Passus 1, Stanza 1, Lines 1 through 19:
The poem begins with a reference to when the “siege and assault was ceased at Troy” (1). The poet places the reign of King Arthur in a broad historical perspective which includes the fall of Troy. The fall of Troy is described in the poem as the “walls breached and burnt down to brands and ashes” (2). The word “breach” means the physical action of the walls breaking, the fact of the wall being broken, breakage and fracture. The walls burnt down to brands; results of burning, conflagration and destruction by fire.
The poem makes reference to the “knight that had knotted the nets of deceit” (3). The deceitful knight is Antenor, who in Virgil’s “Aeneid” is a trusted counselor, but who appears as a traitor in later versions of the Troy story. Antenor is referenced here as a traitor to Troy, and was “impeached for his perfidy” (4). The word “perfidy” means deceitfulness, untrustworthiness, breach of faith or of a promise, betrayal and treachery. Antenor was impeached due his deceitfulness.
The rulers of the West Isles were “high-born Aeneas and his haughty race” (5). The term “high-born” means born in a high rank of society or of noble birth, and “haughty race” means the race considered themselves high in their estimation, lofty and disdainful of other races in feeling and demeanor (5). The “Aeneas … race” was proud and arrogant, supercilious when it came to their disposition, action and speech (5). The Aeneas race “prevailed over provinces and proudly reigned” (6). The word “prevail” means to become strong, to gain vigor or force, and to increase in strength over provinces, countries, territories, districts or regions (6). The word “provinces” refers to a region of the earth or of a continent, including inhabitants (6). The word “reign” means to hold or exercise the sovereign power or authority as though a state (6). To “reign” is to rule or govern, as though a government state or as kings or queens(6). The Aeneas race ruled “Over well-nigh all the wealth” (7). The term “well-nigh” means very nearly or almost entirely all the wealth (7).
In accordance with medieval notions of history, the poet visualizes the descendants of the king of Troy, Aeneas his son, and other descendants, as founding a series of western kingdoms. Upon founding a kingdom each descendant gives his name. We are told what “Romulus is to Rome” (8). “Ticius is to Tuscany” (11). “Langobarb is to Lombardy” (12). This westward movement ends with the crossing of the “French Sea” or British Channel (13). Felix Brutus, the great-grandson of Aeneas, is to “Britain” (14). This Brutus, whom the poet calls Felix or fortunate, is not to be confused with the Marcus Brutus of Roman history. They are all founders of great cities, who were honored by having the cities named in their honor.
Rome, Tuscany, Lombardy and Britain are “Where war and wrack and wonder” (16)/ “By shifts have sojourned there” (17). The term “wrack and wonder” means retributive punishment and vengeance, wonder and astonishment “By shifts,” in phases, “soujourned,” journied alone there as a place to stay (16-17). As they migrated to Rome, Tuscany, Lombardy and Britain, war and retributive punishment, and incredulous feelings followed.
“Bliss by turns with blunder” (18)/ “In that land’s lot had share” (19). The contrasting words “bliss” means to give joy or gladness, while “blunder” means confusion and bewilderment, disturbance and clamor. In the new region, the people experienced either disturbance or joy. A “lot” is an object, normally a piece of wood, which was used in a widely diffused ancient method of settling disputes regarding property division. Each lot or piece of wood bears the special mark of a person to whom the land is to be their claim. The claim was determined by an appeal to a divine concerned in the results of chance. The word “share” means that part or portion of the land which is allotted or belongs to an individual, when distribution is made.
Since the siege and the assault was ceased at Troy
The walls breached and burnt down to brands and ashes,
The knight that had knotted the nets of deceit
Was impeached for his perfidy, proven most true,
It was high-born Aeneas and his haughty race
That since prevailed over provinces, and proudly reigned
Over well-nigh all the wealth of the West Isles.
Great Romulus to Rome repairs in haste;
With boast and with bravery builds he that city
And names it with his own name, that it now bears.
Ticius to Tuscany, and towers raises,
Langobard in Lombardy lays out homes,
And far over the French Sea, Felix Brutus
On many broad hills and high Britain he sets,
Where war and wrack and wonder
By shifts have sojourned there,
And bliss by turns with blunder
In that land’s lot had share.
SIÞEN þe sege and þe assaut watz sesed at Troye,
Þe borȝ brittened and brent to brondeȝ and askez,
Þe tulk þat þe trammes of tresoun þer wroȝt
Watz tried for his tricherie, þe trewest on erthe:
Hit watz Ennias þe athel, and his highe kynde,
Þat siþen depreced prouinces, and patrounes bicome
Welneȝe of al þe wele in þe west iles.
Fro riche Romulus to Rome ricchis hym swyþe,
With gret bobbaunce þat burȝe he biges vpon fyrst,
And neuenes hit his aune nome, as hit now hat;
Tirius to Tuskan and teldes bigynnes,
Langaberde in Lumbardie lyftes vp homes,
And fer ouer þe French flod Felix Brutus
On mony bonkkes ful brode Bretayn he settez
Where werre and wrake and wonder
Bi syþez hatz wont þerinne,
And oft boþe blysse and blunder
Ful skete hatz skyfted synne.
Pearl, Cleanness, Patience, and Sir Gawain reproduced in facsimile from MS. Cotton Nero A. x with Introduction by Sir I. Gollancz, E.E.T.S. 162, 1923.
Syr Gawayne, ed. Sir F. Madden, Bannatyne Club, 1839.
Sir Gawayne and The Green Knight, ed. R. Morris, E.E.T.S. 4, 1864,
revd. Sir I. Gollancz 1897 and 1912.
Sir Gawain and The Green Knight, ed. J. R. R. Tolkien and E. V. Gordon,
The Poems of the Pearl Manuscript: Pearl, Cleanness, Patience, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Eds. Malcom Andrew, and Ronald Waldron. Exeter: U of Exeter, 1987.
“Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”. The Norton Anthology of English Literature, The Middle Ages. 8th ed. Vol. A. Eds. Alfred David, and James Simpson. New York, N.Y.: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2006. 160-213.