with you.’ ‘You had better not do that,’ the king replied. ‘You are still young. Your might will be no match for mine.’ ‘No matter. I wish to joust with you.’ ‘Since you are so sure of yourself, I have no alternative but to fight. From where do you come?’ ‘From the court of King Arthur.’ So the two warriors fought against each other. Their battle was hard and fierce; King Pellinor broke the shield of Griflet and, smashing the spear, laid Griflet low upon the ground with a wide wound in his side.

Here men fight because fighting is what knights do. It is honourable, and pride is the essence of knighthood and so insults must be met with blows. At least twice men suffering from grievous wounds make passionate love to their ladies and leave the beds they lie in slick with blood. These are not reasonable people because we are not in the world of reason.

Magic of course plays a part. Merlin’s gifts lie largely in glamour (illusions essentially) and prophecy. As so often in folklore he knows the future but cannot change it. He knows that he will be buried alive, but not when or why.

It so happened that Merlin also fell madly in love with a young woman, once a companion of the Lady of the Lake; her name was Nineve. He would never let her rest, but followed her everywhere; she flattered him, and pretended to welcome his favours, until she had learned all she needed from him. Still he was besotted by her, and could not be brought from her side. Merlin also told Arthur many secrets. He said that he himself would not live for much longer, and that he would be buried alive in the earth. He informed the king of many ills that would beset him, too, and warned him to keep safe his sword and scabbard. ‘Yet this also is true,’ he told him. ‘Your sword and scabbard will be stolen from you by a woman whom you trust most in the world. She wishes to take Excalibur from you. Then you will miss me, sir. Then you would rather have my wisdom than all of your wealth.’ ‘To be buried alive is a terrible thing,’ the king replied. ‘But if you see your fate so clearly, why can you not avert it by the force of your magic?’ ‘It cannot be. This is my destiny. But I do not know the day when it will come.’

It’s his obsession with Nineve that proves his undoing. The only real surprise for me in the book was that Nineve is not a villain (as I had remembered her) and Merlin is arguably a bit of a stalker. Passion before reason once again of course.

Here gifts are made of goblets that spill their contents if drunk by a woman who does not truly love her husband. Out of a hundred women at Camelot only four can pass that test. Guinevere is not among that four. Perhaps she of all people should have refused to drink, but a key theme here is how even the great are subject to the whims of chance and fate.

Arthur’s end is long foretold by Merlin, but he cannot avoid it. Lancelot is Arthur’s friend and greatest knight, but they come to war. Merlin is the greatest wizard in the land, but he is outwitted through his passion for his own student. Sir Balin of the Two Swords is warned of what will bring him to ruin, but that does not prevent it ocurring.

Tragedy runs through these stories and as I alluded to above it’s hard not to remember what kind of audience they would once have had. There are no peasants here, no common folk. Those who matter are titled or outside the class system by virtue of religious rank or magic. Marriages are political and love is a disruptive force that destroys households and alliances. Even Lancelot  is undone by desire – his skill at arms cannot win a contest against himself.

Malory/Ackroyd portrays an escapist world of fantasy and adventure, but one rooted in a grimmer reality. Knights quest for adventure, but many are brutally killed and the virtuous do not always prosper. God is said to reward a just cause over an unjust one, but when Lancelot challenges men over Guinevere’s honour they know that they will lose to him even though she is an adultress. Faith may teach that God grants victory only to the righteous, but experience shows it goes to the strong.

The Death of King Arthur is a romance in the classic sense. With existence so fleeting and so fragile all that remains is passion. Malory and his readers all knew that chivalry was at best an aspirational fiction. An interesting foreword notes Malory’s many arrests and his distinctly questionable career. By Malory’s time knights were political rather than martial creatures. Like the Hagakure in Japan these are stories of a time past that likely never existed, but which still reflects glory on a more prosaic present.

All my life I’ve seen complaints about sex and violence in entertainment. As a child people complained about it on TV, and now they complain about it in songs and video games. Malory/Ackroyd gives us heroism, adventure, courtly love, the holy grail itself, but in the end this too is a tale of sex and violence. King or commoner we’re all at the mercy of chance, we all face either early death or the eventual decline of our powers and we all have to live as best we can in the meantime. The tale of Arthur and his knights has power in part because despite being so specific and remote to our world it is in fact universal. The king is, after all, the land.

Nicholas Lezard of the Guardian also reviewed this here. His take is more positive than that of Adam Thorpe and makes an interesting comparison.

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Filed under Ackroyd, Peter, Arthurian myth, Epics and Sagas