Muzzy with mist: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Ellen Birch 7 November 2017

I first read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight not out of choice but obligation. August 2015 was the date, when a fresh-faced, still enviously hirsute and beaverishly eager-for-pedagogy 18 year old (AKA me) got saddled with a reading list the length of a small novel which I was to have finished by the start of my first year reading English in October. As you won’t be surprised to hear, most of the items on that list went unread, but (the translation) of a 3000-odd line Medieval romance poem called Sir Gawain and the Green Knight thankfully didn’t. Encouraged by the seductively conflict-implying title and (not insignificantly) its relative brevity, I cracked open a beerski, along with a king-size tub of Pringles and started reading.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a fitting ‘winter poem’ on a number of different levels, but perhaps the most obvious way in which SGGK earns its stripes as a quintessential mid-winter’s read is in its wonderful descriptive passages of the ice-throttled Cheshire and mid-country countrysides, the snow-peaked mountains and hills, the chill-splintered streams, and so on and so forth. The art of description is, as critics and students alike have discovered, one of the Gawain-Poet’s most salient talents. When Gawain strikes out across the winter landscape in search of the Green Knight’s dwelling place, for example, he is forced to spend nights roughing it in valleys over which “melt-water streamed from the snow-capped summits and high overhead hung chandeliers of ice”. Later, in what must surely be one of the most glorious descriptions of a landscape in December to be found anywhere in medieval literature, we read that the mountains which Gawain passes are “muzzy with mist and every hill wore a hat of mizzle on its head”. The metaphor retains its brilliant quaintness and gnomic overtures and though it maybe doesn’t quite still have the novelty which it would have for 14th century readers of the Middle English original, it’s held onto its power and charm.

While the language that the Gawain-Poet uses to give life to the landscape is so lovely, the climate itself certainly isn’t. SGGK is a poem that really understands the double-edged quality of winter and the character with which it injects the natural world. For every passage noting the season’s intrinsic beauty, there is a counterpart which emphasises its bitterness. The first few pages of the 4th ‘chapter’ are exemplary in this regard, stressing how “the nithering north needled man's very nature; creatures were scattered by the stinging sleet”. Simon Armitage (whose translation I am quoting from) and the Gawain-Poet in the original Middle English both make great use of alliteration here – Armitage really works those niggling little ‘n’ sounds, the insistent throbbing rhythm produced by their presence (the alliteration encourages the reader to stress the syllables on which the alliterative letters fall) phonetically mimicking the insistent driving waves of wet snow and ice-bound pellets. The effect is so palpable that I genuinely struggle to get through these lines without shivering.

Obviously, there’s a lot more to SGGK than just its descriptions of the winter season – most of the poem is really a psychological study, focusing around the character and motivations of its protagonist Sir Gawain – but as the days start to shorten and the temperatures start to nose-dive the Gawain-Poet's keen observations on the time of the year take on more and more resonance as a winter’s evening read.