Ywain and Gawain (ca. 1325–1350). Encyclopedia of Medieval Literature

The one extant copy of the MIDDLE ENGLISH ROMANCE
Ywain and Gawain is found in the British
Museum manuscript Cotton Galba E. IX, a large
parchment manuscript whose contents range from
romance to a verse treatise on the Seven Deadly
Sins.There is little internal or external evidence concerning
the date of composition, but with reference
to details of clothing and language, scholars usually
date the poem sometime between 1325 and 1350.
This anonymous Arthurian romance is a translation
LION; indeed, it is the only surviving English version
of one of Chrétien’s romances. But as is common
with medieval translations (the full sense of
the phrase medieval translatio encompasses interpretation),
the Middle English version, while faithful
to the general plot and structure of its French
source (the Middle English poet reduces Chrétien’s
6,818 lines to 4,032), is not particularly faithful in its
rendering of language, thematic focus, or sensibility.
The English poet never names Chrétien as his
source, and Ywain and Gawain is often unfavorably
compared to its more polished and courtly French
model; yet the transformations effected by the English
poet are skillful and serve a purpose in their
emphasis on personal responsibility and truth.
While the story remains essentially the same,
from the very beginning of the Middle English
poem, the poet situates his characters in a realm
considerably less concerned with the conventions
and conceits of COURTLY LOVE. In both versions the
poets set the scene in the fabled Arthurian court.
But where in Chrétien’s original the knights and
ladies speak of love and service to the god of love,
and the poet laments the lost days when “true” love
flourished, in the Middle English version the English
knights and ladies speak of “dedes of armes
and of veneri / and of gude knightes flat lyfed flen”
(Friedman and Harrington 1964, ll. 26–27), and
the poet is nostalgic for the days when truth,
honor, and men’s word and faith were trusted and
true. The English poet is less concerned with the
“fabled” refinements of cultivated and courtly society
than he is with adventure and love of a more
realistic and less studied form. Nonetheless, like
the French version, the Middle English Ywain and
Gawain has a clear narrative line and didactic elements
accessible to modern and medieval audience
and reader alike.
In the romance Ywain’s cousin relates an adventure
of a magic fountain, a fantastic storm, and a
challenge from an unknown knight, a challenge in
which Ywain’s cousin fails and is shamed. Ywain
silently vows to avenge his cousin, but before he
can set out, Arthur has learned of the adventure
and plans to take the court to witness the marvels
and challenge the unknown knight. Ywain, desiring
the adventure for himself, sets out alone, meets
the unknown knight, kills him in battle, and then
woos and wins the knight’s widow.
In the love scenes between Ywain and Alundyne
(the knight’s widow), the English poet’s transformations
are particularly striking: He dispenses
with Chrétien’s extended Ovidian descriptions of
Love’s wounds and Love’s rule, and much of the
rhetoric of courtly love is excised in favor of a simple
statement that “Luf, flat es so mekil of mayne, /
Sare had wownded Sir Ywayne” (“Love that is so
great in power, / Sore had wounded Sir Ywain”
[871–72]). The elaborate rhetorical formulations
and figures of the French version are either seriously
cut or omitted altogether in this and in other
scenes, and if the English romance loses
metaphoric flights of fancy and subtle disputations,
it gains a kind of realism and specificity that
is one of the Middle English romance’s strengths.
One of the more striking examples of how the English
poet’s redaction of the French original adds
to, rather than subtracts from, the poem’s meaning
is the scene in which, after the marriage of Alundyne
and Ywain, when Ywain plans to go with
Gawain and the court to tournaments and thus
leave his new bride, Alundyne gives Ywain a ring to
remind him of his promise to return within a year.
The ring is magic, and when worn by a true lover,
that lover cannot come to harm. In the French version,
Laudine (Alundyne in the English version)
tells Ywain: “No true love and faithful lover, if he
wears it, / can be imprisoned or lose any blood, /
nor any ill befall him” (italics added); in the Middle
English the third-person pronoun (“he,”
“him”), and the generalized, formalized standard
of behavior thus delineated, is replaced with the
second-person pronoun and the effect is both immediate
and specific: “An ay, whils 3e er trew of
love, / Over al sal 3e be above” (ll. 1,539–40, italics
added).With the emphasis on “3e” (“you”), the romance,
particularly in its dialogue, loses the
courtly distance that tends to present relations as
formalized style over content.
Like its French source, the Middle English version
shows Ywain’s unthinking betrayal of his lady,
the tensions between fealty to one’s lady and fealty
to one’s knightly endeavors, and the adventures
Ywain must undertake before, at the romance’s end,
he is reconciled with his bride; but throughout, the
poet edits, omits, and tightens the narrative, particularly
in his seeming indifference to his source’s
elaborate discussions of courtly love and courtly behavior.
Some scholars attribute the lack of emphasis
on the courtly to the poet’s focus on the essentials
of his story and his tailoring the romance to the sensibilities
of his audience (perhaps provincial and baronial).
What the poem loses in the way of elaborate
conceits and disquisitions on love, it gains in narrative
force, powerful language, and a lively and controlled
story line, all of which contribute to the
poem’s being considered one of the more successful
of the Middle English romances.
Friedman, Albert B., and Norman T.Harrington, eds.
Ywain and Gawain. London: Oxford University
Press, 1964.
Bollard, John K. “Hende wordes: The Theme of
Courtesy in Ywain and Gawain,”Neophilologus 78
(1994): 655–670.
Calf, Berenice-Eve S. “The Middle English Ywain and
Gawain: A Bibliography, 1777–1995,” Parergon 13
(1995): 1–24.
Hamilton, Gayle. “The Breaking of the Troth in
Ywain and Gawain,” Mediaevalia 2 (1976):
Matthews, David. “Translation and Ideology: The
Case of Ywain and Gawain,” Neophilologus 76
(1992): 452–463.
Elisa Narin van Court