Gawain and Roland: Matching Pair

Let me test this theory out on you, O Blogosphere.

France’s great hero-king, Charlemagne, had a nephew. Roland. Or at least, so the cycle of hero-myths tells us. The pair of them are commemorated in the Chanson de Roland (11thc), where Charlemagne embodies France, and French Kingship. Roland, meanwhile, embodies France and French knighthood. Everybody with me so far?

England’s great hero-king, Arthur (sorry, no humourous videos), had a nephew. Gawain. Or at least, so the cycle of hero-myths tells us. The pair of them turn up all over the place in medieval English literature. Before someone imports Lancelot from the Continent, Gawain is the premier knight of Arthur’s court- take, for example, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (14thc). Arthur embodies England and English kingship. Meanwhile, Gawain embodies England and English knighthood. We have a parrallel, yes?

Back when I wanted to be an Arthurianist, and read all kinds of crappy Arthurian pop-history, quite a few books I read talked about the creation of the Arthur myth as a response to the French foundation legends centred around Charlemagne. Now, being old and wise, I’m willing to bet that there’s more to it than that. However, I do note that, in all my (fairly haphazard) research into the Gawain tales, lots and lots of people make comparisions between the ‘English’ Gawain and the ‘French’ Gawain- and squabble over which the Gawain of SGGK better embodies- but no one seems to step outside the Arthurian canon, which is odd. I’m not so sure that the fourteenth century would’ve drawn such a big distinction.

I have more Gawain-Roland relationships I can draw out, but I have to go and get ready for work now. So I’ll leave you to sit on this one- tell me what you think!

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7 Responses to “Gawain and Roland: Matching Pair”

  1. Jeff Says:

    (Ah, France Gall. That gal charms me every time…)

    If you plan on pursuing the Roland/Gawain relationship, you may want to check out “Ralph the Collier” (either the translation linked in my blog sidebar or, even better, the Middle Scots original). Charlemagne and Roland both play key roles in the romance, but to my mind they act less like their Matter-of-France namesakes and far more like Arthur and Gawain. I don’t know what, if anything, you’ll discover, but “Ralph” could use more critical attention, and its alliterative Middle Scots verse, while inferior to SGGK, is a treat.

  2. highlyeccentric Says:

    Thanks for the recommendation, Jeff! I’m not sure that I’ll have space to fit “Ralph the Collier’ (in fact, almost certainly I won’t have space) into my paper & essay this semester, but I’ll see if I can get hold of a copy to read anyway. Middle English Reading Group might like to tackle it…

  3. Roland and Gawain- further expoundings « The Naked Philologist Says:

    […] Comments highlyeccentric on Gawain and Roland: Matching PairJeff on Gawain and Roland: Matching Pairhighlyeccentric on Proctology: a truly […]

  4. B. Hawk Says:

    Interesting thoughts–there’s probably a lot to explore here. I know in Celtic and Anglo-Norman literature the sister-son/nephew connection is a strong one, and prevalent in a lot of stories–surely something there to latch onto.

    Also, all of this Roland-Gawain stuff is further complicated by the Anglo-Norman connections/tensions/intersections–like The Song of Roland actually being composed and part of *English* literary history just as much as Norman/French literary history. Or, for that matter, what you’ve pointed out: the connections/tensions/intersections between the English Sir Gawain (in SGGK) and the continental Sir Gawain in Norman works (i.e. Chretien de Troyes). I know there’s an expanding body of work being done on Anglo-Norman literature, culture, etc., and there are surely ways to connect all of this. Even more, there’s the problem of the origins of Arthurian matter in Celtic roots. It sounds like some fun analogue/source study work could be done here, with all sorts of avenues down which to be lead.

  5. highlyeccentric Says:

    Anglo-Norman is a fascinating period/concept… I’d actually like to do a lot more work in that area.

    But yes, my argument *does* rely on a certain degree of cultural homogeneity. As far as I recall, Roland is an English MS, and I’m presuming that the poet is as familiar with the Matter of France as he seems to be with the French-language Matter of Britain. I wonder if his (presumably regional, because of the dialect) audience would’ve known it, though?

  6. Larry Swain Says:

    I’d say yes and no. Yes in the fact that we do have the king/nephew thing going on etc. No in the sense that in many of the romances re: Arthur, Arthur doesn’t come off as the “flower of English kingship”. He often comes off as something of an incompetent idiot, at least until the 14th century stuff comes along….ah the Alliterative Arthur, Malory etc present a much stronger Arthur than say Chretien and Marie. As far as I recall, Charlemagne is not so depicted, not in Roland, and I don’t think in most of the “Matter of France.” I may be wrong though.

    The king-sister-son relationship is also important in Beowulf beyond the Celtic and Anglo-Norman stuff.

    The earliest Roland is an “English” manuscript in that it was produced in Norman French c. 1100 in England–but I don’t see how one can claim that the Roland poet is as familiar with the Matter of Britain as he is with the Matter of France….he seems to be one of the inventors of the Matter of France, and we really don’t have the Matter of Britain yet and difficult to know how widely those stories have circulated since they don’t start appearing for another 50-100 years after Roland is written (depending on when you date it.)

  7. highlyeccentric Says:

    Hi Larry-

    I phrased my last comment badly, I intentionally wouldn’t be so anachronistic as to suggest the Roland poet knew any of the Arthurian canon- rather, I suspect the Gawain-poet (the particular poet of the Middle English SGGK, that is), who seems to be au fait with all the French-language Arthurian literature, probably knew the Matter of France as well.

    And yes, there are distinct character differences between Arthur and Charlemagne… I’m not sure how far I’d want to push it, but my instinct says at the moment that it’s a time-difference thing: Charlemagne in the Matter of France celebrates the ideals of French kingship, wheras some centuries later, Arthur never lives up to the ideals… If I wanted to demonstrate Arthur’s failings, I would start with a comparison to Charlemagne.
    That sound fair?


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