Sir Gowther – Would it have shocked the audience?

This paper focuses on Sir Gowther in relation to Gowther’s heroic career and also discusses to what extent the Middle English romance corresponds with the expectations of romance that may be held by an audience. I argue that while Sir Gowther centres on the hero’s education and quest for identity it is surprising in that it alters the conventional Middle English romance tale of chivalric adventure, where the main protagonist is typically a questing knight, into a story of a hero, born a half-devil, who is transformed into a saintly figure by miraculous conversion.

Transformation from devil to saint-like figure

Sir Gowther is a moderately short, anonymous Middle English romance. Often cited as an adaptation of the late twelfth century French poem Robert the Devil, Robert le Diable, it tells the story of the life of Sir Gowther from birth to death.  Sir Gowther can be found in two manuscripts dating from the late-fifteenth century; that of the National Library of Scotland MS Advocates 19.3.1. and also the British Library Royal MS 17.B.43. In both manuscripts the romance is composed of twelve-line, tail rhyme stanzas; however both versions of Sir Gowther differ slightly from one another (Laskaya and Salisbury, 1995).

The British Library Royal manuscript, as it was perhaps meant for a more refined and cultured audience, fails to include the passage where the hero, prior to his conversion, along with his comrades commit a repugnant crime where they rape and loot a convent of nuns and subsequently burn the convent to the ground.  The manuscript found in the National Library of Scotland however, Laskaya and Salisbury (1995) state, is told in “a more vigorous and decidedly more explicit manner”.

Gowther’s heroic career corresponds with an audience’s expectation of medieval romance in that Sir Gowther, like many other romances, focuses on the hero’s education and quest for identity. Gowther’s heroic career begins when he sets out on a pursuit of moral recovery, a quest that centres on the sophisticated conversion from evil to good. However, Gowther’s struggles are much greater than those of the usual medieval romance protagonist (Richmond, 1975). I believe that Gowther cannot be characterised as a typical knight who embarks on a quest to perform a prescribed deed nor can he be depicted as a fallible human being who must reach the self-awareness and understanding that leads to transcendence. Gowther is the embodiment of evil as he is of demonic paternity, he is begotten by a “fowle fend” (4) and is described as “Marylyng’s halfe bruder” (98). The Minstrel’s invocation is much more specific than would have been expected by a medieval audience. The Minstrel asks God to “Shilde us from the fowle fende/ That is about mannys sowle to shende/ All tymes of the yere!” (4-6)

The relevance of the prayer becomes apparent when Gowther’s diabolical early life and unfathomable acts of violence are revealed. As an infant Gowther is responsible for the death of nine wet-nurses whom he suckles to death and as a young man he wilfully terrorises people, particularly those of religious orders. He and his comrades commit heinous crimes including the rape and looting of a convent of nuns where they subsequently burn the convent to the ground.  Gowther is depicted as the anti-Christ, beating down men and women of God. However, not only is he a figure of the anti-Christ but he is also anti-knight by harming those who, as a knight, he should be protecting. An old earl asks:

Syr, why dose thu soo?

We howpe thu come never of Cryston stryn,

Bot art sum fendys son, we weyn,

That werkus hus this woo.

Thu dose never gud, bot ey tho ylle –

We hope thu be full syb tho deyll. (207-211)

The accusation of demonic paternity leads Gowther to have a confrontation with his mother who confesses all to her son at the point of his sword. Gowther has however been christened (107) and on learning that his father was a Devil his immediate response is to pray and desire penance for his evil wrongdoing. Gowther states “Y wyll to Rome to tho apostyll, /

That he mey schryfe me and asoyll” (250-251).

Often medieval romances were associated with quests concerning religious faith and it is clear that this tail-line romance is representative of the crisis of the Christian soul in the Middle Ages where people were of the belief that the souls of those who committed sin and did not confess their immoral behaviour, and subsequently repent, would end up in hell (Johnston, 2011). Gowther embarks on his journey alone to receive absolution for his sins from the Pope. To secure his Christian identity he will undertake a quest to find his real father. Is he a son of the Devil? Is he a son of God? Gowther is granted an audience with the Pope and is given his penance:

Wherser thu travellys, be northe or soth,

Thu eyt no meyt bot that thu revus of howndus mothe

Cum thy body within;

Ne no worde speke for evyll ne gud,

Or thu reyde tokyn have fro God,

That forgyfyn is thi syn. (295-300)

Gowther’s wild appearance and violent actions, according to Lasayak and Salisbury (1995), are associated with the familiar tradition of wild folks depicted quite often in the margins of medieval romance. Gowther’s previous behaviour as a violent anti-Christ becomes a metaphor for sin and his pursuit for his true identity could perhaps be viewed a metaphor for the Christian sinner’s quest for salvation through repentance.

Hopkins (1990) argues that Sir Gowther is a penitential romance and Gowther, once ignorant of his wrongdoing, becomes conscious of his sins having learned the truth of his paternity. It is Gowther’s remorse and guilt surrounding the violent acts he previously committed that lead him to repent and through penance he is brought closer to God. In the castle of the Emperor of Almayn, according to Cooper (2004), Gowther undergoes an extreme form of penance. He takes food only brought to him by dogs and he, like the Emperor’s daughter, becomes mute.

The Emperor of Germany’s daughter attracts the attention of a Sultan and when the Emperor refuses to allow the Sultan to marry his daughter a war is waged between them. When the Castle is besieged by Saracen invaders the former son of the Devil becomes a defender of Christianity. Gowther has now clearly become an agent of God and prays to Him for the accoutrements of a knight – a shield, a horse and armour- so that he can fight. Every day Gowther’s prayers are miraculously answered. For three days he battles, invincibly, alongside the Emperor’s army. He appears first as a black knight, then a red knight and on the final day a white knight which Laskaya and Salisbury (1995) note is perhaps a representation of Gowther’s purification process. Even in the midst of triumph Gowther tirelessly repents for his sins:

He had no thoght bot of is syn,

And how he myght is soule wyn

To tho blys that God con hym by. (538-540)

No worde speyke, withowt wene,

For dowtte of Godus wreke;

If all he hongurt, noght he dyd eytte

Bot what he myght fro tho howndus geyt;

He dyd as tho Pwope con hym teche. (608-612)

What is surprising and would perhaps shock a medieval audience about Sir Gowther is the sheer magnitude of the hero’s transformation from the figure of the anti-Christ, who committed atrocious acts of violence, to an exemplary Christian knight. From infancy and prior to his conversion, Gowther carries out his father’s will, his true father the Devil, acting monstrous and diabolical while showing no remorse for those around him. However, his devotion to his religion and willingness to repent for his sins are rewarded. After appearing to be dead having fallen from her tower, the Emperor’s daughter’s body becomes a locus of a miraculous event. She speaks; her first words are from God to Gowther:

“My lord of heyvon gretys the well,

And forgyffeus the thi syn yche a dell,

And grantys the tho blys;

And byddus the speyke on hardely,

Eyte and drynke and make mery;

Thu schallt be won of His.”

(lines 661-666)

The Pope observes that the conditions for Gowther’s redemption have been recognised and thus Gowther is liberated from his place beneath the table and the silent prison that was his body. There is a change also in Gowther’s paternity. He is no longer a son of the Devil but is now a son of God. The Pope states “Now art thu Goddus chyld; /The thar not dowt tho warlocke wyld, /Ther waryd mot He bee” (673-75).

The transformation from a child of the Devil to a child of God only increases Gowther’s sanctity and he continues to pursue a life of good. Having once been the cause of all destruction Gowther turns his attention to building abbeys. His charity is endless and even in death he continues to do good as miracles take place where he is buried. I argue that Gowther’s conversion from a Devil to a saint-like figure, or an actual saint as expressed solely in the Royal manuscript, could be an exaggerated portrayal of Christian belief in Redemption.

It is apparent that Gowther’s career resembles that of Lancelot or Guy to an extent and the tale in its most basic form corresponds with an audience’s expectation of romance; the hero begins a quest trying to establish a new, or in search of his true, identity. However it is Gowther’s paternity that makes the hero’s transformation so astonishing. He begins his life as a barbaric, violent and callous individual, a replicate of his father, carrying out the Devil’s work. The transition from such a beastly creature that conducts the work of the Devil to a saint-like figure that carries out the will of God is astounding and would probably have shocked an audience familiar with traditional medieval romance.


Cooper, H.  The English Romance in Time, Oxford University Press. 2004. Print.

Hopkins,  A. The Sinful Knights: A Study of Middle English Penitential Romances. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1990. Print.

Johnston, R.A.  All Things Medieval: An Encyclopedia of the Medieval World, Greenwood Press. 2011. Print.

Laskaya, A. Salisbury, E. The Middle English Breton Lays. University of Rochester Archive.

Medieval Institute Publications. 1995. Web. December, 2012.

Richmond, V. B.  The Popularity of Middle English Romance. Bowling Green University Popular Press, US. 1975. Print.


Harold Pinter’s play “The Birthday Party”

The ‘theatre of the absurd’, a term coined by the critic Martin Esslin in 1961, is used to describe the new style of theatre which developed following the Second World War. The concept refers to the plays of the 1950s and 1960s which centre on the notion that life is illogical, without purpose and devoid of meaning (Esslin, 1980).

Harold Pinter, according to Esslin, is one of the defining playwrights of the movement and like other playwrights at this time, such as Samuel Beckett, Pinter wants to communicate the enigmatic and problematic nature of human existence. Esslin states that however realistic the situations which arise appear to be, Pinter’s plays are essentially reflections on, and allegories of, the human condition. (Esslin,1963). Pinter emphasises the instability and comfortlessness of the human condition.

This post discusses Esslin’s assertion in relation to Pinter’s play The Birthday Party (1958). Pinter’s play centres on the life of the main protagonist Stanley Webber, an unemployed pianist, who, for the last year, has been living as a lodger with Meg and Petey Boles in their sea-side boarding house. Stanley is living in idle seclusion away from the outside world. However, the relatively peaceful, domestic atmosphere of the boarding house is disturbed by the intrusion of two unknown characters, Goldberg and McCann. The two men are “agents” of an “organisation” and have come to claim Stanley (Pinter, 1991). The characters in the play prior to the arrival of Goldberg and McCann are described by Malkin as a representation of domestic banality (Malkin, 1992). The dialogue in the opening scene between Petey and Meg is filled with inane questions asked by Meg followed by Petey’s monosyllabic answers:

MEG You got your paper?
MEG Is it good?
PETEY Not bad.
MEG What does it say?
PETEY Nothing much.

However the idiom changes drastically with the arrival of Goldberg and McCann and it is not long before the dialogue begins to breakdown (Malkin, 1992).

Stanley is subjected to a strange and disturbing cross-examination by the men. Pinter adopts stichomythia, a form of dramatic dialogue, during the interrogation scene where both Goldberg and McCann alternate in asking Stanley questions that range from the sublime to the ridiculous, all of which lack intelligible meaning (Silverstein, 1994). The language of nonsense is used abusively as Stanley is tortured with illogical questions. For example:

MCCANN What about the Albigensenist heresy?
GOLDBERG Who watered the wicket in Melbourne?
MCCANN What about the blessed Oliver Plunkett? 

The men’s interrogation of Stanley continues throughout the party itself which finally dissolves into a series of violent acts. Pinter’s dialogue is made up of incorrect syntax, tedious repetitions and also contradictions. Goldberg and McCann’s questions and statements are a combination of distorted clichés and idioms (Prentice, 2000). Dukore suggests that the linguistic absurdity present in The Birthday Party (1958) may suggest the absurdity of the human condition (Dukore, 1982). Through dialogue Pinter displays the inadequacy of the words we use in our everyday speech and how language itself has become an insufficient and defective tool for communication (Malkin, 1992).

The nature of language and dialogue is also central to the theme of menace in The Birthday Party (1958). The dramatic image of Pinter’s play is based on the individual search for security in a world filled with unease, fear, and lack of understanding between people (Esslin, 1963). The uneasiness and anxiety in The Birthday Party (1958) arise from the threat of invasion from the outside menacing world. When Stanley learns of the two men who will be coming to stay in the boarding house his initial reaction is one of shock and fear of that which is unfamiliar. When speaking to Meg he is quick to try to falsify her claims maintaining that the men will not come (Pinter, 1991). However, Pinter states that in the world we live in, as in the world of his plays, everything is uncertain and we are surrounded by the unknown; it is because of this we are constantly fearful of an invasion from that which is unfamiliar (Esslin, 1980).

The mysterious and unfamiliar presents itself in The Birthday Party (1958) in the form of the external world, personified by Goldberg and McCann, which intrudes on what seems to be Stanley’s safe and secure environment in the Bole’s boarding house. Goldberg and McCann embody the theme of menace in that they threaten to disturb, with language as their weapon, what is familiar and constant in Stanley’s life.

Dukore suggests that the fear of menace present in Pinter’s The Birthday Party (1958) may suggest the absurdity of the human condition, for Stanley, like all of mankind feels insecure and unsafe without certainties in his universe (Dukore, 1982). Stanley, like mankind, is fearful that what lies beyond the confines of his comfortable environment is threatening and hostile. Without knowledge man would grow more terrified of the surrounding world and I believe the purpose of this play is to highlight just that. Our quest for knowledge has limitations and in a bid to diminish the fear of the strange and unfamiliar what Pinter is perhaps trying to convey is that there will always be an unknown.

Esslin argues that Pinter’s The Birthday Party (1958) may also be interpreted as an allegory surrounding the nature of conformity. By using language as a weapon, Stanley, the pianist, the solitary and individual artist, is forced to confine to the ways of Goldberg and McCann (Esslin, 1980). The morning following The Birthday Party (1958), during which Stanley was subjected to further taunts from McCann, left unable to speak and reduced to a manic state of laughter, the “agents” bombard him with an extensive list of his faults and specify the benefits of submitting to their influence:

MCCANN Now you’re even more cockeyed.
GOLDBERG It’s true. You’ve gone from bad to worse.
MCCANN Worse than worse.

Goldberg and McCann are insistent that they bring Stanley to see Monty however Petey is not entirely convinced. He suggests that as Stanley is a guest in his boarding house he should be the one to look after him. However, the “agents” state that Monty is the finest there is and they subsequently offer to take Mr. Boles also. The final line that Petey speaks to Stanley, Pinter has described as being one of the most important lines he has ever written (Merritt, 1995):

PETEY Stan, don’t let them tell you what to do!

Perhaps, Pinter is commenting on the farcical nature of society and its blind adherence to conform to social norms. Stanley has lost every ounce of his individuality; he is even dressed like Goldberg and McCann wearing a dark, well cut suit and white shirt (Pinter, 1991). Perhaps Stanley’s glasses, now broken in his hands having been damaged at the party by McCann, are symbolic of this blindness. Even Goldberg, in the final moments of the play before taking Stanley away, admits to feeling uneasy. He reflects on his despair and criticises the way he himself was made into the person that he is now by the strict established disciplines of society and the world and also questions his own state of being:

GOLDBERG What do you think, I’m a self-made man? No! I sat where I was told to sit. I kept my eye on the ball.

Goldberg and McCann’s obedience to authority reflect that of Stanley’s initial rejection of, and rebellion, against it. Both parties automatically attack what does not conform to their sense of self (Prentice, 2000). However, in Act Three of the play we witness a re-birth of Stanley, a man no longer autonomous who has been re-created in the image of the all-powerful Other (Silverstein, 1994). Pinter here is perhaps alluding to the fallibility of man’s identity, how each of us lacks the ability to achieve a genuine and unalterable self as we are all products of the environment in which we immerse ourselves. Stanley’s once sheltered abode became occupied by Goldberg and McCann and if one views the change in Stanley on an allegorical level it is perhaps commenting on the farcical nature of conformity in society. Stanley’s transformation could be a reflection on society itself and how people strive to fit in to social norms, whether it is their true identity or a portrayal of a false façade.

In conclusion, I agree with Esslin’s assertion about the nature of Pinter’s play, in that one can view The Birthday Party (1958) as holding a mirror up to society revealing the problematic and enigmatic nature of the human condition. Language in Pinter’s play it seems has lost all importance and semantic power and instead becomes a weapon of destruction. The play seeks to highlight the limitations of our everyday speech in order for us to understand the often nonsensical nature of our means of communication. Limitations of language become apparent and language becomes insufficient when one is in search for truths surrounding the human condition and that, it seems, is what this play is trying to convey. The menacing nature of what is unknown and man’s fear of the uncertainty in the play also aims to reflect on the nature of man’s situation in the world. There will always be evidence of an unknown as our knowledge is limited and there will forever be something which is uncertain. The farcical nature of man’s quest for knowledge, as shown in the play, is that man will never achieve a full understanding of all that is around him. It is apparent also that The Birthday Party (1958) as an allegory of conformity seeks to portray the farcical and pointless nature of man’s adherence to social norms, but also to perhaps suggest that conformity is near impossible to avoid. Pinter, as Esslin argues, in his play The Birthday Party (1958) successfully portrays the volatility and bleakness which surrounds the human condition.

The Beat Generation

The Beat Generation was a group of writers from the United States who came to prominence in the years following the Second World War. The writers of this generation found themselves questioning both the politics and culture of time, rejecting the conventional way of life of the 1950s and instead creating their own sub-culture. The so-called ‘Beat’ culture centred on experimentation with narcotics and alternative sexuality, interest in unconventional Eastern religions such as Buddhism and an outright rejection of materialism.

By defying traditional methods of writing the Beat Writers believed that it would inspire people to begin to think differently about life in America. In an interview with Trent Harris conducted in 1979, Allen Ginsberg, a notable figure of the Beat generation, quoted Plato by stating that “when the mode of the music changes, the walls of the city shake”. The Beat writers were a social force who intended to inspire change and Ginsberg believed that by introducing a new rhythm for people to hear, by defying traditional writing methods, it would prompt a new way of thinking which in turn would affect external political forms.


Ginsberg was of the belief that your “first thought” was your “best thought” as it resulted in authentic and fearless writing. He viewed it as a way of “telling the truth”. Ginsberg rejected the traditional meter of iambic pentameter and instead adopted the varying rhythms of everyday speech. Ginsberg was also influenced by the Buddhist form of meditation known as shamatha during which one’s main focus is on one’s breathing. Ginsberg believed that it led to a calming of the mind and a sharper awareness of imagination and thought. He was of the opinion that modern poetry should reject prescribed rhythm and meter and instead should record true life experience.

Ginsberg and other Beat poets used the new poetic form in order to share Eastern philosophy, inspire sexual freedom and encourage opposition to the situation of American society in the 1950s. The new poetic form was a way for the modern poet to challenge the conformity and conservative nature of the so-called “Silent Generation” of the 1950s.

Sunflower Sutra, a poem written by Ginsberg in 1955, was inspired by the free verse style of writing. The sunflower in Ginsberg’s poem is representative of America, a place that has been blemished, ruined and devastated by the thoughtless work of society. Ginsberg uses natural imagery to depict the industrial blight, they sit “surrounded by the gnarled steel roots of machinery.” The image of the sunflower elicits a memory of one of the most important artistic movements of Ginsberg’s career which occurred when Ginsberg was a young man living in New York.  One day while reading Ah! Sunflower he experienced an auditory hallucination of William Blake.

The poem is a reflection on the American dream of industry and materiality and how it has tarnished the environment around him. Ginsberg, however, transforms the sunflower into a symbol of perfect beauty and shows how America has the ability to redeem itself and become beautiful once more. Ginsberg saw himself in line with the Romantic poets and aimed to show this beauty to a country he believed had been left to rot and decay.

Ginsberg reflects on the corrupt nature of industry and corporation and the brutality of warfare stating how these things are intrinsically bad however the people of America have the ability to seek redemption, people to Ginsberg are but “beautiful golden sunflowers”.  The message of the poem is one of hope and Ginsberg highlights how the American people “are not skin of grime…we’re all golden sunflowers inside”.

The Beat generation believed that their writing could inspire a cultural revolution and it is clear that they had a large influence on change in Western culture.