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Thursday, March 10, 2011

Reading Group meeting 12/3/11


Blogger Dr. Lynn Forest-Hill said...


Our first meeting in March actually too us back to Christmas and New Year as we discussed the late 14thC poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and its connections with Tolkien’s work. It is famously one of the 14thC verse romances that he edited, and as such it is a fairly obvious choice for a man who was profoundly interested in the world of Faerie and myth, but the connections between LotR and TH and SGGK are perhaps less obvious.

In fact the poem sparked interest in its own right. Julie began by asking who the traitor mentioned in the first stanza really was, because this is unclear. Medieval tradition seems to have merged Aeneas and Antenor from the Trojan legends and the Gawain-poet simply refers to the ‘tulk’ – the man, being confident that his audience would be well aware of who that referred to. On the other hand, the introduction of treachery in this way right at the start of the poem sets the tone and opens up a topic that is always hovering just on the edge of the story.

[Picking up the ‘tulk’ reference, I mentioned that SGGK contains many synonyms for ‘man’ like this, just as OE uses many synonyms for ‘man’/ warrior – a sign of the importance to a warrior society of what the synonyms refer to. And a sign of how long this lasted, even the effect of the Norman Conquest.

Mike had been working from the Norman Davis second edition of Tolkien’s text, not in translation, and remarked on the medieval dialect and form. The north west dialect, together with the preservation of OE rune forms, and the use of the alliterative long line, give the poem a very distinctive look, and raise the question of how the OE alliterative long line especially was preserved during the cultural disaster that followed the Norman invasion. It seems that the OE poetic tradition was preserved in the far west of England, because the long line and some dialect forms show up in different poems English from the counties bordering Wales, especially in texts like La3amon’s Brut, written close to the Severn, and the work of the Gawain-poet.

Laura noticed the continuation of another Anglo-Saxon tradition, in this case the ongoing relationship between nephews and maternal uncles as Gawain refers to Arthur as hi ‘em’, meaning maternal uncle. We remarked on the long tradition of Anglo-Saxon and medieval English boys being fostered by their mother’s brothers.

Ian drew comparisons between SGGK and Beowulf, as did Laura. They both commented on the arrival of strangers but noticed the varying treatment of Beowulf and the Green Knight, and Grendel and the Green Knight. Julie observed that the big bluff Green Knight reminds her of Brian Blessed.

12:13 PM  
Blogger Dr. Lynn Forest-Hill said...

We spent some time discussing the hunting sequence in SGGK as Laura disliked the graphic detail. We considered the dangers of medieval hunting and Angela reminded us the in the Appendices to LotR, King Falco of Rohan is killed by the wound inflicted by a boar. Carol observed that Gawain is drawn into another game by the Green knight/Bertilak, this time as the exchange of gains, which is also the start of the interlace between hunting and the boudoir. We noticed that the hunting references refer as much to Gawain as to the animals, although we didn’t bring out as much as we might have, perhaps, by way of considering the comparisons possible between Gawain and the kinds of animals hunted.

Carol remarked: ‘I'm sure you'll explain the beheading game. It speaks to the violence of the times that Gawain can behead and others watch, then quite calmly sit down to their repast.’ I commented that I have always wondered at the grisly image of the Arthurian court kicking the Green Knight’s head around. It seems dangerous, not to mention discourteous, to treat someone’s head like that. Laura observed that the knights were fending off the touch of the head rather than playing football with it! There is a tradition of beheading in all sorts of medieval ‘entertainments’ and it must go back to regeneration myths.

Mike observed that even the ‘bad guys’ obey rules in this context – assuming of course that the Green Knight can be described as a bad guy! Laura commented that it is the same with Gollum and the Riddles in TH.

Angela brought us back from the grotesque to remark that the description of Guinevere on the dais under a canopy is very similar to the description of Arwen when Frodo first sees her.

Like carol, we noted that name of the horse Gringolet ‘chimes’ interestingly with the name of Earendil's boat Vingilot. Laura’s discoveries have added greatly to this topic. See below for an ‘Appendix’ on the names.

Both Julie and Carol noticed that in his essay on “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”, in THE MONSTERS AND THE CRITICS AND OTHER ESSAYS, Tolkien notes that ‘It belongs to that literary kind which has deep roots in the past, deeper even than its author was aware. It is made of tales often told, beyond the vision or awareness of the poet.’ Julie noted Tolkien’s use of a similar technique to give depth to LotR and even to a lesser extent to TH. Carol observed: “Here again we have depth. Indeed when I first read GAWAIN, despite Christianity being put in and its being explained away as a ruse set by Morgan le Fay, I 'felt' a fundamentalness about it that I couldn’t explain.”

Carol also noted Tolkien’s comment: ‘Behind our poem stalks the figures of elder myth, and through the lines are heard echoes of ancient cults, beliefs and symbols remote from the consciousness of an educated moralist (but also of the poet) of the late 14th century.’ Carol goes on to suggest: ‘If I remember aright, Gawain, in older Arthurian lore, was a grail achiever long before the cissy Galahad, and could also have been a sun deity or hero.’ [I have not come across Gawain in connection with the grail, but in English medieval tradition he was the perfect knight – which is why Morgan is testing him.]

Mike went on to suggest that the story of Gawain’s testing suggests a ‘rite of passage’, and Laura noted that because he fails this test he would no longer be a candidate for the grail quest.

12:15 PM  
Blogger Dr. Lynn Forest-Hill said...

Although we failed to address the matter of Gawain’s pentangle, Carol commented on it writing: ‘I'd never known it as a symbol of troth for Solomon. Tolkien talks about the pentangle on Gawain's shield. I'd call it a pentacle. Some associate it with Satan. I see it as a Wiccan symbol, of the feminine principal. This and the Green Man point me to paganism, and I was surprised when I first read it in the poem. But here it’s christianised into the 5 wounds of Jesus at the crucifixion. The picture of Mary on the reverse side of the shield also points to the feminine. Was there a strong Mary cult at the time?’

As we didn’t get round to this matter in discussion I wrote back to Carol to say, yes, the cult of Mary was absolutely characteristic of the Middle Ages. There was a massive cult of Mary in the Middle Ages, in fact it could be regarded as a defining characteristic of medieval Catholic England (as part of European RC Christendom). It was more likely that a devout person would pray to Mary as the great Intercessor, than to Christ. The reasoning was that as his mother she would have more influence with him than the human supplicant. She was accorded feast days that Protestants and Anglicans don't (I think) recognise, like the Dormition and the Assumption. She was an intergral part of the phenomenon known as affective piety which was intended to concentrate the mind on the sufferings of Mary and Jesus. There are some beautiful and touching medieval religious lyrics about Mary at the foot of the Cross watching her son die. As Christ suffered the 5 wounds, which were venerated, Mary’s 5 sorrows and 5 joys were also celebrated and venerated. It is a bit of a side issue, but during the Reformation, not only were statues of the Virgin smashed, but most of the specifically ‘Marian’ plays were excised from the playbooks of the medieval mystery cycles. One cycle, the so-called N-Town, has a whole sequence of plays devoted entirely to the life of Mary. Happily it survived the iconoclasm.

Back to the topic: SIR GAWAIN AND THE GREEN KNIGHT. [Carol and Rosemary both used the translation by JRRT.]

Rosemary, by email, comments on the stylistic choices Tolkien made, writing: “I find that his use of 'thou' jars; though perhaps he has alliterative reasons for using it. I grew up on Victorian historicals which were very 'quoth he' (eg, Pyle) but I disliked its unnaturalness; now, I see it as a mannerism and I still dislike it.

Carol picked out ‘snow comes/shivering sharp to shrivel - snaw snitters ful snart’ and remarks: “since first reading it this is the only bit of the original I can ever remember because it's so lovely. You can feel that biting iciness stinging - alliteration at its best next to “the merciless iced east wind” of Owen.

Carol also noted that now we only use gruesome, not grue, as with ruth and ruthless, and at the end it's brought round to the knights of the garter.

Carol comments on Fit 1: if I were a peasant or a churl working in the kitchens hearing of the splendour of Camelot at New Year in these first few stanzas, I'd have wanted to revolt.

[This reminds me that we did not notice that the poem is separated into Fitts. I also omitted to mention in the context of the opening of the poem, which sets it within the genre of The Matter of England, the series of varied poems, mostly the medieval adventure stories known as romances, that are set very specifically in English geography.

Our next meeting is one day after Tolkien Reading day so we are taking ‘Trees’ as the topic for our meeting.

12:16 PM  
Blogger Dr. Lynn Forest-Hill said...

Appendix in several parts on Gringolet/Vingilot:
(from a website of baby names!)

In Arthurian legend, this is the name of Gawain's horse. It may be of Scandinavian origin, perhaps meaning "winged."

Gringolet, as he figures in mediaeval romance, is a fascinating subject, though little is said of him. The bare mention of his name stimulates curiosity. It suggests that once on a time everybody knew all about him; and so we, too, want to know what they knew.
Sir Gawain is a great figure in Arthurian romance. Tennyson's poem gives but a faint idea of his true character, his magnificence and charm.
"Light was Gawain in life, and light in death
Is Gawain, for the ghost is as the man,”
represents a disparaging view in comparison with the truer estimate given of him elsewhere. The fact is that Tennyson took his story from Malory, who drew from sources in which Gawain was belittled, in order to enhance the character of Percival. But in the West of England, especially on the marches of Wales and Cumbria, Gawain was always regarded as the Knight par excellence of the Arthurian court, and the literature about him is of great importance. One of the greatest of mediaeval English poets, one of Chaucer's contemporaries, adorns this tradition; the poem of "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" is a gem of middle-age romance. His horse plays no wonderful part, but is always referred to as "Gawain's Horse, Gringolet." In French the name is Le Gringolet, with the definite article, as if everybody knew the story about him; and yet no story is to be found. Something there is to be discovered, but not in the romances.

If we group all the romances mentioning Gringolet, we find that the name occurs in the English, "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight," and a corruption of it in "The Aunters of Arthur at Tarnwathelan," as Grizel. In German it is Gringuljetan; in French usually Gringalet, but occasionally Guingalet; while in Welsh it only occurs in late versions as Keinkalad, and that rarely. The Welsh romance writers seem to avoid the name, giving rise to a suggestion that they regarded it as not Welsh. If it was not Welsh, whence does it come?

One of the most interesting of Northern stories is that of Wade, father of Wayland Smith, and son of Wilkin, the hero of Vilkinasaga, in which we find many stories of Wade added in a late recension. Wade fascinates us, as Gringolet does, by the fact that so little is known of him, and that little whets our curiosity. His name occurs in a series of place-names; in the Traveller's Song we are told that Wade ruled the Helsings. Chaucer refers to him twice, in one passage saying that the wife of Bath knew everything about his Boat, and in Troilus mentioning quite unexpectedly "a tale of Wade." What the tale was we are not informed. Speght, the old commentator, says as regards Wade and his boat and his strange exploits, "because the matter is long and fabulous, I pass it over." One suspects that he did not know all. Tyrwhitt exclaims against the omission: "Tantamne rem tam negligenter!" and modern commentators can only attack Speght for his silence. But evidently in the fourteenth century Chaucer knew—or pretended to know—the lost story of Wade and his Boat.

12:17 PM  
Blogger Dr. Lynn Forest-Hill said...

There are many references to the name in Middle English. Wade is "The Wader," the one who went through the water, carrying on his shoulders the infant Wayland, as St. Christopher carried the infant Christ. But what was his boat?

Chaucer's passage about the wife of Bath seems to indicate that the boat had already been reduced to a slang phrase: and the name of the boat is preserved for us by Speght in the passage just quoted, which reads in full, "concerning Wade and his boat Gringalet."

The identity of the names given to Wade's boat and Gawain's horse cannot be a chance coincidence; the two must originally have been one. If so, we have in the famous Arthurian romance a distinct influence from Scandinavia.

The Horse of Gawain represents the necessary change from the sea character of the Vilkinasaga to the chivalrous character of the mediaeval romance, the ship was the "horse of ocean" both in Anglo-Saxon and in Old Norse. This transition is natural and necessary; we can find further evidence to show that this transition did actually occur.

In the case of the name Gringolet as applied to the horse, we have to note that it is sometimes written without the R, and then usually as Guingalet. Now whenever in old French you get Gu, that sound comes from Teutonic or Germanic sources, and represents W. If the form in Gr be the original one, it points to a Germanic and not a Romance origin. Moreover, in G words passing from Teutonic to Romance languages, a parasitic R frequently arose after the G. To take this story of Wade; the Graelant of Breton legends and French romances is, in all probability, nothing but Wayland:—Völund—Galant—Gralant, with the same parasitic R.

Now if the true name is Guingalet, we may assume without much doubt that it represents a Scandinavian or Germanic Wingalet.

As to the name of the boat, we find it again given as occurring in the North of England in the form Wingalock; so that if the name of the horse was derived from that of the boat, we have materials for tracing the origin of the story.

Vilkinasaga is one of the most interesting versions of the tale of Wade. In it Wilkin appears as a sort of god or demigod; perhaps Wilkin was not his original name, but adapted from the Latin Vulcan, for his son Wayland became the great Smith. In especial Wayland was famous for making boats, and the stories of father and son must have become confused, as often happens in mythology—for example, in the case of Anlaf Cuaran. Even their personalities became mixed in mediaeval tradition. In the Corpus Poeticum Boreale, Wade is stated to be the son of Wayland, while in Vilkinasaga Wayland is certainly the son of Wade. So when we know that Wade carried Wayland over the sea to apprentice him to the dwarfs to learn the smith's trade, and that Wayland the smith, being lamed in the sinews of his foot, forged for himself a winged garment, with which he flew over the sea; or that he made a wonderful boat, a winged vessel, a marvellous bird; that he was connected with winged maidens, swan-maidens; we see how "Wade's Boat" came by its name of Wing-something; and how the name originated not in England, but in Scandinavia.

12:18 PM  
Blogger Dr. Lynn Forest-Hill said...

That this was the case is curiously hinted by one old romance, which tells us that Gawain captured his horse from a Saxon king. In that passage the horse is called "un gringalet," with the indefinite article, as though the name were common and descriptive. Already among the old Normans the boat had become a horse, and at this day among the Normans a fool, a gaunt, silly creature, is called "un gringalet." This is evidently the source of the well-known proper name, Gringalet, as well as the slang use of the word.

The second part of the original name is less easy to discover. In Magnússon's index to Heimskringla are many names of boats which might suggest the missing word. Ving is the Danish or Swedish form, from which our "wing" is derived, a Scandinavian, and not an English word. Vinga-lett on the analogy of letti-skip, lett-freggr, lett-fetr, might be suggested, and reference to the termination -lock, found as a variant (cp. Havelock, in its relation to Hamlet) might be adduced.

Of Wade himself we have one curious notice, embedded in the old Latin sermon, which quotes six lines from the lost twelfth or thirteenth century poem, "Ita quod dicere possumus cum Wade:—
Summe sende ylves
and summe sende nadderes.
Summe send nikeres
the binnen wacez wunien.
Nister man nenne
bute ildebrand onne”;

"we may say with Wade that [all creatures who fell] became elves or adders or nickors who live in pools; not one became a man except Hildebrand." This is the only passage which shows us the story of Hildebrand in English literature, and bears on the genesis of Thiodrekssaga.

Professor Skeat explains the allusino in the tale of the Wife of Bath as meaning that widows, with the aid of Wade's Boat, could flit about from place to place and carry on their flirtations. But it is more recondite than that, depending on the transition from mythology to folklore, and thence to folk-speech and allusive slang. A further hint may be gathered from Chaucer's Troilus; it was Pandarus who told "a tale of Wade," an amorous story, parallel to the tale of Graelant,—the stern Northern mythology of the sea adapted to amorous France.

Gaston Paris, the greatest among students of mediaeval romance, considered that the name of Gringolet was of Celtic origin, though unexplained. The fact, however, remains that Gringolet in its Welsh form is rare; only occurring in a late twelfth or thirteenth century list of Arthurian horses, and in the strange form Keinkalad. If it were Welsh in origin it would surely be a more integral part of the legends; while on the other hand we have seen its close analogy to the name of Wade's boat, and the reasons for considering that Gawain's horse was really a form of the boat in Vilkinasaga, and a loan to British folklore from the Vikings.

12:19 PM  
Blogger Dr. Lynn Forest-Hill said...

After discussion, Mr. Gollancz, replying to Mr. Collingwood, said that the name of the horse in Grettissaga, "Keingala," was not easy to trace, for the story of Grettir, as we have it, is of late and mixed origin. The wings in pre-Norman sculpture in the North of England, and other hints of the Wayland myth on the monuments, certainly show the persistence of the legend, which was the Northern form of the story of Icarus and Dædalus, a smith story. Why smiths were always lame, as Miss Hull asked, he could only explain by saying that it was their nature! As to the parallel transition from the boat of Mannanan Mac Lir to the magic steed of Ossian, which brought the Celtic heroes to Paradise, he thought that the Arthurian legends were of course greatly influenced by Celtic mythology. Gawain, however, had been unkindly treated by English romancers of the Southeast; but in Welsh tradition he was "the hawk of the May morning," "the knight of ladies," "Gawain the Good," exalted even above Arthur, and all along the Welsh marches long considered as the noblest figure in the group. As Mr. Collingwood had pointed out, the name remained popular in Cumbria, and the legend of Tarn Wadling (near Carlisle) survived the Middle Ages. To Dr. Pernet the lecturer answered that though "Gringolet" is now in general use, it is Norman in origin, and thanked him for the apt analogy of the transition from old German hross to modern French rosse. Replying to Colonel Hobart, he said that the intrusive R is common in Icelandic and in some English dialects, it need present no difficulty. Indeed he sometimes thought that part of the confusion in the subject came from the blending of the Scandinavian story with the French and Celtic legends of "Galwain," just as Wayland and Wade had become interchanged. In answer to Mr. Norris's suggestion that the last syllable in vinga-lett might be lid, as in "Sumarlid," Mr. Gollancz did not think the change phonetically possible, and preferred to leave that part of the problem still unsolved. (Saga-book of the Viking Club, 1907)

12:20 PM  
Blogger Dr. Lynn Forest-Hill said...

Thanks to Laura for this detailed research on the names.

12:22 PM  

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