Episode 131: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is one of the most popular English poems of the Middle Ages. In this episode, we explore the language and story of the poem. We also examine how the poem reflects certain changes that were taking place within the English language in the late 1300s.


33 thoughts on “Episode 131: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

  1. Great episode, and I sure wish my English professors had even one half of your storytelling skills.

    (This poem was part of the curriculum, but I will admit to having completely forgotten it.)

    • Thanks! I’m glad I was able to release this episode around the holidays since the poem was set at Christmastime. I will confess that the story is a bit more compelling when it’s reduced down to a few minutes. That allowed me to focus on the action – especially the parts at the beginning and end of the poem. I think the middle part of the poem (at the castle) is a little slow. It takes up about half of the poem, so I was able to summarize and skip through some of those passages.

      • I’m returning the book Sir Gawain and the Green Knight to the library soon. I’ve really enjoyed reading it. Audible.com (Amazon) has a 6.5-hour audio recording of the Simon Armitage translation as well as an audio recording of the Gawain author’s text. I like to listen to the audio while also following along in the book. I haven’t listened to much of the recording of the 1370-1400 text, but I did understand quite a bit of what I listened to. I’ve got the audiobook on my phone so I’ll listened to the audiobook again.

        I personally thought the “middle part” of the poem was pretty interesting. Gawain faced three challenges in the castle with the Queen. Meanwhile, all the men are out hunting. Gawain kissing the king as a result of the first challenge was classic. If it was originally written to be read out loud, the book might be viewed as being like a TV mini-series, to be listened to over several evenings. In that context, I think the middle of the book would be pretty interesting, esp. if the reader was talented.


  2. Hi Kevin. As always, I was very excited to see a new episode had been released, and I was certainly not disappointed. I did have a bone to nitpick however: There’s a lot of talk these days about pronouns, especially among the “layperson” in regards to gender expression, and subsequently a lot of misunderstanding about what a pronoun actually is. I’d like to point out that ‘thou’ (subject) and ‘thee’ (object) were once the singular equivalents of the plural forms ‘ye’ (subject) and ‘you’ (object) respectively. Words like ‘thy’ and ‘your’ are not pronouns, but rather, determiners, which are a special class of adjectives or noun modifiers, if you will. You can tell the difference because ‘thy’ and ‘your’ need to proceed a noun, while ‘thou’ and ‘ye’ do not necessarily have to. On a related note, ‘thine’ and ‘yours’ are indeed possessive pronouns because they stand on their own and replace the entire noun phrase in question. And on another related note, words like ‘mam’, ‘sir’, ‘your honor’, etc. are also not pronouns of course, but honorifics. I’m sure these are all points you know yourself, but I think it might be beneficial to impart the distinction onto your non-linguistically-inclined listeners. Especially nowadays that people are discussing this topic more and more. Thanks. Happy Thanksgiving.

    • That’s probably the origin of the term when it’s used in animal behavior to describe competitive mating displays in animals, where the males gather in an arena, the lek, to show off to visiting females. It’s probably best known in birds such as grouse, although other animals such as insects and mammals also have lekking species.

      • Yes, the verb ‘to lek’ is definitely from the same root, but the Oxford English Dictionary says that it is specifically a 19th century loanword from Swedish. So English borrowed the word from the Scandinavian languages twice. The first time survives in the regional word ‘lake’ used in northern England, and the second time survives as the verb ‘to lek’ which you mentioned.

  3. Regarding the idea that the Green Knight didn’t recognise King Arthur as his superior because of his use of “thou”, etc. Arthur starts off with “thee” when he says “Liȝt luflych adoun and lenge, I þe praye”. This could be because supernatural beings were addressed informally e.g. “hallowed be thy name”. And maybe that’s why the knight uses the informal in return. It’s hard for us to know at this distance the subtleties of usage.

    Even in modern European languages, the usage is quite nuanced.

    Peripheral but interesting fact: in French “tu” (informal) was disappearing from usage before the Revolution. Its generalised use was mandated by the revolutionary government on the 10 Brumaire, Year II (1793). I believe because its usage was associated with the upper classes.

    • “Even in modern European languages, the usage is quite nuanced. ”
      I have experience of this. In 1978 I was “posted” to Paris, 32 years old and I’d never set foot in a foreign (i.e. non-Anglo) country before. What a struggle!
      Some ill-advised English colleagues warned me about the Vous/Tu stuff, how you graduated to “Tu” as you became familiar, but beware! if someone dropped back to “Vous” because this was distancing, and meant that the relationship was on the rocks.
      I was getting on swimmingly with my boss, Grandvalet, up in Fonenay-aux-Roses and within a day or two we were on Tu-Toi terms.
      Then I noticed him addressing me as Vous! Then he switched back to Tu. Then back to Vous. What a volatile relationship we had! He ALWAYS praised my programming skills and ability to learn and use his developed programming language, but daily, sometimes hourly, Tu-vous-tu-vous- …

      Then it dawned on me: At the shared lunch table, or in a technical meeting, he was using “Vous” (and “Monsieur Greaves (Graves)”, but in the privacy of our shared office “Tu” and “Chris (Crease).

      Which is what we do in English.

      When it is just the two of us, we are “John” and “Chris”, but when I am making a presentation of ideas it is “Mister Cornellier has developed a nice bit of programming code that …”
      Chris (to you!)

  4. Your podcast is utterly remarkable and brilliant and I totally love it but I am actually cringing as a Welsh person where you explain how the English pronounced a Welsh name (Gawain). I don’t understand why that’s more important than the fact that the Welsh (as usual) have got airbrushed out of our own history.

    Sorry because I think you’re amazing. Not sorry because try being Welsh and listening to that.

    • To be clear, what irritated me was that you talked about the old English pronunciation of a name that is Welsh and didn’t consider (a) how the Welsh pronounce it and (b) how rubbish the English are at pronouncing Welsh words and (c) how they deliberately mispronounce Welsh words to disrespect the Welsh.

    • In discussing the Middle English pronunciation of “Gawain,” I focused on the English pronunciation because the text in question was composed in English by an English poet presumably for an English audience. Also this is a podcast about the history of the English language, so I am mainly interested in how the name was pronounced in English. I realize that the name originated in Wales, but when English borrowed a name (or other word), it didn’t necessarily retain the original pronunciation. For example, English borrowed lots of French names like John, Henry, Richard and William, but obviously the English pronunciation was quite different from the French pronunciation. The pronunciations were probably closer in the Middle Ages, but I wouldn’t assume that they were the same.

      Also, I don’t have any resources that indicate the Welch pronunciation of the name in the 1300s. Heck, I don’t even have a definitive English resource on the issue, and I have LOTS of resources on the English language. If you happen to know how the name “Gawain” was pronounced in Welsh in the 1300s, please feel free to send it to me. I would be interested to know.

      Lastly, I have actually received feedback over the years from Welsh listeners about the pronunciation of “Gawain.” Based on the comments I have received, it is my understanding that the modern pronunciation is essentially the same as the modern pronunciation which I discussed in the episode. That’s why I didn’t make specific reference to the modern Welsh pronunciation. Obviously, I don’t speak Welsh, so I was basing that on the feedback from actual Welch speakers. But again, my focus is more on the pronunciation within English, and that may or may not reflect the pronunciation in the original source language.

  5. This is slightly off the point but there is a fine modern translation of Gawain by the Yorkshire poet Simon Armitage. It catches the sense of the original extremely well – including the alliteration and the bob and wheel. Well worth reading.
    Your podcast is remarkable. Well done

  6. Hello Kevin,

    I remember Sir Gawain from my childhood and it was great to be reminded of it.

    I really enjoyed the episode and the other day I visited the British Library and saw an original copy.

    There was reference to Sir Robert Cotton. He has a busy there as the BL can trace its origins to his library.

    If you’ve never been, I think you’d enjoy visiting.

  7. Thanks for this. Are you familiar with Alan Garner’s writings on Gawain in The Voice That Thunders? On how his Cheshire father could read it without needing translation? Utterly fascinating.

  8. In surfing youtube for videos as to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, I found a trailer for an upcoming movie The Green Knight.

    • Yes, the movie was announced around the same time that I did this episode. It was supposed to be released in the summer of 2020, but I don’t know if that has changed in light of current events.

      • Writing from 2021 to say thank you Kevin – I’m a long time listener of the podcast and revisited this episode because of the movie (as I imagine many have), and really enjoyed listening again.

  9. Hi! I’m a college-age kid, and I just wanted to say that I love your podcast. I’m listening to this episode because I’m reading Tolkein’s translation of Sir Gawain. Would you mind telling what translations you used for this episode? It’s kind of a strange memory, but I remember my Dad listening to the episode in the car on the rainy drive home from my grandma’s house the day after Thanksgiving. My Dad’s the one who introduced me to your podcast. Thanks for making these episodes, and please keep up the good work!

    • As usual, the translations are largely mine, but I also looked at other translations for comparison and guidance. I think I had five or six different translations, but the primary ones I consulted were those by Burton Raffel, Keith Harrison and W.S. Merwin. I hope that helps.

  10. I was looking on Wikipedia and reading about how there is a theory that someone named John Massey might have been the author. One possibility is a John Massey that was associated with John of Lancaster, per Wikipedia. Needless to say, John of Lancaster is better known as John of Gaunt.

  11. Fantastic podcasts and thank you for all the research. Growing up even further North in England we would lark around when playing. Pronounced “lark”

    • Here in Australia Judith we would say something was “done for a lark” (for a bit of fun and excitement or to get up to mischief) or to “skylark around” (play roughly or push the boundaries).

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