Awntyrs off Arthure at the Terne Wathelyne, The

Awntyrs off Arthure at the Terne Wathelyne, The
(ca. 1375–1425)
   The Awntyrs off Arthure at the Terne Wathelyne, a poem written in MIDDLE ENGLISH, is an important contribution to the ALLITERATIVE REVIVAL. The poem is an Arthurian ROMANCE but, interestingly, does not detail the adventures of King ARTHUR as its title suggests. Instead, it tells two separate stories, and Sir GAWAIN is the only character with an active role throughout the poem.
   Scholars have estimated the date of composition of The Awntyrs off Arthure at the Terne Wathelyne to be from the late 14th century to early 15th century, although recent scholarship narrows this time frame to the first quarter of the 15th century. The 715-line poem is written in ALLITERATIVE VERSE in the Northwest Midland dialect, with 13-line stanzas comprising nine four-stress long lines, rhyming ababababc, and a four-line “wheel” rhyming dddc. Four extant manuscripts of the poem are found in the text of Oxford, Bodleian Library: MS Douce 324, the “Ireland-Blackburne” MS, the Lincoln Cathedral Library MS 91 (the “Thornton Manuscript”), and the Lambeth Palace Library MS 491.
   The poem is separated into two distinct sections. The first half depicts the visit and prophecy of a ghost, Gaynour’s (Guenevere’s) mother’s spirit, and the advice the ghost gives to Gaynour and Gawayn. Although the ghost’s soul is tortured because of her adulterous life, and Gaynor’s character in Arthurian literature is also typically adulterous, this is not the emphasis of the ghost’s speech to Gaynour. For example, when Gaynour asks what prayers she should perform to help the ghost’s soul, she advises Gaynour to be charitable to the poor, as if that is more valuable to the salvation of her soul. The ghost holds up an ideal of the common good for the commonwealth, a relevant issue in medieval society in which it is incumbent upon the rich to have mercy upon the poor, and the powerful to pity the weak. The poem also addresses contemporary issues such as the common practice of usurping lands during battles, and criticizes the covetous ways of King Arthur, advising that pride offends God the most. The discourse regarding lands evolves into a prophecy about the fall of Arthur’s kingdom, and in Awntyrs, Arthur’s fall is attributed primarily to his pride and his covetous nature rather than to the betrayal of Guenevere and Mordred, as traditionally depicted in Arthurian literature.
   The second half of the poem begins at approximately line 339 after the ghost has exited and Queen Gaynour returns to the hall to advise Arthur of the encounter. The text abruptly abandons the exchange with the ghost after Gaynour’s report and introduces the character of Galeron, who addresses King Arthur and demands the return of his land, which was confiscated subsequent to Galeron’s defeat in battle. Gawayn offers to fight Galeron on the court’s behalf, most appropriate since Gawayn was the recipient of Galeron’s lands after Arthur conquered and confiscated them. The remainder of the poem focuses primarily on the battle between the two knights. Ultimately, Galeron yields to Gawayn and kneels before King Arthur. Arthur subsequently declares that he will appoint Gawayn a duke of other properties if Gawayn releases his claim on Galeron’s lands and returns the same to him. Gawayn agrees, Galeron’s lands are restored, and Galeron is made a knight of the Round Table. In the last stanza, Gaynour fulfills her promise made to the ghost during the first half and writes to men in religious orders to read prayers and sing masses.
   The two halves of the poem may initially appear to lack any significant connection, with the first half of the poem depicting the exchange with the ghost, and the second half, a typical chivalric story. However, the two parts can be reconciled. One link between the two is the theme of charity. The ghost warns of the importance of the nobility to be merciful to the commonwealth and in response to Gawayn’s question of how the confiscator of lands will fare, indicates that the king’s covetous nature will lead to his misfortune. In the second half, Galeron’s lands are restored to him in what may be argued is responsive to the ghost’s admonishments. Another way to connect the two halves is to view the poem’s structure as influenced by the popular artistic form of the diptych. A diptych is a painting comprising two panels connected by a hinge that folds, and it is the viewer’s responsibility to look at the halves and determine their relationship, as in the famous 14th-century portrait of Richard II known as the Wilton Diptych, a work either predating or possibly contemporary with the writing of this poem. More extensive arguments for this connection are made by A. C. Spearing.
   The poem also addresses issues related to contemporary religion. The ghost’s sole opportunity for redemption from purgatory is afforded by the payment of funds to the church, which is essential to the immediate salvation of the soul. The ghost could also represent the Christian perspective with the emphasis on generosity, while Arthur and his Round Table may represent the court attempting to live up to the ideal.
   In addition to the moral lessons and practical advice that the poem afforded contemporary readers, The Awntyrs is also of interest to students of medieval literature because of its role within the alliterative revival and contribution to Middle English. The decisions to write in English by two prominent courtly writers of the 14th century, GOWER and CHAUCER, the address in 1363 to Parliament in English by Edward III, and the composition of The Awntyrs and related texts all reflect the revival of English as a literary language in the later 14th century.
   ■ Phillips, Helen. “The Awntyrs off Arthure: Structure and Meaning. A Reassessment,” Arthurian Literature 12 (1993): 63–89.
   ■ ———. “The Ghost’s Baptism in The Awntyrs off Arthure,”Medium Ævum 58 (1989): 49–58.
   ■ Shepherd, Stephen H. A., ed. Middle English Romances. New York:W.W. Norton, 1995.
   ■ Spearing, A. C. “The Awntyrs off Arthure.” In The Alliterative Tradition in the Fourteenth Century, edited by Bernard S. Levy and Paul E. Szarmach, 182–202. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1981.
   ■ ———.“Central and Displaced Sovereignty in Three Medieval Poems,” Review of English Studies 33 (1982): 247–261.
   Michelle Palmer

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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