When the eponymous hero of the late 14th-century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight enters the ‘wyldrenesse of Wyrale’ (wilderness of the Wirral) he encounters ‘wolues’ (wolves) and wild men called woodwose. On a trip to the Wirral, in late August last year, I had hoped for a woodwose and would have settled for a wolf, but found golf courses instead. My Ordnance Survey map told me there were 14 on the peninsula, which is now a suburb of Liverpool flanked by the rivers Dee and Mersey. The anonymous Gawain poet tells us that in this place, ‘Wonde þer bot lyte/þat auþer god oþer gome wyth goud hert louied’ (there lived but few who loved God or man with a good heart). Golf courses must be for the godless.
Sometimes a poem gets under your skin, but for me it was a manuscript: London, British Library Cotton MS Nero A x. This is the sole surviving copy of Gawain and three other untitled poems of the late 14th century. These works were later called Pearl, Patience and Cleanness by editors. They are thought to be the work of the same person on the basis of their style. (Some scholars also add another, Saint Erkenwald, which survives in British Library Harley MS 2250.)
The manuscript is unprepossessing. It is a bit brown and the scribal hand is functional, unremarkable, almost ugly. For Simon Armitage the scribe’s letter forms are ‘like crusading chess pieces’, which is a disservice to chessmen. Sometime after it was written, it was illustrated by an artist endowed with exuberance rather than skill. The figures which appear in the spaces left between the texts are an awkward afterthought, with simple faces and oversized heads. The ugliness and the singularity of this manuscript is part of its appeal to me: looking at it, you would have no idea what it contains. In the 17th century, it was in the possession of the antiquarian Robert Cotton (who kept it in a bookshelf topped with a bust of the Emperor Nero – hence the shelf mark). Cotton owned a lot of manuscripts which announce their value the moment you open them. The Lindisfarne Gospels – Cotton MS Nero D iv – is unashamedly showy. But the Gawain manuscript’s importance is less overt. A dubious acquaintance of mine once – hideously – admitted that he preferred chatting up ‘plain girls’ at parties, on the grounds that they reward the effort handsomely. But the same is true of manuscripts.
Cotton may not have known what he had. His librarian, Richard James, labelled the manuscript: ‘Vetus poema Anglicanum in quo sub insomnii figmento multa ad religionem et mores spectantia explicantur’ (a poem in old English explaining many religious and moral topics using the figure of the dream). It was not until the 19th century that the texts’ richness was recognised. In 1839, Frederic Madden, keeper of manuscripts at the British Museum, produced the first edition of Gawain, alongside other Arthurian texts. So, while Chaucer – a contemporary of the Gawain poet, whose work survives in many manuscripts – has been written about since his death, there is a gap in the critical history of these anonymous poems, which survive in just one unprepossessing manuscript.
The anonymity of the texts has led generations of scholars to search for an identifiable historical figure to associate the poems with. Ours is a culture that deifies authorship; the era of the Gawain poet cared less about it. In the absence of any other evidence about the author’s life, we have the manuscript: a tissue of clues, linguistic and palaeographical.
The language of the poems is full of little geolocating tells, which reveal that the manuscript was copied in a dialect of Middle English specific to the South-East Cheshire and North-East Staffordshire border. (The poet’s dialect is thought to be from a little further south.) This North-West Midlands version of Middle English is a different lexical cocktail to Chaucer’s London English. Chaucer’s English is the ancestor of Modern English and is thus recognisable to a modern reader. The Gawain poet’s language shows much less of the French influence that was the legacy of the Norman Conquest. Instead there are northerly inflections, with outlandish spellings and flickers of Norse strangeness.
We can splice these tells with a clutch of references to actual places in Gawain. While the locations described in Pearl, Patience and Cleanness are Biblical or mythical, Gawain describes its hero – a knight at the legendary court of King Arthur – on a journey to fulfil a promise made to a mysterious green-skinned knight. He travels past Anglesey, through North Wales and into the Wirral and then penetrates ‘countrayez straunge’ (countries strange). On a map, if you draw a circle around these places and extend it eastwards to take in the dialect location, you have what might be called Gawain country. So I ordered some old-fashioned maps and set off on a journey of my own, in search of the landscape the poet knew.
Birkenhead Priory, in the Wirral, was founded by Benedictine monks in 1150. From 1318, the brothers ran a ferry service across the Mersey by royal charter. If the poet crossed the Mersey, he likely crossed it here. Much of the priory was destroyed during the dissolution of the monasteries in the 1530s, although the chapter house (a meeting room) and scriptorium (a writing room) remain. In the 19th century a church was built on the site but, owing to the diminishing postwar population, it was substantially demolished in the 1970s. A clock tower with a spire and a couple of walls remain. This rare enclave of medieval red sandstone, nestled on Birkenhead’s urbanised, industrialised banks, is a metaphor for the ebb and flow of human activity. The priory is flanked on either side by dry docks operated by Cammel Laird. I was told these once employed 2000 workers but that now just 700 people work there. In Pearl (the first poem in the manuscript; Gawain is the last), the pearl-maiden discusses the parable of the workers in the vineyard (Matthew 20: 1-16), where we are told that ‘the kingdom of heaven is like to an householder, who went out early in the morning to hire labourers into his vineyard.’ The householder pays all the workers equally, irrespective of the hours they labour. As I stood in the chapter house, a piercing siren sounded from the dry dock next door – it was the 11 a.m. break for the workers. Cammel Laird doesn’t have the same employment policies as the kingdom of heaven.
I climbed the clock tower and looked across the Mersey to the Liverpool skyline – a tangle of buildings and cranes. I could see the red sandstone cathedral, and nearby the improbable wigwam of the Catholic Metropolitan Cathedral. Off to the left was the spindly radio tower, further on, factory chimneys. In Pearl, the dreamer-narrator looks across the stream at the Heavenly city of Jerusalem: he ‘blusched on þe burghe … Byȝonde þe brok’ (gazed on the city … beyond the stream). I tried to imagine what it would be like to see a cityscape as something of iridescent majesty.
What was once the priory’s scriptorium now houses memorabilia collected by the Friends of HMS Conway, a naval training ship which ran aground nearby. To the left of the door as you enter there is an open A4 plastic file displaying images of famous former Conway students. On the day I visited Iain Duncan Smith’s face was on show. I had come in search of the residues of a nameless poet: instead here was a ghoulish image of the MP for Chingford and Woodford Green. The word ‘memorabilia’ didn’t appear in English until the mid-19th century. The idea that you might collect physical objects whose purpose, beyond any intrinsic value, is to trigger memory, seems strange to me. Memorabilia transmutes the past into something small and kitsch. I suspect the Gawain poet would have thought so too, as his texts, though they delight in their own artistry, contain no trace or reminder of the poet who made them. Unlike some medieval poets (Layamon, Chaucer, Lydgate) who embedded their names in their works, using their authorial personae in frame narratives, the Gawain poet seemingly made no effort to do so. His texts are the opposite of memorabilia.
This is surprising given the texts’ complexity. Pearl – the opening poem of the manuscript – has an intricate structure and is steeped in numerology. The poem is 1212 lines long and is made up of 12-line stanzas. This is in homage to the heavenly Jerusalem (described in the poem’s final section) which is 12,000 furlongs long and has 12 gates, each of which is set with pearls. The stanzas are grouped into sets of five, but the fifteenth set contains an extra stanza, which brings the total number of stanzas to 101 – the same number as in Gawain. Multiple rhyme-schemes operate in Pearl. It is end-rhymed, but also alliterative. And it has a concatenating rhyme scheme, whereby each stanza-set is held together by a ‘concatenation’ word or phrase appearing at the beginning and end of each stanza. The first line of each section picks up and dismisses the concatenation word from the previous section – the final line of the poem echoing the first. As Armitage puts it, this is ‘a sort of poetic passing of the baton’.
Leaving the priory, I intended to walk along the shoreline, but came immediately to a large industrial estate. This was indeed a ‘wyldrenesse of Wyrale’. Through the wire fence I looked at fractured concrete and blank, corrugated buildings. At my feet tenacious buddleia grew among plastic and aluminium detritus. I made it eventually to the shoreline by Rock Park – a row of stately Victorian villas overlooking the Mersey, now in varying states of splendid decay. The curator at Birkenhead Priory had told me that the Benedictine brothers had once gathered oysters along the shore: ‘It’s hard to imagine now,’ he said, ‘but once the Mersey was gin-clear.’ In Pearl, the narrator describes a stream whose bed is made of jewelled rocks. I suppose it had to be gin-clear for the rocks to be visible. I wandered along the brown sand and picked up a small, white scallop shell – the badge of St James’s pilgrims. According to one medieval legend, after James’s death his coffin was loaded onto a boat which was shipwrecked. James’s body was subsequently washed ashore, uncorrupted and covered in scallop shells. St James is one of the figures who appears in the stained-glass window of the chapter house in Birkenhead Priory, installed in 1913 by Sydney Marsden, a local health inspector. The shell seemed appropriate for my odd pilgrimage.
I had begun in the Peak District, looking for one of the putative sites of the ‘Grene Chapayle’ described at the end of Gawain. A possible candidate is Thor’s Cave in the Manifold Valley: the origin of the name Manifold (which is a tributary of the River Dove) is apparently ‘manig’ (Old English ‘many’) and ‘folds’, for the way the river winds through the valley. Walking through it, I remembered Coleridge’s ‘Kubla Khan’ – ‘so five miles meandering with a mazy motion’ – and thought about the disjunction between my own conception of landscape, filtered through Romantic writers, and that of the Gawain poet. On a walking tour in June 1818, in Cumbria, John Keats wrote to his brother, ‘I shall henceforth write more than ever, for the abstract endeavour of being able to add a mite to that mass of beauty which is harvested from these grand materials.’ When Gawain sets off into the wilderness, he is not moved by the grand materials and he certainly isn’t harvesting. The word ‘landscape’ would have been unknown to the Gawain poet; its first recorded use is at the end of the 16th century. Landscape in Gawain is not so much an entity in itself as an absence. It is a place devoid of community, a place that shows Gawain he is separated from his society, and also perhaps from God:
Ner slayn wyth þe slete he sleped in his yrnes
Mo nyȝtez þen innoghe in naked rokkez
Þeras claterande fro þe crest þe colde borne rennez
And henged heȝe ouer his hede in hard iisseikkles
Þus in peril and payne plytes ful harde
Bi contray caryes þis knyȝt tyl Krystmasse Euen
Þe knyȝt wel þat tyde
To Mary made his mone,
Þat ho hym red to ryde
And wysse hym to sum wone
Near slain with the sleet, he slept in his irons
Nights enough, amid naked rocks
From the crests of which, cold streams clattered
Or hung in icicles, high overhead
Thus, in peril and pain, he suffered this plight
Drawn through strange lands ’til Christmas Eve
And at that holy tide
To Mary made request
That with him she’d ride
To some place of rest
Here Gawain uses a verse form called the ‘bob and wheel’ whereby each stanza ends with a short half line of only two syllables (the bob), followed by a four-line mini-stanza of longer lines which use couplet-rhyme (the wheel). The poet uses this over 2500 lines of verse, in an almost absurd display of metrical dexterity. In this land of ‘iisseikkles’ and cold ‘borne[s]’, Gawain is without friends. The choice of the word ‘alone’ for the ‘bob’ is apposite – standing out starkly on the manuscript page. By enclosing Mary and Gawain in the shorter, couplet-rhyming ‘wheel’, the plea has a particular anguish: visually the pair are cosily collocated in the intimate space of the wheel, but semantically the wheel stanza conveys how distant the two are.
Unlike Gawain, I felt no sense of social exile in the Peak District. Everywhere I went, I was met by fellow walkers. They were all gore-texed, booted and cheerful, although none were alone, as I was: I thought about Cleanness, in which a guest is ejected from a wedding feast for being inappropriately dressed (as in Matthew 22:1-14). These walkers were also adhering to a dress code – a code of the sensible and the outdoor.
The wild landscape in Gawain is closer to the foul, unforgiving belly of the whale in which Jonah finds himself in Patience, than it is to any Romantic ideal. The whale’s insides are described as ‘brod as a halle’. Jonah ‘glydes in by þe giles þurȝ glaym ande glette’ (glides in by the gills through slime and filth), and ‘nowhere he fyndez/No rest ne recouerer, bot ramel ande myre’ (nowhere he finds/No rest or respite, only muck and mire). This vile and lonely situation symbolises Jonah’s abandonment by God and rejection by his fellow sailors, who have thrown him overboard.
By contrast, in Pearl the locations that are celebrated are seemingly created by human hands. The dream vision of Pearl takes place in an ‘erber grene’. An ‘erbere’ or ‘herber’ is a ‘pleasure garden’, or as the Middle English Dictionary explains: ‘a bower covered with flowers, vines, shrubs, or the like; an arbor’. In this place ‘Gilofre, gyngure and gromylyoun’ (gillyflower, ginger and gromwell) grow. It is a manicured landscape, a place tended by human hands. Indeed, the word ‘paradise’ is derived from ancient Greek παράδεισος, meaning ‘enclosed park, orchard, or pleasure ground’. A pleasure ground like a golf course, perhaps?
Later in Pearl, it’s an urban space that offers the greatest promise – the vision of the Heavenly Jerusalem from the Book of Revelation. On the final day of my trip I climbed a hill in North Wales near the town of Mold and looked out over the Dee. Everywhere were human marks on the landscape. I feel Gawain would have liked this view, with its factory chimneys and wind turbines – it would have suggested community to him. What was jarring to me might have comforted him.
Much of my journey had felt jarring. In the Peak District I also went to Lud’s Church – another Green Chapel candidate. Lud’s is a fissure in the sandstone grit, which you could easily miss if it weren’t signposted. Gawain is brought to the Green Chapel by a guide, who subsequently deserts him. On my way there, I got characteristically lost and would have been glad of a guide, even one who went on to abandon me. According to one source, the fissure was a refuge for persecuted Lollards in the 15th century. It is mossy green and degrees colder than the oak and beech woods that surround it. Again, I couldn’t quite dislodge Coleridge, or, indeed, modernity. In Xanadu there is a ‘deep romantic chasm which slanted/down the green hill athwart a cedar cover’. The chasm is ‘haunted/by woman wailing for her demon lover’. On the August Bank Holiday, the chasm was haunted by squawking children. I had hoped I might arrive in a velvety silence and be allowed to imagine the sound of an axe being sharpened – as Gawain does, to his horror. So I was pleased to get out of Lud’s Church at the top, and follow a path up the hill, through heather and sparsely planted silver birch, onto the moor-top. Above the valley, it was silent apart from the rasp of a raven. I thought of Noah after the flood, in Cleanness, sending out ‘þe rauen so ronk, þat rebel watz euer’ (the raven so rank, ever the rebel).
In Cleanness God tells of a ‘rayne [that] schal swyþe/ Þat schal wasch alle þe worlde of werkez of fylþe’ (rain that swiftly/Shall wash all the world of works of filth). This came to mind in North Wales when I visited St Winefride’s Well, in Holywell. The town’s signposts proudly name it ‘the Lourdes of Wales’. Gawain’s journey involved crossing the Dee into the Wirral, probably at Aldford. The poet may have known this sacred well, which is a mile inland and twenty miles from Aldford. It has been a continuous site of pilgrimage since at least the 12th century and probably much earlier. St Winefride was a seventh-century Welsh woman who wanted to be a nun. She was courted by a man named Caradog, but rejected his advances. The scorned Caradog decapitated her, and a spring welled up from the place her head fell. The story has parallels with Gawain, who beheads the Green Knight without killing him. Entering through the gift shop at St Winefride’s I paid a pound and was given a clear plastic cup: ‘for the holy water’ the shop assistant said, helpfully. I duly filled my cup from the pump beside the well. It tasted much like water.