Archives for posts with tag: J.R.R. Tolkien

J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fall of Arthur was released last month.  I had no idea Christopher Tolkien was even working on this project. It was a surprise because I thought Sigurd and Gudrun was the last we’d see of resurrected Tolkien poetry composed in the Alliterative style.

tolkien reading some old poetry

But I guess there’s plenty more in the vaults. The recent release of a Tolkien telling of Morte D’Arthur reminded me that I had yet to read the Middle English Stanzaic and Alliterative Arthurs – so I decided that now’s as good a time as any.

The first thing that struck me (besides lamenting that “breme as a bore”[1] – one of the Stanzaic Arthur poet’s favorite clichés – will never be a popular expression in my lifetime) was how Lancelot comes to wear the lady’s sleeve at the tournament in Winchester.

Lancelot announces that he will not attend Arthur’s tournament in Winchester because he’s feeling sick. Ever since Lancelot returned from the Quest for the Holy Grail, Agravain’s been trying to catch Lancelot in bed with Guinevere. Agravain, of course, thinks Lancelot is feigning sickness simply to stay behind and get physical with Guinevere. It turns out that Lancelot doesn’t hang around Castle Camelot as long as Agravain thought he would. Instead, our knight du lac travels by night and attends the tournament in disguise and fights so valiantly there that he almost dies in combat but that’s another story.

On the way to the tournament Lancelot stays with some guy who has armor he can borrow, allowing him to appear anonymously in the tournament. The guy has a daughter who complicates the situation of Lancelot’s love interest.

Now here’s where the French and the English versions differ. Lancelot’s interaction with the daughter is a little different in the Middle English Stanzaic than it appears in the French Vulgate cycle.[2] Here’s how the scene plays out in the French version:

That day Lancelot remained there and was served and provided with everything that nobleman could desire. The people in his lodging kept asking him who he was, but they were unable to find out anything. However, his squire spoke to the vavasour’s daughter, who was very beautiful and pressed him hard to reveal who his lord was; and when he saw her great beauty, he did not wish to refuse utterly, because that would have seemed an unmannerly thing to do, but said: “I cannot reveal everything to you, because I should probably incur my master’s anger, but I will certainly tell you all I can without harming myself. In fact he is the finest knight in the world…” (verse 13)[3]

Everyone, especially this girl, knows that that means, “Lancelot – that’s right – Lancelot is staying in your house!”

Then the girl went straight to Lancelot, knelt before him, and said:

“Noble knight, grant me a gift by the faith you owe to whatever you love most in the world.”

When Lancelot saw such a beautiful and charming girl on her knees before him, he was embarrassed and said:

“Please get up. Be sure there is nothing in the world within my power that I should not do in answer to your request, because you have asked me in such solemn terms.”

She got up and said, “My Lord, I thank you. Do you know what you have granted me? You have promised to wear my right sleeve on your helmet at the tournament instead of a plume, and to bear arms through love for me.”

When Lancelot heard this request he was annoyed; nevertheless he did not  dare to refuse it because he had already promised. However, he was very regretful about having granted what she asked, because he realized that if the queen found out about it, she would be angry with him that, as far as he could see, he would never find his peace with her. (verse 14)[4]

 

Here’s how the scene appears in the Middle English Stanzaic Morte Arthur:

Th’erl had a doughter that was him dere;
Mikel Laucelot she beheld;
Her rode was red as blossom on brere
Or flowr that springeth in the feld;
Glad she was to sit him ner,
The noble knight under sheld;
Weeping was her moste cheer,
So mikel on him her herte gan helde. (Verses  177-84)[5]

The maiden with cheeks as red as a rose is so taken by Lancelot’s sight that she cannot look upon him without weeping. It of course incorporates soft and delicate flower imagery that penetrates with a painful prick like the point of cupid’s bow or a thorn on a rose or a… you get it.

He sat him down for the maiden’s sake
Upon her bedde there she lay
Courtaisly to her he spake
For to comfort that faire may.
In her armes she gan him take
And these words gan she say:
“Sir, but yif that ye it make,
Save my life no leche may.”(Verses 192-200)[6]

Reading this today summons images of girls screaming louder than the Beatles’ amplifiers in the 1960s or fans passing out at Michael Jackson concerts in the 1980s. One could almost imagine the wall of this maiden’s room covered with pictures of the Knights of the Round Table clipped from issues of Tiger beat magazine. There is little doubt that this maiden is as much a fan of Lancelot as these girls were of The Beatles.

girls screaming at a beatles concert

Girls screaming at a Beatles performance in the Richard Lester film A Hard Day’s Night. Image copyright 1964 United Artists/MGM Holdings

Her blushing and swooning is a typical medieval description of love sickness. “Save my life no leche may” basically means that even a doctor cannot cure her of her love sickness. For its effect on men, see Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale when Arcite and Palamoun fall deeply in love with Emelye from simply seeing her gather flowers in the garden during the month of May from their prison window. Yes, it was that easy to get lovesickness in a Chaucer story. Arcite’s lovesickness caused by Emelye is so severe that it dramatically changes him when he is banished from Athens and forced to live with Perotheus in Thebes:

…lene he wex and drye as is a shaft;
His eyen holwe, and grisly to biholde,
His hewe fallow and pale as asshen colde,
And solitaire he was and evere alone,
And waillynge al the nyght, making his mone;
And if he herde song or instrument,
Thanne we wolde wepe, he myghte nat be stent.
So feble eek were his spiritz, and so lowe,
And chaunged so, that no man koude knowe
His speche nor his voys, though men it herde.
And in his geere for al the world he ferde,
Nat oonly lik the loveris maladye
Of Hereos, but rather lyk manye,
Engendered of humour malencolik,
Biforen, in his celle fantastik. (ll. 1362-76)[7]

Yes, he grew as thin and dry as a dried stalk. His face changed so much that no one he knew could recognize him anymore. He moaned and wailed all night and whenever he heard the sound of someone playing a musical instrument, he would cry so hard that no one could stop his tears. Chaucer ties his exaggerated description of lovesickness as it often appears in Heroic poetry together with some medical terminology suggesting that it could actually be a passage from a medical treatise. Everything can be said in the same breath by Chaucer…

Perhaps knowing she will suffer the same fate as Arcite for her love of a knight, the maiden in the Arthurian story asks Lancelot to at least display a token of her love when he fights in the tournament:

“Sithe I of thee ne may have more,
As thou art hardy knight and free,
In the tournament that thou wolde bere
Some sign of mine that men might see.”
“Lady, thy sleeve thou shalt of-shere;
I will it take for the love of thee;
So did I never no ladies ere,
But one that most hath loved me.”(Verses 201-08)[8]
 

The Stanzaic Arthur omits the scene with the maiden asking the squire Lancelot’s identity. Also, in the French version, the maiden specifically asks Lancelot to wear her sleeve, not just “some sign.”

In the French version, the maiden uses the manners of courtly love to her advantage by making Lancelot promise to grant her wish knowing that his code forbids him from rejecting her request – even if he doesn’t know what it is. This differs from the English version, where Lancelot offers to wear her sleeve.

The whole part about Lancelot’s annoyance with the matter and worrying about it complicating his relationship with Guinevere is omitted from the English version. It’s not a question of trimming down the length of the scene, because the English poet embellishes the scene in his own way to give a description of love sickness. Instead, deciding not to point out to the audience that Lancelot’s wearing the sleeve may create a problem with Guinevere, the English poet tells us something interesting about his audience. It suggests that the audience is well-versed in literature and intelligent enough to draw that conclusion on their own. It also allows for surprise which may mean that there was an audience growing tired of the storytelling styles that prevented the audience from experiencing surprises for themselves.

While it often serves the purpose of bringing a circular balance to their work, medieval poets are notorious for using foreshadowing to such an extent that the stories seems to contain no surprises for the audience whatsoever. The English version, at least in this scene, allows an engaged audience to formulate their own questions and see for themselves how the drama unfolds.

I prefer to have some of both. Medieval court audiences may have as well. There’s something to be said for the poet who holds the audience’s hand, giving clues, and sharing observations. The audience shares the experience with the poet – they are going on the journey together and seeing the same sights at the same time. It takes a tremendous amount of faith in the audience for the poet to allow them to draw their own conclusions about the drama and the meaning of the work. It may also suggest that the public recitation of poetry was meant to be interactive rather than just silently absorbed – or simply a new way for a dining court audience to enjoy a telling of an old poem.


[1] Fierce (or wild) as a boar. (O.E. valiant). Another cliché the poet uses every chance he gets is “withouten lees” – which passed the gulf to Modern English literally as, “Without lies.” It doesn’t have the same the ring to it, but it’s understood. What are some of the expressions storytellers use in place of “breme as bore” or “withouten lees” today?

[2] Mort du Roi Artu – the early 13th century French version. In this post I’m using the edition: The Death of King Arthur, Trans. James Cable, (London: Penguin, 1971).

[3] The Death of King Arthur, 29.

[4] The Death of King Arthur, 30.

[5] The Stanzaic Morte Arthur from King Arthur’s Death: The Middle English Stanzaic Morte Arthur and Alliterative Morte Arthure, ed. Larry D. Benson, (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merril, 1974), 8.

[6] The Stanzaic Morte Arthur, 8.

[7] Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale in Middle English from Chaucer’s Major Poetry, Ed. Albert C. Baugh (New York, 1963), 264.

[8] The Stanzaic Morte Arthur, 9.

Every blockbuster needs some sort of a restaurant tie-in to tempt us to buy something heavily sugared and loaded with enough artificial ingredients to turn our insides neon green. It’s the American way.

dennys hobbit menu

However you feel about Denny’s special Hobbit-inspired menu, I find it amusing to think that people might be saying, “Radagast” at Denny’s – and not just Radagast, but – Radagast’s Red Velvet Pancake Puppies®.

Radagast's Red Velvet Pancake Puppies®

As you’ve probably guessed from the title of this post, I’m not planning on heading to Denny’s to try Radagast’s Red Velvet Pancake Puppies® – but I ended up crossing paths with a “Radagast” the other day in a place where I wasn’t expecting to find him – in the very first paragraph of Alfred the Great’s Anglo-Saxon translation of the The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius:

At the time when the Goths of the country of Scythia made war against the empire of the Romans, and, with their kings, who were called Rhadagast and Alaric, sacked the Roman city, and reduced to subjection all the kingdom of Italy, which is between the mountains and the island of Sicily…[1]

Alfred the Great's Boethius De Consolatione Philosophiæ

Detail from King Alfred’s Anglo-Saxon Version of Boethius De Consolatione Philosophiæ, ed. J.S. Cardale (London, 1829) image: Google books

I think the first time I ever saw a name from a Tolkien story in a northern medieval text was in Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda in a section called “The Deludings of Gylfi.”

Gylfi was a wise king who governed what we now call Sweden. After hearing many wondrous things about the Aesir and, wishing to learn more about them, he went out on a secret journey to find Asgard – the home of the Aesir. He even went disguised as an old man – just like Odin would do when he went wandering in the land of mortals.

So, Gylfi arrived at this hall whose roof was shingled with golden shields just like Valhalla – Odin’s hall in Asgard. The first person he saw in this curious hall was a man juggling seven knives. Is this a dream vision?

Further inside, “[Gylfi] saw three high-seats one above the other, and a man seated in each of them… the one sitting on the lowest seat was a king called High One, the next was Just-as-high, and the topmost one was called Third.”[2]

Fortunately for us, Gylfi asked these three kings many good questions like, “Who is the foremost or oldest of all the gods”, “What is there to relate about Ragnarök?”, and all sorts of follow-up questions about the many other things in between.

Anyway, within Snorri Sturluson’s transcript of the oral history Gylfi obtained from his interview with the three kings in that mysterious hall are a few names you’ll find familiar from The Hobbit:

Dvalin
Nori
Bifur
Báfur
Bömbör
Nori
Ori
Óin
Thorin
Fili
Kili
Glóin
Dóri

and, of course, Ganodálf.

a warm welcome

“I hope I never smell the smell of apples again!” said Fili. “My tub was full of it.” An illustration from a 1947 Swedish edition of The Hobbit. image: The Annotated Hobbit, ann. Douglas A Anderson (Houghton Mifflin/Boston, 1988).

Coming across a name or a word from a Tolkien story in a northern medieval text always brings me a little joy. It’s fun to find them for the first time – and better yet – to forget about them and then find them again – which is what I normally do…

Though his inclusion of these words – or at least the general sound of them – was probably primarily to evoke the atmosphere and worldview of these old poems that inspired him to write, I like to think that it was Tolkien’s way of saying, “I was here” – or “This is one of my favorite books.”

 

 


[1] King Alfred’s Anglo-Saxon Version of Boethius De Consolatione Philosophiæ, trans. J.S. Cardale (London, 1829), 3. Available online: http://books.google.com/books?id=WBwGAAAAQAAJ

[2] Snorri Sturluson, The Prose Edda, trans. Jean I. Young (Berkeley, 1954), 30,31.

In The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, we get a glimpse of Smaug the dragon. Dragons love gold above anything else and Smaug is no exception – he coils himself around the treasure horde of the dwarf king under the mountain.

Smaug7

Don’t worry Tolkien Estate, it was only a bit of fun for a batch of homebrew!

In a tale from Norse Mythology, a dragon plays the role of a man corrupted by the greed of gold. This corruption manifests itself physically. It changes the person, sort of like how symptoms of a physical or mental illness can change a person’s appearance and personality.

Though dragons are creatures in Norse Mythology – we shouldn’t confine ourselves to always thinking of them in that literal sense. They do not always hatch from eggs as do chickens or snakes. Men can become dragons.

In the tale of Otter’s ransom, we have Fafnir the dragon. He, like Smaug, hordes a trove of treasures mined and crafted by dwarves. But unlike Smaug, Fafnir was not born a dragon. He becomes a dragon from the greed of gold – greed of a particularly cursèd horde of gold: Otter’s ransom.

One day Odin, Loki and Hoenir were traveling in Midgard, the land of men. They followed a river which brought them to some falls. There, they noticed an otter eating a salmon. Only it wasn’t actually an otter – it was Hreidmar’s son Otr in the form of an otter:

There hunted hungry

Hreidmar’s offspring:

the silver salmon

sweet he thought them.

Otr in otter’s form

there ate blinking,

on the bank brooding

of black waters.[1]

Fischotter (Lutra lutra) image: copyright 2012 hellboy2503/Jörg David (original URL)

Loki, never one to miss an opportunity for mischief and games, picked up a stone by the riverbank and threw it at the unwitting creature who sat there feasting on its catch:

Then Loki boasted of his catch – with one throw he had bagged an otter and a salmon. They took the salmon and the otter away with them and came to a farm which they entered.[2]

They called at the gate of the farm. When the owner, Hreidmar, asked who it was at the gate, Odin called out to him, “We are three travelers looking for a night’s lodging. We bring a salmon and an otter fur, both of which you are welcome to it in exchange for your kind hospitality!”

Hreidmar quickly called his two sons, Fafnir and Reginn, to his side and told them that their brother Otter had been killed and that his murderers were waiting at the gate wanting supper and a bed for the night.[3]

Fafnir and Reginn came at Odin, Loki, and Hoenir with fore-hammers of the smithies to kill them, accusing them of killing their brother Otr, who often shape-shifts as an otter when he fishes by the falls. As there was a blood price in those days for killing kin, Odin asked Hreidmar what Otr’s blood price would be:

“Peace,” said Odin. “We have slain thy son, it would seem, but it was unwittingly that we did the deed. We will give a recompense for the death of thy son.”[4]

Hreidmar named a blood price for Otr. They would bring a piece of treasure for every hair on the otter skin as Otr’s ransom:

Redgolden rings.

Ransom costly,

This fell must fill,

This fur cover![5]

Since Loki got them into this mess, Odin and Hoenir made Loki go to Svartalfheim, the world of dwarves, and bring back the dwarf Andvari’s horde.[6]

There he searched until he found a silent black lake, and in that lake he wriggled his fingers… until they closed upon the gills of a large pike, which Loki jerked up onto the shore.[7]

“What fish have I found

in the flood leaping,

rashly roaming?

Ransom pay me!”[8]

It was Andvari in fish form. Loki told him that he would let him go only if he paid Otter’s ransom. Andvari reluctantly agreed and turned back into his dwarf form. Andvari gave Loki all of his gold, but kept from him one single ring. Loki noticed this, and demanded that Andvari give up the ring:

“What hides thy hand

Thus hollow bending?”[9]

To which Andvari replied:

 “The ring is little –

Let it rest with me!”[10]

But Loki would not let Andvari short Otter’s ransom:

“All, Andvari,

All shalt render,

Light rings and heavy,

Or life itself!”[11]

If Andvari gave up this perfect ring to Loki, he would lose his ability to make treasures. This ring, like the Philosopher’s stone, was free of any impurity. He who has this ring, possesses the secret power of making gold. Andvari cursed Loki for taking the ring from him:

“The ring with the rune

Of power upon it:

May it weigh down your fortune,

And load you with evil,

You, Loki, and all

Who lust to possess

The ring I have cherished.”[12]

This wasn’t the first time anyone had cursed Loki. So why should he put any stock in this angry old dwarf’s threats? After all, Loki won the gold fair and square – it’s not like Andvari saw him coming.

So Loki brought Andvari’s horde, and the ring, back to Odin. Since Odin quite liked the ring, he kept it for himself. Hreidmar flayed the otter, filled the inside of the skin with gold and then covered every little hair. After the very last piece of gold was placed on the otter’s skin, a single whisker remained. Realizing the ransom was one treasure short, Odin surrendered the ring to Hreidmar. It covered the whisker and Otter’s ransom was paid. With their debt paid, Hreidmar let Odin, Loki, and Hreidmar go.

After their guests from Asgard left, Reginn and Fafnir asked Hreidmar for shares of the gold. Hreidmar refused their request – he would not even part with the smallest bit of copper. Reginn and Fafnir turned against their father and murdered him for his horde. After this was done, Reginn realized that Fafnir had no intention of sharing the gold either. Fafnir told his brother Reginn that if he ever tried to take some of the gold for himself, he would kill him. Reginn left the farm and:

…Fafnir went up on to Gnita Heath and, making a lair there, turned himself into a dragon and lay down on the gold.[13]

The cursèd ring from Otter’s ransom – the piece of treasure that covered the very last whisker on the otter’s dead body, which had the power to pit father against sons and brother against brother, turned Fafnir into a dragon. It also played a part in causing the tragic deaths of Sigurd and the Valkyrie Brynhild – and, depending on your interpretation, even played an important role in bringing about Ragnarök – The Twilight of the Gods – “THE END OF THE WORLD!!!!…or the beginning,” as Aughra from The Dark Crystal would say…

aughra

Aughra tells Jen about the Great Conjunction in The Dark Crystal. image copyright: 1982 Universal Pictures/Sony Pictures/The Jim Henson Company

 

 


[1] J.R.R. Tolkien, “The New Lay of the Völsungs” The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún Ed. Christopher Tolkien (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: New York, 2009), 67.

[2] Snorri Sturluson, The Prose Edda, trans. Jean I. Young (Berkeley, 1954), 110. (Italicized emphasis: mine)

[3] Douglas “Dag” Rossman, The Northern Path (Seven Paws: Chapel Hill, 2005), 72.

[4] Padraic Colum, Nordic Gods and Heroes (Dover: Mineola, 1996), 144.

[5] Tolkien, 68.

[6] Some say Loki went to Queen Aegir who gave him a magic net with which to catch Andvari and that Loki returned to the same falls – Andvari Falls. As deeds are always returned in Norse Mythology, a magic net was also used to catch Loki when he tried to hide in fish form from the Gods when they brought him to justice for killing Baldur.

[7] Rossman, 73.

[8] Tolkien, 68.

[9] Tolkien, 69.

[10] Tolkien, 69.

[11] Tolkien, 69.

[12] Colum, 149.

[13] Snorri Sturluson, 112.

the-hobbit-an-unexpected-journey

To celebrate the theatrical release of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, tolde by the weye partnered with Filmhash to post retrospective reviews of Peter Jackson’s film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings:

tolde by the weye reviews The Fellowship of the Ring

Ryan Silberstein reviews The Two Towers

Jill Malcolm reviews The Return of The King

also, Filmhash reviews The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

There are many fantasy novels set in fictional medieval worlds that share very little of the medieval worldview with us. One barely needs to remove a single suit of shining armor to reveal that most fantasy stories have very little in common with the medieval world besides wardrobe. I’m not saying that people who write fantasy need to make it clear in their text that they can distinguish Thomas Malory from Chrétien de Troyes or Beowulf from Sigurd, but I love it when a fantasy author borrows a cliché, a custom, an object, a theme, or a philosophy from a medieval text and fits it snugly into his own story, effectively evoking medieval essence without disturbing the modern narrative. After all, that’s what medieval storytelling is all about and it’s a tradition that should continue to thrive. An example of such a borrowing that achieves this “medieval essence” can be found in Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain. Alexander carried a symbol from a popular 14th century English poem, simplified it, yet kept the kernel of its strong positive moral message, and placed it in his own story for a modern popular audience

The Chronicles of Prydain is a children’s fantasy adventure series set in a medieval imaginary world. Its easy dialogue, storybook humor, caricatures of Tolkien characters, and often predictable story grant it entrance to the children’s fantasy genre, but Alexander added a special depth to his narrative with simple, yet rich glimpses into the wisdom of the medieval worldview.

One such example occurs In The Black Cauldron, the second book of Chronicles of Prydain. In the story, the young hero Taran is on a quest to rescue a magic cauldron from the clutches of an evil lord who uses the anciently powerful object as a sort of weapon of mass destruction involving zombies. During his quest, Adaon, the son of a chief bard, presents Taran with a brooch. Taran discovers that this brooch gives him dream visions with glimpses of future events. Piecing these glimpses of future events together aids him in his quest to save Prydain, the imaginary world where the story is set. In addition to this magical quality, the brooch is decorated with a symbol that represents a powerful system of virtues that is very similar both in concept and appearance to the Pentangle on Gawain’s shield in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

Since Alexander’s readers are quite younger than the 14th century court audiences that enjoyed Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, he created a symbol that is less complex than Gawain’s Pentangle. Although the brooch’s symbol is less complex than the Pentangle in terms of the number of virtues it represents and it lacks Christian iconography, it retains and effectively communicates the same fundamental concept of its 14th century ancestor.

As Taran & company head for the Marshes of Morva, the bard Fflewddur takes a closer look at the brooch which is fastened to Taran’s neck. After examining it, he reveals to Taran that, “it bears the bardic symbol – those three lines there, like a sort of arrowhead.”[1] Fflewddur explains that the three lines symbolize respectively, “knowledge, truth, and love.”[2] Fflewddur then comments on the value and rarity of these virtues, “I sometimes think it’s hard enough to find any one of them, even separately. Put them all together and you have something very powerful indeed.”[3]

Portrait of Adaon. Notice how the artist depicts the bardic symbol “three lines there, like a sort of arrowhead” on Taran’s brooch. image: http://oboe-wan.deviantart.com/art/Adaon-109317843

The Pentangle painted in pure gold on Gawain’s shield represents “something very powerful” as well. The narrator (often referred to by medieval scholars as the Gawain poet or the Pearl poet) of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight uses forty two lines of his poem to provide his audience with a detailed description of the system of balanced virtues that the Pentangle symbolizes.

The Gawain poet narrator describes the Pentangle as a system of virtues organized by five sets of five. Each point of the star symbolizes five different things, and each of these five things corresponds symbiotically with the other sets of five. To briefly enumerate the five equal layers of the system, the five points represent the five wits, the five fingers of Gawain’s hand, the five wounds Christ suffered on the cross, the five joys that the Virgin Mary had in her child, and the five pure virtues: frankness, fellowship, cleanness, courtesy, and compassion.

The Gawain poet then tells the audience that these attributes are interconnected:

 Now alle these five sythez, for soothe, were fetled on this knyght,

And uchone halched in other, that non ende hade,

And fyched upon five poyntez, that fayld never,

Ne samned never in no side, ne sundred nouther,

Withouten ende at any noke I oquere fynde,

Whereever the gomen bygan, or glod to an ende. (Fitt 2, v. 656-61)[4]

 Now truly, all these five groups were embodied in that knight,

Each one linked to the others in an endless design,

Based upon five points that was never unfinished,

Not uniting in one line nor separating either;

Without ending anywhere at any point that I find,

No matter where the line began or ran to an end. (Part 2, v. 656-61)[5]

Detail of lines 656-61 of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight as they appear in MS Cotton Nero A.x. (art. 3). c. 1400 British Library / University of Calgary, Libraries and Cultural Resources. image: http://gawain.ucalgary.ca/

Now, keeping a modern audience’s attention while a five point system which is actually a twenty-five point system is explained in detail would be an incredible feat for today’s storyteller and would require a patient, polite, and engaged audience. A medieval court audience, however, would be quite familiar with the concept of this type of system of organization and would probably be receptive to an even more complex one.

An example of a work where the narrator shares a complex system through which man may achieve spiritual, dietary, moral, and physical balance among the elements (or in Gawain’s case, reaching and maintaining a state of purity) that a medieval court audience would be familiar with is the Secreta Secretorum. The Secreta Secretorum was one of the most widely read books in 14th century England and France. It “circulated freely in court circles”[6] and was, as Terry Jones puts it, “de rigueur on any [medieval] thinking person’s reading list.”[7] It was a type of advice text that scholars call “medieval Mirrors for Princes.”[8] Secreta Secretorum is presented as material gleaned from letters sent between Aristotle and his student Alexander the Great while Alexander campaigned in Persia. Aristotle organizes various disciplines of study and states of the body into systems of four and describes how these four components correspond both to each other and collectively.

He divides Astronomy, for example, into four components: the position of the stars among themselves, the constellations and their position as it relates to the sun, the quality and the moving of the celestial dome, and the degrees of the rising of the constellations that reside in the moon’s celestial band (zodiac constellations).

Nowe to oure first mater and purpose, it is to wite, In the ordinaunce of the sterres; In disposicioun of ϸe signes and alyenyng and mevyng fro ϸe sonne; and this party is called Astronomye; that other part is of qualitees, and also for to knowe the mevyng of ϸe firmament, and the dgrees of ϸe risyng of ϸe signes that are vndir the firmament of ϸe mone, and this is the most worthi part of Astronomye, for ϸerin is the cheef knowyng of ϸat science. (Cap. 28 ll. 26-34)[9]

Image of an early 15th century English Medical Treatise HM 19079. Notice how the article has a heading and notes in the margin.  Huntington Library. image: http://sunsite3.berkeley.edu/hehweb/toc.html (Compare to image below of print transcription of Secreta Secretorum)

Detail of transcription of Cap. 28 from MS. Reg. 18 A. vij. B.M. from Three Prose Versions of the Secreta Secretorum. Vol I Ed. Robert Steel (London, 1898) Image: http://books.google.com/

To make an Astronomical conclusion one must consider all four of these factors, however, data from one category may be used with data from a category of another discipline when answering a question that crosses disciplines. Of course, according to that worldview, to answer any question effectively, it was necessary to cross disciplines – ideally several times. To make it possible to compare the data among the other disciplines, they too were organized into basic divisions of four. They were each thought to influence each other. Aristotle divides the human body into four basic parts: the head, the chest, the stomach, and the genitals. He also organizes humors (tempers or dispositions), elements,[10] and seasons[11] into four qualities. Not every system or exemplum in the text is exclusively organized in units of four, but so many of them are that it seems to be Aristotle’s favorite method of outlining complicated scientific ideas.

Since disease in the medieval world was seen as an imbalance in the way the body and mind interacted with the physical world, symbiotic relationships were considered among the body and the physical world for both the diagnosis and treatment of disease. For example, during spring, Aristotle recommends that one should eat chicken, goat, bitter greens, and milk. It is also the ideal time to “flush out” the toxins that accumulate in the body during winter by inducing sweat, bathing, bloodletting, and eating foods with laxative properties:

In this tyme shulde chykenys be ete, and kydes and eggis, soure letuse ϸat men calle carlokis, and getis mylke. In this tyme is best to lete blood, for onys than is bettir than thre tymes an other tyme ; and it is good to travayle and to haue thi wombe soluble, and than it is good to swete, to bathe, and to goo, and to ete things that are laxatijf, for alle thing that amendith bi digestioun or by blood letyng it shalle sone retorne and amend in this prime temps .i. veer. ” (Cap. 43 ll. 23-30)[12]

While, during winter he recommends one eat hot meats such as chicken and mutton, figs, nuts, and red wine. He also advises to refrain from laxative foods and bloodletting during winter unless it is absolutely necessary.[13]

The Gawain poet doesn’t provide a treatise on medieval medicine and he certainly doesn’t tell us how eating a certain type of food will affect Gawain’s stomach based on his complexion and temper, the constellations as they relate to the moon, and the season. He does, however, include a detailed description of a system (either historical, legendary, or by personal creation) by which one may achieve moral purity.

It is typical of a medieval poet to impart a moral message to a story and one of the methods the Gawain poet uses is describing the meaning of the Pentangle on Gawain’s shield.[14] Since Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a tale about a knight from King Arthur’s court who unknowingly agrees to have his virtue tested, the Pentangle’s description appears as Gawain is gearing up to leave King Arthur’s court to meet the Green Knight to receive his long-awaited return blow. The description of Gawain’s shield tells the medieval audience that Gawain will be tested.

Picture of Sir Gawain and the Pentangle from the video The Quest for Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. image: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-nAd6fffVvs

The brooch in The Black Cauldron tells the audience, in the same way, that Taran will be tested. Though Gawain isn’t forced to wager with his shield in the same way Taran is with his brooch in the Marshas of Morva, the brooch, like Gawain’s shield, offers protection. Where a shield would protect someone from physical harm in a combat situation, the brooch protects Taran by giving him dream visions that arguably save both his life and his quest, but more importantly, they both serve as a reminder to rely on a system of virtue to guide them through life much the teachings of Secreta Secrtorum are meant to do for a king ruling a state. Simplifying the system by presenting fewer virtues and choosing not to give the three lines multiple layers like the Gawain poet did with the Pentangle, Alexander succeeded in using medieval literary devices to promote a positive moral message within a children’s fantasy story.

The narrator poet of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight describes the significance of the pentangle painted on Gawain’s shield directly to the audience as part of a character portrait. It is typical in medieval narrative poetry for the narrator to give a physical description of characters and to use their clothing and objects they carry with them to give the audience details about their estate (or social class) and personalities. Medieval scholars call this a character portrait. One of the most popular examples of a medieval style character portrait is when Chaucer describes each of the pilgrims during the General Prologue of his Canterbury Tales.

Character portraits can vary in length and they can sometimes give the audience an idea of the poet’s moral or political agenda. In the Gawain poet’s case, we see that he thinks it is very important for the audience to understand (or to know that he understands) the Pentangle’s system of virtues because it takes up half of Gawain’s character portrait. While Alexander used a symbol that evokes a similar values system as the Pentangle, the method he uses to introduce it to the story is different from the one used by the Gawain poet. Alexander describes its symbolism to the audience in a modern way rather than a medieval way.

While the Gawain poet used the narrator’s voice providing a medieval character portrait to describe the Pentangle, Alexander used dialogue by having a character with some knowledge of bardic lore describe the significance of the brooch’s symbol to Taran. Having Fflewddur explain the significance of the brooch to Taran is similar to Aristotle’s method of teaching in the Secreta Secretorum in that you have an older, wiser, and somewhat quirky character providing moral guidance to a young character in an important leadership position.

Though the focus of the Secreta Secretorum as an advice text is on physical, political, and economic survival, Aristotle imparts a system of virtue in his teaching. One gets the sense that “being good” is a fundamental ingredient in the system of good governance outlined in this treatise.

Occasionally, Aristole is very direct in passages like this one where he identifies envy as the mother of lying and hatred as the root of all vices, “enuye is neuyr without lesyngis, the which is roote and mater of alle vicis. Envye engedrith yville spekyng, and of yville speche cometh hatred.” (Cap. 8 ll. 6-9)[15] To balance his sermon on the root of vice, Aristotle later points out that truth brings good faith, justice, friendship, great renown for the leader both at home and abroad, promotes the creation of reasonable laws, and fosters a positive sense of community.[16] These are direct examples, but the tone and underlying philosophy of the text implies that virtue is a necessary component of success.

The teachings in the Secreta Secretorum vary in length. For example, instruction on the proper way to sleep[17] is 27 lines while advice on what sort of clothing a king should wear[18] is only 11 lines, but “each exemplum is short enough to be taken in all at once, aiming for a flash of insight or identification.”[19] Though Aristotle doesn’t use a symbol like Lloyd Alexander and the Gawain poet do, the answers to the great mysteries of life that are explained in the Secreta Secretorum can be summarized in these key points: man should seek harmony by guarding himself from impulsive behavior, stay connected with nature and use his resources in moderation according to its cycles, be kind to his fellow man, and value truth above all. Like Gawain’s Pentangle and Taran’s brooch, the teachings in the Secreta Secretorum also suggest that Alexander the Great will be tested as a ruler.

The physical symbols of Taran’s brooch and Gawain’s Pentangle appear different in many ways on the surface (one is “a sort of arrowhead” and the other is a five pointed star) and Aristotle’s method aims to achieve a “flash of insight” without the use of a physical symbol. Each author incorporates different imagery; the Gawain poet uses Christian imagery while Alexander does not. Alexander doesn’t mention a concept of God at all and while the medieval manuscript of Aristotle’s Secreta Secretorum referenced in this article often mentions God, the scribe who copied it did not include Christ’s name a single time in the text.

These three authors do not use the same number of virtues in their respective values systems, and these systems are introduced to the stories in different ways. The incorporation of a values system in these texts suggests that the Gawain poet, Lloyd Alexander, and Aristotle all agree that every hero or person in a position of power must have a code or values system to guide him. By looking at the different ways values systems appear in stories and comparing the core of the respective values systems they illustrate, we realize this: the symbol we carry with us on our quest is not as important as our will to practice it every step along the way.


[1] Lloyd Alexander, The Black Cauldron (Holt, Rine and Winston: New York, 1965), 117.

[2] Lloyd Alexander, 117.

[3]Lloyd Alexander, 117.

[4] Sir Gawain and The Green Knight: Middle English Text with facing Translation, Ed., Trans. James Winny (Peterborough, 1992).

[5] Sir Gawain and The Green Knight

[6] Katharine Breen, “A Different Kind of Book for Richard’s Sake: MS Bodley 581 as Ethical Handbook,” The Chaucer Review 45.2 (2010): 131.

[7] Terry Jones, Who Murdered Chaucer? (New York, 2004), 50.

[8] Katharine Breen, 120.

[9] The Secrete of Secretes. Translated from the French (MS. Reg. 18 A. vij. B.M.) from Three Prose Versions of the Secreta Secretorum. Vol I Ed. Robert Steel (London, 1898), 21.

[10] The Secrete of Secretes, 22.

[11] The Secrete of Secretes, 27-29.

[12] The Secrete of Secretes, 27.

[13] The Secrete of Secretes, 29.

[14] Though this article only describes the Pentangle that appears on the front of Gawain’s shield, the interior of the shield is painted with a portrait of the Virgin Mary.

[15] The Secrete of Secretes, 10.

[16] The Secrete of Secretes, (Cap. 8 ll. 16-27) 10.

[17] The Secrete of Secretes, (Cap. 39) 25.

[18] The Secrete of Secretes, (Cap. 13) 12.

[19] Katharine Breen, 132.

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