The Knightly Tale of Gologras and Gawain: Introduction

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The Knightly Tale of Gologras and Gawain: Introduction

The Knightly Tale of Gologras and Gawain rivals the Alliterative Morte Arthure as the single richest and most impressive romance of arms and battle that survives from late medieval Britain. In its passionate attention to the details and motives of combat and its dedication to the honor of individual knights and the glory of chivalry, Gologras offers a vigorous celebration of rule-bound yet unrestrained violence. The poem reads and resonates as a literary counterpart of the lavish ornamentation and conspicuous consumption that mark the chivalry it describes: specialized terms proliferate for knightly livery, armor, swordplay, combat, horsemanship, landscape, and for the coded behaviors that define aristocratic courtesy and honor. This huge and difficult vocabulary, the poem's exceptionally demanding rhyme scheme and alliteration, and the formidable Scots dialect in which it survives (together with the general unavailability of the text) have given Gawain and Gologras many fewer readers than the energy and excitement of the poem otherwise would claim.

The plot of Gologras consists of two distinct episodes, the second almost four times the first in length. The two separate parts work together to produce a unified meaning, though not, as in Awntyrs, through a diptych-style, contrastive structure; in Gologras the two parts relate almost as orders of architecture, in which the larger structure both repeats and supports the smaller unit. The poem's second episode in this way recapitulates, and greatly elaborates, the pattern of action and meaning in the first part. In view of Gologras' density and unfamiliarity, a summary of its action may prove helpful. As in the Alliterative Morte Arthure, Arthur and his knights undertake an expedition to Italy; in Gologras, however, his purpose is pilgrimage rather than conquest, and his ultimate destination is the Holy Land. Just at the point when the supplies and strength of the Arthurian entourage are exhausted, they come upon "ane cieté . . . With torris and turatis" (lines 41-42). The location is ostensibly France west of the Rhone, though the descriptions of landscapes and fortifications, here and in the second part, conform strikingly to the border areas between Scotland and England, where the poem originates. Sir Kay (as he does in Carlisle) attempts simply to expropriate the goods needed by the army, and suffers a humiliating thrashing; Gawain then asks courteously for assistance from the unnamed lord, who puts all of his people and possessions at the disposal of the Round Table. Arthur and his knights refresh themselves, offer proper thanks, and then continue on their way (line 221).

En route to Jerusalem, Arthur notes a handsome and well-fortified castle, "the seymliast sicht that ever couth I se" (line 255). The text locates this castle "On the riche river of Rone" (line 1345; see line 310 and note), though again descriptions resonate with northern Britain. Sir Spynagros (who serves as commentator throughout the second episode) explains that the seigneur of this castle, who turns out to be Sir Gologras, owes allegiance to no lord. This news appalls the King, who vows to gain lordship over Gologras at any cost. After completing their pilgrimage to the Holy Land, Arthur and his knights besiege Gologras, and the poem recounts in detail a series of ringing but costly combats, which culminate in a hand-to-hand encounter between Sir Gawain and Sir Gologras. Like Sir Galeron in Awntyrs, this opponent nearly prevails through his knightly skill and endurance, but in the end Arthur's nephew triumphs. In defeat, Gologras demands to die honorably by Gawain's hand. At Gawain's urgent beseeching, he finally agrees to keep his life, but on one condition: Gawain must give the appearance of defeat at Gologras' hand, and, at the risk of his life, return with the apparent victor to face Gologras' vassals in the castle. In accord with his own perfect courtesy and his conviction of Gologras' impeccable honor, Gawain agrees. Faced with this extraordinary display of knightly troth, Gologras' people accept fealty to their lord's conqueror, Gawain, and implicitly to their new lord's lord, Arthur. The progress of Gawain, Gologras, and his knights to Arthur's camp at first gives the King a fright, but the poem ends with Gologras pledging his loyalty to the King, and with Arthur in turn courteously releasing his allegiance in the last lines.

The reduplicating plots of Gologras set up an economy of chivalric honor that produces all gains and no losses. Despite Kay's humiliation, Gologras' defeat, and even deaths on both sides during the siege, the honor of all involved (except perhaps for Kay) increases. The reciprocity of honor emerges clearly in the initial episode: first the anonymous knight establishes his rightful lordship within his own domain, as Gawain acknowledges (lines 146-47). Then, by freely and courteously receiving Arthur - returning to him "his awin" (line 153) - he implicitly concedes the King's sovereignty, while he also enlarges his own worship. In such scenes, Gologras presents courtesy as a rich and subtle ritual of cultural communication; self-control operates not as an internal discipline alone, but paradoxically as a spectacle of restraint. As in Carlisle, Gawain demonstrates his knightly superiority to Kay by refusing to do, or even claim, all he might, in the presence of an inferior; he makes a show of his physical and moral force not through coercion, but through honorable submission, which directly produces more honor and more submission.

The representation of chivalry in Gologras thus makes courtesy an infinitely subtle concoction of repression and assertion. This emerges most explicitly in the "devis" or charade by which Gawain allows Gologras to save face (lines 1090 ff.), putting aside the immediate opportunity to kill his opponent for the chance of a more willing and complete submission by Gologras later. Both knights' show of composure, or even of a passionate insouciance, in the face of deeply felt disappointment or terrible danger, provides an index of their extraordinary honor and courtesy. This comes through as well in Gologras' grim determination that he appear "mery" (lines 769 ff.), whatever anyone thinks. Gologras' resolve recalls Gawain's own remarkable performance in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight when, on the last night before his fateful appointment with the Green Knight, he seems to all at Bertilak's castle merrier than ever before. The entrenchment of chivalric values, within art and life equally, is strikingly conveyed by Froissart's anecdote of Edward III asking Sir John Chandos to join the minstrels in singing a dance song just as he was about to join battle with the Spanish at Winchelsea. Such behaviors advertise not the loss of senses or extreme frivolity, but quite the opposite: an unwavering show of disregard of danger, a conspicuous consumption of valuable time, a commitment to the pleasurable and admiring gaze of others. As Froissart says, Edward "was in a gayer mood than he had ever been seen before . . . his knights were cheerful at seeing him so cheerful" (Froissart: Chronicles, trans. Geoffrey Brereton [Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1968], p. 115). Gologras' chivalry thus insists upon both the extraordinary character of such a gesture towards ordinariness, and upon the fact that above all it is a gesture - a social communication from which others may take heart.

In Gologras, as at Winchelsea, such flagrant restraint takes its full meaning by being set against the extraordinary violence surrounding it. Where even the show of composure - the refusal of reaction - is a revealing action, a knight is what he does. Accordingly, the narrative gives little space to psychology or internal reflection. Indeed, calculation is, in a chivalric context, a bad thing: Gawain's immediate acceptance of Gologras' unorthodox terms (he pauses just long enough to spell out to the audience precisely how high the stakes are, lines 1103 ff.) enacts his peculiar courtesy, unhesitating and almost reckless. As Arthur later says, with a mix of fatherly worry and knightly exultation, "This is ane soveranefull thing, be Jhesu, think I, / To leif in sic perell, and in sa grete plight" (lines 1304-05). Through this action, Gawain stands to lose nothing, except his life, and as both title characters have pointed out earlier (lines 808 ff. and 1073 ff.), loving one's life is a major impediment to chivalric renown. What Gawain stands to gain, for himself and for all his companions and opponents, is honor: his risk allows Gologras to save face in the immediate situation, before his own vassals, and, what is more, he gives Gologras the chance to reciprocate and so increase his own honor by sparing Gawain in turn when he has the physical force to crush him. Gologras' submission to Gawain, not under constraint on the battlefield, but freely in his own stronghold, reprises Gawain's own gracious and unconstrained deference, and foreshadows Gologras' consequent obeisance to Gawain's lord, Arthur. Such narrative patterning makes the final ripple in this sequence of reciprocal honor seem inevitable: Arthur freely returns to Gologras his own lordship. This edict, issued in the last stanza of the poem, leaves Gologras outside the Arthurian fellowship, and so creates a failure of inclusion that is unusual in popular romance. Gologras more than compensates for this slight gap in political cohesion through the unrelieved masculinity of the poem's world; the almost complete absence of women from the action, and the emphasis on violence and direct confrontation, carry through a process of generalized male identification and bonding that far surpass any overt breaks in allegiance.

In Gologras then, if honor and courtesy contain violence, violence no less contains courtesy. Gologras' superb and profoundly disturbing celebration of the mutual implication of courtesy and violence, of the simultaneous containment and production of these apparent opposites within chivalry, stands out, appropriately and most strikingly, at the narrative center of the poem - in the long, gritty, ritualized combat between the title characters (lines 778-1129). The blunt materiality of this diehard performance - the stress and pain endured by the horses, the lavishness of war gear, the bodily hurt the knights expertly wreak on each other, the effort of moving in armor (ever greater as the fight proceeds) - hammers home the prodigal expense of spirit at the heart of chivalry. Only knights with so much to lose, and whose worth and valor depend not just on accepting but on seeking such loss, can make manifest, to the spectators in the poem as to its listeners and readers, at what cost chivalry purchases its glory.

Because honor is constrained in this way, raw violence and risk form the substance of Gologras only insofar as they are able to be transformed by chivalric codes and appreciated by an informed audience. Within the poem, this appreciation consists mainly in spectatorship - the expert yet emotionally engaged scrutiny of the action by Arthur and his knights, by Gologras and his vassals and ladies, and, especially by Sir Spynagros. This knight - whose invented name distinctly recalls that of Gologras, and who thus links the two opposing camps - appears in no other Arthurian romance, and seems to have been created expressly to serve as narrator and advisor within Gologras. His continual interventions and elucidations of the action underscore the ways in which external appearance, speech events, and social rituals demand interpretation. His running commentary - on political relations, the protocols of combat, the demeanor of knights in battle, the meaning of ringing bells and torchlit processions - has a double effect. It explains particular goings on, but implies as well the necessity everywhere of cultural explication - technical, moral, political - for those within the poem, as well as for its listeners and readers. A typical instance occurs towards the end of the poem, when Spynagros calms the king and his knights by reading the clothing and demeanor of Gologras and his company, as they proceed towards the Arthurian camp:
"Yone riche cummis arait in riche robbing . . .
Betwix Schir Gologras and he
Gude contenance I se."
(lines 1265-69)
This sense of a person's look, dress, or actions as a form of display available at all times to the gaze of others - and thereby the core of identity, and the potential source of shame or honor conferred by others - underlies all the lavish description and versification of Gologras.

The two episodes that make up Gologras are drawn from a French romance, the First Continuation of Chrétien de Troyes' Percival. The second of these tells of the siege of Chastel Orguellous; Gologras, who appears in no other Arthurian romance, thus possesses what might seem a quasi-allegorical name (akin to Edmund Spenser's Orgoglio), derived from the Castle of Pride. Gologras acts out of an idealized chivalric honor, yet he is hardly an emblem of pride, for he embodies an ethos of knightly action rooted in broad social sympathies and concrete description. Gologras seems to have been written not long before the Scots printers, Andrew Chepman and David Myllar, published the poem at Edinburgh in 1508. It is among the first half dozen books to be issued from the press in Scotland, and is written in a Middle Scots dialect that has much in common with the vocabulary and forms of Awntyrs, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and other northern Middle English alliterative poems. Its thirteen-line stanza form, identical to that of Awntyrs, is among the most complicated in English: the first nine lines are alliterative long lines, using traditional concatenating patterns of sound and formulaic phrases with a density surpassed by only two or three other Middle English poems. The last four lines of each stanza are short, two-stress lines forming a separate quatrain (a "wheel"), though linked by final rhyme to the ninth line. The rhyme scheme is ababababcdddc. The form of Gologras, therefore, and its very words, phrases, and formulas, give further expression to the ostentatious display its narrative describes. In all these respects, Gologras occupies an extraordinary cultural moment, when oral narrative traditions, the aristocratic shame culture of chivalry, high literary sensibility, the cult of Arthur and his nephew Gawain, and the mass production of print culture come together.

The Text

Gologras was printed by Chepman and Myllar in 1508; only one copy of this edition remains, in the National Library of Scotland (Advocates Library H.30.a). The text was published again by J. Pinkerton in 1792. In 1827 David Laing created a facsimile of Chepman and Myllar's type, and issued what is thus a type facsimile of the black letter edition; Laing edited and corrected the text, however, so it is by no means identical to Chepman and Myllar. Madden based his edition upon the 1827 type facsimile reprint, not upon the Chepman-Myllar print. The facsimile of Chepman-Myllar edited by Beattie in 1950 makes the original print available to all readers, and I have worked from that. Amours' astonishingly learned and careful Scottish Text Society edition (1897) has been of enormous help in preparing the present edition. In transcribing the print, I have regularized orthography, so that u / v / w and i / j appear according to modern usage; abbreviations have been expanded, numerals spelled out, and modern punctuation and capitalization added. I have also adjusted word breaks to conform with modern usage, both joining and separating forms from the printed text. This policy transforms the characteristic form our (representing a monosyllabic pronunciation of "over," "o'er") to ovr (and so ovrcum and other compounds); though this spelling looks a bit odd, I have decided to stay with it, rather than adding another letter (over) or going back to the original form, which would appear at least as odd to modern readers.

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Selected Bibliography


No manuscript version survives.

Editions (arranged chronologically)

The Knightly Tale of Golagros and Gawane. Edinburgh: W. Chepman and A. Myllar, 8 April 1508.

Facsimile Edition of Chepman and Myllar, 1508. Edinburgh: D. Laing, 1827. [This is a version of 76 copies produced from facsimile type; it is not a facsimile of the original Chepman and Myllar print.]

Madden, Frederic. 1839. See Bibliography of Editions and Works Cited.

Trautman, Moritz, ed. "Golagrus and Gawain." Anglia 2 (1879), 395-440.

Amours, F. J. 1897. See Bibliography of Editions and Works Cited.

Stevenson, George, ed. The Knightly Tale of Golagros and Gawane. In Pieces from the Makulloch and the Gray MSS. Together with the Chepman and Myllar Prints. Scottish Text Society, no. 65. Edinburgh and London: William Blackwood and Sons, 1918. Pp. 67-110.

Beattie, William, ed. The Chepman and Myllar Prints: Nine Tracts from the First Scottish Press, Edinburgh 1508: A Facsimile. Edinburgh Bibliographical Society. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1950. Pp. 7-51.


Barron, W. R. J. "Golagros and Gawain: A Creative Redaction." Bibliographical Bulletin of the International Arthurian Society 26 (1974), 173-85.

Ketrick, Paul J. The Relation of Golagros and Gawane to the Old French Perceval. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America, 1931.

Mathewson, Jeanne T. "Displacement of the Feminine in Golagros and Gawane and The Awntyrs off Arthure." Arthurian Interpretations 1.2 (1987), 23-28.