Saint George, Islam, and Al khidr in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Su Fang Ng
Kenneth Hodges

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Before his tale, which begins with Islamic merchants carrying stories between Syria and Rome, Chaucer’s Man of Law offers this apostrophe to merchants: “Ye seken lond and see for yowre wynnynges; / As wise folk ye knowen al th’estaat / Of regnes; ye been fadres of tidynges / And tales . . .” Thus Chaucer notes that trading networks spread stories as well as merchandise, stories Chaucer himself appropriates and retells. If we take Chaucer’s remarks seriously, we need to expand the area of literary exchange beyond Western Europe. One work that may have been shaped, unexpectedly, by such exchanges is Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Although European analogues and sources for it exist, there have been hints over the decades of possible non-European contexts for the poem. In 1916, George Lyman Kittredge noted that in a number of the analogues the supernatural challenger is black or Turkish. These analogues thus link the challenger of the beheading plot to racial otherness. In 1974, Alice Lasater, in her work on the influence of Spanish literature (Christian, Islamic, and hybrid) on Middle English literature, noted extensive parallels between a well-known popular Islamic folk figure, al-Khidr (the Green One), and the Green Knight.

Evidence for the Gawain-poet’s interest in the east has been detected in the other poems as well. The heavenly city of Pearl, as Mahmoud Manzalaoui has noted, has close parallels to the description in an Islamic text known to Europeans in Latin translation as the Liber Scalae or Book of the Ladder (a copy of fourteenth-century English provenance was found at Oxford). It recounts Mohammed’s ascent into the heavens (mi’rāj), and scholars now largely agree that this text was a source for Dante’s Commedia. Further suggesting interest in the east, Cleanness draws on Sir John Mandeville’s description of the Dead Sea. Since the poem is elusive in questions of authorship, date, and circumstances of composition, criticism has necessarily proceeded speculatively. Most critics have understandably focused on Northern European (especially Irish and French) sources and analogues.

Given recent scholarly interest in medieval romance’s engagement with the east and with Islam, however, the Green Knight’s non-European analogues and particularly Lasater’s intriguing suggestion of al-Khidr need to be reconsidered. While the poem’s many unknowns prevent any absolute identification of the Green Knight as al-Khidr, especially since the Green Knight is most probably a composite character with elements taken from several traditions as well as the poet’s imagination, the possibility that the Gawain-poet may have, in his typically allusive manner, borrowed from an Islamic figure nonetheless leads to a fruitful reexamination of the poem’s commitments and affiliations. The seminal works of Dorothee Metlitzki and María Rosa Menocal have demonstrated that Islamic literature must be taken seriously as an influence on and source for medieval Christian literature: intellectual engagement with Islam went far beyond the caricatured Muslims of bad romances.

Religious antipathy did not prevent medieval Christians from studying the sacred book of their enemies: Robert of Ketton’s twelfth-century translation of the Qu’ran circulated widely and continued to be read into the early modern period. As Thomas Burman shows in his study of Latin translations of the Qu’ran, Robert of Ketton and other translators incorporated Islamic commentary into their translations and their glosses in order to elucidate obscure Qu’ranic passages, and in so doing they strove to understand a difficult, alien text in its own terms: Christian response to the text was not simply polemical—though it certainly was that—it was also deeply philological. Since medieval engagements with Islam are starting to be understood as doing more than simply recycling old stereotypes or caricaturing Muslims, Lasater’s suggestion of al-Khidr as an analogue for the Green Knight must be more thoroughly considered. As medievalists also turn, increasingly, to questions of postcolonialism, a reconsideration of the literary markers of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’s possible engagement with the Islamic world in relation to the likely historical and political contexts of its composition may point us to a new, international reading of the poem. Read more here: Saint_George_Islam_and_Regional_Courts

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