Arthurian Annotations: ‘Once And Future’ #13 And The Development Of The English Language

by Olly MacNamee

(++WARNING: This article immediately spoils the ending to Once And Future #13, so maybe go read that issue first and then come back?++)

In this latest installment of ‘Arthurian Annotations’ – in which we take a dive into the source materials used by writer Kieron Gillen – we look at the most recent Medieval text that informs the latest chapter in this contemporary and fascinating fantasy series set in England and haunting many areas of the West Country associated with the legend of King Arthur. But, rather than look at its narrative, form and structure as I usually do in these columns, I thought it would be more interesting to see this historical artefact in a different context. That of the development of modern English as we know it and speak it today and what it can evoke about Britain’s ongoing divisions. 

While Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a relatively recent addition to the Arthurian legend – being written sometime during the late 14th century – it’s become as iconic to the extended universe of Camelot as the quest for the Holy Grail, the sword in the stone, and Lancelot’s affair with Guinevere. But, in looking back at this poetic hero’s quest, the text stands as an interesting historical document in relation to the development of the English language in England at the time. 

Unlike Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, the quintessential Medieval manuscript, we do not know the identity of the poet behind this tale. Indeed, the original text is written in a style of English that never survived the Middle Ages. For me, this represents the age-old tale of Southern England’s dominance over the rest of the United Kingdom in terms of culture, politics, status, commerce, and national identity itself that is still tangibly felt today across this divided land of ours. 

It is telling that a poem written somewhere within the West Midlands – where I live – was superseded by Gawain’s poetic peer, Chaucer. A man who resided in England’s capital and was close to the King and his court. Now, if that doesn’t place you in a prime position, then I don’t know what does. A privileged position (it was believed by some that his wife was having an affair with King John II at one point), living a comfortable, courtly life at the heart of power in London, how could he not become the more favoured voice of his generation? It’s no different to many would-be writers or artists of today wanting to move to the capital to seek fame and fortune. The fact that we no longer know the identity of the Gawain poet further implies that place and position can help a great deal.

And so it was Chaucer’s version of Middle English that would evolve into the standard English we use today. Southern dominance over our culture has been long entrenched in our history, but this is one of the more fascinating examples of how such things can take root and strangle other regional identities. It would seem our cultural wars have been ongoing for quite sometime, unbeknownst to many. 

Although, it must be added that the ‘Alliterative Revival’ this narrative poem adopts was in itself falling out of fashion by the late 14th century, as it was seen as provincial and somewhat backwards. So it can’t all be blamed on those pompous Londoners and their fancy London ways. Not entirely, anyway. But, there’s a certain amount of literary snobbery at work here, isn’t there? It may have been a no more than a poem back in the day, but the more you delve into the history of the manuscript itself, the more it tells the fascinating story of a Britain culturally divided.

As for the unidentified poet of Sir Gawain and The Green Knight? Well, he may not be remembered, but his work still lives on and so we still have a record of the kind of English used in the Midlands some 600+ years ago. The work is also one of the more memorable of Arthurian stories, being a favourite of academics (even J R R Tolkien translated this work, as has the current Poet Laureate, Simon Armitage).

The story is of a Christmastime challenge at Camelot taken up by a brash and naive young Gawain who then enters upon a quest of the body, mind and spirit that takes a year and a day to achieve. All the while he is met with tests, allies and enemies as he takes the twelve necessary steps to victory and gains a new-found understanding of the world. He returns as a less brash, more mature knight of the Round Table who has gained an insight into life and a new purpose. And, like so many others before him, he may have left home a boy, but he comes back to Camelot a man. 

It will be interesting to see how Gillen plays with this new toy too, given the heroic Beowulf, and before him King Arthur himself, were imbued with characteristics more in line with arch-villains than heroes of their generation. Whatever comes of this new story-arc, it’s another home run from where I’m sitting by including one of the more truly supernatural characters in the Arthurian universe. And one of the more enigmatic, too. He may be the most garish of knights in terms of his wardrobe, but he’s also the one with the most magic, too. And, we know how magic can be used if wielded by the wrong pair of hands, don’t we? If Duncan is to take up the mantle of ‘Gawain’ in this arc, then I fear for him.

Once and Future #13 is out now from BOOM! Studios.

You can read previous ‘Arthurian Annotations’ post here.

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