Key Ideas in Tolkien's W.
P. Ker Memorial Lecture, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
(15 April 1953, University of Glasgow)
|Tolkien's lecture on Sir
Gawain and the Green Knight reveals in part his own thinking about the
14th century work of the Middle English Alliterative Revival at the time
he had completed his own translation of the poem into Modern English.
Keeping his own reading of the poem in mind can help the alert reader note
Tolkien's word choices in translation. For example, not every translator
of the poem would agree with his use of archaisms or the older personal
pronouns thee, thy, thou. What effect is Tolkien
seeking as a translator by employing these?
[Click here for an online
version of the original Middle English text of the poem that Tolkien
edited with E.V. Gordon: Middle
English Text of Sir Gawain .]
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
(hereafter GGK) is a "deep-rooted tale," meaning it is one
that by inheriting older tales and myths, it is an unconscious
fairy-tale and has both a particular power and an imperfect structure.
Gawain's temptation is the center
of the poem because it shows the knight's actions to be moral in
nature. Gawain's humility and courtesy are to be assessed within a
Gawain must be understood as one
who seeks to keep faith with both his king and his host.
His piety is in evidence by the
symbol of his shield, his prayers, and his good character, all of
which must be put to the test. Gawain's temptations only make sense
within a medieval Christendom.
Faerie, rather than a simple
realism, is necessary to reveal the true nature of Gawain's temptation
amidst his hidden foes.
Courtesy traps Gawain in his
attempt to flee temptation, and he must come to the place that he can
distinguish courtesy and sin.
Gawain's confession in stanza 75 is
essential to interpreting GGK correctly. Likewise, his keeping of the
girdle must be seen within the context of a culture that takes games
Gawain suffers because he must
violate the game, but it is not a sin, whereas adultery even in the
name of courtesy would be so. He must come to realize that games of
courtesy are not essential for Christian salvation.
So while Gawain fails in regards to
courtesy by keeping the girdle, he does not violate the true spirit of
courtesy in his speech or actions.
Gawain's burning shame and
self-condemnation of cowardice, covetousness, and treachery are really
out of proportion to his fault, but this is literary realism.
Likewise, it should not surprise us
then that he makes this a public badge of shame, or that it becomes a
source of communal glory for the court.
Postscript (on lines 1885-1892): Gawain's joyful,
hopeful mood after sacramental reception and his weak faith, even
distrust, in the girdle only further illustrates that Gawain undertook
his mission for fealty's sake and that his difficult tryst was not a
moral violation. That sacrament outweighs the girdle as magical
talisman only further illustrates the author's point about Eternal Law
outweighing temporal courtly courtesy.
Do you find Tolkien's overall
reading of the temptation convincing? Why or why not?
Would GGK be equally successful
without the element of faerie?
How important are the overall
religious references in the poem?
Do you find Tolkien's description
and defense of Gawain's psychology convincing?
How important is stanza 75 to
interpreting the work? (see below)
What does this essay suggest about
Tolkien's attitudes towards his own fiction, especially his own
characters' moral lessons?
- thenne lachchez ho hir leue and leuez hym şere
more myrşe of şat mon mo3t ho not gete
he atz gon sir gawayn gerez hym sone
and riches hym in araye noble
vp şe luf lace şe lady hym ra3t
hit ful holdely şer he hit eft fonde
cheuely* to şe chapel choses he şe waye
aproched to a prest and prayed hym şere
he wolde lyfte his lyf and lern hym better
his sawle schulde be saued when he schuld seye heşen
he schrof hym schyrly and schewed his mysdedez
şe more and şe mynne and merci besechez
of absolucioun he on şe segge calles
he asoyled hym surely and sette hym so clene
domezday schulde haf ben di3t on şe morn
syşen he mace hym as mery among şe fre ladyes
comlych caroles and alle kynnes ioye*
neuer he did bot şat to şe derk ny3t with
mon hade daynte şare
hym and sayde iwysse
myry he watz neuer are
he com hider er şis [line 1892]
[Trans. Marie Borroff
- Then the lady took her leave, and left
- For more mirth with that man she
might not have.
- When she was gone, Sir Gawain got from
- Arose and arrayed him in his rich
- Tucked away the token the temptress
- Laid it reliably where he looked for it
- And then with good cheer to the
chapel he goes,
- Approached a priest in private, and
prayed to be taught
- To lead a better life and lift
up his mind,
- Lest he be among the lost when
he must leave this world.
- And shamefaced at shrift he showed his
- From the largest to the least, and
asked the Lord's mercy,
- And called on his confessor to
cleanse his soul,
- And he absolved him of his sins as safe
and as clean
- As if the dread Day of Doom were to
dawn on the morrow.
- And then he made merry amid the fine
ladies [line 1885]
- With deft-footed dances and daliance
- As never until now, while the afternoon
- He delighted all around him,
- And all agreed, that day,
- They never before had found him
- So gracious and so gay. [line
|Tolkien's definitions from A
Middle English Reader & Vocabulary
* cheue v. to
acquire, control, bring about
* kynne n sg.
kindred, relatives; kind, sort
* ioie io(y)e