Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

In my Studies on the Legend of Sir Gawain, already referred to, I have suggested that the character of the lady here is, perhaps, a reminiscence of that of the Queen of the Magic Castle or Isle, daughter or niece of an enchanter, who at an early stage of Gawain’s story was undoubtedly his love. I think it not impossible that she was an integral part of the tale as first told, and her rôle here was determined by that which she originally played. In most versions of the story she has dropped out altogether. It is, of course, possible that, there being but a confused reminiscence of the original tale, her share may have been modified by the influence of the Launfal group; but I should prefer to explain the episode on the whole as a somewhat distorted survival of an original feature.
But in any case we may be thankful for this, that the author of the most important English metrical romance dealing with Arthurian legend faithfully adheres to the original conception of Gawain’s character, as drawn before the monkish lovers of edification laid their ruthless hands on his legend, and turned the model of knightly virtues and courtesy into a mere vulgar libertine.
Brave, chivalrous, loyally faithful to his plighted word, scrupulously heedful of his own and others’ honour, Gawain stands before us in this poem. We take up Malory or Tennyson, and in spite of their charm of style, in spite of the halo of religious mysticism in which they have striven to enwrap their characters, we lay them down with a feeling of dissatisfaction. How did the Gawain of their imagination, this empty-headed, empty-hearted worldling, cruel murderer, and treacherous friend, ever come to be the typical English hero? For such Gawain certainly was, even more than Arthur himself. Then we turn back to these faded pages, and read the quaintly earnest words in which the old writer reveals the hidden meaning of that mystic symbol, the pentangle, and vindicates Gawain’s title to claim it as his badge–and we smile, perhaps, but we cease to wonder at the widespread popularity of King Arthur’s famous nephew, or at the immense body of romance that claims him as its hero.
Scholars know all this, of course; they can read the poem for themselves in its original rough and intricate phraseology; perhaps they will be shocked at an attempt to handle it in simpler form. But this little book is not for them, and if to those to whom the tale would otherwise be a sealed treasure these pages bring some new knowledge of the way in which our forefathers looked on the characters of the Arthurian legend, the tales they told of them (unconsciously betraying the while how they themselves lived and thought and spoke)–if by that means they gain a keener appreciation of our national heroes, a wider knowledge of our national literature,–then the spirit of the long-dead poet will doubtless not be the slowest to pardon my handling of what was his masterpiece, as it is, in M. Gaston Paris’ words, “The jewel of English mediæval literature.”

Preface to Second Edition

In preparing this Second Edition I have adopted certain suggestions of the late Professor Kölbing, contained in a review published by him in Englische Studien xxvi. In one or two instances, however, I have not felt free to follow his reading–e.g., on page 67, in þrynne syþe must certainly mean “for the third time,” not “thrice.” The lady has already kissed Gawain twice during the interview; Professor Kölbing’s suggestion would make him receive five kisses, instead of three, the correct number. Nor do I think the story would gain anything by reproducing the details of the dissection of animals on page 46. This little series is not intended for scholars, who can study the original works for themselves, but for the general public, and I have therefore avoided any digression from the main thread of the story. In the main, however, I have gladly availed myself of the late Professor’s learned criticisms.

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