From Sir Gawain and The Green Knight

MS London, B.L. Cotton Nero A.x contains four texts: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Patience, Purity (or Cleanness) and Pearl.  These poems, which were almost certainly all composed by the same author, were probably composed for a provincial court somewhere in the North-West Midlands, but they yield nothing in sophistication and subtlety through comparison with contemporary London products such as The Canterbury TalesSir Gawain and the Green Knight is in genre a romance, but it goes beyond the confines of its genre to challenge the notions of courtly behaviour which governed the behaviour and ethical sense of its probable first audience, a serious-minded provincial noble household. Unlike The Canterbury Tales, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight sustains the old alliterative verse-tradition which (with considerable revision on the way) goes back to OE times.  For various reasons, this older tradition was sustained longer in the North and West of the English-speaking area than in the South and East. The passage which follows is at the beginning of the fourth section (“Fitt”) of the poem.  The protagonist, Sir Gawain, is about to ride forth to meet the Green Knight, an unearthly being who entered into a strange bargain a year before involving mutual decapitation.  At the Green Knight’s request, Gawain had beheaded the Green Knight as part of a challenge-game at Arthur’s court a year before, on condition that he (Gawain) offered himself for execution a year later.  Whereas the Green Knight seemed, magically, not to be one whit daunted by losing his head, Gawain is not convinced that he will escape so easily ...

Linguistically, this passage makes a good comparison with the Chaucer texts. In particular, it shows several distinctive Northern features, eg. the verbal inflexions, which are generally a good indication of dialect localisation.  It will be observed that it retains the widespread use of þ and 3.

The standard edition of the poem is by J.R.R.Tolkien and E.V.Gordon, rev. N.Davis (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967).  This edition includes valuable supplementary material, notably on the sources and analogues of the poem.  The text presented here varies from that edition only in a few details of punctuation.

A literal translation of this passage appears immediately after it.  An interpretative note to line 21 (signalled by the small Roman numeral (i)) is appended after the translation.

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Now neez  þe Nw ere, and þe nyt passez,
Þe day dryuez to þe derk, as Drytyn biddez;

Bot wylde wederez of þe worlde wakned þeroute,

Clowdes kesten kenly þe colde to þe erþe,

Wyth nye inoghe of þe norþe, þe naked to tene;          5

Þe snawe snitered ful snart, þat snayped þe wylde.
Þe werbelande wynde wapped fro þe hye,

And drof vche dale ful of dryftes ful grete.

Þe leude lystened ful wel þat le in his bedde,

Þa he lowkez his liddez, ful lyttel he slepes;               10

Bi vch kok þat crue he knwe wel þe steuen.

Deliuerly he dressed vp, er þe day sprenged,

For þere watz lyt of a laumpe þat lemed in his chambre;

He called to his chamberlayn, þat cofly hym swared,

And bede hym bryng hym his bruny and his blonk sadel;

Þat oþer ferkez hym vp and fechez hym his wedez,     16

And grayþez me Sir Gawayn vpon a grett wyse.

Fyrst he clad hym in his cloþez þe colde for to were,

And syþen his oþer harnays, þat holdely watz keped,

Boþe his paunce and his platez, piked ful clene,         20

Þe ryngez rokked of þe roust of his riche bruny (i);

And al watz fresch as vpon fyrst, and he watz fayn þenne

                       to þonk;

       He hade vpon vche pece,

       Wypped ful wel and wlonk;                                       25

       Þe gayest into Grece,

       Þe burne bede bryng his blonk.

Now the New Year draws near, and the night passes, 
the day takes over from the night, as God commands; 

but fierce storms wakened from the world outside, 

clouds bitterly threw the cold to the earth, 

from the north with much bitterness, to torment the naked;     5

the snow, which nipped cruelly the wild creatures, 

came shivering down very bitterly; 

the wind blowing shrilly rushed from the high (ground), 

and drove each valley full of very large (snow)drifts. 

The man who lay in his bed listened very carefully, 

although he locks his eyelids, he sleeps very little;               10

by each cock that crew he was reminded of (lit. “knew well”) the appointed day.  Before the day dawned, he quickly got up, 

for there was light from a lamp which shone in his bedroom; 

he called to his chamberlain, who promptly answered him, 

and bade him bring him his mailcoat and his horse-saddle;

the other man rouses himself and brings him his clothes,      16

and Sir Gawain is prepared (lit. “one prepares”) in a magnificent manner. 

First he dressed himself in his clothes to protect (himself) from the coold, 

and then his other armour, which was preserved carefully, 

both his stomach-armur and his steel plates, polished very brightly, 

the rings of his splendid mail-shirt made clean from rust (i);   20

and everything was clean as in the beginning, and he was desirous then to thank (his servants?); 

he had on him each piece (of armour), 

very well wiped and noble;                                                  25

the most handsome (man) as far as Grece, 

the warrior made (one) bring his horse.




(i) Chain armour was rokked (ie. rolled) to rub the rust off; a traditional method was in a sand-barrel.

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