If you will listen to this lay but a little while now,
I will tell it at once as in town I have heard
as it is fixed and fettered
in story brave and bold,
thus linked and truly lettered,
as was loved in this land of old.
This book collects J.R.R. Tolkien’s translations of three medieval English poems. I have read Sir Gawain before, in the Marie Borroff translation in an anthology of world literature, but the other two poems were new to me.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was written by an anonymous poet from the West Midlands in the late fourteenth century. The poem is in stanzas of alliterative verse, each of which ends with a “bob and wheel,” a very short line followed by a four-line rhyming stanza.
During a New Year’s Eve feast at King Arthur’s court, a mysterious figure appears dressed in green and with green skin, holding a bundle of holly in one hand and an enormous axe in the other. He is referred to only as the Green Knight.The Green Knight challenges the men there to a game. He says that he will allow whomever accepts the challenge to strike him with his own axe, on the condition that the challenger meet him at a place called the Green Chapel in a year and a day, on New Year’s morning, to receive a blow in return. At first, no one answers.
What! Is this Arthur’s house, said he thereupon
the rumor of which runs through realms unnumbered?
Where now is your haughtiness , and your high conquests,
your fierceness and fell mood, and your fine boasting ?
Now are the revels and the royalty of the Round Table
overwhelmed by a word by one man ere spoken,
for all blench now abashed ere a blow is offered?
Arthur steps forward to take the challenge, but Gawain volunteers to do it instead. He decapitates the Green Knight and the Green Knight grabs his head and holds it up. The head speaks to remind Gawain of the quest he must undertake when the time is up.
Gawain’s adventures on his journey are briefly described until he arrives at the castle of Sir Bertilak, which turns out to be very close to his destination.
So many a marvel in the mountains he met in those lands
That twould be tedious the tenth part to tell you thereof.
At whiles with worms he wars, and with wolves also,
at whiles with wood-trolls that wandered in the crags,
and with bulls and bears too, at times;
and with ogres that hounded him from the heights of the fells.
Pearl is probably the work of the same poet. In this poem a father mourning the loss of his daughter falls asleep in a garden. He has a dream in which she shows him a vision of the Heavenly City.
Sir Orfeo is a retelling of the story of Orpheus. The Sir Orfeo of the title is an English king (in Winchester, the old capital of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex) rescuing his wife from the king of the fairies. Unlike the other two poems in the book, this poem is told in rhyming couplets. The main differences between the medieval poem and the classical myth ae that Sir Orfeo’s rescue is successful, and of course that the underworld from Greek myth becomes the realm of the fairies from Celtic myth. The realm of the fairies and the realm of the dead were sometimes the same place in Celtic mythology.
There often by him he would see
when noon was hot on leaf or tree,
the king of Faerie with his rout
came hunting in the woods about
with blowing far and crying dim
and barking hounds that were with him;
yet never a beast they took nor slew,
and where they went he never knew.