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Professor Kittredge gave the first of the lectures under the auspices of the Cercle Francais last night in the Fogg Art Museum. Almost every seat in the hall was filled. The subject had been announced as "The Romances of the Round Table in England;" but Professor Kittredge said that was too broad a subject, and that he had selected instead what he considered to be the best of these romances, namely "Sir Thomas Gawain and the Green Knight."
In the fourteenth century there were many stories about Sir Thomas Gawain, some traced directly from French source, some imitations and some indigenous to the English soil. The poem of "Sir Thomas Gawain and the Green Knight" is only French in its materials, for it has been worked up by an English artist of genius. Unfortunately, this poet, though second only to Chaucer in his century, is unknown. The whole poem contains the highest artistic, religious and ethical purpose. It is written in a more northern dialect than Chaucer's. The metre is a combination of alliterative metre and rhyme, and, as is generally the case with such verse the language is somewhat rich and artificial.
Professor Kittredge then proceeded to read an excellent translation of the poem, written by himself. The poet gets to the matter of the story withoug unnecessary delay, in two stanzas.
The first half describes the appearance in the court of King Arthur, at Yuletide, of a stalwart knight all clad in green, who challenges the assembled knights to a strange contest. The green knight offers to allow any man present to deal him a blow with his axe on condition that he (the green knight) may deal a return blow a twelvemonth hence at the Green Chapel. Sir Gawain is the only knight valiant enough to accept the challenge. Accordingly, with a ponderous blow he chops off the green knight's head. But the latter picks his head up again and rides off.
Sir Gawain sets out soon after in search of the Green Chapel. After encountering many dangers on the road, he finally arrives at a large castle in a forest. Here he is handsomely entertained by the hoast, who tells him that the Green Chapel is but two miles distant. The day after his arrival Sir Gawain asks to be allowed to rest in bed, being tired out with his travels. The host then makes a proposal that each one should give the other what he gets on that day. The host goes deer hunting. During the day the mistress of the house comes into Sir Gawain's room and entreats him for a kiss, which he finally gives. In the evening the host gives the venison to Sir Gawain and the latter a kiss to his host. The next day the same thing is repeated.
The third day the lady of the house gives Sir Gawain a girdle of green lace which will protect the bearer from hacking and cutting. That evening Sir Gawain concealed this gift from his host.
New Year's Day coming round, Sir Gawain proceeds to the "Green Chapel," where he finds the green knight. The latter strikes, but the axe only makes a slight scratch on Sir Gawain's neck, because it is protected by the green lace. Thereupon the green knight reveals his identity with the lord of the castle and says that the visits of his wife to Sir Gawain's bed chamber were but to try his purity.
Professor Kittredge then spoke on the great merites of the poem. The interest increases steadily towards the climax through a series of episodes which are true developments of the plot, not a string of disconnected adventures. The interviews between Sir Gawain and the lady are managed with great delicacy, yet with no distinct reticence. Few things, too, could have been more difficult than to conduct Sir Gawain through these adventures without making him appear ridiculous. He is pictured as modest, brave, courteous and steadfast in faith. Even King Arthur is not the shadowy phantom we usually meet with, but real flesh and blood. The descriptions of the hunts are unsurpassed in English poetry and lend color and reality to the plot. Not the least remarkable characteristic of this poem is its elevated morality, a great contrast to the loose morals of most romances. This beautiful poem shows us what a genius could do with materials borrowed from France.
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