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Saint Francis DeSales

Medieval Literature, part 5: Medieval Poetry and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Previous post: Brittany, Marie de France and Bisclavret.

Silence I ask of the sacred folk,
Silence of the kith and kin of Heimdal:
At your will, Valfather, I shall well relate
The old songs of men I remember best.

Most people today think of poetry as rhyming -repeating sounds at the ends of a word or line. That wasn't always the case, historically, however The Norsemen and Anglo-Saxons rarely used rhyme to connect lines or important words in a poem. Instead of repeating sounds at the end of a word, they repeated sounds at the beginning (or at least at the first accented syllable of a word.) This is called alliteration. Can you pick out the four letter sounds that are alliterated in the section of poetry above?


Most words that begin with the same letter do alliterate, but what counts is the pronunciation, or the sound and not the spelling of a word. Whereas sun and shine do not alliterate even though they both begin with s, sure and shine do alliterate because they both begin with the same sound. The combinations sk, sp and st are considered sounds in their own right and they can't alliterate with a plain or with s and some other consonant.
Alliteration always falls on a stressed syllable, or the syllable that gets the most emphasis when saying a word out loud. In the example at the top, men and remember begin with different letters, but they still count as alliterating because the mem portion of remember is a stressed syllable. On the other hand, remember would not have matched relate, if the two had been used in the same line. 
Vowels are treated as wild card sounds in that any vowel counts as alliterating with another vowel, even if the two are different. In fact, Norsemen actually thought that using different vowels in alliterating lines was artistically better. This is different that the cousin poetic devise, assonance, which is the repetition of vowel sounds to create internal rhyming. For example, the use of vowels within alliteration can be seen in this piece.

Arm rings and necklaces, Odhinn, you gave me
To learn my lore, to learn my magic
Odhinn, I know where you eye is concealed, 
Hidden away in the well of Mimir.

Arm and Eye and Odhinn don't begin with the same sound, but the are considered to alliterate according to Norse poetic rules.
The combinations sk, sp and st are considered sounds in their own right and they can't alliterate with a plain s or with s and some other consonant.

Alliteration in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Exercise 1: Below is a section from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Can you pick out the alliteration principles discussed above?

467    thagh Arther the hende kyng at hert hade wonder, 
468    He let no semblaunt be sene, bot sayde ful hyghe 
469    To the comlych quene wyth cortays speche, 
470    `Dere dame, to-day demay yow neuer; 
471    Wel bycommes such craft vpon Cristmasse, 
472    Laykyng of enterludez, to laghe and to syng, 
473    Among thise kynde caroles of knyghtez and ladyez. 
474    Neuer the lece to my mete I may me wel dres, 
475    For I haf sen a selly, I may not forsake.' 
476    He glent vpon Sir Gawen, and gaynly he sayde, 
477    `Now, sir, heng vp thyn ax, that hatz innogh hewen'; 
478    And hit watz don abof the dece on doser to henge, 
479    ther alle men for meruayl myght on hit loke, 
480    And bi trwe tytel therof to telle the wonder. 
481    thenne thay boghed to a borde thise burnes togeder, 
482    the kyng and the gode knyght, and kene men hem serued 
483    Of alle dayntyez double, as derrest myght falle; 
484    Wyth alle maner of mete and mynstralcie bothe, 
485    Wyth wele walt thday, til worthed an ende 
486             in londe. 
487      Now thenk wel, Sir Gawan, 
488      For wothe that thou ne wonde 
489      this auenture for to frayn 
490      that thou hatz tan on honde. 

(portion of Sir Gawayne and the Grene Knyght, {Tolkien and Gordon, eds. 2nd ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967}. Found here.)

Exercise 2: Modern Translation: Read over the Middle English version and then the Modern version and then back to the Middle English version. Is it starting to make more sense to you?

Although inwardly Arthur was deeply astonished,
He let no sign of this appear, bu loudly remarked.
To the beautiful queen with courteous speech,
'Dear lady, let nothing distress you today.
Such strange goings-on are fitting at Christmas,
Putting on interludes, laughing and singing,
Mixed with courtly dances of ladies and knights.
None the less, I can certainly go to my food,
For I have seen something wondrous, I cannot deny.'
He glanced at Sir Gawain, and aptly he said,
'Now sir, hang your axe up, for it has severed enough.'
And it was hung above the dais, on a piece of tapestry,
Where everyone might gaze on it as a wonder,
And the living proof of this marvelous tale.
Then these two men together walked to a table,
The kind and the good knight, and were dutifully served
With delicious double helpings befitting their rank.
With every kind of food and minstrelsy
They spent that day joyfully, until daylight ended 
                   on earth.
           Now take good care, Gawain
           Lest fear hold you back
           From leaving on the quest
           You have sworn to undertake.

Now, read a copy of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. We love Michael Morpurgo's version for the younger readers. For older readers, we like JRR Tolkien's version.

The last story we are going to be reading is Robin Hood. 


  1. Tolkien has a version? YOu mean he wrote something other than LOTR? (asked sarcastically).

    Seriously though, I didn't know Tolkien had written that, I'll have to keep an eye out for it as a possible book to give Jeff.

  2. This is great! Thanks!


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