The Awntyrs off Arthure (20th April 2016)


Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Douce 324

Next meeting: 20th April 2016 / Room 2.47 / 3-5pm

The Awntyrs off Arthure is a Middle English Alliterative poem thought to have been composed between the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries. The text tells two stories, each of which feature Gawain as the protagonist. The Awntyrs is preserved in four manuscripts: Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Douce 324, Lambeth Palace Library, MS 491.B, Thornton MS, Lincoln Cathedral Library, MS 91, and Ireland Blackburn MS, Robert H. Taylor Collection, Princeton, New Jersey. The text contains distinctive features and variations in each of these manuscripts, suggesting that none of the texts can be perceived as the ‘original’. The complexity of the poem’s composition suggests that it was purposefully created as a literary piece, rather than descending from an oral tradition.

Previous generations of criticism on the themes of structure and unity in the Awntyrs have traditionally suggested that the poem represents a poorly joined bipartite narrative with little to indicate a relationship between the two sides. Ralph Hanna builds upon on Herman Lubke’s theory that the Awntyrs constitutes two separate poems joined together by a third party, in his 1974 edition of the text, splitting the two ‘halves’ completely and giving them the subheadings ‘The Awntyrs A’ and ‘The Awntyrs B.’ At best, it was conceded that the poem ‘remains a remarkable fragment of the same kind of poetic art as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, but a fragment only’. However, A. C. Spearing’s seminal comparison of the structure of the Awntyrs with the diptych marks the beginning of a new wave of criticism, more interested in arguing for some kind of unity than against it.

  • Should the Awntyrs be read as two distinct and separate poems joined together by a later hand, or a single and coherent poetic structure?
  • If you think that the poem is formed of two separate halves, how and why might the two parts have been joined to create the poem that we have now?
  • If the poem should be read as a single and coherent text, how do the two storylines interact with one another?
  • Do theories of structure effect the way in which the text should be read?
  • How might images of mirroring and reflection be important to the text?


The warnings that the ghost of Guinevere’s mother address two of the central elements of romance narratives: love and war.

  • What do you make of the presentation of Guinevere’s mother?
  • Is there any significance in the fact that these warnings are given to Gawain and Guinevere?
  • Is national identity an important theme within the poem?


The Lincoln Thornton Manuscript also contains the only surviving copy of the Alliterative Morte Arthur. This text comes similarly close to a criticism of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table in its discussion of fortune and King Arthur’s dream:

“Freke,” says the philosopher, “thy fortune is passed
For thou shall find her thy fo; fraist when thee likes!
Thou art at the highest, I hete thee forsooth;
Challenge now when thou will, thou cheves no more!
Thou hast shed much blood and shalkes destroyed,
Sakeles, in surquidrie, in sere kinges landes…” (AMA 3394-3399)

  • Are there any parallels between these lines, and the questions Gawain asks of Guinevere’s mother?
  • What does the Awntyrs suggest about fortune?
  • Does Arthur’s solution to the combat between Gawain and Galeron answer the problems of conquest raised by Gawain himself in the first part of the poem?