Editors: George W. Tuma, Professor Emeritus of English, and Dinah Hazell, Independent Scholar
Hosted by the English Department, San Francisco State University



It will be immediately apparent that this poem differs from the others in the collection, the most notable feature being repetition of sound.  Its alliterative structure is highly stylized and complicated, which affects the syntax in order to meet the formal requirements.  The translation, somewhat more literal than the others in this collection, retains the poem’s meaning and preserves some of the stylistic elements, but some compression and truncation was necessary to make it accessible to the modern reader.  If the repetition seems a bit tiresome and the narrative somewhat stiff, the story makes up for it.  Unlike the commentaries that accompany the other works in this collection, in addition to the social context there is an introductory discussion of this important literary form.

The Adventures of Arthur at the Tarn Wadling

In the tyme of Arthur an aunter bytydde
By the Turne Wathelan, as the boke telles,
Whan he to Carlele was comen, that conquerour kydde,
With dukes and dussiperes that with the dere dwelles;
To hunte at the herdes that longe had ben hydde,
On a day thei hem dight to the depe delles,
To fall of the femailes in forest were frydde,
Fayre by the fermyson in frithes and felles.
Thus to wode arn thei went, the wlonkest in wedes,
Bothe the kyng and the quene,
And al the doughti bydene.
Sir Gawayn, graythest on grene,
Dame Gaynour he ledes.

                            The Awntyrs off Arthure at the Terne Wathelyn (1-13)

During the time of Arthur an adventure happened at the Tarn Wadling,1 as the book tells us, when that famous conqueror, accompanied by his dukes and nobles that dwelt with the dear king, came to Carlisle to hunt the herds which had long been hidden.  One day they entered the deep dales in order to fell the female deer, which were beautiful in the protected forests during close season.  Most magnificently dressed, the entire hunting party, including the king and the queen, went into the woods.  And Sir Gawain, the readiest knight on the field, led Dame Gaynour.

The queen was dressed in a glittering gown that gleamed with rich ribbons and was adorned royally with rubies.  Her blue-grey hood, which hid her head, was made from fur, rich cloth, and precious stones.  Her short cloak, which shed the rain, was embellished with sapphires and celidonies on the sides; her white mule’s saddle, similarly adorned with jewels, was covered with silk saddlecloths.

In glittering gold she gaily glided along the paths by the green spring with Sir Gawain.  That knight, who was born in Burgundy, stayed with the queen on his horse, and led her so long by the hillsides that they alighted under a laurel tree low by a ridge.  Meanwhile Arthur rode with his earls and directed them to their hunting stations; to tell the truth, he set each one without delay at an oak with a bow and a hunting dog under the boughs.  These bold nobles lay under the oaks in order to attack the barren does on the bare banks.  From this hiding place the nobles could behold the herds of deer and hear the hunting horns in the grey woods.  They cast off the leashes of the small hounds in the cold cliffs in order to comfort them.  And then they fell on the deer in great numbers with fresh, fierce dogs and followed their tracks.  Pursued in the woods and ridges, all the deer hid in the dells, trembling for dread of death.  By the  swiftly flowing streams the hunters waged war on the wild does to do them harm.  They shouted in the woods and hills and blew for the hounds, who ran to the roe deer and granted no mercy to any animal in the forest.  The great greyhounds gladly went into the green thickets, and the king blew the horn and followed fast on the hounds’ tracks, accompanied by many men-at-arms who sought pleasure in the hunt.

Splendidly arrayed in rich garments, they followed Arthur into the lush thickets, except Sir Gawain; he remained in the forest with Dame Gaynour, who lay under a well-built shelter of boxwood and barberry under the laurel tree.  Directly before midday a great marvel happened, which I will try to describe.  The day suddenly became as dark as though it were midnight; Arthur was irritated and dismounted from his horse.  His unhappy men quickly fled to the forest from the striated ridges and rocks in order to escape the heavy rains and the falling snow.  Suddenly a flame in the likeness of Lucifer, hateful in Hell, arose from the lake and glided straight towards Dame Gaynour, crying out sorrowfully with many loud yells.  It yowled and mourned with tearful lamentations, and said with a grievous sigh, “I curse the body that gave birth to me; my care is kindled, and I despair and weep.”

Then Gaynour, distressed and weeping, asked Sir Gawain, “What do you make of this?”  Gawain, trying to comfort the queen, said that “It is the eclipse of the sun, I heard a clerk say.”  And Gaynour said, “By the cross and the Creed, Sir Cador, Sir Cleges, Sir Constantine and Sir Kay are all discourteous since they have left me alone on my deathday with the most grisly ghost that I ever heard wail.”  Gawain told her, “Grieve no more.  I shall speak to the spirit and find out how to relieve it of its misery.”

The bare body was black to the bone, clotted in clay and disgustingly clad.  It cursed and wailed as does a woman, but neither its face nor its skin had covering.  Stupefied and stammering, it stood as still as a stone, and it grieved and grumbled insanely.  Sir Gawain quickly went to the ghastly ghost since he was not afraid. A toad sat on the top of the jowl and picked on the spirit’s head, whose hollow, sunken eyes glowed like coals.  It was wrapped in dark clothing that was covered by serpents clinging to its sides; it would be impossible to count the number of toads on the ghostly apparition.  But Gawain, standing his ground and showing no fear, drew his sword and awaited the ghost.  The hounds hastened to woods and hid their heads when the grisly ghost made a grim noise.  The great greyhounds were terrified of the ghost’s outcry, and the birds in the boughs gazed at the glimmering ghost and screeched so loudly that when the most noble of knights heard them, the flesh of neck, jaw, and chin chattered.  Then Gawain called on Christ and said to the spirit: “In the name of Him who was crucified to cleanse us from sin, tell me the truth, if you are able, why you walk along these paths and in the woods.”

“I was of figure and face the fairest of all, and I was christened and anointed with baptismal oil.  I have kings in my kin who are renowned for their courage.  God has given me grace to do my penance in this place, and I have come here to speak with your queen.  I was a queen once, more beautiful than Berell and Brangwen, those great women.  Of all the things that provide game and amusement—enclosures, parks, ponds, lands, towns, towers, untold treasures, castles, countries, crags and ravines—I possessed in greater abundance than does Dame Gaynour.  Now I have been exiled from my home and kin, laid in the ground, and afflicted with many woes.  Behold, courteous knight, how distressful death has clothed me!  Let me once have a glimpse of Gaynour the gay.”  Sir Gawain went to Gaynour and brought that fair lady to the ghost, who said:

“Welcome, Gaynour, you are certainly worthy in your realm, but see what death has done to your mother.  I was redder of complexion than a rose, and my face bloomed like a lily.  Now I am a ghost without God’s grace, and I groan horribly.  Like Lucifer, I have descended low into a lake.  Take heed of my example.  In spite of your fur-trimmed clothes, look in your mirror; whether king or emperor, so shall you be like me.  Since there is no doubt that death will come to you, reflect thoughtfully during your lifetime.  When you are most richly dressed and ride with your lords and ladies, have pity on the poor while you possess power.  Those men and women who now surround you with praise and bow low before you will quickly abandon you when you are embalmed and placed on a bier.  Nothing but holy prayer will be able to help you then.  The prayers of the poor may purchase you peace, those who cry out to you at your gate when you are seated at the dais with all mirths and dainties.

“While rich delicacies are set out on the dais for your meals, I dwell in danger and grief, filthy, in need, and naked at night.  A host of fiends from hell follow me; they violently hurl me down and harm me furiously.  I burn as a fire in brimstone.  A more woeful creature was never created.  It is difficult for any tongue to talk about my torment, but I will tell you about it before I go.  Think heartily on this: strive to amend your misdeeds.  You are warned by my woes to be wary.”

“Your fate certainly causes me great sorrow,” said Gaynour, “but, if it were your will, I would like to know one thing: would matins or mass or any earthly possessions amend your sin?  My mirth would be the more if the prayers of bishops might bring you to bliss, or religious orders in cloisters might cure you of care.  If you are my mother, it is a great marvel that your stately body has been brought so low.”

“I bore you of my body, what good is it to deny that?  I broke a solemn vow, and no one knew about it except you.  By that sign you know that I speak truthfully.”

“Tell me truly what may save you from your sorrows, and I shall make sextons sing for your sake.  But the baleful beasts that bite your body trouble me greatly—your face is so black!”

“That is the result of illicit love, desire and delights, which caused me to descend and remain low in a lake.  All the wealth of the world vanishes away with the wild worms that bring about my suffering.  If, however, thirty trentals2 were offered between morning and noon, my soul would soon be succored and brought to bliss.”

“May you be brought to bliss by the child who redeemed you on the cross and was crucified and crowned with thorns, since you were christened and anointed with candle and chrism cloth, and baptized freely in the font.  Mary the mighty and most merciful, of whom the blessed child was born in Bethlehem, give me grace that I may greet your soul with good deeds and remember you with matins and masses in the morning.”

“To heal me with masses is a great need.  For Him who rested on the cross, give freely of your goods to those folk who lack food while you are here.”

“I solemnly raise my hand to honor these behests with a million masses in your memory,” said Gaynour.  “But there is one thing that I would yet like to know: to your knowledge, what most angers God?”

“Pride, and all that pertains to it, as the prophets have clearly told the people in their preaching.  It  bears bitter branches, you may be sure, that make men bold to break God’s bidding.  But those who do so are bereft of bliss.  Gaynour, unless they are healed of that wound before they leave this world, they must certainly know nothing but sorrow.”

“Direct me some way,” said Gaynour, “if you know which prayers would best bring me to bliss.” 

“Meekness and mercy are the most important, and having pity on the poor pleases the King of Heaven.  Charity is first, then chastity, and then almsgiving above all other things.  These are the graceful gifts of the Holy Ghost who inspires each soul without harm.  Do not dispute this spiritual truth any longer.  While you are a queen in comfort, hold these words in you heart.  You will live but a short time before you depart.”

“How shall we fare,” said Gawain, “who strive to fight, and thus abuse the folk on many kings’ lands?  We ravage realms without any right, and win honor and wealth through the strength of our might.”

“Your king is too covetous, I warn you, sir knight.  No man may harm him with strength when Fortune’s wheel stands still; but when he is in his majesty and at the height of his power, he will fall low on the sands of the sea.  Thus, this chivalrous king shall have a mishap.  False Fortune, that marvelous wheelwright, makes lords descend; France’s example bears witness.  You have won France with your fighting; abandoned, Frollo3 and his folk are fated to die.  Brittany and Burgundy have both bowed before you, and all the nobles of France deafened by your din.  Guienne4 may lament that the war was begun; there are no lords left alive in that land.  Moreover, the rich Romans will be overrun by you, and their revenues will be taken away by the Round Table.

“Take heed, Sir Gawain!  Turn toward Tuscany, because you will lose Britain to a bold knight, who will seize the kingdom and be crowned king at Carlisle.  That man shall take possession at a time that will bring strife and misery to Britain.  In Tuscany you will learn of this treason and turn back at the news.  Then the Round Table will lose its renown, and the most valiant of all shall die in battle near Ramsey in Dorsetshire.  Take heed, Sir Gawain!  The boldest of Britain, you will be slain in a hollow.  Marvels such as this shall happen, without any doubt, with a bold knight upon the coast of Cornwall.  Sir Arthur, who is honest, gracious and able, will certainly be wounded—severely, I think—and all the royal company of the Round Table.  Those valiant knights will die on that day, surprised by a subject who bears a coat of arms of sable with a St Andrew’s cross edged with bright silver.  In the rich hall of King Arthur, a young boy5 plays with a ball, who will destroy all of you dismally on that day.

“Good day, Gaynour and Gawain, I no longer have time to tell you about other tidings.  I must walk on my way through this wild wood to my dwelling place in order to boil in woe.  Because of Him who righteously rose and rested on the cross, think about the danger and dole in which I dwell.  Feed the folk, for my sake, who lack food, and remember me with prayers and masses.  Masses are medicine to us who endure pain; we think that a mass is as sweet as any spice that you ever ate.”

With a horrible lament, the ghost glided away and went with grim groaning through the green groves.  The winds, the storms, and the sky cleared; the clouds opened and the sun shone.  King Arthur had his bugle blown and waited in the field; his fair folk in the wood flocked together, and all the royal company rode to the queen and spoke to her in a gracious manner.  They were astonished at the wonders the queen told them that she and Gawain had seen.  Then Arthur, most proudly attired in rich clothes, Dame Gaynour and their retinue went to Rondoles Hall for supper.

Arthur was seated and served in the hall under a canopy daintily woven of silk and displayed against the wall with honor, its tapestries brilliantly embroidered with birds.  Then a citole player, a lady of lovely manner, entered with a cymbal, leading a knight.  Quickly approaching the splendidly dressed king, she graciously saluted him:

“Man, matchless in might, here comes an errant knight.  Treat him with reason and right, for the sake of your manhood.”  Arthur sat at his dinner, clothed in a robe of rich cloth proudly trimmed in fur and ornately adorned with true lover’s knots in a row, and tassels made of topaz.  The king glanced up at the bright lady with his great grey eyes, and his beaver-colored beard;  sitting on his seat, he was the most noble lord that any man had ever seen.  Arthur spoke to her:

“Welcome, worthy one; he shall have reason and right!  Tell me, if you will, from whence this noble knight comes.”  She was the worthiest woman that any man might possess; her grass-green dress was glorious and gay, and her light grey woolen cloak was decorated with birds and buttons of gold, beautifully buckled.  Her hair was adorned with precious jewels, her hairnet and ribbon were brightly colored, with a crown made of crystal and clear gold.  Her head-scarves were exquisitely wrought with many splendid pins.  Her apparel was praised by those of high standing;  the gracious woman and the courteous knight certainly provided the lovely women at court much to admire. 

The bold man on his steed was completely covered in armor, which was sprinkled with gold stars, beads of ruby that glowed like embers, and precious stones. 6  In his knightly colors, he was brightly armed, and the comely crest on his helmet shone.  His mail-coat and steel headpiece were nicely polished and bordered in burnished gold. His shin guards were sharp enough to shred, and his shining shield of silver hung on his shoulder, emblazoned with bears’ heads with bold black brows.  The milky-white rings of his mail-coat were neatly fastened, and his horse’s trappings were of the same.  The steed was covered to the heels with rich oriental silk and, unicorn-like, a short dagger of steel as sharp as a thorn was set in his head armor.

With his lance held high, the knight led the lovely lady, and a man on a Frisian horse followed him.  The horse was dreadfully afraid since it had rarely seen a table decorated with fleurs-de-lys, and never such sport and merriment.7  Arthur, who was heard by all, loudly asked the knight what he desired:

“If you will, tell me what you seek, where you will go, and why you stay on your steed and stand so still.”  The knight lifted up his visor and with knightly bearing spoke to the king:

“Whether you are a king or an emperor, I call upon you to find me a man to fight; I set out from home to search for battle.”  Then the king replied loudly, “Alight from your horse and stay all night if you are a courteous knight, and tell me your name.”

“My name is Sir Galeron, the greatest of Galloway, of groves and ravines, and of Carrick, Cunningham, Cummock, Kyle, Lanark, Lennox, and Londun Hills.  You have wrongly won them in war through deception and given them to Sir Gawain,8 which angers my heart.  But he will wring his hands and utter a curse before he possesses them against my will.  By all the wealth of the world, I swear that he will never rule them as long as I live unless he wins them in battle with shield and spear on a fair field.  Thus I pledge my faith to fight with any man upon earth who is nobly born.  To lose such a lordship I would think hateful, and I would be laughed to scorn by every living man.”

Arthur replied, “We have been in the woods hunting the herds with hound and horn.  We are at our sport and have no man prepared for battle, but you will be matched in combat by midday tomorrow.  Therefore I advise you to rest all night.” 

Then Gawain led him out of the hall into a proudly pitched pavilion of rich purple cloth, with embroidered bed coverings and spread with bright tapestries.  Within the pavilion was a chapel, a bedchamber, a hall, and a fireplace with charcoal to warm the knight.  His horse was stabled and led to the stall, and the hayracks were filled to the top.  Then they drew out a table and called for tablecloths, napkins and salt cellars that were fair to behold, torches, large wax candles and tall candlesticks.  That knight and his worthy woman were served the best food, rich delicacies placed in shining silver dishes, sweet wine in bright glasses and cups, and exquisite dainties covered with a yellow glaze.

When the regal knight had gone to his rest, the king called his bold knights for counsel: “Take heed now, lords, our fame must not be lost;  decide between you who shall fight the knight.” 

Then the good man Gawain said, “There is no reason to grieve.  I pledge you my troth; I will fight with the knight in defense of my right, lord, by your leave.”

“I well believe you,” said the king.  “You are swift to act, but I would not see your life lost for any lordship.” 

“Let be!” Sir Gawain responded.  “May God stand with the right!  If Galeron escapes unscathed, it would be a foul insult.”

At daybreak, the valiant men were armed, and heard matins and mass early in the morning.  By that time a palisade was pitched on land near Plumpton, where men had never before fought.  They quickly set out the jousting arena on the low ground.  The king commanded that three pieces of bread of the highest quality soaked in wine be brought to Sir Gawain for his comfort.  Then Arthur ordered Krudely, the son of the earl of Kent, to courteously take care of the knight Galeron, who dined on rich delicacies in his tent before daybreak.  Afterwards, dressed in a coat of mail that was burnished brightly, he wisely went to Gaynour and left his worthy damsel in her keeping.  Then the noble knights hastily seized their horses and everyone, except these two valiant warriors, alighted at the lists on the field.  The king’s chair was set above on a platform, and many brave knights grieved for Gawain the good.

Gawain and Galeron girded their steeds, which were arrayed in glittering gold, and gay was their gear.  The lords quickly led them to the lists, accompanied by many sergeants-at-arms, as was the custom.  The knights spurred their horses so that their sides bled, and each made his spear firm.  They jousted with such spirit that their spears were shattered to splinters against shields.  And then, with bright swords they slashed each other’s rich rings of mail, and the knight confronted Gawain on the green field.  Gawain was outfitted in green, with griffons of gold set along the borders and adorned with true lover’s knots in between.  From his jumping horse he struck astray, and the other knight said angrily, “Why do you draw back so far and make such disorder?” and he slashed him on the neck with his sharp sword, which grieved Sir Gawain to the day of his death.  The blows of that brave knight were terrible to behold; fifty rings of mail or more were severed in two by the sword, as well as Gawain’s collar bone.  He cleaved the corner of the shield that covered the knight, and cut through Gawain’s shoulder and shield a hands-breadth.

And then that loathsome lord laughed out loud, which made Gawain grievously angry: “I will repay your stroke, unless I’m mistaken.”  He moved in on the knight with a fresh attack and stabbed him through his shield and coat of mail with his biting sword, once burnished brightly, now covered with blood.  Distressed, Galeron stood straight in his stirrups and struck away at Sir Gawain and rushed at him as though he were mad.  Then his beloved screamed loudly and shrieked when that bold warrior shone with blood.  This pleased the lords and ladies at the fight, and they thanked God’s grace for the good Gawain.  Then, with a stroke of the sword, Galeron violently and dishonorably cut off the head of Gawain’s steed as it stood there.  The fair foal foundered and fell, truth be told.

Gawain was heartsick with sorrow.  He leapt out of the good Grissell’s stirrups and said, “Grissell is gone, God knows.  He was the most excellent horse who ever lived.  By Him who was born in Bethlehem to be our salvation, I will avenge you today, make no mistake.”  Galeron ordered that his Frisian horse be fetched for Gawain to ride in battle, to which Gawain angrily responded, “I care no more for your fair foal than I do for a rush root.  Except for sorrow for the dumb beast that should die this way, I mourn for no mount, since I can get others.”  As he stood by his steed, who was always good in time of need, Gawain almost went mad, he wept so woefully.

Gawain then turned to his foe, who was so sorely wounded.  The other drew back in dread and, boldly spurring his horse on the open field, said to Gawain, “You may pass the day in this way until the dark night, but the sun is now more than past midday.”  Within the jousting arena, the knight nobly alighted and hastened quickly toward Gawain with his sword.  The two immediately engaged in battle with their swords; shining shields were shredded and bright armor covered with blood.  The two knights fought fiercely on foot on that fair field as vigorously as two lions who need food, and many valiant men were afraid.  These two warriors wielded their weapons with skill, and know well that Sir Gawain lacked no will.  He stabbed Galeron under his broad shield through his waist and wounded him badly.  The sword was so well edged with steel that it could not be stopped by any protective padding.  Then Galeron leapt backwards and stood as still as a stone, and even though he was stunned for a moment, he struck Sir Gawain so grievously through his neck armor that he escaped being slain only by the breadth of a hair.

These knights hewed each other’s helmets, violently beating down the precious gems and bright borders.  Even though the shields on their shoulders, beautiful to behold, were fretted in fine gold, they failed in battle.  Precious stones were scattered, and stout steel armor clasps were severed.  Men cursed the time when the combat was contrived that valiant knights would be so dismally dealt such blows, which were terrible to behold.  Both Sir Lot and Sir Lac made much mourning, and Gaynour’s grey eyes wept with grief for Sir Gawain, who was horribly wounded.  But that courageous knight, brave and bold, struck the other knight with a steel sword and cut his side, completely through the strong, round rings of mail.  He attacked him in anger with such a destructive blow that Sir Galeron groaned and groveled on the ground.  As wounded as he was, he rose rashly and pursued Gawain with his sharp sword.  That fierce knight quickly recovered, struck a corner of Gawain’s shield with a stroke of his left hand, and rushed at the worthy knight.  However, the worse happened to him, and that pleases me well!  He intended to slay Gawain skillfully with a slashing blow; but the sword struck his foe’s flank and glanced off the armor, and Gawain clutched the knight by the collar.  Then Galeron’s beloved, shrieking and screaming, lamented to Gaynour with bitter groaning, “Lady, matchless of might, have mercy on yonder knight who is so grievously beset, if it be your will.”

Then Dame Gaynour readily went to the king, took off her crown, and knelt before him: “You are the royal king, richest of lands, and I am your wife, wedded at your own will.  These warriors on the field bleed in battle; they are weary, I know, and wounded very badly.  Their shoulders are injured through their shining shields.  The groans of Sir Gawain frighten my heart and grieve me sorely.  If you would allow it, lord, reconcile these two knights.  It would be a great comfort for all those here.”

Then Sir Galeron spoke to the good Gawain: “I believe that no knight in this world is half as courageous as you.  Here I release the lands to you, by the cross; and before these royal persons, I resign to you my right.  Afterwards I will make homage to you with a gracious mind, since you are a man of middle earth who is matchless of might.”  He walked cautiously toward the king in the place where he stood and offered that noble man his brightly burnished sword.  The knight knelt down and spoke these words loudly: “I surrender to you my right to the lands and riches.”  Then the king stood and commanded peace.  After the king’s announcement, Gawain graciously ceased for his sake.  Then Sir Ywain, Erec, Marrake, and Meneduke, all men of might, leapt to the lists and raised up both of these wearied knights.  These bold men could barely stand; they were badly bruised and weak from loss of blood, and their faces, beaten by swords, were blackened.  Without further delay, a reconciliation was arranged, and they held up their hands before the comely king:

“Here I, Arthur, give Sir Gawain, with treasures and gold, all the lands of Glamorgan with groves so green, the honor of Wales to do with as you wish, including Criffones castles with their splendid crenellations; also Ulster Hall, and Wayford and Waterford, which I believe are walled; two baronies in Brittany with bold fortified towns that are well built.  I shall endow you as duke and dub you with my hand if you make peace with this knight, who is so bold and courageous, and release to him his right and grant him his lands.”

“And I, Gawain, here give Sir Galeron, without any guile, all the lands and vassals from Lauer to Ayre, including Cummock, Carrick, Cunningham, and Kyle—which this chivalrous knight has challenged as heir—and Lother, Lemmok, Loynak, and Lile, with woods and forests and moats so fair.  Provided that you remain a while under our lordship and join in the Round Table, I shall reinvest you in forests so fair.”

Then both the king and the queen and all the valiant company went to Carlisle through the green groves.  When the king with his brave knights and all the Round Table in royal array came to Carlisle, surgeons soon saved the two knights who were so grievously wounded.  Both were comforted by the king and the queen, and were dubbed dukes.  And there Galeron the gay wedded his beautiful wife, with gifts and treasures; thus that knight held fast to that gracious lady.  When he was healed, they made Sir Galeron a knight of the Round Table to the end of his life.

Gaynour quickly had writs sent far and wide to all those in religious orders to read prayers and to sing masses, and priests were urged to say a million masses to commemorate all departed souls.  Men learned in books, especially bishops, were requested by Gaynour to ring bells throughout Britain.  This wonder happened at Inglewood Forest in a bare wood during hunting, the story of which should be told.  Thus these brave knights, so strong in battle, went forth in the forest, and this adventure befell in the time of Arthur.


Social Context

As we saw in Sir Amadace with its rotting, stinking corpse, gruesome images of death are not restricted to alliterative romance, but they frequently appear in alliterative verse, usually with a didactic message.  The memento mori theme in which death and decay remind one of the need to lead a virtuous and repentant life since death is inescapable was understandably popular in literature and art during the Plague, though it is far older and stands behind many of the poems of the time.  Reaction to the Plague ran from hedonism (enjoy today for tomorrow one dies) to flagellation (sin brought this scourge upon us), but whether sparked by the Plague or not, many realized the need to prepare for death during the normal course of life, and expressed it in frightening images that illustrated that “mankind is caught in time, moving inexorably from naive, carefree youth to sadder, wiser old age, to death, and then the reward or punishment meted out by God” (Fein 16).  And many, as in The Awntyrs,9 offer advice on how to earn reward and avoid punishment.  A few examples will place The Awntyrs within the tradition.

Like The Awntyrs, “The Three Dead Kings” opens with a hunting scene, with the three kings after boar.  They are engulfed by a sudden heavy fog and become separated from their company, and one figures that their danger and anguish is caused by “honor of erth” (“love of earthly things”; 32).  In a nearby clearing they are approached by three horrible figures with “lymes long and lene and leggys ful lew,” and they “hadyn lost the lyp and the lyuer sethyn thai were layd loue” (“with long, lean limbs and frail legs.  They had lost their lips and liver since they were buried”; 44-45).  The terrified kings think they are fiends, but the apparitions identify themselves as the kings’ fathers, and each delivers a warning.  The first, being eaten by “wormus in my wome” (98) advises atonement or they will be bound in torment for their mistreatment of others.  The second, whose bones “blake bene and bare” (“are black and bare”; 106) tells the kings to believe in Christ and follow his teachings, and forego the pleasures of the flesh.  The last ghost presents himself as a mirror of what the kings may become.  When alive, he had scoffed at commoners and was hated, as he is in death.  The kings take their fathers’ advice seriously and return to their world with a more generous heart, repentant, and now going “the ryght way” (133).  They build a church in memory of the meeting with their fathers, the story of which was written on the walls.

There are several other alliterative poems with similar images and themes.  In The Parlement of the Thre Ages, the narrator has a dream-vision of Youth, Middle Age and Old Age in debate.  Hundred-year old Elde (Old Age) is an envious, angry man preoccupied with prayer, dressed in black with “bedis in his hande” (“holding prayer beads”; 153).  Foul looking, he leans on his side, stooped, twisted and bent with age.  His face is pale and disfigured, his beard and brows are “blanchede full whitte” (156), and he is bald, blind and toothless.  He constantly mumbles with trembling lips, saying his Creed and calling on Christ for mercy.

The portrayal of LadyDeath in “Death and Life” is not quite as gruesome but more terrifying and malevolent than Gaynour’s mother’s ghost.  The personified Death in this dream-vision is so grisly and grim that she is one of the ugliest ghosts on earth, “the ffoulest ffreake that formed was euer” (“the foulest creature ever formed”; 157).  Her face is so fearful and loathsome that to look at it is to die.  Her hollow eyes glow like fire in a furnace under full, heavy brows; her cheeks are lean and lips quite thick, and her huge mouth is full of long tusks. The tip of her nose hangs down to her navel, and her skin has the color of newly beaten lead.  She holds a bloody blade with her sharp talons.  Lady Death’s destruction is countered through God’s grace by Lady Life.

As noted earlier, ghostly images do not appear exclusively in alliterative verse.  In “Als I lay in a winteris nyt: A Debate between the Body and the Soul,” a knight lies on his bier and his soul prepares to depart, hell-bound because of his sinful life.  They debate, and the soul accuses the body of all seven sins, as well as cruelty to the poor, whom he ignored, and a lack of charity; he welcomed the rich and the poor were “y-stricken with a staf” (“beaten with a staff”; 64).  The body blames the soul for not giving him proper guidance, and the soul accuses the body of refusing to follow his teaching.  Devils come to take the soul to hell, where the body will join it on Doomsday.  The foul, black devils are rough and hairy with broad humps on their backs, and have long, sharp claws.  The torments inflicted on the soul are vividly described, including drinking hot lead, suffering wounds from glowing blades and hot spears, and finally being cast into a pit of “bothe pich and brumston— / Men myghte fif mile haue the smel!” (“pitch and brimstone, which could be smelled five miles away”; 573-74).  In the end, the narrator awakes, terrified by the hideous dream-vision and, repentant, calls on Christ’s mercy which is stronger than sin.

Another non-alliterative poem, “A Disputation between the Body and the Worms,”presents much the same message as others that employ the image of death: that it is inevitable and should be prepared for by avoiding pride in earthly pleasures and concentrating on the spirit.  Though it is less terrifying than some other poems that feature horrific otherworldly spectres, it is perhaps the more effective because it depicts the realities of death.

The narrator, on pilgrimage during the Plague, falls asleep in a church, where a beautiful, noble lady has been freshly entombed, and he hears her conversation with the worms that are eating her flesh.  They have “ane insaciabyll & gredy appetyte; / No rest bot alway the synk, sowke, & byte” (“an insatiable and greedy appetite, always sucking and biting”; 47-48).  She sees how fat and round they have become from their meals and asks them to stop before she is “wasted, consumed, & gone” (57).  They refuse to leave “while that one of thi bones with other wil hange” (59) and are scoured and polished clean.  The lady considers them bad neighbors, but they reply that they are the only creatures that will do the job, since they cannot smell or taste her “orrybyll flesche, rotyng & stynkyne” (“horrible rotting, stinking flesh”; 66), and they ask no reward.

The worms point to the reminders in life that flesh is mortal: lice, nits, worms, fleas and other diverse pests that “warne yow of vs to make yow redy” (“warn you to prepare for us”; 134).  And the ashes on Ash Wednesday are the remembrance that all must return to the earth as dust, from whence they came.  Gradually the worms convince the lady to accept and suffer death as part of God’s will, and to look forward to the bliss of heaven.  The narrator awakes and tells his vision to a priest, who tells him to commit it to writing as fairly as he can so that readers will be moved “al lustes for to lefe / Of warldy thinges, whilk dos thaim grefe” (“to abandon lust for worldly things, which do them harm”; 215-16) and concentrate on binding with Christ.

Fein’s study of the moral aesthetic of the grotesque in alliterative verse leads her to the conclusion that “the horror of physical decay is meant to be seen and felt by the very flesh that will be subject to it. Along with this rather morbid message comes the reminder to look beyond the earthly to the heavenly” (Fein 18), which has application to other forms of verse that employ the grotesque topos.

One of the primary ways of moving heavenward was through charity, as stressed by Gaynour’s mother in The Awntyrs.  Charity was always a mainstay of Christian tenets, based on the Seven Corporal Acts of Mercy (Matthew 25:35): feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, harboring a stranger, visiting the sick, ministering to prisoners, clothing the naked, and burying the dead.  We have seen this charity in most of the romances we have read: burial of the dead merchant in Sir Amadace; harboring a stranger in Lay le Freine and Sir Gowther; freeing prisoners in Sir Launfal;10 clothing the naked in Havelok; and feeding the hungry in Sir Launfal, Sir Gowther and Havelok (and as will be seen, in Ywain and Gawain, as well as giving drink to the thirsty and clothing to the naked).

Poverty was widespread in the fourteenth century, ranging from subsistence to indigence, due to many factors, such as old age, illness, infirmity, lack of resources, and general natural and economic conditions.  England was besieged by dearth, famine, livestock disease, and plague.  Many historians point to the improved opportunities and conditions for the lower classes post-Plague due to depopulation and its long-ranging socioeconomic effects, but that did not obtain for all, and both rural and urban environments were beset with poverty.

The poor were placated with the promise of heavenly reward for their suffering on earth, but social critics from poets to preachers called for an end to greed, corruption, and oppression of the poor and for increased charity, though no one expected the eradication of poverty, only amelioration.  Despite the generosity of many, from nobles to peasants, poverty persisted, and some charitable gestures were tainted with self-aggrandizement.  The system revolved around the exchange of charitable support for the grateful prayers by the recipients for their benefactor’s soul, as expressed by Gaynour’s mother:  “The praier of the poer may purchas the pes, / Of thase that yellis at thi yete” (“The prayer of the poor may purchase you peace, / Those who yell at your gate”; 178-79).

Literary Form

Translating alliterative poetry is exceptionally challenging due to its unique form and vocabulary.  A.V.C. Schmidt, explaining his approach to William Langland’s monumental Piers Plowman, recognizes the impossibility of reproducing its dense poetic texture with naturalness in modern English and chooses the form of a “free” prose translation in which he conveys “what Langland says” without feeling obliged to retain “the way in which he says it” (xlii).  In his verse translation of the Pearl-poet’s exquisite works, Casey Finch takes “untold numbers of liberties” with the text in order to present alliterative poems that “stand on their own” (ix).  Both translators focus on the sound, sense, tone and meaning of these elaborate, often elusive, masterpieces.  The difficulties encountered in translating all alliterative poetry, including The Awntyrs, become a bit clearer with the following (oversimplified) illustration of the form.

The Awntyrs is one of a relatively small group of works produced during the “Alliterative Revival” of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, many of which come from the West Midlands and the north. The alliterative form was used from early times and is common in Old English verse; it faded during the thirteenth century and reappeared in the mid-fourteenth.  Some works, like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Piers Plowman, are quite lengthy, while there are shorter pieces like lyrics and debate poems.  Though they vary in theme, they share not only form but specialized, often difficult vocabulary.  Between topics and style, it is presumed that they were intended for an educated audience, probably provincial but aware of national and world affairs.  Several critics note that the form, with its redundancies that Spearing sees as aesthetic “conspicuous consumption” (198), reflects an audience with leisure time.

Simply put, the alliterative form involves repeated sounds, both consonants and vowels, as is evident in The Awntyrs:

Suche ferlies shull fal, withoute eny fable,
Uppone Cornewayle coost with a knight kene.11
Sir Arthur the honest, avenant and able,
He shal be wounded iwys—wothely, I wene.
And al the rial rowte of the Rounde Table,
Thei shullen dye on a day, the doughty bydene
                                                (300-05; alliterations in bold)

Each line is divided into half-lines, and the basic meter is structured on alliterated stressed syllables; the arrangement of the surrounding unstressed syllables (“dips”) determine the rhythm.  (There are, of course, variations of the form.)  Though still occasionally used today, the form is unfamiliar to many modern readers who (consciously or not) measure poetic lines by the accents and syllables of fixed meters (e.g., iambic pentameter).  The analysis of alliterative lines is complex and need not be pursued further here, although the examples presented are illustrative.

In addition to repetition of sound, the poet employed concatenation, the repetition of words from the last line of a stanza in the first line of the next.  Repetition also appears within the stanzas; iteration links the eighth and ninth lines of the “bob” that precedes the last four lines, the “wheel,” a technique unique to the Awntyrs–poet.12  Since this was eliminated in the translation to avoid possibly tiresome repetition to the modern reader, a sample is presented here (linking words are in bold):

Thus Sir Gawayn the gay Gaynour he ledes,
In a gleterand gide that glemed full gay—
With riche ribaynes reversset, ho so right redes,
Rayled with rybées of riall aray;
Her hode of a hawe huwe, ho that here hede hedes;
Of pillour, of palwerk, of perré to pay;
Schurde in a short cloke that the rayne shedes;
Set over with saffres sothely to say,
      With saffres and seladynes sercled on the sides;
            Here sadel sette of that ilke,
            Saude with sambutes of silke;
            On a mule as the mylke,
                  Gaili she glides.

Al in gleterand golde, gayly ho glides
The gates with Sir Gawayn bi the grene welle.
And that burne on his blonke with the quene bides
That borne was in Borgoyne by boke and by belle.
He ladde that lady so longe by the lawe sides
That under a lorre ho light, loght by a felle.
And Arthur with his erles ernestly rides,
To teche hem to her tristres, the trouthe for to telle.
      To here tristres he hem taught, ho the trouth trowes.
            Eche lorde withouten lette
            To an oke he hem sette,
            With bowe and with barselette,
                  Under the bowes.  (14-39)

The final link is opening and closing the poem with the same words:

In the tyme of Arthur an aunter bytydde (1)

In the tyme of Arthore,
      This anter betide (714-15)

The complex construction of The Awntyrs may seem like a show of poetic virtuosity for its own sake that “practically smothers the sense” of the romance and has a “strong retarding effect” on the description of action (Kane qtd. in Hanna 276).  On the other hand, Shepherd sees advantages to the form, which is “rhythmically insistent, even relentless, capable of an impressive mimetic palpability in accounts of action and high emotion,” and “an arresting gravity in moments of reflection and an opposite sense of rigor in depictions of form, ceremony and manners.”  He also notes that alliterating words emphasize essential facts and actions (Shepherd 368).

It must be noted that the stanza form is not consistent throughout the poem.  Variation is not unusual in most kinds of poetry, but it is pronounced in The Awntyrs, particularly between the first and second episodes.  In fact, there is a long-standing debate on whether The Awntyrs is a single poem, or two separate works by one or more authors that were combined (clumsily, according to some).  Thematic difference between the two halves is cited in the two-author argument, though some scholars find unity between the seemingly disparate halves of the work based on style and theme. 

In his 1974 edition of the poem, Ralph Hanna posits two poems, Awntyrs A and Awntyrs B, by different authors.  His evidence comes from formal elements not obvious in translation such as differences between the two parts in iteration, stanza linking, end rhyme, and the alliterative structure (Hanna 19).  Further support is found in dissimilar sources and analogs, A being based on integrated religious and romance materials, and B on conventional romance motifs (Hanna 24).

Spearing suggests looking for “coherence” or “connectedness” rather than unity in the poem (185) and envisions the parts as a popular medieval art form, the diptych, the halves of which together “generate a meaning and an emotion far greater than either possesses separately” (186).  Through juxtaposition of the two separate parts, the reader’s mind acts creatively, with freedom to respond to the poet’s meaning.  Spearing studies parallels between the two parts, such as the unwelcome intruder (the ghost and Sir Galeron), and the shrieks and groans of the ghost and Galeron’s lady.  The generosity of Gaynour, Arthur and Gawain in the second half manifests lessons learned in the first half and the “glorification of what was doomed” coming after the prophesy of doom gives the diptych structure “civilized poise” (Spearing 200).

Hahn perceives a “cosmic community” formed by the connection between living and dead, rich and poor, and a sense of “social and spiritual dependence” that are at the base of corporate religiosity (Hahn 171).  Using Spearing’s imaging of the poem as a double-structured diptych, Hahn suggests unity through narrative elements thematically linked in dialogic relationship that produces a “potentiality” for meaning (170).

Some critics find the formal elements unifying, particularly the concatenation, as the final stanza “takes us back to the beginning, forming a seamless circle of verse”(Twu 122).  Twu also finds thematic unity in the two episodes, such as Gawain’s concern expressed to the ghost over the wrongful seizure of lands, which foreshadows Galeron’s grievance (111).  She sees Arthur as a unifying figure at the center of the court, the setting throughout the poem (107).  Mortality and inevitable death are represented both by the ghost and the potentially fatal combat between Gawain and Galeron, and is supported by the image of the Wheel of Fortune as queens, kings, knights and all rise and fall (Twu 116).

Shepherd also sees unity through both form and theme.  The alliteration and concatenation “draw together images and ideas, the potential links between which might otherwise have gone unnoticed.”  He notes the “testing” theme and the call for serving the needy in both parts, either of which can be seen as “a tale of pride admonished and charity tested” (Shepherd 369).

The poem is extant in four manuscripts, and in one, the Ireland-Blackburne, it is separated into three parts (fitts) which Phillips uses, as the tripartite structure written by a single author seems more reasonable to her than a bipartite.  She places the second fitt as central in its concern about Arthur’s use of his power as conqueror and king, and mutability as a unifying theme of the poem, as it applies to lordship, military conquest and territorial sovereignty (Phillips 71-73).  She is careful to take a broader, more flexible view of technical and linguistic analysis compared to some critics, and considers that modern readers’ sensibilities may not exactly match the author’s (Phillips 74).

These are a few of the many opinions offered by scholars on the structure and meaning of the poem.  These examples are valuable in assisting an understanding of the work, as well as the critical processes and approaches involved in attempting to solve the mysteries and challenges presented by medieval literature.

Ultimately, no matter how attuned one might become to the sound and sense of the poem (and medieval literature in general), it is virtually impossible to experience it as did the medieval audience.  Judging from the four extant manuscripts, it was fairly popular and, for all we know, enjoyed without modern critics’ concerns.  And it should be remembered that alliterative verse was largely regional, with appeal to specific audience taste.  When Chaucer’s Parson claims not to know how to versify in “rum, ram, ruf” (ParsPro 43), it is because he is from the south, though clearly the form was known outside the north and West Midlands for Chaucer to make such a statement (sometimes interpreted as disparagement) and to use it on rare occasion.  Today, alliterative verse is part of the medieval literary canon, studied universally, and the source of some of the most prominent poems of the period.


The text used for this translation is The Awntyrs off Arthure at the Terne Wathelyn.  Ed. Ralph Hanna III.  Manchester: Manchester UP, 1974, based on Bodleian Library MS Douce 324.  There are three other extant manuscripts: Lincoln Cathedral Library MS 91 (Thornton), Lambeth Palace Library MS 491, and the Ireland-Blackburne.  Due to the complexities of the poem and variations between manuscripts, editors use one as the main text and make emendations from the others for clarity and/or correctness as they judge necessary.  The present translation makes minimal emendations to Hanna’s edition.  The poem is dated to the first quarter of the fifteenth century.


1  Tarn Wadling is a small lake in the Inglewood Forest, which is seen in other Arthurian romances (e.g. Dame Ragnell).

2  A trental is a series of thirty masses, three on each of the ten main feast days of the year, a “true” trental, or on the same or successive days.

3  Frollo was a Roman tribune defeated by Arthur in his war against France (Shepherd 229n).

4  A region in France (ibid.).

5  Mordred.

6  This passage describes specific parts of armor, which would be unfamiliar (and perhaps tedious) to many readers, so it has been compressed.  For the curious, here are some parts of body armor of the period; names are given first as they appear in the poem, then,  where applicable, the traditional terminology (obviously French), and the body part covered: gloves/gauntlet, hands; viser/visor, face; ventalle/gorget, neck; basnet/bascinet, head (helmet); schynbaude/cuisse, shin; poleinus/poleyn, knee.  The body was also protected by a surcoat, a gameson in the poem, and leather tunic.

7  A Frisian horse was a workhorse, inappropriate for a knight (Hahn 215n), and apparently not accustomed to a noisy manor hall.

8  The  districts named are all southwestern Scottish districts and places.  During England’s long war with Scotland in the fourteenth century there were frequent territorial disputes and seizures, reflected in Arthur’s annexation of these areas.

9  Unlike the rest of the poems in this collection, The Awntyrs is identified in Middle English to avoid confusion with other works that also contain “The Adventures of Arthur” in the title.

10  Launfal clears them of debt and guilt.  Aid to the imprisoned was based not only on concern over false accusations, but also on the fact that prisoners were responsible for their own maintenance.

11  In Middle English, the initial “k” is sounded.

12  The bob and wheel have different rhyme schemes, although not all alliterative verse is rhymed.

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