Archive for January, 2009

Important Ideas, Concepts and Terms in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Coventry, a beautiful city in Midlands, England. It was nearly flattned by German bombers during the blitz in World War II.

Coventry, a beautiful city in Midlands, England. It was nearly flattned by German bombers during the blitz in World War II.

There are several important issues central to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and the cultural period in which it was written.

The poem was written around 1350, which is a rough estimate. We have no idea who the author was, which is why he or she is referred to usually as “the Gawain Poet.” Obviously, it was written be someone with a great deal of learning. Untranslated, the poem is in a high Mid-lands Middle English, meaning the author came from somewhere north of London, perhaps near the Cambridge or Oxford area. What you are reading is a translated version. In the original Middle English, you would have a very difficult time understanding it.

More than likely the poem was written for an aristocratic or royal family to be the centerpiece of Yuletide celebrations. It seems meant to be read before an audience, perhaps with children, sitting around a fire. Notice how there is definitely a narrative voice, the poet posing as a storyteller.

The Romance

The poem reflects and uses many social conventions and norms of the fourteenth century. It is a product of a literary tradition that had been developing for a couple of centuries known as the Romance. The Romance was born in France in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, and usually were long prose and poetic narratives about the travels and adventures of knights of a royal court. Most Romances involved tests, challenges, and quests that deal with moral issues of Christianity.

Since the 1960s, most people know about the legend of King Arthur because of the broadway musical and the movie Camelot. More than likely Lancelot did not look like Robert Goulet, and sing songs like If Ever I Should Leave You to Guinevere.

Since the 1960s, most people know about the legend of King Arthur because of the broadway musical and the movie Camelot. More than likely Lancelot did not look like Robert Goulet, and sing songs like "If Ever I Should Leave You" to Guinevere.

King Arthur and Camelot

In England, the Romance was most influenced by the legend of Camelot. King Arthur and his royal court of Camelot is (despite some people who like to try to prove it was real) a myth, probably generated for nationalistic reasons in the twelfth century. King Arthur was one of the original kings of England who took the country out of the hegemony of the Roman Empire. He ruled with a judicious and Christian hand, and formed around his round table at Camelot a group of loyal knights who honored him and protected the kingdom for Christianity. Camelot has come to represent in literature all that is great and noble about England.

The Roman Catholic Church

Central to Romance, British literature from the thirteenth to the sixteenth century, and British culture is the Church. Since the fall of the Roman Empire in the sixth and seventh centuries, Europe and England fell into a long period of disarray, what truly was the “Dark Ages.” The Roman Empire had offered continuity, stability and law for many centuries that came to a sudden end. Christianity, which had been established by the Roman Empire in the fourth century, became assimilated by the “barbarians,” and by the ninth and tenth centuries, Christianity was diffuse across all of Europe and England. The Roman Catholic Church was the one and only Church for nine or ten centuries. Although the Catholic Church had an authoritarian control over pretty much everything, it also offered Europe the unity, stability and continuity lost after the fall of Rome. So it was a double-edged sword: the Church was a bit like dictatorship, but it also created a much needed stability.

The medieval Pardoner, who roams the countryside selling pardons for pepoles sins, was made famous by Chaucers charlatan Pardoner, which we will read next week in The Canterbury Tales.

The medieval Pardoner, who roams the countryside selling pardons for pepole's sins, was made famous by Chaucer's charlatan Pardoner, which we will read next week in The Canterbury Tales.

The PROS of the Roman Catholic Church: It unified the disparate peoples and societies left behind by the collapse of Rome. All parishioners, anyone who entered the Church was equal in the eyes of God. Therefore, aristocrats and peasants all sat in the same Church. The Church offered many hopeless people something in which to believe.

The CONS of the Roman Catholic Church: Well, it was the only gig around. Because it was the ONLY Church, Rome had a monopoly over salvation. You had to gain salvation through the offices of the Church. Therefore, the Church could single-handedly damn you. Excommunication from the Church was a fate worse than death for many. This kind of control wielded by the Church grew insidious and sinister as the centuries passed. Particularly for a population dominantly illiterate, the Church could exploit vast amounts of faithful. This lead, of course, to the practice of Indulgences, which meant that people who were excommunicated, or fallen from the Church’s graces, or who had, what they believed to be, loved ones trapped in Purgatory, could pay a Pardoner money he would bring to the Pope to pray for your soul, and get you back into the Church. The Church essentially extorted large sums of money out of millions of poor people, which led eventually to Martin Luther’s criticism, his split from the Church, and the start of the Reformation.

The Crown

The other dominant, ruling power during this period was the King. Therefore, in the Middle Ages, two separate but equally powerful entities ruled all of Europe: The Church and the Crown. The institution of a King essentially developed from both the notion of a Caesar and the Nordic Kinsman. Essentially, a King was the wealthiest and most powerful figure in a large area around whom everyone else gathered to seek protection. In return for protection, the people would work for the kingdom. As a result, the society of the Middle Ages for many centuries was divided exclusively between Royalty (Nobility) and Serfs. Nobility accounted for as little as one percent of the population, who owned and controlled most of the land, and everyone else (Serfs) who tended the land in return for protection. This bifurcation between Serfs and Nobility began to break down with the birth of the merchant class, which started happening around the time of Sir Gawain, but an issue I will reserve for next week when we start to discuss Chaucer.

The Knights

The Knight's armor was important not just for protection, but for its symbolic value. Notice how much time the Gawain Poet spends on describing Gawain arming himself before he goes on his quest for the Green Knight.

The Knight

For literature, and for our purposes, the Knight is one of the most important figures for both the Crown and the Church. The Knight was a nobleman who serves both the King and the Catholic Church. His duties are to protect the values and the court of the King and to protect the morality and truth of the Church. Therefore, the Knight’s calling is one that must be of the most virtuous. The Knight’s duty is to be the best example of virtue and good works for a kingdom. Therefore, in all of the Knight’s activities, he must always protect the Church and the faithful–including Serfs, members of monasteries, aristocrats, any faithful–from evil at the same time that he must protect the kingdom. Therefore, a Knight must be exemplary in both word and deed.


You will notice that the word courtesy, and the issue of being courteous, shows up on almost every page of Sir Gawain. Courtesy in the fourteenth century means something far more important than the please, thank-you, holding open doors and shaking hands it does today. Notice that the word courtesy has the word court in it. To be courteous means to uphold and demonstrate all of the high values and virtues of the King’s court. Therefore, courtesy means to be faithful, virtuous, a defender of truth, a fighter of the devil, and a resister of temptation. So when Gawain feels the burden of being courteous, it means everything that he must uphold and defend in the name of Camelot.

By the 1600s, there were many guide books on how to engage in courtly romance, The Courtier being the most famous.

By the 1600s, there were many guide books on how to engage in courtly romance, The Courtier being the most famous.

Courtly Love (or Chivalry).

A lot of misunderstanding has surrounded the medieval notion of courtly love. It has a very rich and central tradition in literature, and has come down to us enveloped in a haze of romance. Courtly love means the romantic interaction between a knight (or nobleman) and an already taken Lady of the court. (Not quite as hygienic as we’d want!) The idea between courtly love is that a knight falls in love with a Lady who is already married or arranged for marriage. The Knight cannot ever act upon his desires, but all of his actions for the Lady have the goal of sleeping with her. A great paradoxical situation, to say the least! If the Knight acts upon his desires, he shames the calling of his vocation, and fails in being courteous. Therefore, the Knight engages in a complex series of Platonic maneuvers designed to sleep with the Lady while never doing so, maintaining the intensity of his love for her while restraining his physical desires. So the Knight will ply the Lady with gifts, with music, with poetry and with adventurous deeds, like slaying a dragon in her name, fighting a battle for her, winning in a tournament, etc. Too, the Knight will do everything he can to protect her from malevolent forces, to save her from danger, etc.

In the legend of King Arthur, Lancelot engaged in a courtly love-romance with Guinevere. The tragedy of Camelot is that Lancelot did sleep with Guinevere, dooming his reputation and destroying his calling, sullying the Queen, and nearly bringing down the Arthur’s kingdom.

The idea of courtly love has its Christian centrality. For a Knight to resist his desires for a Lady, he fights off the evil of temptation. Courtly love becomes a moral test for the Knight, which he must endure. In many ways, the greater the suffering, the more the Knight virtuously succeeds.

As the Middle Ages drifts into the Renaissance and the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, courtly love becomes a very complex social thing, with its own detailed codes of conduct, rules and regulations. In the seventeenth century, several exemplary books of conduct were written, The Courtier being one of the most famous. In literature, the concept of courtly love transformed into the most common theme of romance in poetry of the Renaissance, unrequited love. Central to most sonnet cycles of the time is the narrative of a poet who falls for a woman who does not love him in return, either for personal reasons or because she is already taken. In the sonnet cycles, the poet does everything possible to win her love, and eventually burns out on his own passion.

The Journey and Quest

The most common narrative motif in all of literature is the journey and/or quest. HERE IS ONE OF MY BIGGEST TIPS TO ALL ENGLISH STUDENTS. Nearly every piece of literature can be interpreted as being metaphorical of a journey or quest.

The journey / quest can mean, of course, many things. Most literature from antiquity up until the Renaissance involves a hero who sets out on a journey in quest of something, undergoes many adventures, hardships, tests, travails. Often a tragedy and comedy is distinguished by the result of a journey or quest. If the hero finds what he needs or fulfills some desire, the narrative is a Comedy. If the opposite, it is a Tragedy.

Literature came to birth as a journey narrative: The Illiad and the Odyssey, particularly the latter. The most famous quest narrative is, in many ways, the search for the Holy Grail.  The Grail quest has developed into many different narratives in which a protagonist searches for something divine, magical, or something that holds a key to great power, answers, wishes, knowledge, etc.

Too, in journey / quest narratives, it is significant if the hero returns home in the end, or moves on. If he returns home, you have the stability of a full circle, and a sense of completion. If the hero moves on, the narrative becomes open-ended, leading to uncertainty and the promise of a sequel.

In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Gawain leaves Camelot on a journey in quest of the Greene Chapel and the Greene Knight, in order to fulfill his end of the bargain. In the end, he returns to Camelot, enacting a full-circle.

With a journey / quest motif, you should try to interpret what the hero searches for beyond the literal, and what his return home or continuing on represents. Here is another big hint: Almost all journey and quest narratives have as a dominating theme the search for self-knowledge.

I know this is quite reductive, and it is. What a good interpreter must do is seek a more detailed and specific interpretation beneath the general one. In other words, it won’t do much good to argue in every paper you write in college or graduate school that the piece of literature is about the protagonists search for self-knowledge.

In the case of Gawain, the weakest and most inexperienced Knight in Camelot, try to think to yourself what specific knowledge about himself he searches, and what he discovers concerning himself as an individual and a member of a Church and a kingdom.

January 29, 2009 at 9:05 pm Leave a comment

Sir Gawaine and the Greene Knight: A Brief Plot Overview

A Brief Plot Summary for Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

Here is a plot summary for Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. You can use it as a guide for your reading, if you’d like. For the most part, the text is pretty straight forward.


While King Arthur’s court is feasting and partying in celebration of New Years, a strange figure, referred to only as the Green Knight, makes a surprise visit. He requests that the group’s leader or any other brave member of the court challenge him in a beheading game. He will allow whomever accepts the challenge to strike him with his own axe, but on one condition. The challenger must find the Green Knight in exactly one year to receive a blow in return.

Arthur is stunned by the challenge, and hesitates to respond. When the Green Knight mocks Arthur’s silence, the king steps forward to take the challenge. But when Arthur grips the Green Knight’s axe, Sir Gawain steps in and volunteers to take the challenge himself. In one great blow, Gawain cuts off the knight’s head. The court stands shocked to discover that the now-headless Green Knight picks up his severed head. He rides away with his head in his hand, repeating the terms of the challenge, reminding the young Gawain to seek him in a year and a day at the Green Chapel. The court returns to its festivities, but Gawain is nervous. (He did not expect the Green Knight to live, of course!)


The year passes, and autumn arrives. On the Day of All Saints, Gawain makes his lengthy preparations to leave Camelot in quest of the Green Knight. He undergoes the almost holy ritual of arming himself, mounts his horse, Gringolet, and starts off toward North Wales. He must travel through the wilderness of northwest Britain where Gawain encounters many beasts, suffers from hunger and cold, and grows more desperate as the days pass. On Christmas Day, on the verge of freezing to death, he prays to find a place to hear Mass. When he looks up he sees a castle situated in an oasis of green in the distance.

The lord of the castle welcomes Gawain warmly, introducing him to his lady and to the old woman who sits beside her. For holiday fun, the host (whose name is later revealed to be Bertilak) invites Gawain to partake in a game / challenge to play during the three days Gawain will rest there: the host will go out hunting with his men every day, while Gawain can remain in the castle. When the lord returns in the evening, he will exchange his winnings for anything Gawain has managed to acquire by staying behind. Gawain happily agrees to the pact, and goes to bed.


The first day, the lord hunts deer. Meanwhile Gawain sleeps late in his bedchamber. On the morning of the first day, the lord’s wife steals into Gawain’s chambers and attempts to seduce him. Gawain puts her off, but before she leaves she gets one kiss from him. That evening, the host gives Gawain the venison he has captured, and Gawain, who is bound to the fidelity of the game, kisses him, since that is what he has won. The second day, the lord hunts a wild boar. Once again, the lady enters Gawain’s chambers, and this time she kisses Gawain twice. So, that evening when Gawain receives the boar, he gives the host the two kisses in exchange.

The third day, the lord hunts a fox, and this time the lady kisses Gawain three times. But on this visit, she also asks him for a token of love, like a ring or a glove. Gawain refuses to give her anything and refuses to take anything from her. But then the lady mentions her girdle. The green silk girdle she wears around her waist is an extraordinary piece of cloth, the lady claims. It possesses the magical ability to protect the person who wears it from death. Wide-eyed with the intriguing possibilities of such a fetish, Gawain accepts the cloth. When it comes time to exchange his winnings with the host, Gawain gives him three kisses, but he says nothing about the lady’s green girdle. The host gives Gawain the fox skin he won. They all go to bed preoccupied with the fact that Gawain must leave for the Green Chapel the following morning to find the Green Knight.


New Year’s Day arrives, and Gawain arms himself—including, secretly, the girdle–then sets off with Gringolet in search of the Green Knight. A guide accompanies him out of the estate grounds. When they reach the border of the forest, the guide promises not to tell anyone if Gawain wants to turn around and avoid the challenge. Gawain refuses. He is determined to meet his fate head-on—and certain that he is protected, of course. Eventually, he hears the grinding sound of a grindstone, realizing he has reached the Green Chapel. The Green Knight emerges to greet him. Intent on fulfilling the terms of the contract, Gawain presents his neck to the Green Knight.

On the first wielding of the axe, however, Gawain flinches. The Green Knight pulls back, and wants more courage from Gawaine. On the second attempt at a blow, the Green Knight pulls back, even though Gawain does not flinch. Enraged, Gawain demands that the Knight go through with it. On the third attempt, the Greene Knight nicks Gawain’s neck, drawing just a little blood. Even though Gawain jumps up in rage, the Green Knight starts to laugh.

The Green Knight reveals himself as Bertilak, the lord of the castle where Gawain recently stayed. He tells Gawain that since he did not honestly exchange all of his winnings on the third day, Bertilak scratched him on his third blow. Nevertheless, the lord says that Gawain has proven himself a worthy knight of Camelot. When Gawain questions Bertilak further, Bertilak explains that the old woman at the castle is really Morgan le Faye, Gawain’s aunt and King Arthur’s half sister. She sent the Green Knight on his errand and used her magic to change Bertilak’s appearance. Gawain is ashamed of his behavior in the beheading game, but Bertilak tells him that his only fault is loving life too much.

The End

Gawain is relieved to be alive, but he feels extremely guilty about his sinful failure to tell the whole truth. So Gawain wears the girdle on his arm as a reminder of his own failure. He returns to Arthur’s court. All the knights at Camelot show their support by wearing girdles on their arms.

January 28, 2009 at 9:32 pm Leave a comment

Beowulf. The Anglo-Saxon Epic

A Short Plot Synopsis of Beowulf.

The only existing epic poem from the Anglo-Saxon period, scholars have dated it to anywhere between the 8th and the 10th century. Although I am not forcing you to read it in this class, it is important to know about the work. In fact, some scholars dedicate their career to studying and translating Beowulf.

The narrative poem is about the heroic deeds of the warrior, Beowulf. The poem begins in the mead hall, the central meeting place for a clan. King Hrothgar of Denmark is prosperous and successful, and he builds his mead hall, Heorot, as a place for his warriors to gather, drink, exchange gifts and tell stories . They also receive entertainment from singers and bards. The mead hall is symbolic of home, unity, fellowship. Anytime a person becomes estranged from the mead hall, they become estranged from that which is elemental to life.

As the king’s warriors celebrate in the hall at the beginning of the poem, their noise disturbs Grendel, a horrible monster who dwells in the swamp. Every night Grendel terrorizes the Danes, killing them, and blunting their ability to fight back. They have lived for years in fear of Grendel. A young Geatish warrior, Beowulf, hears of the king’s problem. Feeling called to duty, Beowulf volunteers himself and a small group of men, and they sail to Denmark, determined to slay the monster.

Hrothgar had once done Beowulf’s father a great favor, and accepts his help. In Beowulf’s honor, the king holds a great feast at Heorot. During the party, however, a jealous Dane, Unferth, teases Beowulf by saying that he is unworthy of the reputation he has. Beowulf fights back by boasting of great past accomplishments, which cheers everyone at the feast, so they party late into the night. Grendel finally arrives, interrupting the festivities, and Beowulf decides to fight it unarmed. He proves himself to be stronger than the monster, who becomes terrified, and as it tries to flee, Beowulf tears off its arm. As a result, Grendel crawl off into the swamp and dies, and the Danes hang the severed arm in the hall as a symbol of victory.

Hrogthar holds a feast in Beowulf’s honor, and showers him in gifts and praise. The celebration lasts through the night. But during the party, another threat approaches. Grendel’s mother, another swamp-hag that lives in a desolate lake, arrives at Heorot to seek revenge for her son’s death. Before slinking away, she murders one of Hrogthar’s most valued advisers. Beowulf’s company travels to the swamp to avenge the death, and Beowulf dives into the water and fights Grendel’s mother in her underwater lair. With a sword forged for a giant, he kills her. Then he finds Grendel’s corpse, cuts off its head, and brings it as a prize to Hrogthar. The Danish countryside is now, thanks to Beowulf, rid of monsters.

Beowulf’s fame now spreads across the entire country. After a sorrowful goodbye to Hrogthar, who feels like a father to the warrior, Beowulf leaves. He returns to Geatland, where he and his men reunite with their king and queen. Beowulf tells them the story of his adventures, and hands over most of the treasure he received.

After some time, the king of Geatland dies, and Beowulf ascends to the throne. For fifty years (!) he rules wisely, and brings great prosperity to the country . When Beowulf is an old man, however, a thief disturbs a mound where a dragon guards its treasure. Angered, the dragon descends upon the kingdom and unleashes a fiery attack. Even though he senses his own death approaching, Beowulf fights the dragon. He succeeds with some help to kill the dragon, but Beowulf is badly wounded. The dragon has bitten Beowulf in the neck, and within moments he dies of the venom. His men burn Beowulf’s body on a huge pyre and then bury him along with massive treasure in a barrow that overlooks the sea.

January 26, 2009 at 9:37 pm Leave a comment

Old English to the Middle Ages. Brief Background.

The middle ages marks a period roughly from the collapse of the Roman Empire up until the Renaissance. Scholars forever debate when periods begin and when they end, but for our purposes, the middle ages run from roughly 500 to 1400 AD. After the middle ages is the beginning of the Renaissance, which we will cover in the last half of the course.

One of the greatest acheivements of the middle ages was the cathdral. They are miracles of architecture, planning, craftsmenship and construction. There are some scholars who are dedicated to interpreting the imagery and iconography in stained glass windows.

One of the greatest acheivements of the middle ages was the cathdral. They are miracles of architecture, planning, craftsmenship and construction. There are some scholars who are dedicated to interpreting the imagery and iconography in stained glass windows.

Although the Roman Catholic Church and a solidified social structure created a certain continuity to this long period in history, the middle ages are a lot more varied than we tend to think. Despite stereotypes about “the Dark Ages,” there were many centuries during the middle ages of vast advancements in philosophical, theological and economic thought. We do not have as much literature from this period because the middle ages occurred before the printing press, which was not ubiquitously utilized until the 16th and 17th centuries, and well before the publishing industry revolution. On top of the absence of a print-culture, poetry and fictional writing was not valued as highly as philosophical writing, so a piece of creative work was less likely to be “scribed.” In order to reproduce writing, scribes would have to make diligent copies of the original. For important works, like the Bible, or Aquinas’s philosophy, there were gigantic “scribe factories” of scholars and translators madly reproducing works.

There was more than likely a great deal of imaginative literature spoken and written during the middle ages that simply has not survived because it either was not scribed, or whatever reproductions were produced became lost over time. Therefore, any creative piece of writing we have from this 1400 year period is a gift.

The Middle Ages in England and Europe was fully part of an oral tradition. Since there was no printing press, and around 98% of the population was illiterate, any story, history, philosophy or religion was transmitted orally. It is difficult for us, surrounded by print, visual and audio media in 2009, to imagine a culture that transmitted all of its literature orally. In particular, Christian faith was almost entirely based upon an oral tradition–most people knew the Bible through the ear alone–until the print revolution that occurred during the Reformation. One cannot underestimate the shift in world and religious view for an individual when people begin to read the Bible as opposed to hear the Bible.

Like the ancient Greeks, history and stories developed through mythology and years of transmitting stories and information for medieval England. Everything we read up until the Renaissance comes to us as a rare gift of being a poem or narrative that was both scribed and survived the passage of time.

We will divide the literature of the Middle Ages into three different linguistic movements: Anglo-Saxon England, Anglo-Norman England and Middle English Literature. The invaders of the British island from Angel and Saxon– Nordic tribes–brought a tough, Germanic language. As I said, these were pagan cultures whose language valued kinship, bravery in battle, doom and death. There was virtually no language of love, which would not become part of the English language until after the Norman Conquest.

The Anglo-Saxons became Christian around the fourth century, approximately 150

A page from Caedmons The Dream of the Rood. If you look at the type, youll see that Old English is virtually a foreign language to us.

A page from Caedmon's "The Dream of the Rood." If you look at the type, you'll see that Old English is virtually a foreign language to us.

years after their invasion. However, they rapidly assimilated Christianity, combining it with their gloomy world-view to create a sense of hope and renewal that awaits us upon death. This can be seen most readily in “The Dream of the Rood.” There still rage many debates as to whether Beowulf, the only surviving epic poem from the Anglo-Saxon period, is pagan or Christian. Some scholars argue that the Christian nuances of resurrection at the end of the poem were added on at a later date.

Old English (or Anglo-Saxon) poetry combines a sense of heroism and Christianity. In “The Dream of the Rood,” Christ is referred to in warrior like terms. In The Wanderer, Christian and heroic themes are wonderfully blended. The narrator of the poem suffers the worst fate for an Anglo-Saxon: estrangement from one’s king (kinsman) and the tribe. But the poem also juxtaposes transient earthly gains to God’s eternity. The poem falls in an Old English genre that still thrives today known as ubi sunt, or “where did they all go?” This type of poem is usually a lament about the ineluctable passage of time, a reflection upon loved ones and communities who have died, and the pain of aging.

As I said, Old English poetry presents a dominantly harsh world. The only place that seems to be cheerful is the mead hall, where warriors eat and drink in fellowship with their kinsmen. But even there, thoughts always return to battle and the transience of life.

There is hardly any Romantic love in Old English poetry. There was not much of a vocabulary for Romantic love. The introduction of a language for love does not enter poetry until after the Norman Conquest in 1066 and the influence of the French language. The Norman Conquest begins Middle English poetry, and some of the great pieces of English literature, such as Sir Gawaine and the Greene Kinght, and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. The use of language for love in poetry in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries is really the invention of Romantic love, which I believe is one of the most miraculous occurrences in language and literature.

A page from one of the few existing manuscripts of The Wanderer. As I said, to have a manuscript of fictive literature survive from Old English is a miracle.

A page from one of the few existing manuscripts of "The Wanderer." As I said, to have a manuscript of fictive literature survive from Old English is a miracle.

January 21, 2009 at 8:32 pm Leave a comment

Dream of the Rood: for Masterworks of Brit Lit Class

The Dream of the Rood

Listen! The choicest of visions I wish to tell,
which came as a dream in middle-night,
after voice-bearers lay at rest.
It seemed that I saw a most wondrous tree
born aloft, wound round by light,5
brightest of beams. All was that beacon
sprinkled with gold. Gems stood
fair at earth’s corners; there likewise five
shone on the shoulder-span [ 1 ]. All there beheld the Angel of God [ 2 ],
fair through predestiny [ 3 ]. Indeed, that was no wicked one’s gallows,10
but holy souls beheld it there,
men over earth, and all this great creation.
Wondrous that victory-beam–and I stained with sins,
with wounds of disgrace. I saw glory’s tree
honored with trappings, shining with joys,15
decked with gold; gems had
wrapped that forest tree worthily round.
Yet through that gold I clearly perceived
old strife of wretches [ 4 ], when first it began
to bleed on its right side. With sorrows most troubled,20
I feared that fair sight. I saw that doom-beacon [ 5 ]
turn trappings and hews: sometimes with water wet,
drenched with blood’s going; sometimes with jewels decked.
But lying there long while, I,
troubled, beheld the Healer’s tree,25
until I heard its fair voice.
Then best wood spoke these words:
“It was long since–I yet remember it–
that I was hewn at holt’s end,
moved from my stem. Strong fiends seized me there,30
worked me for spectacle; cursèd ones lifted me [ 6 ].
On shoulders men bore me there, then fixed me on hill;
fiends enough fastened me. Then saw I mankind’s Lord
come with great courage when he would mount on me.
Then dared I not against the Lord’s word35
bend or break, when I saw earth’s
fields shake. All fiends
I could have felled, but I stood fast.
The young hero stripped himself–he, God Almighty–
strong and stout-minded. He mounted high gallows,40
bold before many, when he would loose mankind.
I shook when that Man clasped me. I dared, still, not bow to earth,
fall to earth’s fields, but had to stand fast.
Rood was I reared. I lifted a mighty King,
Lord of the heavens, dared not to bend.45
With dark nails they drove me through: on me those sores are seen,
open malice-wounds. I dared not scathe anyone.
They mocked us both, we two together [ 7 ]. All wet with blood I was,
poured out from that Man’s side, after ghost he gave up.
Much have I born on that hill50
of fierce fate. I saw the God of hosts
harshly stretched out. Darknesses had
wound round with clouds the corpse of the Wielder,
bright radiance; a shadow went forth,
dark under heaven. All creation wept,55
King’s fall lamented. Christ was on rood.
But there eager ones came from afar
to that noble one. I beheld all that.
Sore was I with sorrows distressed, yet I bent to men’s hands,
with great zeal willing. They took there Almighty God,60
lifted him from that grim torment. Those warriors abandoned me
standing all blood-drenched, all wounded with arrows.
They laid there the limb-weary one, stood at his body’s head;
beheld they there heaven’s Lord, and he himself rested there,
worn from that great strife. Then they worked him an earth-house,65
men in the slayer’s sight carved it from bright stone,
set in it the Wielder of Victories. Then they sang him a sorrow-song,
sad in the eventide, when they would go again
with grief from that great Lord. He rested there, with small company.
But we there lamenting a good while70
stood in our places after the warrior’s cry
went up. Corpse grew cold,
fair life-dwelling. Then someone felled us
all to the earth. That was a dreadful fate!
Deep in a pit one delved us. Yet there Lord’s thanes,75
friends, learned of me,. . . . . . . . . . .
adorned me with silver and gold.
Now you may know, loved man of mine,
what I, work of baleful ones, have endured
of sore sorrows. Now has the time come80
when they will honor me far and wide,
men over earth, and all this great creation,
will pray for themselves to this beacon. On me God’s son
suffered awhile. Therefore I, glorious now,
rise under heaven, and I may heal85
any of those who will reverence me.
Once I became hardest of torments,
most loathly to men, before I for them,
voice-bearers, life’s right way opened.
Indeed, Glory’s Prince, Heaven’s Protector,90
honored me, then, over holm-wood [ 8 ].
Thus he his mother, Mary herself,
Almighty God, for all men,
also has honored over all woman-kind.
Now I command you, loved man of mine,95
that you this seeing [ 9 ] tell unto men;
discover with words that it is glory’s beam
which Almighty God suffered upon
for all mankind’s manifold sins
and for the ancient ill-deeds of Adam.100
Death he tasted there, yet God rose again
by his great might, a help unto men.
He then rose to heaven. Again sets out hither
into this Middle-Earth, seeking mankind
on Doomsday, the Lord himself,105
Almighty God, and with him his angels,
when he will deem–he holds power of doom–
everyone here as he will have earned
for himself earlier in this brief life.
Nor may there be any unafraid110
for the words that the Wielder speaks.
He asks before multitudes where that one is
who for God’s name would gladly taste
bitter death, as before he on beam did.
And they then are afraid, and few think115
what they can to Christ’s question answer [ 10 ].
Nor need there then any be most afraid [ 11 ]
who ere in his breast bears finest of beacons;
but through that rood shall each soul
from the earth-way enter the kingdom,120
who with the Wielder thinks yet to dwell.”
I prayed then to that beam with blithe mind,
great zeal, where I alone was
with small company [ 12 ]. My heart was
impelled on the forth-way, waited for in each125
longing-while. For me now life’s hope:
that I may seek that victory-beam
alone more often than all men,
honor it well. My desire for that
is much in mind, and my hope of protection130
reverts to the rood. I have not now many
strong friends on this earth; they forth hence
have departed from world’s joys, have sought themselves glory’s King;
they live now in heaven with the High-Father,
dwell still in glory, and I for myself expect135
each of my days the time when the Lord’s rood,
which I here on earth formerly saw,
from this loaned life will fetch me away
and bring me then where is much bliss,
joy in the heavens, where the Lord’s folk140
is seated at feast, where is bliss everlasting;
and set me then where I after may
dwell in glory, well with those saints
delights to enjoy. May he be friend to me
who here on earth earlier died145
on that gallows-tree for mankind’s sins.
He loosed us and life gave,
a heavenly home. Hope was renewed
with glory and gladness to those who there burning endured.
That Son was victory-fast [ 13 ] in that great venture,150
with might and good-speed [ 14 ], when he with many,
vast host of souls, came to God’s kingdom,
One-Wielder Almighty: bliss to the angels
and all the saints–those who in heaven
dwelt long in glory–when their Wielder came,155
Almighty God, where his homeland was.

Translation copyright © 1982, Jonathan A. Glenn


[ 1 ] shoulder-span. OE eaxlegespanne. Of this hapax legomenon, Swanton writes: “It would be tempting to identify this with the ‘axle-tree’ or centre-piece of the cross, although ‘axle’ in this sense of wheel-centre is not otherwise recorded before the thirteenth century. . . . It might . . . simply refer to the beam of the gallows along which Christ’s arms were stretched, although the ‘crux gemmata’ normally has jewels along all four arms.” [Return to text]

[ 2 ] All . . . God. Most editors assume that engel ‘angel’ is the subject of the sentence, but I follow Swanton in treating ealle ‘all’ as subject and engel as object. Swanton considers this to cause difficulties about identifying the engel, but the OE word can carry the sense ‘messenger,’ which obviously suggests that the Cross itself is the engel dryhtnes ‘angel/messenger of God.’ [Return to text]

[ 3 ] fair . . . predestiny. OE fægere þurh forðgesceaft, an ambiguous phrase, forðgesceaft being used elsewhere to mean both ‘creation’ and ‘future destiny.’ See Swanton for a discussion of the possibilities. My translation indicates that I take it to mean ‘what is preordained.’ Thus the Rood is part of an eternal plan, like “the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world” (Rev. 13:8). [Return to text]

[ 4 ] old strife of wretches. OE earmra ærgewin, lit. ‘of wretches ere-strife.’ The phrase, in this context, appears to refer to the whole battle between Christ and Satan, Good and Evil; more immediately, of course, it refers to Christ’s Passion, viewed as battle. [Return to text]

[ 5 ] doom-beacon. OE fuse beacen. Considering that “the word fus is commonly associated with death,” Swanton notes: “Clearly, within the poet’s vision we must recognize not simply the church year hastening to its sacrificial end, but a concrete symbol of death and the doom to come. This beacen is at once an emblem of death (Christ’s) and of doom (that of the dreamer and world). At Judgement Day it is this symbol that will be seen again in the heavens. . . .” [Return to text]

[ 6 ] cursèd . . . me. As Swanton observes, the syntax could conceivably support the rendering “made me lift cursèd ones.” [Return to text]

[ 7 ] both . . . together. OE unc butu ætgædere ‘we two both together.’ Unc is dual in number, underscoring the close relationship–the near identification–of Cross and Christ in the poem. [Return to text]

[ 8 ] holm-wood. OE holmwudu, a hapax legomenon and obscure. Swanton notes three possible ways to find meaning in the term: (1) interpret it as ‘sea-wood’ (either ‘ship’ or–more understandably–lignum vitae ‘tree of life,’ which grows by the waters of Paradise); (2) emend to holtwudu ‘forest wood’; or (3) take holm in the OS sense ‘hill,’ providing a “powerful oblique reference to the gallows of Golgotha.” [Return to text]

[ 9 ] seeing. OE gesyhð ‘thing seen, vision’ (> NE sight), clearly referring to the dreamer’s vision of the Cross. B. Huppé, Web of Words, entitles this poem “Gesyhþ rodes.” [Return to text]

[ 10 ] Christ’s . . . answer. More literally: “what they may begin to say to Christ.” [Return to text]

[ 11 ] most afraid. OE unforht, usually emended to anforht ‘fearful’; Swanton retains the MS reading un- as an intensive: ‘very afraid.’ [Return to text]

[ 12 ] small company. See line 69. This is one of the numerous echoes set up to link Christ, Cross, and Dreamer. [Return to text]

[ 13 ] victory-fast. I.e., secure in or sure of victory. [Return to text]

[ 14 ] with . . . good-speed. OE mihtig ond spedig ‘mighty and successful’ (the latter being the original meaning of speedy). [Return to text]

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January 20, 2009 at 4:32 pm Leave a comment

Very Short History of Birth of the English Language

Masterworks of British Literature I

The Organic Nature of Language

Our language has had a long and fascinating career. The language we speak and write today is the result of over two thousand years of growth, development and change.

The rebuilt Globe Theater in London, where many of Shakespeares plays were performed. If you are ever in London, you must see a performance here.

The rebuilt Globe Theater in London, where many of Shakespeare's plays were performed. If you are ever in London, you must see a performance here.

Any language is a changing, evolving and organic entity. The English language has looked different with each century. Even though Shakespeare’s language is pretty close to the modern English language, any of you who have read any of his plays know that a lot of the words, phrases, grammar and expression can be almost like a foreign language. This is because Shakespeare uses a lot of colloquialisms, street-talk, phrases and lingo that was very accessible to the audience of his time, but which looks alien to us today. In fact, Shakespeare’s plays are a great place to see the creative and evolving nature of language. When Shakespeare wrote his plays, there was no dictionary of the English language. Therefore, Shakespeare–and many other authors of the time–invented words, often amalgamating existing words to create a new one, and often hatching a brand new word on the spot. In fact, Shakespeare invented hundreds of words that we use today. For instance, he invented the word “lonely.” It first appears in A Winter’s Tale.

Old English

In the first week of our course, we will look at some examples of Old English poetry, written anywhere between 500 and 1200 AD. The language these poets used is known as Anglo-Saxon, denoting the two different Nordic peoples, Angles and Saxons, who settled on the island known as England during this period. The poems are translated from the Old English. You would not be able to read these poems if they were not translated. Old English looks like a foreign language.

service to the kinsman, the centrality of the clan and the mead-hall, battling sinister forces that threaten the clan, sacrifice, fate and death. Woody Allens advise to prospective college students was to never take a course that requires you to read Beowulf.

Beowulf is the only extant Old English epic poem. It focuses on the central themes of the Nordic clan in England: service to the kinsman, the centrality of the clan and the mead-hall, battling sinister forces that threaten the clan, sacrifice, fate and death. Woody Allen's advise to prospective college student's was to never take a course that requires you to read Beowulf.

Old English language tends to be gloomy, dark, fascinated with death and fate. The Angles and Saxons were originally Nordic tribes who subscribed to a sort-of polytheistic religion–less organized than the ancient Greeks–and were obsessed with death and fate. The life of an Angle or Saxon revolved around the health of a “clan,” headed up by its “kinsman,” or clan leader, which evolves into our notion of a “King.” Notice how the word “King” has the word “kin” in it, referring to family or familiarity–being of a “kind.” Members of a clan served their “king” to the death. The most tragic thing that could happen to a member of a clan is to become estranged from the clan, to lose the clan or to be exiled.

Old English and Christianity

However, when the Angles and Saxons conquer the island of England, they come in contact with the Holy Roman Empire, and rapidly adopt Christianity into their religion. Issues of death and fate combine with Christian notions of rebirth and predestination. Christianity brings a more positive interpretation of death for the Nordic tribes, most notable in the wonderful poem we will read, “Dream of the Rood.”

Middle English

By the second week of the course, however, we will examine literature written in what we call Middle English. It looks a lot more like the language we use today. With diligence, you could read Sir Gawaine and the Greene Knight or The Canterbury Tales untranslated, but your anthology will have translated versions. However, I will give you some photo-copies of excerpts from these poems so that you can see what Middle English looks like, and hear what it sounds like.

The famous narrative poem Sir Gawaine and the Greene Knight might end up being one of the most enjoyable things youll ever read. At least, thats what many students tell me. You would never guess that medieval literature could be fun!

The famous narrative poem Sir Gawaine and the Greene Knight might end up being one of the most enjoyable things you'll ever read. At least, that's what many students tell me. You would never guess that medieval literature could be fun!

Middle English is the language that evolved after the Norman Conquest in 1066, when France conquered the island of England, and brought with them the French language. Middle English becomes a combination of the dark, hard and gloomy language of the Anglo-Saxons, and the more descriptive and romantic language of the French. As language develops into the Medieval period, from the 1200s until the 1500s, the result of the amalgamation of the French and Anglo-Saxon language is some of the greatest developments and products of Western literature.

But for now, read “The Dream of the Rood,” “The Wanderer,” and “The Wife’s Lament.” They are very short, so don’t panic.

If you do not have the anthology for the class yet, you can easily find copies of these poems on-line.

January 18, 2009 at 4:31 pm Leave a comment