Turke and Sir Gawain, The


Turke and Sir Gawain, The
(ca. 1500)
   The Turke and Gawain is a late 15th-century ROMANCE in MIDDLE ENGLISH that is preserved in a 17th-century manuscript called the Percy Folio, along with three other late romances focusing on Sir GAWAIN, always the favorite of King ARTHUR’s knights in medieval English literature. Along with The Grene Knight, The Carle off Carlile, and The Marriage of Sir Gawain, The Turke and Gawain is extant in a manuscript that appears to have been mutilated by household servants of the manuscript’s owner, who tore half-pages from the text, apparently to light fires. Thus the surviving text of The Turke and Gawain has a number of large gaps, the 335 extant lines being only perhaps half of the original text. Thus much of the reconstructed plot of the story must be conjectured. Although the manuscript is late, the language and orthography of the text suggest that it was originally produced in the North or the North Midlands area of England. It is written in TAIL-RHYME stanzas—that is, in this case, stanzas rhyming aabccb, with the couplets in four-stress lines and the repeated b rhyme (the “tail”) in three stress lines. It was a popular MINSTREL stanza, and the audience of this poem probably consisted of middle- or lower-class listeners likely to be found in the tavern or marketplace, as opposed to a very courtly audience.
   The plot as we have it is an unlikely combination of the head-chopping game familiar from SIR GAWAIN AND THE GREEN KNIGHT and the folktale motif of three impossible tasks. As in many Arthurian romances, the peace of Arthur’s court is disturbed by the arrival of an outsider, the Turke of the poem’s title, who issues a challenge, demanding a champion from the court to exchange blows with him. Gawain accepts the challenge and gives the Turke a strong blow—apparently without weapon—but the Turke postpones his return blow, requiring Gawain to accompany him on a journey before deigning to complete his part of the challenge. The inordinately courteous Gawain agrees, and the Turke leads him through violent storms to a mysterious castle, where Gawain is fed. Gawain asks to receive the blow from the Turke that will fulfill his bargain, but instead the Turke requires Gawain to follow him to the Isle of Man, where they enter the castle of the king, a powerful giant. The Turke tells Gawain he will be tested, but that he will receive help from the Turke. Gawain is first forced to play a game of tennis against 17 giants who use a heavy brass ball that no one in England would be able to strike.With the help of the Turke, Gawain defeats the giants. The Turke then successfully accomplishes the second challenge— lifting a great chimney over his head and twirling it. The final challenge is a cauldron of molten lead into which the giant king intends to hurl Gawain. But the Turke, through the ruse of a cloak of invisibility, is able to burn the giant in the cauldron instead. After the tasks have been accomplished, rather than returning the blow he owes to Gawain, the Turke surprisingly bows his neck and asks Gawain to strike off his head. The decapitated Turke turns into the noble Sir Gromer, who had been enchanted in that alien form. Sir Gromer becomes the new king of the Isle of Man, and a number of enchanted captives are released as Gawain returns to Arthur’s court.
   The motifs of the story suggest a number of issues common to romance. Here the archetypal “other,” the pagan Turk or Saracen, is converted to Christianity through a death and rebirth ritual that enables him to be resurrected as a Christian and a valuable member of Christian society. Meanwhile Sir Gawain, who is first offered the throne of Man but refuses it, remains the popular embodiment of chivalric virtues as the late medieval English audience sees him: one who is free to ride anywhere in search of adventure, rather than be tied to the responsibility of governing.
   Bibliography
   ■ Hahn, Thomas, ed. Sir Gawain: Eleven Romances and Tales. Kalamazoo,Mich.:Medieval Institute Publications, 1995.
   ■ Jost, Jean E. “The Role of Violence in Aventure: ‘The Ballad of King Arthur and the King of Cornwall’ and ‘The Turke and Gowin,’ ” Arthurian Interpretations 2, no. 2 (1988): 47–57.
   ■ Lyle, E. B.“The Turk and Gawain as Source of Thomas of Ercledoune,” Forum for Modern Language Studies 6 (1970): 98–102.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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