The knight that had knotted the nets of deceit


The survival of poetry, especially if written before the invention of print, has often been a matter of luck or accident. Consigned to caves in the deserts of the Middle East, it might be preserved by the hot, dry climate for a couple of thousand years before somebody stumbled on it. And we are told that some hot, dry Alexandrian bureaucrat, no poetry lover, decided that seven plays by Sophocles, enough for one codex, would serve for the teaching of grammar and rhetoric. The surplus hundred-odd went for scrap. The single surviving manuscript of the Sophoclean remnant was rescued during the sack of Byzantium in 1453 and carried off to Italy. The story did not end there; the survivors were subjected to the depredations of vermin and, before the development of modern editorial skills, to the attentions of celibate, passionate scholars of the type studied by A.D. Nuttall, lately and sadly lost to us, in his brilliant book Dead from the Waist Down.

Of course one can look at the question from the opposite angle: how amazing it is not that so much was lost but that anything at all survived. A manuscript, now in the British Library, contains the only surviving copy of the late 14th-century romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. It lacks a title and shares the manuscript with three other poems of a devotional character, also without titles, and probably, according to the experts, by the same poet. Of this group Pearl, an allegory about a man’s grief at the death of his two-year-old daughter, is the most brilliant and mysterious.

more from the LRB here.