In 2018 my friend Ishmael Reed became Poeta Atliantiae, and somehow managed to convince me to start writing poetry again. The Fire of the Hunt was the result. I entered it into my first-ever bardic and poetry competitions at Trial By Fire 2018, and somehow managed to win both.
Since lightning first lit a tree-limb alight
And humanity huddled beneath the heroic heat,
The secret of scorch was secluded by the silence of gods
Until the present of Prometheus, who paid the dear price
So the ennobled may illuminate the ancient and untamed.
Thus the kindness of kings is now kindled within their castles,
While masters dwell in manors and bring manners and refinement,
With warmth and wisdom, to the wildernesses of this world.
Bright amongst such barons is Bertilak de Hautdesert,
The high hathel who hosted Gawain
In richest repose, but rose himself
Before prime to pray, and then pursuing other prey
Led his lords and ladies into the liminal light
From the happy hostel to hunt in a land
So quickly to depart,
Armed with spear and bow,
With fire in their hearts
The shining party glows.
Sunbeams slide through smoke that swirls
In the faces of the falconers coming forth from the fog.
The horses and hounds, the hawks and the hunters
Seek on the sojourn the most savage swine,
A baleful boar, burning in its blood,
But a touch before terce a terrier takes the scent
Of a hind in a hollow, hidden by haze.
Quivering, the cur’s cry cleaves through the thicket
And the beast balks, bolting for the brambles beyond.
The spirits spur their steeds with passion
To gain some ground upon the game.
Near twenty, as I took it, tore after their target,
Their arrows arching to alight in flesh,
Until the lord of the land lets loose the final
And then is thrust a knife
Into the softest part.
The lord has quenched the life
And the fire of the heart.
The hale band hunts until horns sound:
The daylight is dimming and demands they return
To those honorable halls where hearths are warming.
While Gawain greets the gracious host
And Bertilak boasts of the bevy of beasts,
The servants slip softly away with the spoils
Carrying the chief cuts to the cooks in the kitchen,
Sweltering and searing, where spits sizzle
With vast victuals for the venerable ensemble.
They fix the fare for a fantastical feast:
Embers add their essence to eels in sauce,
Pears poach over pacific pyres,
And crusts with crunching char now cool.
The fires that feed the followers flourish
Supported by great wealth,
The kitchen-master strives
To keep his court in health.
Fire feeds their lives.
In the hearth of the hall, which hastens away
The winter that winds through the weald of the Wirral,
A festive fire frisks and frolics.
It lives off lumber, laboriously gleaned,
Prepared and provided through the pains of labor,
Which cut it, carried it, and cured it for the conflagration.
Stacked in the snow, it stays until the second
It is hauled into the hostel, where huddled into heaps,
With a flick of a flint fervent rays arise.
The warmth is wafted for the well-being of the well-born.
The company is comforted after the crispness of sport,
And the lord of the land laughs with the gentlemen.
Respite and renewal are raised over the retinue
For a season, until spring is stirred by that Persephone
Of great fame.
And thus the world refined
And wilderness made tame:
Quelled by nobles kind
Who bear the gentle flame.
In the late fourteenth century, alliterative verse enjoyed a brief revival in England. Notable poets include William Langland, who wrote Piers Plowman, and the Pearl Poet (also called the Gawain Poet), who wrote Pearl, Patience, Cleanness, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and possibly St Erkenwald. The Fire of the Hunt is inspired directly by Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (SGATGK).
The form of The Fire of the Hunt directly follows the form of SGATGK. Each verse in SGATGK contains a series of alliterative lines followed by a “bob and wheel” of five lines.
Alliterative lines: In SGATGK, each verse may have anywhere from 12 to 37 alliterative lines, each consisting of approximately four stresses (beats), with a caesura (break) between the first two and last two stresses. The first three stresses usually alliterate, and often all four stresses; however, the Pearl Poet was fairly loose with the overall structure. The Fire of the Hunt respects both the structure and the Pearl Poet’s approach and thus is similarly loose, though there is often additional alliteration instead of less. The Fire of the Hunt also regularizes the number of alliterative lines to 14.
Bob and wheel: In SGATGK, the bob is a line of two to three syllables, followed by a wheel of four lines. Each line of the wheel usually contains three stresses, though this varies. The four lines rhyme in an ABAB pattern, where the B lines rhyme with the last syllable of the bob. The Fire of the Hunt follows this form as closely as possible, though these sections were certainly the most challenging to write.
The Fire of the Hunt is primarily in Modern English. However, it employs one Middle English word, “hathel,” which is descended from the Old English “æþel,” meaning “knight,” and was used in SGATGK to refer to Bertilak. It also uses the Middle English meaning of “hostel,” which simply meant a house or a lodging; it was also used in SGATGK to refer to the manor of Hautdesert. The Fire of the Hunt also briefly uses a first-person narrator like The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer, which was roughly contemporary with SGATGK. The Fire of the Hunt also mentions the canonical hours of prime (beginning at first light) and terce (midmorning).
The overarching theme of The Fire of the Hunt is the civilizing power of fire; indeed, civilization could not have come into existence without fire. Therefore, the poem combines the theme of fire with the content of hunting; during the fourteenth century, hunting was viewed as both a civilizing force and a cultured activity.
The poem follows the activity of hunting and its relationship with fire. First, the hunters leave the hunting lodge which is warmed by tame fires. Second, they work in the uncivilized, cold wilderness which is only warmed by the violent spilling of blood. Third, the spoils of the hunt are brought back to civilization and, with the nourishing power of fire, transformed into food. Finally, the hunting party relaxes within the halls of civilization, which can only exist because of the heat that fire provides.
But where and when should this hunt take place? The obvious answer is in the middle of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which features three hunts as part of a game played by Gawain and Bertilak (the true name of the Green Knight). Therefore, The Fire of the Hunt mentions both of these characters as well as Bertilak’s manor Hautdesert, the court of Hautdesert, and the surrounding countryside of the Wirral (The Wirral is a real peninsula between north Wales and Liverpool, which during the late fourteenth century was a decommissioned royal hunting forest that was rapidly converting back into wilderness). Specifically, The Fire of the Hunt is an alternative view of the hunt of the hind, the first hunt in SGATGK (ll. 1126-1177 and 1319-1403).
Like SGATGK and other contemporaneous poems, The Fire of the Hunt begins and ends with references to Greek mythology. While SGATGK begins and ends with a reference to the Trojan War, The Fire of the Hunt begins with a reference to Prometheus stealing fire for humanity and ends with a mention of Persephone, who causes winter when she descends into the underworld for six months of the year; this requires humanity to rely on fire for warmth.
Andrew, Malcolm and Ronald Waldron, eds., The Poems of the Pearl Manuscript: Pearl Cleanness, Patience, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, 5th ed. (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2007).
Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Riverside Chaucer, 3rd ed. Edited by F.N. Robinson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987).
Middle English Dictionary, University of Michigan <http://quod.lib.umich.edu/m/med/>