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Tony Grist

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Sir Gawain [Jun. 15th, 2011|10:13 am]
Tony Grist
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is all about aristocratic types being polite to one another. It's like Jane Austen with hauberks. The fighting- with bores (boars), bears and etains (giants)- is hurried past so we can get to the really interesting stuff- which is the paying of compliments. These guys eat a lot too. And when they want to reward themselves for some particularly fabulous act of courtesy they tuck into double portions.

I've been meaning to read this since the seventies (when I bought the copy I've been hauling from house to house.) I find I'm getting the hang of Middle English and that much of the obsolete vocabulary is guessable. They have ever so many different words for "man"-but I suppose we do too. I love the rattle of alliterative verse- and the brilliance of the scene-painting- at its best when the weather is worst.:
Near slain with the sleet, he slept in his irons
More nights than enough in naked rocks,
There as clattering from the crest the cold burn runs,
And hanged high over his head in hard icicles.*

[User Picture]From: steepholm
2011-06-15 09:20 am (UTC)
"More nights than enough" - I love the fact that English understatement goes back so far (and indeed further). Here we see dimly the antecedents of our present "Mustn't grumble".
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2011-06-15 12:51 pm (UTC)
You're right. I picture the poet (whoever he was) in flat cap and tweeds.
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[User Picture]From: setsuled
2011-06-15 09:30 am (UTC)
I remember associating it with Hitchcock's Vertigo when I read it--though I tend to associate a lot of things with Vertigo. From a 2008 entry in my blog;

Discussing Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in class on Tuesday night, I couldn't help thinking about its similarities to Vertigo. Is that movie just too much on my brain? But think about it--Gawain's Scottie, the Green Knight and his wife are Judy, and Morgan le Fay is Gavin Elster. Morgan le Fay's barely in the story, yet it's her plot that sets everything in motion--just like Elster. Gawain's having an existential crisis, in that he finds his nature in conflict with his identity as a knight--similar to Scottie's sexual impulses being at odds with his identity as a hero. Judy's even associated with the colour green in Vertigo.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2011-06-15 12:53 pm (UTC)
I'm still only halfway through and haven't met Morgan yet. I'll be reading the rest in the light of your analysis.
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[User Picture]From: michaleen
2011-06-15 11:01 am (UTC)
I have two editions of Sir Gawain: Tolkien's alliterative translation and an old, hard-bound, study edition of the original text.

I love alliterative verse, for some reason, and sometimes must guard against too many alliterations slipping into my prose.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2011-06-15 12:58 pm (UTC)
I'm inclined to think it's a pity we dumped the alliterative tradition for rhyme. I suppose rhyme works better for lyrical verse. On the other hand the English language has far fewer rhymes than (say) Italian which means "fountains" and "mountains" and "love" and "dove" keep cropping up in one another's company. Alliterative verse does away with all those hackneyed, weak and forced line endings.
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[User Picture]From: michaleen
2011-06-16 10:54 am (UTC)
Tiger, tiger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
A personal favorite and not so much forced as it is a thumb in the eye of literary convention.

I suppose we lost alliterative verse when English turned into a bastard Romance language, or tried to. I was told, once, that the strength of one's English prose depended upon having a good ear for Anglo-Saxon, which as a Tolkien fan I suspect is true.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2011-06-17 02:27 pm (UTC)
Stick to the Anglo-Saxon words and you can't go far wrong, but the masters know when to leaven them with choice pieces of French or Latin. Shakespeare often does it the other way round- dropping an Anglo-Saxon word or phrase into a piece of Latinate orotundity- where it explodes like a bomb.

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[User Picture]From: michaleen
2011-06-18 11:53 am (UTC)
Which, to my mind, suggests that the ear is key, a consciousness at some level, much like one must be well aware of the rules and restrictions of grammar in order to break them properly.
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[User Picture]From: solar_diablo
2011-06-15 01:01 pm (UTC)
I remember reading that for a literature class on Knights and Vikings way back when. I should give it another go, along with the Nibelungenleid.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2011-06-15 04:23 pm (UTC)
I never got it at college, so I'm coming to it fresh (sort of).
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From: (Anonymous)
2011-06-15 06:02 pm (UTC)


I'm not quite sure how to interpret 'Bredon Hill'. Is it that his love dies suddenly and goes to church in her coffin? I've been reading some of the poems from A Shropshire Lad. Beautifully observed. He had such a strong sense of the presence of mortality whenever he wrote about anyone, young or old. I wonder if he had a dark personality. Do you know?
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2011-06-16 09:35 am (UTC)

Re: Housman

I don't know a lot about Housman. He was an academic- a classics professor at Cambridge (I think-) famous for his merciless treatment of colleagues and rivals. He was also gay.
The poems were mostly written in youth- out of frustration and rejection.

Yes, you're right about Bredon Hill. She has died and the speaker is looking to follow her.

I remember hearing or reading that Housman had never actually visited Shropshire- that it was his country of the imagination- his Arcadia- but that could be nonsense.
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[User Picture]From: brttvns
2011-06-16 09:01 am (UTC)
Simon Armitage's (fairly recent) translation is excellent - and he sticks to alliteration.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2011-06-16 09:37 am (UTC)
I saw him talking about it on TV recently. I liked the bits we heard.
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[User Picture]From: endlessrarities
2011-06-25 02:39 pm (UTC)
Hey! Someone else who's got an even longer book-waiting list than me! I've got some books that've been waiting ten years, but not 40!!

I'm seriously impressed here...
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