The Turke and Sir Gawain: Introduction

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The Turke and Sir Gawain: Introduction

The Turke and Sir Gawain occurs in the Percy Folio Manuscript, a collection of popular tales including some of the other Gawain romances printed in this volume. Though the surviving copy of the poem dates from around 1650, the language and spellings of the text indicate it was composed around 1500 in the North or North Midlands. The pages of the Percy Folio on which this poem occurs have been mutilated, so that about half of each page, and therefore about half of the poem, is missing. In the text that follows I have offered prose summaries, inevitably somewhat speculative, of the sections that are lost. The features of the story and the details of its telling mark it for oral recitation; the remaining sections of Turke fall into tail-rhyme stanzas linked by aabccb rhyme scheme, though there are a number of defective stanzas and rhymes. It is a remarkable tribute to the poem's narrative energy, and to its saturation in traditional plots and motifs, that despite its serious losses it remains not simply intelligible, but boisterously engaging.

Like many another romance, The Turke and Sir Gawain begins with an intrusive challenge to the tranquility, or perhaps complacency, of the Arthurian court: the "Turk" - an alien figure who is impressively strong but not knightly, and apparently not Christian - demands an exchange of blows. Sir Kay's violent reaction threatens to undo the court's obligations to courtesy, but Gawain's intervention restores the proper chivalric balance of force and graciousness. This combination of raw power yoked to an elaborate code of honor becomes a central theme of the poem, as in Carlisle and Gologras, although the relation between these chivalric values is not particularly subtle in Turke. On the one hand, the "Turk" makes extraordinary demands on Gawain's courtesy and endurance, dragging him through a series of preternatural encounters; on the other, as Gawain's "boy," he performs deeds of exceptional ferociousness in destroying the enemies he finds for his knightly companion. The latter's courtesy and prowess, his self-imposed deference to one who seems strange and therefore inferior, remain intact, even through the final episode of the "Turk's" beheading. This event clearly constitutes a kind of death and rebirth, by means of which the "Turk" undergoes a conversion, becoming in the process a Christian knight. Throughout the romance, the categorical term "Turk" operates as an indeterminate Orientalist stereotype of difference and exoticism; like "Saracen," "Turk" defines otherness through geography, politics, religion and class (see note at line 10 below). Such interchangable usage is common to the late Middle Ages, as, for example, Caxton's translation of The Foure Sonnes of Aymon makes clear in refering to "Goddys enmyes, as ben Turques and Sarrasins" (EETS e.s. 45; London, 1884, 1885, p. 348).

Turke ends on a note common to the popular chivalric romances, and to romance in general. The "Turk," restored to his proper knightly identity as Sir Gromer (a figure who turns up in Ragnelle and in Malory), is brought into the fold of Arthurian chivalry and Arthurian political fealty. Sir Gromer's installation as the new and proper King of the Isle of Man not only converts the alien figure - the "Turk" - to familiar Christian knighthood, but presumably it demystifies the Isle of Man, changing it from a magic kingdom into a recognizable and accessible feature of the Arthurian (and contemporary) landscape. Gawain's courteous behavior at the end of the poem also helps make clear why he is such a crucial hero for the Arthurian court. When Sir Gromer and King Arthur attempt to make him "King of Man" (line 322 - certainly a resonant title), he rejects the offer, protesting, "I never purposed to be noe King" (line 326). His suitability for adventure depends upon his being closely connected to the king, as his nephew and champion, but also on his being free of the constraints of leadership; Gawain must continually refuse rule in order to be open to reckless daring and marvelous adventure. Since he is not at the center of the court, he can journey to the most remote and fabulous places without threatening social integrity by his absence; since he is not a ruler, he needn't concern himself with the dull virtues of prudence, justice, and peacemaking. As a free agent with the widest possible scope for his dealings, Gawain typifies popular notions of chivalric virtues, but he is able to test these, to show their nature and durability, in repeated encounters with marvelous opponents and exotic locales.


The Turke and Sir Gawain occurs in the Percy Folio Manuscript, pp. 38-46 (described in the introductory material to The Greene Knight). The text of the present edition reflects the dilapidated state of the MS; half of each page on which The Greene Knight was written was ripped out of the volume to start fires, and the ill treatment it received before Bishop Percy rescued it has left pages blotted and stained from damp. All of this has made the forms of the cramped scribal hand at points ambiguous or illegible. The writing seems also to have deteriorated since Madden and Furnivall examined the Percy Folio for their nineteenth-century editions; I have sometimes followed their readings for letters or entire words that now appear indistinct or indecipherable. Orthography has been regularized, so that "u"/"v" and "i"/"j" appear according to modern usage; abbreviations have been expanded, numerals spelled out, and modern punctuation and capitalization added.

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Selected Bibliography


British Library Additional MS 27879 (The Percy Folio). Pp. 38-46.

Editions (arranged chronologically)

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

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

Williams, Jeanne Myrle Wilson. "A Critical Edition of 'The Turke & Gowin."' University of Southern Mississippi Dissertation, 1988. (Dissertation Abstracts International 49 (1988) 815A.) [I have not seen a copy of this edition.]


Jost, Jean E. "The Role of Violence in Aventure: 'The Ballad of King Arthur and the King of Cornwall' and 'The Turke and Gowin."' Arthurian Interpretations 2.2 (1988), 47-57.

Lyle, E. B. "The Turk and Gawain as Source of Thomas of Ercledoune." Forum for Modern Language Studies 6 (1970), 98-102.