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Sir Gawain and The Carle of Carlisle: Introduction

The romance of Sir Gawain and the Carle of Carlisle demonstrates Gawain's surpassing chivalry in what seems a most unlikely setting, a carl's castle. Carl (from Old Norse) means simply "man" in Middle English, but is almost always used in a contemptuous or condescending way, identifying someone who is not only low on the social scale, but often also crude and physically violent; Chaucer's drunken Miller, who knocks doors off their hinges with his head, is a "stout carl." Carl is a cognate of the Old English churl, a word meaning the opposite of "noble" or "gentle," and referring to someone of low estate, without rank or consequence - a boor, or a "boy" (see, for example, lines 193, 209, 216, and so on in Turke). A "carl's castle" is therefore as much a contradiction in terms as "popular chivalric romance," and such a locale could only exist inside this hybrid literary form. As an imaginative space, however, it turns out to be a wonderful place for defining popular notions of chivalric conduct, for it shows that Gawain retains his knightly courtesy even when he is not exclusively among gentles - or at least when he seems not to be among his noble peers, for the Carle of Carlisle turns out to be a gentle knight after all.

The adventure of Carlisle begins with a royal hunt (as in Ragnelle, Marriage, Avowyng, and Awntyrs). The pursuit of a deer leads Gawain, Kay, and Baldwin (the trio linked by oaths in Avowyng) to become lost in a wood, and then to seek an unlikely refuge with the Carle. Even the knights' initial conversations, among themselves and with the porter, set up contrasts between Baldwin's apprehensive uncertainty, Kay's haughty sense of the rights of lordship, and Gawain's unwavering courtesy. The Carle presents several tests, implicit and explicit, of the Arthurian knights' chivalry; these include the knights' reactions to the porter and to the Carle's wild menagerie, Gawain's courteous genuflection before the Carle, the treatment of the horse at the barn, the hurling of the deadly spear, the drinking and feasting, and the love scenes (first with the wife, then the daughter). The last and most important of these episodes is missing in Carlisle, though it appears in the later Carle of Carlisle (in this volume); in this crucial scene, Gawain courteously accedes to the Carle's request for beheading, which breaks the spell that had bound him to "carllus corttessy" (line 278) and transforms him to a gentle knight. Gawain's success in these tests consists in the conspicuous restraint he exercises over his own powers and prerogatives, his perfect willingness to concede the Carle's rights of property and control within his own domain, even when his fellow knights see no need to do so. As in Ragnelle, the hero gains control over his situation by giving up the power that he apparently possesses. Carlisle makes a glowing testimonial to the ineluctable rightness of chivalric values as practiced by a true knight (as opposed to the reckless Kay and Baldwin).

Sir Gawain's mediation of the tension between the knightly prerogatives of the Round Table and the local power of an individual subject makes up the central story of Gologras, and arises as well in Ragnelle and Awntyrs. But Carlisle shapes its plot so that such issues are not defined in terms of lordship, territorial control, or individual knightly prowess, but rather within a peculiar framework of personal or even domestic chivalry. The bedroom scene, where (under the Carle's watchful instruction) Gawain restrains himself from making sexual advances to the naked wife (lines 445 ff.), epitomizes this emphasis in Carlisle. It resembles the episode with Baldwin's wife in Avowyng, the wedding night in Ragnelle, or the bedroom encounters - more masked and more suggestive - in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Here in Carlisle, the bed temptation enacts a crude but unmistakable demonstration of Sir Gawain's courteous respect for the Carle and for his proprietary rights over his wife and household. The ensuing union between Gawain and the Carle's daughter confirms the relationship of equality between the two men: it establishes the Carle's right to give her in marriage to a noble husband, and Gawain's acceptance of her as a legal and proper wife (lines 565 ff.) makes clear that the match entails no "disparagement" or social disparity between husband and wife.

The woman given in marriage reconciles father and husband; the wedding formally draws Gawain from Arthur's family into the Carle's household, marks the restoration of the Carle to his proper identity, and looks forward to the more elaborate feast that rounds off the poem (lines 591 ff.), where the former Carle courteously kneels to King Arthur and becomes a knight of the Round Table. Because Carlisle does not contain a beheading-disenchantment scene (like that in Carle, Turke, Greene Knight, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight), the knight's initial transformation or restoration appears less striking and less motivated. Yet through the Carle's vow to establish a chantry for the souls of his slain victims (lines 517 ff.), the romance makes his changeover a part of its overall drive towards reunion and communal solidarity; his desire to effect a reconciliation with the dead gives shape to his rejection of his former behavior, or, in fact, his entire former identity as the "churlish" Carle. As in the two episodes of Awntyrs, the memorialization of the dead, as both a religious and chivalric act, demonstrates and even increases the honorable renown of the living.

The monstrous bearing of the Carle, his wild animal companions, and the challenges he poses to the Arthurian knights may all have been associated in earlier narratives with a preternatural or mythic figure. In Carlisle, however, these details function to make him appear an antagonist of chivalry, as does his social status as carl in the views of Kay and Baldwin. The poem begins with Arthur's court at Cardiff in Wales (lines 19 ff.); again, an English popular romance places the King in residence in a peripheral Celtic territory. The Carle's castle seems remote and mysterious, surrounded by "myst" and "mor" (line 121), though it turns out he is lord of Carlisle in Cumberland, a center for Arthurian adventure (and Arthur's own court) in so many of the Gawain romances. As usual, Gawain's role is to bring the strange, the threatening, and the resistant within the ambit of the Round Table; he does this by acting out his "olde curteisye" (as Chaucer's Squire calls it), imposing home values on the unfamiliar, making the antagonists of chivalry its allies. In the course of its narrative, however, Carlisle makes clear that the Carle was never the enemy of proper lordship or genuine courtesy; the deference performed within his household and family reproduces an ideal version of the values that prevail at Arthur's court. Gawain's courtesy therefore does not so much convert the strange into the familiar, as show how the uncourteous mistake the universality of the familiar: the Carle turns out to be a proper knight and lord awaiting the transformation that will make his true nature and status visible to all.

The codes of conduct practiced in the court of the greatest king of Britain and the "castle" of a carl could fundamentally agree only in a chivalric romance. The unity of Sir Gawain and the Carle of Carlisle consists in its coherently popular rendition of ostensibly aristocratic, chivalric values, embodied equally in Sir Gawain and a metamorphosed churl. Moreover, the poem is stylistically all of a piece, so that Arthur's call to the hunt, the somewhat spurious roster of knights of the Round Table, Kay's crankiness, Baldwin's mincingness, Gawain's steadfastness, the Carle's bluffness, or the daughter's frank concern about her noble sexual partner - all are given in the same lively register. The boisterous and blunt manner of the Carle and his household is itself a central feature of the poem's narrative effect, and this is in turn a main source of enjoyment for readers of Carlisle.


Sir Gawain and the Carle of Carlisle was probably composed in the northwest of England around 1400, and copied by a scribe from the northwest midlands. It survives in a single manuscript, Porkington MS 10 (also known as Harlech MS 10, and Brogyntyn MS), in the National Library of Wales at Aberystwyth; this copy, made perhaps in Shropshire, dates from about 1460 or a little later. Carlisle occurs near the beginning, at folios 12-26v. The manuscript is truly a miscellany, containing lyrics, Christmas carols, prophesies, prognostications, a chronicle, meteorological, astrological, botanical, and agricultural tracts, moral, devotional, and instructional writings, a saint's life, popular bawdy tales, and a prose romance. The scribe of Carlisle has drawn lines and brackets to mark the standard three-line unit (couplet plus tail-rhyme); these markings are themselves sometimes irregular, however, and do not give clear guidance for larger units or stanza breaks. Nonetheless, the rhyme scheme and the movement of the narrative clearly indicate that Carlisle is written in twelve-line tail-rhyme stanzas, ordered aabccbddbeeb, though rhymes are sometimes defective and stanzas irregular. I have followed the practice of earlier editors in inserting stanza breaks, though because of the text's uncertainties the present edition sometimes differs in where stanzas begin or end.

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Selected Bibliography


National Library of Wales, Porkington MS 10 (also known as Harlech MS 10 or Brogyntyn MS).

Editions (arranged chronologically)

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

Ackerman, Robert W., ed. Syr Gawane and the Carle of Carelyle. University of Michigan Contributions in Modern Philology, 8. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1947.

Kurvinen, Auvo, ed. Sir Gawain and the Carl of Carlisle: In Two Versions. Suomalaisen Tiedakatemian Toimituksia (Annales Academiae Scientiarum Fen-nicae). Series B.71.2. Helsinki, 1951.

Sands, Donald B. 1966. See Bibliography of Editions and Works Cited.

Shibata, Yoshitaka. "Sir Gawain and the Carl of Carlisle: A Japanese Translation." Tohoku Gakuin University Review: Essays and Studies in English Langauge and Literature (Tohoku Gakuin Daigaku Ronshu, Eigo-Eibungaku) 75 (1984), 1-37.