Saturday, February 22, 2014

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and The Faerie Queene Book 1

Title: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Author: This book was translated by J.R.R. Tolkien

Brief synopsis: Sir Gawain, one of King Arthur's knights, accepts an exchange of strokes with a giant green man. He must find the man before the year is up, but is detained at a mysterious castle where the owner's wife tries to seduce him.

Full synopsis (spoilers): It's Christmastime in King Arthur's Court! The King and his Knights are having a jolly time eating, drinking, and listening to stories... when they are interrupted. A huge man, green from head to toe, comes into the hall and challenges one of the men to an "exchange of strokes." This means that whoever accepts the challenge will hit the Green Knight with an axe, and the green knight will return the stroke.
Sir Gawain, the young, inexperienced nephew of King Arthur accepts the challenge and swings the axe so hard that the head rolls from the other knight's shoulders! Everyone in court is surprised when the head continues to speak. It tells Sir Gawain that he needs to find the Green Knight within a year to finish the exchange. Then the knight picks up his head and rides off.
One and another thing happens and a whole year passes by. Round about Christmastime the next year, Gawain remembers his commitment and starts off on a journey through the cold and snow to find the Green Knight.
He's cold, hungry, and wet when he comes across a castle that seemingly appears out of no where in the woods. He decides to approach and see if they'll let him stay for a day or two to warm up, restock his supplies, and go to Mass.
They agree, and treat him like a prince. The master of the castle persuades him to stay many more days than he had intended, and to have a little exchange. Every day, the master will go out and hunt in the forest and give Sir Gawain everything he catches. In the same way, Gawain will give the prince everything he receives during the day.
The next morning, the master goes out and hunts. When Gawain wakes up, he finds the master's wife in his room. She tries to seduce him, but he steadily refuses and only allows her to give him a kiss on the cheek. Later, the master gives Gawain all the bucks he caught, and Gawain gives him a kiss on the cheek.
The next day, the same thing happens.
On the third day, the master's wife persuades Sir Gawain to take a sash that will make him unable to lose a fight. Gawain is interested because he doesn't want to lose the fight with the Green Knight. So he takes the sash and hides it, so he won't have to give it to the master.
The next day, Gawain returns to his quest and finds the Green Knight (who wasn't very far away). The Green Knight is about to whack Gawain with the axe, when Gawain flinches and the Green Knight rebukes him for cowardice. Gawain says to try it again, he won't flinch this time. So the Green Knight readies the axe, but once more stops mid-swing. "Good, you didn't flinch this time," he says. Gawain, getting frustrated, tells the knight to just strike him and get it over with. Gawain is convinced the Green Knight will kill him. The Green Knight finally strikes Gawain, but only hard enough to break the skin.
He tells Gawain that those three "strokes" were for the three days that Gawain spent with the master and his wife. The cut is because Gawain withheld the sash from the master... who turns out to be the Green Knight! He explains that Morgan le Fey put him under a spell to make him a green giant, so that he could go to King Arthur's court and hopefully scare Queen Guinevere to death.
Gawain is very embarrassed and angry that he took the sash and tries to give it back. The master just laughs - his wife was in on it the whole time. They were testing him. He makes Gawain keep the sash and Gawain returns home. He decides to always wear the sash on his head all the time so it will reminded him to be knightly. All the other knights, after hearing his story, decide to wear sashes on their heads as well, so he won't be the only one.

Rating: 8 out of 10 stars (maybe one of those stars is simply because Tolkien wrote it...)

What I liked/general comments: I can't resist a little good alliteration. This book is full of it. Each line has it's own "letter." For example...
After the season of summer with its soft breezes,
when Zephyr goes sighing through seeds and herbs,
right glad is the grass that grows in the open,
when the damp dewdrops are dripping from the leaves,
to greet a gay glance of the glistening sun.
pg. 35 (of my version), section 23.
The whole entire book is like that! It's really fun to read it out loud. Try it!
That's probably my number one reason that I enjoyed the book. The storyline was nice too, and the descriptions were beautiful.
And, of course, Tolkien translated it so that automatically makes this a good book. ;) The introduction says that he worked on this for a long while, trying out different translating techniques. He wanted it to be as close to the original manuscript as possible. He could never get it just right, and died before he was able to finish. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, along with two other poems that comes from the same collection, were published by Christopher Tolkien after his father's death. He finished the translations himself, in the way that he thought his father would have/the way Tolkien's notes indicated he wanted them to be finished.
It's been so long since I finished this book that I forget much else!

What I didn't like/things you should know: The plot is kind of patchy in parts... I feel like it's barely holding together. Why did Morgan le Fey want to kill Guinevere? Why did the Green Knight and his wife want to test Sir Gawain?
Also, just as a warning... the Green Knight's wife does try to seduce Sir Gawain. He steadily refuses her. It's really more of a flirtation than an actual seducement... nothing bad happens and it's totally PG, but I just thought I'd let you know.

Would I recommend this book? I would! I think fans of poetry, King Arthur, alliteration, and Tolkien will enjoy this book.

Title: The Faerie Queene Book 1

Author: Edmund Spenser

Brief synopsis: A knight escorts a princess to find her besieged parents. They are separated by the forces of evil and each must persevere so that they can reach their goal.
Full synopsis: The Redcrosse Knight is Princess Una's escort. He is taking her to her parents, who are besieged by a dragon. It is his quest to slay the dragon and free Una's people. Also travelling with them is a Dwarfe.
On the way, they come across a cave, where there is another dragon. The Redcrosse Knight kills it and it's babies eat the corpse, filling themselves until they explode (no, literally).
Then the Knight and Una come across an old man, who offers to let them stay the night in his abode. They agree. But little do they know that he's a sorcerer, bent on separating them. He does so, by making the Knight dream that Una is trying to seduce him. The Knight, who believed Una better and purer than that, deserts her in the morning.
He comes across a man and a woman travelling. Believing that the woman is a damsel in distress, he kills the man, whose name is Sansfoy. The woman, named Duessa, wasn't really in any danger. She was travelling with Sansfoy on purpose. But when the Knight rescues her, she decides to play the part of a woman in danger. They travel together and meet a talking tree, who says that he was in love with two women and when he chose one over the other, she tuned both him and his lover into trees. Unknown to the Redcrosse Knight, Duessa is the other woman. She's really an evil temptress who has disguised her oldness to look like a beautiful young woman.
Meanwhile, Una wakes up all alone and sets off to find the Redcrosse Knight. In the forest she runs into a lyon (lion) who becomes her companion and protector. When they shelter in a house, the lyon kills a man and they have to run away. They run into the Knight! Only it isn't the knight, it's the sorcerer, Archimago, in disguise! Una and the lyon travel with him until they are attacked by Sansfoy's brother Sansloy. Sansloy "kills" Archimego and the lyon, and takes Una.
Meanwhile, the Redcrosse Knight and Duessa visit the house of the seven deadly sins. There they find Sansfoy and Sansloy's other brother Sansjoy, who challenges the Knight to a duel for killing Sansfoy. They fight each other and are both grievously wounded. The Knight recuperates in the house of Pride, and Duessa mourns over his wounds. When he falls asleep, she goes to Sansjoy and takes him down to hell for the healing of his wounds.
When Duessa returns, she finds that the Redcrosse Knight has fled because the Dwarfe told him the fate of those who stay in Pride's house: death in the dungeon.
In the forest, Sansloy tries to seduce Una, but her cries bring Satyres out of the forest to her rescue. They take her away and make her their object of worship. She tells them that God is the one they should be worshipping.
Satyrane, who is half Satyre, half human, befriends Una and helps her to escape. They travel together until they meet Archimego - this time disguised as a pilgrim - who tells them that Sansloy is in a nearby wood. Satyrane goes to fight Sansloy and they get locked in a bloody battle. Una runs away and Archimego follows her.
The Knight, meanwhile, has found a fountain. He drinks of it and it makes him lose all his strength. Duessa finds him and just then they are attacked by a giant! The Knight isn't able to defend them, but Duessa dissuades the Gyaunt from killing them by suggesting she becomes his mistress. The Redcrosse Knight is thrown into the dungeon, and Duessa lives upstairs, dressed in rich clothes.
Una meets up with the Dwarfe and tells him her tale of woe. The Dwarfe tells Una that the Knight is in a nearby dungeon. On their way there, they run into Prince Arthur, who offers to help free the Knight.
Arthur kills the Giant, the Knight is found, and Duessa is stripped. They see that she's really only an old hag and they let her run away.
After Arthur tells them his history, he departs one way, and Una and the Knight another way. The Knight and Una come across a man fleeing from Despair. The Knight wants to meet this Despair and kill him so he doesn't cause anyone more harm. Instead, the Knight falls into despair himself and is rescued from suicide from Una, who then takes him to a house of healing where his wounds (both physical and spiritual) are healed. He learns about God and being virtuous. We also learn about his past... he was a changeling, raised by fairies.
The Knight and Una leave the house of healing, much refreshed, and continue on their journey. Finally they reach Una's besieged parents and the Knight and the Dragon begin to fight.
The Knight is able to hurt the dragon, but not enough. The dragon wounds him and pushes him into a fountain - which is really a fountain of healing. The Knight's wounds are healed and the next morning, he is able to fight again. The same thing happens - the Knight hurts the dragon, but the dragon mortally wounds the Knight in return. This time, the Knight is pushed into a healing salve from the Tree of Life. The next morning when he awakes, he is healed and able to fight again. He slays the dragon, and Una, who was watching from a nearby hill, comes to rejoice with him.
Una is reunited with her family and the king gives Una's hand to the Knight. They are going to be married when a messenger comes in claiming that the Knight is already engaged to his mistress! It turns out that the messenger is Archimego in disguise, and the woman is Duessa. Archimego and Duessa are found out and thrown into the dungeon. There is a big celebration before the Knight leaves to go and serve his Faerie Queene for six years as a knight.

Rating: 8 out of 10 stars.

What I liked/general comments: At first I was planning on giving this book a rating of six or seven stars because it was difficult to get through, but then we had our book discussion and WOW! I decided to raise my rating because there is SO much more behind the story than you would originally imagine. It's a huge allegory!
At first glance, The Faerie Queene (book 1) is a story of gallantry, adventure, and love. It's also epic poetry, and therefore (for me), difficult to get through, especially because it's written all in Old English (though that was kind of fun... it was kind of like a game: decode the Old English to find out what happens next!). But if you dig deeper, you find that everyone in this story is a representation of a real someone, or of something that was happening at the time of Edmund Spenser.
Spenser lived in the later half of the sixteenth century (1550ish-1599) during a time of spiritual upheaval in England. There was a lot of tension between the Church of England and the Catholic church (but since I don't know too much about it, I'm going to stop there so I don't say something false) and that makes it's way into the book.
Here is some of the allegory throughout the book:
The Redcrosse Knight represents holiness, and Una represents truth.
Archimago (whom my mother calls "Archie-Magoo") represents hypocrisy, and Duessa represents falsehood. Throughout the whole book, Hypocrisy and Falsehood try and separate Holiness and Truth.
The three 'sans brothers... Sansfoy is faithlessness, Sansloy is lawlessness, and Sansjoy is joylessness. (Sans: without. Joy/foy/loy: joy, faith, law. They are basically exactly as their names state!)
The first dragon that the Redcrosse Knight meets with in canto one represents the devil, but also one side of the church. The dragon is vomiting up books, with represent decrees that the church has made (and I believe it's the Church of England, but I'm not sure). When the dragon dies, her babies, which represent lies, eat her up, and then explode.
Prince Arthur, as in many versions of his story, represents a sort of Christ-like figure; perfect, chivalrous, magnificent, without fault.
When the Redcrosse Knight and Duessa come across the seven deadly sins, they are each represented by a person who is sitting on a fitting animal... for example, Gluttony is riding on a pig.
There are a thousand more (and, by the way, I didn't figure all these out. They were in the annotated notes that were suggested by the textbook) including allusions to New Jerusalem, the story of Christ, Satan, the restoration of being saved by Christ.
My favorite allegorical connection is the Dwarfe. He's mentioned at the beginning, and then disappears from the story for awhile. Then he all of a sudden shows up again when the Redcrosse Knight is in the House of Pride. After he tells the Knight of the danger that he's in, and the Knight leaves, the Dwarfe disappears again, only to show up a little later with Una.
He represents common sense, and only shows up in the story when common sense is needed.
Isn't that the coolest thing ever?
All of the allegory is amazing and has so much more meaning when reading the story. The Faerie Queene, who is only briefly mentioned a few times, is supposed to represent the Queen, who Spenser really liked.
The Faerie Queene was supposed to be twelve books, depicting twelve different virtues in twelve different knights, but only the first six books were published, and then Spenser died.
Anyway, the allegory isn't the only thing I liked about this book. It also has a fantastic atmosphere to it. It's almost fantasy... but not quite. It definitely has the mythical creatures (satyres and a giant). And I love the knights and the chivalry and the quest and the dragons. There are so many characters, and different adventures. It's really a lovely book. It's one of the influences for the new fantasy story I'm working on. I just love the - well, atmosphere is really the only word I can use to describe it. The book just has a certain feeling to it. I think that the allegory definitely lends to it... but also just the chivalry, and the realness of the Redcrosse Knight. He's not the perfect hero. He falls into temptation when he starts travelling with Duessa, and is later redeemed when he goes to the houses of healing and learns about Jesus and right. And through it all, Una loves him and is able to forgive him.

What I didn't like/things you should know: Some scenes are a little strange... like when Duessa takes one of the 'sans brothers down to hell for healing. That was a little weird. I'm pretty sure there were a few other scenes that I was a little worried would go a way that I wouldn't want to read... but then didn't, so it was all alright.
The only other thing is that, despite it's attractions, this book is written in Old English, and is an epic poem, and is hard to get through for someone who isn't used to reading books like that. There were times, oh, many times, when I wished that I could just go and read the sparknotes (most of the time I had to read them after reading each canto anyway, to make sure I understood what happened) instead of the actual book. Some descriptions went on and on (especially the house of healing part) and I just wished it would be over. But then something exciting would happen, and it would alright for awhile again. It is a feat to get through this book, but worth it, I think.

Would I recommend this book? Yes, I would - but only to those really interested in it. I think that a person who isn't interested in epic poetry or beautiful, complicated, difficult to read language, who is used to modern books, probably would end up hating The Faerie Queene. Even people who are interested in those things, might quite possibly get bored with it.
Someday when I have more time (like, a super duper lot of time) I'd like to go back and really study the Faerie Queene - and read the other books too. I think it'd be super fun to take an in-depth course on it, because I really think it's a fantastic example of a great story.
So why'd I do Sir Gawain and The Faerie Queene together in one review? Well, we had to study them together in the same unit for literature... though I don't know why, because The Faerie Queene deserved it's own unit. (I think they were put together because both of them were, roughly speaking, "Arthurian legend.")
But that's not why I put them together! I put them together because, surprisingly, they have similar parallels between their stories.
King Arthur is definitely one of them. But the biggest parallel is the chivalry.
Both of the knights (Gawain and Redcrosse) face temptation in the books. Both of them stumble and fall, but both get back up again, and decide to redeem. As a result, they become better, more virtuous, people. I really like that. I think that boys in today's world should go and read Arthurian legends, because if nothing else, they'll learn about the code of chivalry that the knights followed.

So there are two of my long overdue literature reviews! I've been trying to write this post for months!
Now I'm off to write by own epic adventure.

Live long and prosper.

P.S. Sorry about the huge spaces between paragraphs sometimes... Blogger has decided it doesn't like me using Google, and therefore I'm having problems with paragraphing and uploading pictures (unless I go to another browser).

1 comment:

  1. I've been meaning to read Sir Gawain for a long time now but I keep forgetting. I need to get it from my library, maybe when I get back from vacation. The Faerie Queen sounds interesting. I might have to see if I can find it and give it a try.

    I am glad you like the idea of my Wizards! I had fun with them. Druids....that is a good idea! You should put some in your book!