Saturday 25 February 2012
Saturday 11 February 2012
After last week’s post about Gawain’s sword, long-time reader, Angus McWasp, wrote in with a couple of additional details.
As I mentioned previously, in the Death of Arthur poem, Gawain’s sword is named ‘Galuth’ a Hebrew word for exile. Apart from alliteration, there is no clear reason why Gawain would have a sword with a Hebrew name, and it is likely that this is just coincidence. Angus points out that Thomas Malory used this poem as a source for his Le Morte d’Arthur, but renames Gawain’s sword ‘Galantine’, which has a much more heroic (and French) ring to it.
In earlier works, Gawain’s sword was either unnamed, or he was said to carry Excalibur. In fact, one story even has King Arthur bestowing the sword on his nephew. Considering that Arthur didn’t do much adventuring in his later years, this makes sense.
If anyone has any more information on this, or any other great sword of myth and legend, please do share.
Sunday 5 February 2012
Just one more note on the Death of King Arthur. In the poem, Gawain’s sword is named Galuth. Thanks to the stories of King Arthur (and probably Tolkien), I’ve always assumed that if a sword has a name it must be magical. Galuth isn’t given any magical properties in the story, but Gawain is such a mighty warrior, he certainly might have been receiving a little magic sword assistance.
Most likely the name ‘Galuth’ was chosen because it makes the alliteration easier when writing about Gawain. What I didn’t know, until I just looked it up, is that ‘Galuth’ is also a Hebrew word meaning the forced exile of the Jews from Palestine.
Friday 3 February 2012
‘Find comfort as you can as you cool in the clay.’
During my time at UNC, I took a load of really fun and interesting courses. As it turned out, ‘Arthurian Literature’ was not one of them. The problem, as I remember it, is that most Arthurian literature is very long and more than a bit repetitive. It’s great to read one every once-and-awhile, but cramming a load of them into a short college term isn’t the best way to increase your appreciation. Regardless, the class served my purpose, and I came out with a much better knowledge of Arthurian myth than previously. And there, for the most part, I have left it for the last ten-to-fifteen years.
Lately however, I have experienced a resurgence in my interest in myths and legends, which has taken me to less visited portions of bookstores. Over Christmas I wandered into the poetry section and discovered ‘The Death of Arthur’ by Simon Armitage. Contained in the attractive hardback book is Simon’s translation of a unique fourteenth century manuscript which relates the death of Arthur in 4,000 words of Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse. Despite my previous education, I had never heard of the work, and, considering the form of poetry is my favourite, I bought it without much thought.
Yesterday, I finished reading it and can heartily recommend it, even if it isn't the greatest story. Basically Arthur gets challenged by the Emperor of Rome, gathers his army, sails to France, kicks the Emperor’s butt, finds out he’s been betrayed by Mordred who he left to guard the kingdom, sails home, and kills his nephew while being fatally wounded. But there are many points of discussion.
Perhaps the most interesting to me is the very small part played by Lancelot. In the poem, he is just another knight, a good one, but nothing special. He plays no part in the betrayal of Arthur, nor the outcome of the story. Instead, centre stage is taken by Sir Gawain. If we didn’t know that the manuscript was written by an Englishmen, this alone would nearly confirm it. Near the end of the poem, Gawain is killed by Mordred, and a remorseful Mordred delivers one of the best passages in the work:
Then Sir Mordred was moved to mouth this tribute:
‘He was unmatched in this world, I admit it; that man
was good Sir Gawain, the greatest of mortals
and most gracious of lords who lived under God.
A man fierce of fist, favoured in warfare,
honoured in hall above all under heaven,
the lordliest of leaders for as long as he lived,
loudly lionised in lands near and far.
Had you known him, Sir King, in his native country,
his craft and his courtesy and his kindly works,
his bravery and boldness and his deeds in battle,
his death you would lament all the days of your life.'
I can only imagine how difficult it must be to translate poetry and attempt to keep a similar alliterative rhythm, but Simon Armitage seems to do an admirable job, and there are many delightful lines and passages.
I will say that it is a very bloody tale and so destructive, that one begins to wonder exactly how the original poet felt about the glorious conquests of Arthur. Still, if you love Arthurian myth, the book is a necessary addition to your collection, but have a care...
‘for when the dragon is flown, death surely follows.’