Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Sir Gawain Goes Hexcrawling

I was preparing an extract from the 14th-century chivalric romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight for a class the other day when I suddenly realised that it's basically a description of a rather aimless D&D hexcrawl. Gawain is on a quest for the Green Chapel, but he doesn't know where it is except that it's 'somewhere in the wilderness of Wirral'; so all he can do is blunder about from hex to hex, fighting monsters and having random encounters, until finally he's reduced to praying for outright divine intervention. He even sleeps in his armour like a proper D&D character!

Here's the text. Original Middle English on the left. My (painfully literal) translation on the right. 

Middle English Text
Literal Modern Translation
He made non abode,
Bot wyȝtly went hys way;
Mony wylsum way he rode,
Þe bok as I herde say.

He made no stop,
But manfully went on his way;
Many tiresome paths he rode,
As I have heard the book say.

Now ridez þis renk þurȝ þe ryalme of Logres,
Sir Gauan, on Godez halue, þaȝ hym no gomen þoȝt.
Oft leudlez alone he lengez on nyȝtez
Þer he fonde noȝt hym byfore þe fare þat he lyked.
Hade he no fere bot his fole bi frythez and   dounez,
Ne no gome bot God bi gate wyth to karp,
Til þat he neȝed ful neghe into þe Norþe Walez.
Now rides this hero through the realm of Logres,
Sir Gawain, on God’s behalf, though he thought it no game.
Often alone and friendless he lodged at nights
There he found not before him the fare that he liked.
He had no friend but his foal by forests and downs,
And no-one but God to talk with on the way,
Until he had almost come into North Wales.
Alle þe iles of Anglesay on lyft half he haldez,
And farez ouer þe fordez by þe forlondez,
Ouer at þe Holy Hede, til he hade eft bonk
In þe wyldrenesse of Wyrale; wonde þer bot lyte
Þat auþer God oþer gome wyth goud hert louied.
And ay he frayned, as he ferde, at frekez þat he met,
If þay hade herde any karp of a knyȝt grene,
In any grounde þeraboute, of þe grene chapel;
And al nykked hym wyth nay, þat neuer in her lyue
Þay seȝe neuer no segge þat watz of suche hwez
of grene.
All the isles of Anglesey he kept on his left side
And fared over the fords by the forelands
Over at Holy Head, until he had landed
In the wilderness of Wirral; there very few lived
That loved either God or man with good heart.
 And always as he fared, he asked the people that he met
If they had heard any talk of a green knight
Or of the green chapel in any place thereabout; 
And all replied that, no, never in their lives
Had they ever seen a man of such a hue
Of green.
Þe knyȝt tok gates straunge
In mony a bonk vnbene,
His cher ful oft con chaunge
Þat chapel er he myȝt sene.
The knight took strange roads
On many a rough bank
His mood often changed
Before he saw that chapel.

Mony klyf he ouerclambe in contrayez straunge,
Fer floten fro his frendez fremedly he rydez.
At vche warþe oþer water þer þe wyȝe passed
He fonde a foo hym byfore, bot ferly hit were,
And þat so foule and so felle þat feȝt hym byhode.
So mony meruayl bi mount þer þe mon fyndez,
Hit were to tore for to telle of þe tenþe dole.
Sumwhyle wyth wormez he werrez, and with wolues als,
Sumwhyle wyth wodwos, þat woned in þe knarrez,
Boþe wyth bullez and berez, and borez oþerquyle,
And etaynez, þat hym anelede of þe heȝe felle;
Many cliffs he climbed over in strange countries,
Far asunder from his friends, lonely he rode.
At each ford or water where the hero passed 
It was strange if he found not a foe before him, 
And that so foul and fell that he was forced to fight.
So many marvels in the mountains there the man found,
It would be tedious to tell of the tenth part.
Sometimes with serpents he warred, and sometimes with wolves,
Sometimes with wild men, that lived in the cliffs,
Both with bulls and bears, and at other times with boars,
And giants, that assailed him from the high fells;
Nade he ben duȝty and dryȝe, and Dryȝtyn had serued,
Douteles he hade ben ded and dreped ful ofte.
For werre wrathed hym not so much þat wynter nas wors,
When þe colde cler water fro þe cloudez schadde,
And fres er hit falle myȝt to þe fale erþe;
Ner slayn wyth þe slete he sleped in his yrnes
Mo nyȝtez þen innoghe in naked rokkez,
Þer as claterande fro þe crest þe colde borne rennez,
And henged heȝe ouer his hede in hard iisse-ikkles.
Þus in peryl and payne and plytes ful harde
Bi contray cayrez þis knyȝt, tyl Krystmasse euen,
al one;
Had he not been doughty and stern, and served God,
Doubtless he would often have been dead and slain.
But war tried him not so much that winter was not worse,
When the cold clear water fell from the clouds, 
And froze before it could fall to the earth.
Nearly slain by the sleet he slept in his irons
More nights than enough on naked rocks,
Where the cold burn ran clattering from the crest,
And hung high over his head in hard icicles.
Thus in peril and pain and plights full hard
Through the country wanders this knight, until Christmas eve,

Þe knyȝt wel þat tyde
To Mary made his mone,
Þat ho hym red to ryde
And wysse hym to sum wone.
The knight well that tide
To Mary made his plea,
That she would direct his riding
And lead him to some home.

(Spoiler: She does! And that's when the real adventure begins...)


  1. That is a pretty cool observation, I will have to pick up a copy and look at again in a hexcrawl frame of reference. If I ever get around to trying to develop it into a hex or branching path adventure, I will let you know how it goes. Awesome blog!

    1. Well, this is the only hexcrawly bit: the rest is basically a long social encounter in which the GM tries to mess with poor Gawain's head. But just reading it is enough to pretty much work out what the random encounter table for the Wilderness of Wirral looks like. 1-2: 1d3 giants. 3-5: 2d6 wolves. 6-7: A raiding party of 3d6 cliff-dwelling barbarians. And so on...

  2. Huh, its weird, I grew up on the Wirral and I was reading Simon Armitages translation a few days ago.

    I forgot how borderline bisexual that poem is. Damn thing nearly became a porno.

    1. I guess that makes you one of the wodwos þat woned in þe knarrez, then!

      As you probably know, men kissing each other wasn't such a big deal in the 14th century; but, even so, I agree that the poem seems rather interested in gender fluidity. There's no reason to think its author was necessarily male, is there? The MS is anonymous, and we know that other medieval Arthurian romances were written by women...