13/12/2018 by BBC Radio 4
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss one of the jewels of medieval English poetry. It was written c1400 by an unknown poet and then was left hidden in private collections until the C19th when it emerged. It tells the story of a giant green knight who disrupts Christmas at Camelot, daring Gawain to cut off his head with an axe if he can do the same to Gawain the following year. Much to the surprise of Arthur’s court, who were kicking the green head around, the decapitated body reaches for his head and rides off, leaving Gawain to face his promise and his apparently inevitable death the following Christmas.
The illustration above is ©British Library Board Cotton MS Nero A.x, article 3, ff.94v95
Professor of English Literature at Worcester College, University of Oxford
Professor of Medieval English Literature at the University of Bristol
Poet and Professor of Poetry at the Universities of Leeds and Oxford
Producer: Simon Tillotson
Start Date: 2019-02-12
Finish Date: 2019-02-13
Interesting things I learned or thought about:
- I hadn’t known that despite its provenance, the poem Sir Gawain and its Green Knight was effectively unknown until the nineteenth century, when it got lucky in being pulled out of a library / archives and translated into modern English. And that it was so obscure in the first place because instead of being in London dialect of the thirteenth century, it was from Cheshire dialect.
- English chivalric romances are set around Christmas while French ones are set around Easter. I suppose that makes Sir Gawain and the Green Knight the Doctor Who Christmas Special of its era.
- That the poem is subtly poking fun at chivalric tropes as well.