In honor of Valentine's day I am reviewing one of my favorite genre of literature: Arthurian romances. There are many out there but here's a few that I've read or am reading.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Sir Gawain represents the ideal knight in Arthurian romance. He is one to keep his vows regardless of danger or possible death. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, King Arthur and his knights are celebrating Yule at the round table. Suddenly, they are interrupted by the festivities by an intruder. They hear steps echoing down the hall, getting nearer and nearer until at the entrance way to the room stands a giant green knight. This knight challenges all the men present to take their best shot at cutting his head off. If they don't succeed then he gets to take a swing at their head. All the knights look at each other. Finally, the youngest and yet untried knight, Sir Gawain stands and accepts the challenge. One might wonder what this has to do with Valentine's day. Well, of course Sir Gawain has a lady love (doesn't every knight) and his challenge with the Green Knight takes him on a perilous journey that requires him to prove himself not only as a worthy knight but also as a faithful lover.
JRR Tolkien's translation is the best, in my opinion, but the version by Selina Hastings and Juan Wijngaard is also nice because of its beautiful medieval style illustrations.
Sir Gawain and the Loathly Lady
This is one of my favorite stories about Sir Gawain. King Arthur is traveling through the woods when he is accosted by a black knight. This knight challenges him to a duel but Arthur has left his sword Ex Caliber back in Camelot. Immediately he finds an evil spell cast on him and his strength gone. Since fighting an unarmed person is no sport, the knight then tells the king he must answer a question in three day's time or then they will surely duel and Arthur will die. During the three days' time King Arthur comes across a woman sitting by the side of the road. In the words of the book:
She was the ugliest living thing he had ever set eyes on, a freak, a monster, a truly Loathly lady.
Her nose was like a pig's snout; from a misshapen mouth stuck out two yellowing rows of horse's teeth; her cheeks were covered in sores; she had only one eye, the rueumy and red-rimmed, and from a naked scalp hung a few lank stands of hair....
This “Loathly lady” knows the answer to the question but she gives it with a condition. King Arthur must marry her to one of his knights. As you may have guessed, Sir Gawain agrees to marry her. You'll have to read the book to find out what all transpires. Hastings and Wijngaard have a beautifully illustrated edition of this book as well.
Chretien De Troyes is credited with being one of the earliest writers of Arthurian legend (ca. 12th century). In this collection from Penguin Classics he includes stories of Erec and Enide (I've written a more thorough review on them in an earlier post), Sir Lancelot, Yvain (also known as Gawain) and Sir Percival. I confess this book is on my TBR pile so I cannot give an actual review but here is what the back cover says:
An idyllically happy marriage in which a husband is so involved that he neglects his duties as a knight; love endangered by a husband who is more interested in athletic chivalry than in his wife; timorous young love.. together these stories offer the most complete expression we possess from a single author of the ideals of French chivalry and of courtly love.
I'm shortly going to read this book after I finish Thomas Bullfinch's Age of Chivalry and will soon write a review of both books but I thought it was a nice addition to my “romantic Valentine's Day post.
The top photo is the back cover illustration of The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm (trans.by Jack Zipes). Hmmmm..... It might be time to do some folk tales reviews...