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8 - Noise, Sound and Silence in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 December 2023

A. S. G. Edwards
Affiliation:
University of Kent, University College, London, and King's College, London
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Summary

We know that in the Middle Ages minstrels frequently declaimed poetic compositions accompanied by some string instrument. These sonic events were inevitably ephemeral and left no trace whatsoever, other than the impression they made on their earwitnesses, whose audial and memorial abilities were likely more developed than those of present-day audiences. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight the poet mentions how he attended such a social occasion and heard the romance being recited, exactly as he promises to reproduce it from memory:

If ȝe wyl lysten þis laye bot on littel quile,

I schal telle hit as-tit, as I in toun herde, with tonge.

This reference is not enough to substantiate a claim that the Middle English verse romances were intended for oral delivery before a listening audience. The presence of other textual and linguistic clues, however, has led scholars to believe that the metrical romances were indeed expected to be transmitted aurally. I do not propose to search Gawain for signs of oral-memorial transmission. I approach this poem from a literary and sensory perspective with the intention of recovering the soundscape envisioned by the Gawain-poet. I will focus on aspects of the romance’s sonic representation to show the affective and cultural qualities the Gawain-poet attached to the sense of hearing, thus increasing our understanding and appreciation of the poet’s achievement.

John Burrow’s influential monograph on Gawain opens with the sentence: ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a poem for the ear rather than the eye.’ Indeed, the Gawain-poet not only described narrative events for us to visualize them, but also registered their sonic imprint, as we shall see, endowing the story with heightened realism. The poet appears to have placed the faculty of hearing high in the hierarchy of the senses. The idea that Gawain will be killed is conveyed through the metaphor of loss of hearing: ‘Þe dunte þat schulde hym [i.e., Gawain] deue’ (1286). Deafness is comparable to death, suggesting that in the poet’s imagination hearing was an intrinsic and essential part of being alive. It could also be a source of pleasure, which the poet invites auditors of his poem to enjoy: ‘Thenne watz hit lef vpon list to lyþen þe houndez’ (1719).

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Medieval Romance, Arthurian Literature
Essays in Honour of Elizabeth Archibald
, pp. 111 - 126
Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2021

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