The famous Middle English poem by an anonymous English poet is beautifully translated by fellow poet Simon Armitage in this edition. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight narrates in crystalline verse the strange tale of a green knight who rudely interrupts the Round Table festivities one Yuletide, casting a pall of unease over the company and challenging one of their number to a wager. The virtuous Gawain accepts and decapitates the intruder with his own ax. Gushing blood, the knight reclaims his head, orders Gawain to seek him out a year hence, and departs. Next Yuletide Gawain dutifully sets forth. His quest for the Green Knight involves a winter journey, a seduction scene in a dream-like castle, a dire challenge answered, and a drama of enigmatic reward disguised as psychic undoing.
The story is marvelous (in more ways than one), but a side-by-side translation would be preferred. Armitage strikes a gentle balance between contemporary, accessible verse and keeping the otherworldly feel of the original. I say 'otherworldly' in reference to how far removed we are from the time and culture in which the original was written. Armitage emulates the beat (and off-beats) of the original. He also uses alliteration much as in the original, and this added layer contributes much to the power of the text.
This story of chivalry, loyalty, fear, faith, doubt, and duty has a lot to say to our world. As with the Bible, a new and faithful translation can open up previously un-seen or unappreciated windows onto the landscape of a story. Armitage has added a new voice to an ancient tale, and I highly recommend it.
This tale is fabulous in every sense of the word, which is no surprise since it's survived for so many centuries. But poet and translator Simon Armitage has made the old world new again. He sucked me right in and never let me come up for air with his gorgeous words and his carefully chosen words and his alliterative rhythmical phrases.
If the idea of a Norton Critical Edition is keeping you far away from this delightful read, rest assured it's not stodgy or dry or just plain boring. It's vibrant, alive, shimmering with an inner power, waiting for you to open its covers and fall utterly under its spell. Become happily ensorcelled, gentle reader, relax into the sure and strong embrace of a centuries-old knight and his spectacular tale.
The narrative approach throughout is light-hearted and lyrical. Suspense is maintained by a series of delays, but without any of the tiresome digressions that plague medieval romance. The poet excels in describing the scenes of nature and daily life (of the aristocracy) that surround the main action. The scenes of hunting particularly impressed me with their realism and detail. The poem takes a slightly humorous, ironic view of the conventions of courtly romance.
The author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a contemporary of Chaucer, is thought also to be the author of three other poems, The Pearl, Patience, and Cleanness. He or she is often referred to as The Gawain Poet or The Pearl Poet. The poem is written in stanzas of varying lengths consisting of unrhymed lines of alliterative verse terminated by a five-line section of short rhymed lines. It has a nice sort of swing to it, both in the original and in Armitage's translation, which duplicates the original stanza form. I read mostly the translation (the original is on facing pages) since I am not very good at Middle English, and this is particularly hard, being a northwest midlands dialect with a vocabulary quite different from Chaucer's London dialect. But I could read enough to sense the musicality that Armitage preserves. I infer from reviews that Armitage's translation is more informal than the well-known translation by J. R. R. Tolkien. I haven't read that one but will try to do so soon. Recommended to fans of Arthurian legends, descriptive poetry, and good yarns.
Simon Armitage's translation, which makes use of many words and expressions which I didn't know, and which are marked as familiar in my dictionary. It doesn't bother me too much that he uses these terms, because they do not sound familiar to my French ear anyway. But native English speakers will maybe find it somewhat jarring.
A few examples gathered haphazardly (with the line number):
'He leaps from where he lies at a heck of a lick,' (1309)
heck and at a lick are referred by dictionaries as familiar or informal. My Harrap's Unabridged translates at a tremendous lick as à fond la caisse, à fond de train, which is indeed familiar.
'so that many grew timid and retreated a tad.' (1463)
a tad is again familiar or informal. As un peu wouldn't sound informal in French, a tad is translated by un chouïa, un tantinet. The 1st expression comes from North Africa and is indeed very familiar (I wouldn't write it in a French translation of Sir Gawain!), the second, though familiar too, is very old-fashioned and could suit a text on chivalry.
'If someone were so snooty as to snub your advance,' (1496)
snooty is again informal.
There are many more similar examples—much more than one in each page. At least, they allowed me to increase my familiar and informal vocabulary. Let alone the jointing scenes, whose vocabulary is however much harder to place in conversation.
But Simon Armitage's choices of informal terms perhaps makes the tale more entertaining finally. It might be the reason why I was surprised by this book and eventually liked it.
The only known manuscript of the poem known as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight comes, oddly enough, from Sir Robert Cotton's collection, the same source as the Beowulf MS. But the Gawain MS was filed there under the bust of the emperor Nero, rather than Vitellius...
We know next to nothing about the poet - there are three other poems in the same MS that look to be stylistically linked and are assumed to be by the same poet ("The Pearl", "Purity", and "Patience"), and a separate poem, "St Erkenwald", that has also been suggested to be by the Gawain poet, although Davis doesn't find the evidence for this convincing.
In form, it's a classic Arthurian romance, taking up two themes that appear in several other texts of the period - the beheading contest, and the (attempted) seduction of the knight by his host's wife. What's unusual about it, though, is that the two themes are rather tightly linked, and that the story sticks closely to what all this is doing to Gawain's state of mind, and doesn't ramble off into other embedded narratives as medieval texts tend to do. Very little happens in the poem that isn't obviously relevant to the main storyline in some way (apart from a few little things that look relevant, but the poet appears to have forgotten to come back to). So it feels like a very modern story, in many ways. Gawain is a man who has an appointment with almost certain death coming up in a few days (as a result of a foolish bet that he can't honourably back out of), and he finds himself the guest of a generous and affable stranger who breezily goes off hunting saying "look after my wife whilst I'm out". Gawain is perhaps a little more surprised than we are when the wife turns up in the guest-room in her nightie as soon as the coast is clear, and the handsome young knight has a hard time defending his virtue...
The language of the poem - as well as the places referred to in it - places it in the north-west of England, probably somewhere around Cheshire or North Staffordshire. The poet obviously knows his French romances, but the language feels solid and earthy, even when you compare it to Chaucer. There were a surprising number of words that I recognised as (cousins to-) dialect words still in use in the north-west when I was growing up - bonke (bank) for a hill, for example. And it was a surprise to discover that "bird", the coarse word for a girl we were brought up not to use, has its entirely respectable roots in Middle English burde, which originally meant "someone who does embroidery", i.e. a young lady. And much else of the same kind.
Because the language is quite close to Old English and doesn't have much French or Latin in it to guide us, there are a few places where it's hard to make sense of it on a first read-through, but there are plenty of other parts where you get a good idea of what's going on even if you don't recognise absolutely all the words. And the Davis edition comes with a comprehensive word-list and good, clear notes, so it didn't take me long to get to grips with even the most obscure parts.
Simon Armitage's translation
For those who are primarily interested in the story, and want something that reads naturally, the Armitage translation is a good bet. It's written with a clear sense of the "northernness" of the poem (even though he's from the "wrong" side of the Pennines...), and Armitage is even happier to include modern dialect expressions than Heaney was in his Beowulf, even when it means leaving the literal sense of the original behind (e.g. in l.2002, where he is so gleeful about rediscovering "nithering" that he drops the slightly puzzling but memorable image "to harass the naked" in the original. But his is a great line, and definitely in the spirit of the original (I'm not going to quibble about nithering being a Yorkshire word, so technically out of place here...). But occasionally he seems to get the tone slightly wrong, making it just a bit too modern-informal, e.g. "He leaps from where he lies at a heck of a lick" (l.1309) which was "..he ryches hym to rise and rapes hym sone" (he decides to get up and hastens himself at once). Sometimes the drive to alliterate seems to be a bit too much.
But on the whole it's a very lively, consistent translation, giving the progress of the story priority over the shape of the words and drawing the reader on with the energy that a text like this needs. Now I've read the original I wonder whether this is a text that really needs translating, but if you want a translation to read in isolation, this is the one to go for. It's not much use as a literal crib for the Middle English, though.
The poem recounts the story of Sir Gawain, a knight in King Arthur’s court, who offers to take the sovereign’s place in a challenge set by a visitor to Camelot on New Year’s Eve. The stranger asks that a blow be struck against him with an axe and, in exchange, he will be allowed to do the same one year later to his challenger. It is a mediaeval tale of the chivalry and virtues, with lavish descriptions and more than a hint at (pagan) magic.
Simon Armitage possesses a warm voice, that is soft without being soporific and somehow it gave the reading of this poem more atmosphere. The lilt in his voice added a slightly magical air to the words, especially when describing the rich costumes of the characters. I realise his accent may not appeal to all, but given he was raised in the area from where the original author was said to hail, it lends itself to the authenticity of the tale.
I highly recommend this audio version and I am more anxious than ever to read the book for myself. Now all I have to do is find the time.
I studied this book, and I write an essay or two on it, and I loved it mostly because of where it came from.
A most striking one among the marvels of Arthur
Which some will consider a wonder to hear.
If you listen closely to my words a little while
I'll tell it to you now as I heard it told
A bold story, well proven,
And everywhere well known,
The letters all interwoven,
As custom sets it down.
During a New Year's feast at Arthur's court, Sir Gawain takes up a challenge issued by a strange green-skinned knight, and must find his way to the Green Chapel a year later to meet the mysterious knight again. On the way he stays at a castle for Christmas, whose lord and lady, while very hospitable, seem to be playing games with him. There were detailed descriptions of later fourteenth century armour, hospitality, hunting and also the traditional way of butchering deer and boar at the end of the hunt, which was fascinating.
This poem about a quest by one of King Arthur's nephews, was written by an unknown poet in the late fourteenth century, in the dialect of the Cheshire/Staffordshire border. The Oxford World's Classics version contains an interesting introduction and useful notes alongside a verse translation by Keith Harrison. He has used an alliterative style to echo the pattern of the original Middle English poem, which was meant to be spoken aloud rather than read.
Poetry of this vintage is very different to that we're used to - there's nothing even resembling the usual iambic pentameter, and the end of the lines don't even begin to rhyme. Instead the rhythm comes from the alliteration of the stressed sylables within a line. It seems to lend itself to being read aloud - maybe an indication of the transition from an aural to a written tradition.
The poem itself is a tale of king Arthur's court, with a challenge being issued by a stranger at the Christmas court, and the bulk of story being played out at the following year's end. It has everything - chivalrous knights, the splendour of court, lovely ladies, but it also has dark overtones - there's sex, blood and gore of the hunt (both beast and man). There's also the threat of nature to the ordered life of the court and to an individual against it. It's not very long, no more than 115 pages, but it has so much packed into it that it goes by in a flash.
Anyway, you probably all know the story: Arthur is about to have a New Year's feast, but according to tradition is waiting for some marvel to occur. Right on cue in trots the Green Knight on his horse, a giant of a man who proceeds to trash the reputation of the entire court and dare someone to cut off his head as long as he gets to return the favour. No one makes a move and Arthur decides he better do something about this until Gawain steps up and asks to take on this quest himself. Everyone agrees and Gawain proceeds to smite the green head from the Knight's body. Everyone is fairly pleased with the result until the Green Knight gets up, picks up his smiling head, and says: "See you next year, G. Don't forget that it's my turn then." (I paraphrase, the middle english of the poet is far superior.) Needless to say everyone is a bit nonplussed by this.
The year passes and Gawain doesn't seem to do much of anything until he finally decides it's time to get out and find this green fellow and fulfill his obligation...hopefully something will come up along the way to improve his prospects. What follows is a journey to the borders of the Otherworld as well as a detailed primer on just how one ought to act in order to follow the dictates of courtliness. Gawain ends up being the guest of Sir Bertilak, a generous knight who says that the Green Chapel, the destination of Gawain's quest, is close by and Gawain should stay with them for the duration of the holidays. We are treated to some coy (and mostly chaste) loveplay on the part of Bertilak's wife from which Gawain mostly manages to extricate himself without contravening the dictates of politeness, as well as the details of a medieval deer, boar and fox hunt with nary a point missing.
In the end Gawain goes to the chapel and finds that his erstwhile host Bertilak was in fact the Green Knight. Gawain submits himself and is left, after three swings, with only a scratch as a reward for his courteous behaviour in Bertilak's castle. Despite the apparent success of Gawain, he views the adventure as a failure since he did not come off completely unscathed and he wears a girdle he was gifted by Bertilak's wife as a mark of shame to remind himself of this. Harsh much?
The language of the Gawain poet's middle english is beautiful and I highly recommend reading it in the original with a good translation at hand to catch the nuances of meaning. The poem is replete with an almost dreamlike quality that is made real by all of the exquisite details of medieval life that are interspersed throughout the text. This is a great book to read at Christmas time.