Sir Gawain the the Carle of Carlisle

The Text: "SG and the Carle" survives in a single manuscript witness, Porkington MS 10 (has also been called Harlech MS 10, and Brogyntyn MS), which Thomas Hahn believes was copied around 1460.  Its similarity to "The Carle of Carlisle," "The Turke and Sir Gawain," "The Green Knight," and the Pearl-Poet's "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" suggest they all were created in a lively Gawain-romance sub-genre movement that flourished for several hundred years.

The Tale:   Arthur and a large group of named knights follow the famous Sir Ironsyde, a famous hunter, into the wilderness around Carlisle.  Sir Gawen, Bishop Baudewyn, and Sir Key find themselves separated from the rest while following a reindeer (!).  They seek shelter with the wild "Carle of Carlisle," a paradoxically churlish lord whose own porter tells them he has no "courtesy."  The Carle welcomes them to his hall and shows them his "whelpys four," a bull, boar, lion and bear who lay by the fireside and threaten the visitors until the Carle quiets them with a command.  While the Carle entertains them with prodigious drinking bouts, Baudewyn and Key fail a test of courtesy involving the Carle's little foal, and are rewarded with "buffets" from the Carle's club.  Gawen passes the test, and another involving courteous speech, which pleases the Carle so much that he asks Gawen to throw a spear at his head.  Gawen passes this test, too, so the Carle offers to let Gawen sit beside his beautiful wife, and only chastises him lightly for thinking lustful thoughts.  After the Carle's beautiful daughter plays, the Carle invites Gawen to share his wife's bed and to kiss her.  Though the Carle halts Gawen from going further, he then commands his daughter to allow Gawen to enter her bed for the evening.  After Mass the next day, the Carle shows Gawen a room full of dead men's bones and their bloody tunics, the product of a vow sworn against Arthur's court, and asks Gawen to cut off his head.  Gawen complies, the Carle is transformed, they take him to Arthur's court where Arthur renames him "Sir Karlisle" and he founds a chantry for the souls of the dead men. 

Study questions and research sources—

1) Once again, Gawain serves as an anchor for the author's idea of "courtesy."  What acts and patterns of restraint seem to comprise this "courtesy" and how does it compare with the "courtesy" you have encountered in other romances' courts?  Remember that, at its root, the word names a very precise set of rules followed by a particular court, though in its most general sense it means being able to get along in any court one encounters.  Compare the use of "hende" in Sir Launfal.

2)  What kinds of tests does the Carle present to the wandering Arthurian knights?  Compare them with the tests in "Wedding" or the Pearl-Poet's work.  Do you see parallels, and if so, what do you make of them?

3)  How would you compare this poet's style with the workmanship of the author of "Wedding"?  Look at the poetic form in which they are composing, and matters like characterization, details of location, and philosophical content.

4)  This kind of "folk-literature" lends itself especially well to Structuralism's search for cultural values which drive the narrative by appeals to binary oppositions in which those values are anchored.  What are the rules for "wild" behavior in this narrative vs. "tame" or "courtly," and what specific gestures, words, restraints construct its "courtesy"?  Can you derive a set of rules from this narrative which might suggest the structuring principles of the court-culture for which it was composed?  Comparisons among the Middle English Breton lais might enable you to extend your analysis to the extent that all these tales appear to be produced and consumed originally by courts of the lower aristocracy far from London.  The Gawain-romances, in particular, appear to feature a structuring binary association which opposes the values of the Arthurian court with those of the western provincial courts, embodied in the challenges posed by male and female characters from the Welsh border.

5)  How does this poet relate to his audience?  Do you see any sign this poem could have been written by or for men vs. women?  Especially consider Judith Fetterly's notion of "immasculation," the female reader's coerced assumption of a male reading persona in order to successfully perform literature.  Do you sense any pressure toward that effect for a female reader?

6)  This tale appears to belong to a sub-genre of romances featuring Gawain as Arthur's chief knight (vs. Lancelot) and as an exemplar of "courtesy" or behavior the poems often call "hende."  For a summary and analysis of the plots of these tales (including Chaucer's "Wife of Bath's Tale"), see Joe Turner's (Goucher '05) web page, "'His name was Syr Gawene': The Flower of Wales." 

Research Sources--

Sir Gawain: Eleven Romances and Tales.  Ed. Thomas Hahn.  Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute / TEAMS, 1995.

Warren, Michelle.  History on the Edge: Excalibur and the Borders of Britain, 1100-1300.  Minneapolis: U Minnesota P, 2000.  941.02 W291h