The Marriage of Sir Gawain: Introduction

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The Marriage of Sir Gawain: Introduction

Marriage follows Cornwall and Turke in the Percy Folio manuscript. It has suffered the same fate as those two poems: half of each page of the text had been torn out for use in starting fires sometime before Bishop Percy acquired the volume. In plot, Marriage closely resembles Ragnelle and the versions of the same story told in Gower's Confessio Amantis and Chaucer's Wife of Bath's Tale, so that despite the losses the main points of the narrative remain clear. In fact, Marriage presents a retelling bolder and balder than any of the others. The characters play exaggerated parts: Arthur's antagonist is not knightly, but a threatening thug "With a great club upon his backe"; the lady "in red scarlett" is simply monstrous; Kay at first is totally disgusted, and at the end filled with brotherly congratulation; Gawain is impeccably courteous. In the same way, motives and reactions are unhesitatingly named by the narrative: Arthur says he was afraid to fight, he offers Gawain in marriage before the lady even expresses an interest, and the crux of the story - what women most desire - turns out to be a tautology, for "a woman will have her will": she wants what she wants.

As a proper ballad, Marriage maintains the fundamental simplicity of the plot. There are none of the literary touches that Gower adds, or the learned allusions to Ovid, Dante, and Boethius of Chaucer's version. Likewise, Marriage forgoes the narrative replications and the thematic and verbal repetitions that mark Ragnelle as a popular romance and complicate its possible meanings. The interlocking sets of masculine social relations held in place through Ragnelle's plot do not surface in Marriage; indeed, the nameless antagonist calls his nameless sister "a misshappen hore" and promises to burn her "in a fyer" if he catches her. The lady's plight, whereby like a witch she "looked soe foule and . . . was wont / On the wild more to goe" (lines 184-85), comes about through a bad marriage: her father, an "old knight . . . marryed a younge lady" who in fairy-tale fashion proceeded to turn her competition (or her children's competition for inheritance) into a creature "most like a feend of hell" (line 182). The wicked stepmother appears also in Ragnelle and in Gower's version.

Like the majority of Gawain romances, Marriage places Arthur's court at Carlisle (line 1), and sets its action in Inglewood Forest, and specifically at the Tarn Wathelene (lines 32, 51). Arthur is presumably hunting when he encounters the "bold barron," as are the main characters in Ragnelle, Carlisle, Awntyrs, and several others in this group of romances. These linkages of plot and detail do not, however, demonstrate that Marriage is a popular refashioning of an earlier written or literary narrative. The Percy Folio poem may well be the record of one more retelling of a story that had been popular at least from the time of King Edward I, and that, in addition to giving rise to a group of literary renditions, must have circulated widely in oral performances throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. As such, it bears witness to Gawain's huge celebrity with an astonishing variety of audiences, and across centuries of enormous cultural change. The social milieu and the precise nature of the performance represented by Marriage are vividly defined in the fictional portrayal that Howard Pyle inserts into his Merry Adventures of Robin Hood (1883); in this children's narrative, Robin's first adventure is a meeting in a tavern with a Tinker-minstrel, who sings "an ancient ballad of the time of good King Arthur, called the Marriage of Sir Gawaine, which you may some time read, yourself, in stout English of early times" (New York: Dover, 1968, p. 19). Pyle's portrayal of this impromptu performance before a tavern audience at the edge of Sherwood Forest likely corresponds to the sort of setting in which the compiler of the Percy Folio Manuscript heard the version of Marriage that he wrote down.

Like Cornwall, Marriage is composed in ballad meter, namely four-line stanzas rhyming xaxa. The lines tend not to fall into regular metrical feet; instead they alternate, with four-stress unrhymed lines followed by three-stress lines containing the rhyming final word. As the oral sources of the meter would suggest, the poetry is most effective when read aloud; lines that "sound" clumsy when not vocalized take on life in spoken form.


The Marriage of Sir Gawain survives, though mutilated, in the Percy Folio Manuscript, pp. 46-52 (described in the introductory material to The Greene Knight). In transcribing the cramped and fading hand, I have been aided by the editions of Madden, Furnivall and Hales, and Child, and I have sometimes followed their readings and reconstructions for letters and words that now appear indistinct or indecipherable. I have regularized orthography, so that u/v and i/j appear according to modern usage; abbreviations have been silently expanded, numerals spelled out, and modern punctuation and capitalization added.

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British Library Additional MS 27879 (The Percy Folio). Pp. 46-52.

Editions (arranged chronologically)

Hales, John W., and Frederick J. Furnivall. 1868. See Bibliography of Editions and Works Cited.

Child, Francis James. 1884. See Bibliography of Editions and Works Cited.

Lupack, Alan. "The Marriage of Sir Gawaine." In Modern Arthurian Literature: An Anthology of English and American Arthuriana from the Renaissance to the Present, ed. Alan Lupack. New York and London: Garland, 1992, pp. 108-18. [A reprint of the reconstructed version by Bishop Percy (first published in his Reliques, 1765), in which Percy supplied from his own invention the missing portions of the surviving fragment in the Percy Folio Manuscript.]

Shepherd, Stephen H. A., ed. Middle English Romances. New York: Norton, 1995. Pp. 380-87. [I have not been able to examine a copy of this edition.]


Coomaraswamy, Amanda K. "On the Loathly Bride." Speculum 20 (1945), 391-404.

Garbáty, Thomas J. "Rhyme, Romance, Ballad, Burlesque, and the Confluence of Form." Fifteenth-Century Studies: Recent Essays, ed. Robert F. Yeager. Hamden, Connecticut: Archon Books, 1984. Pp. 283-301. [A discussion of the generic relation between ballad and romance in Wedding and Marriage.]