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  • Michael Smith, Mythical Britain

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight - recreating in linocut the characters of Cotton Nero A.x


In a glass case in the British Library in London can be found one of the true gems of English literature, a book now known as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and once part of a collection of the antiquarian and bibliophile, Sir Robert Bruce Cotton, MP.

Cotton collected his library of ancient texts in the late 16th and early 17th century; his foresight was to preserve a corpus of literature which by 1757 was acquired by the Kingdom of Great Britain to become the basis of the British Library.

Still carrying Cotton''s library classification of Nero A.x, (a location system whereby volumes were stored on shelves named after Roman emperors), this small book has survived over 600 years, including avoiding total destruction in the Ashburnham House fire of 1731.

Dating from approximately 1380, Sir Gawain and the Green knight is a masterpiece of northern alliterative poetry.. It belies the commonly-held belief that the language of the nobility was entirely French. It also reveals a complex, blossoming northern English, embracing local dialect and words with roots back to Norway, Denmark and Germany.

Personal interest

I became interested in the poem in 2010, when I was looking at the possibility of using some of its words for a range of greetings cards. Little did I know at the time that I was about to begin a journey of discovery of my own into a poem which was written barely 20 miles from my home town.

As a printmaker, my own journey is akin to that of Sir Gawain himself - naively accepting a challenge and then having to take the consequences.. In my case, realising that the more I tried to recreate the characters in the poem the more detail I began to uncover from the sophistication of the lines. It was simply not good enough to create an imagined Gawain or Green Knight - the poet tells us precisely what both characters looked like.

In producing my work, I like to base my images on the illuminated manuscripts of the mediaeval period. This is why many of my linocut prints are finished in bright colours and have a curious perspective. So, in producing my prints of the characters of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, I draw on illustrative style cues of the middle ages, adjusting them to suit the accurate descriptions of the characters given in the poem.

Sir Gawain

Sir Gawain is a complex character in the pantheon of Arthurian heroes. In some stories he is seen as a master of "luf-talking", the chivalric ability to speak with great charm to women of all ages. In others he is seen as more predatory; certainly more flawed (for example in Chretien de Troyes' Perceval).

In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Gawain certainly carries his chivalric reputation forward but the sheer quality of the poem reveals his reputation to be severely tested by Lady Bertilak of Hautdesert. In revealing his shame at the end of the poem, some writers have also suggested that his character is misogynist; certainly the change of language in Fitt 4 is quite striking as he struggles to accept his own weaknesses when confronted by the Green Knight.

It is this dual role of Gawain - the knight as hero and the man as flawed - which I have tried to capture in my linocut prints. In the print of Sir Gawain with the Green Knight, I found a contemporary funeral brass to replicate the armour described in the poem and found, almost by chance, that the expressionless stare of the knight's face seemed to capture the blend of doubt and bravery felt by Gawain at his denouement.

In the print, the snowy backdrop replicates the time of year described by the poet; the equally expressionless face of the Green Knight suggests almost a permanent seal of disapproval. Sir Gawain the hero with a secret.


The Green Knight

The Green Knight himself blends stories from Irish mythology, Arthurian romance and folklore elements of the "green man of the forest". His colour of "enker green" (green all over) is seen by some as representing the supernatural and that he is a character of great evil.

The poem clarifies who he is - a form of shape-shifting creature switching between the epnonymous anti-hero and the form of Lord Bertilak. In tying things up at the end, the poet leaves it unclear whether the Green Knight has been made this way by Morgan le Fay as a form of between-worlds wraith, trapped forever to roam the netherworld between the living and the dead. Nonetheless, we do feel sympathy for him - especially as he absolves Gawain of his sins and foolishness..

I find the character of the Green Knight a fabulous creation. He is at once magical, supernatural, brave, charismatic and charming. He condemns, he supports, he challenges, he frightens. On his green horse, draped in ribbons and bells, he comes like a Krampus at Christmas time and then disappears to a land no-one knows where.

In my print of him, I followed the description of him given by the poet. He carries in his hands a holly bough and a giant guisarme - a massive axe, bound in ribbons. He has long hair over his shoulders. He wears tightly-fitting clothes. His horse is caparisoned with ribbons and bells. To me, he very much is a shimmering wraith of a character - powerful, charming, magical.

Making the linocuts

Each of my linocut prints is produced in Cambridgeshire on a 19th century Albion press. The print of the Green Knight involves three different lino plates, each hand-cut and taking over 80 hours in total to produce, with each separately inked plate coming together to make the final print.

The print of both characters together is less complex but still involves two separate plates only in this case masking the colours to enable a three colour process to be evoked.

The final image shown here is a more modernist interpretation of Sir Gawain produced more for illustrative purposes of technique. Here, the process involved two plates but, via a sophisticated undercutting of the lower plate, able to create three colours, allowing greater definition of Gawain on the snowy hillside looking for the Green Chapel.

More information - prints and cards for sale

Details of each ORIGINAL linocut (not a digital print) can be found on the links below; all three are also available as part of a set of greetings cards (again, please follow the links).

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