Harketh Ye Who Love Medieval Poetry

I’ve had a fascination with knights and chivalric adventure ever since I started swinging a plastic sword at confused strangers.

But the original poems of chivalry, for all that, didn’t so readily enchant me. I blame this on a high school teacher’s bungling of the subject, but there may have been other reasons. It wasn’t until college, though, when from a medievalist professor I had received me a buffet on my pate, and once again tales of knyghtes ful wrothe had me seized in reverie.

Here are some essentials in that glorious genre, which maybe you’ve read or have planned to someday.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

So the joke goes like this. A big green guy rides into King Arthur’s Court on a big green horse. Guy says, “I heard you knights are the bravest around, so I have a challenge for you. Take my axe, and swing to chop off my head, but then after that I get to have the axe to chop off your head. Sounds like a good deal, huh? Any takers?” The whole room is silent. Nobody volunteers. “You bunch of pussies,” says the green guy. Then Arthur, red with embarrassment, says he’ll accept the challenge, and Gawain stops him and says he’ll do it. So Gawain takes the axe and chops off the green guy’s head. “Nice job,” says the green guy’s still-talking decapitated head, whose body comes to retrieve it. “Now, it’s my turn.”

(Alternate punchline: “Now that’s how I roll.”)

So Gawain must fulfill his end of the bargain on the following New Year’s Day. He goes on miniature adventures involving the kingdom he visits, including an odd arrangement he makes with the host (let’s just say that if Gawain went all the way with the host’s wife, things would have gotten really awkward at dinner). It never quite reaches the mark set by the poem’s opening, but still good fun.

The nature descriptions (which are believed to be of the Peak District of England) here are especially wonderful. Given the thematic prevalence of the colors red and green and the fact that it takes place over the winter holiday, this is regarded as a yuletide poem.

That’s right, kids– a Christmas story that involves beheading! It keeps a warm place in my heart.

The Song of Roland

The medieval French version of the movie 300.

(Still not sold? Well, I’ll tell you it’s even worth it for the villain Ganelon, who is a stunningly complex for a character of that period’s literature.)

Le Morte d’Arthur

I didn’t read this, technically, but rather had the benefit of an audiobook narrated by Sir Derek Jacobi–who of course has winning credentials for this job because he is a knight. He’s already someone I’d call a “phonebook actor,” in that I’d pay to hear him read one. But I was giddy even to listen to Jacobi roll call the Knights of the Round–“Sir Galahad, Sir Galyhood, Sir Galyhodin…Sir Bagdamagus!”

To most people it comes off as big, dumb, violent, and irresistibly charming, from Arthur’s giant-killing early days to the quest for the Grail. Where the mindset is that you go on adventures because that’s what you do. But complications arise: Arthur and Co. have a brutality that’s predictably at odds with their commitment to gallantry. And “Disney” Merlin this ain’t: the storied sorcerer is a disturbing presence, indeed. Feminists have had much to say about the Morgan/Guinevere dichotomy, and I could clearly see why.

The very best segment is the bitter endgame encompassed by the war between Lancelot and Arthur, then Mordred and Arthur. This epic, which up to this point has been regarded by me to be silly fun, becomes unexpectedly poignant and heartbreaking. The description of Lucan and Bedivere weeping over their dead and dying is just one of the moments that empties you of your spirit. It’s over, it’s all over. Arthur is dead and the age has gone.

With these tales, my grown-up response is to admire the poetry and often striking characterizations. The kid in me loves the ridiculous awesomeness and awesome ridiculousness. Few books engage me in quite this way.

Is this true for anyone else? And are there maybe other chivalric medieval poems that you would add to this list of greats?

2 thoughts on “Harketh Ye Who Love Medieval Poetry

  1. I wish I had this blog when Sir Gawain was assigned to us to read. I remember, after a long discussion, I just had to ask the professor, “So. The green thing. That’s, uh, that’s real? I mean, he’s really green and it’s not a metaphor for something? Like, moss, toothpaste, grass kind of green?”

    The follow-up question was, “So. Does he glow?”

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