Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

I started my all-English-literature reading journey about a year ago.  I have read just 21 of the books in the past year.  Why so few?  Le Morte D’Arthur is long and written in not quite Modern English.  Also it’s a bit rough to read an uninterrupted string of Middle English texts, so I took frequent breaks.  I am not going to post about all 21 books.  I’ll just give you the highlights.  The first highlight is Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, author unknown.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, translated by Simon Armitage

Sir Gawain is an Arthurian tale written in the late 14th century.  The language differs enough from Chaucer’s Middle English that I decided to read an edition that printed the original text on the left page and a verse translation on the right.

See how the publisher, Norton, is creating a visual association with Seamus Heaney’s popular and award winning translation of Beowulf?

Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf (audio recording) with Simon Armitage’s Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

The comparison is apt.  Both are swashbuckling epic poems translated into Modern English by established poets.   Heaney even wrote this horrendous blurb for Armitage:

“Drives the force of the old poem through the green Armitage fuse.  Highly charged work”

Cute/clever allusion to the Dylan Thomas poem The Force that Through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower or a contrived/trite pun?  I think Seamus Heaney should be ashamed, but I’m curious to hear what you think.

Anyway, back to to the book.  Sir Gawain is one of the most delightful works of literature I have ever read.  It tells the story of a young knight of the Round Table who accepts a challenge given by a strange green knight.  You may be thinking that the Green Knight is a knight wearing green armor, and he is, but his skin is also green and his hair and his horse!  Without giving too much away, I will say that we quickly learn that the Green Knight comes from the faerie kingdom, is not exactly mortal and has perhaps misplaced a few of his marbles.  He is a mysterious and unpredictable foe.  Our dear Sir Gawain valiantly journeys forth to meet his enemy with little hope of victory, but with plenty of  pluck, honor and chivalry.  He proves his prowess and increases the renown of Arthur’s court, thereby doing exactly what the hero of an Arthurian romance should.

The style of the poem is considered “Alliterative Revival” by the experts.  Heavy alliteration is typical of Old English poems and it became popular again during the 14th-16th centuries, after which Shakespeare and everybody else launched into rhyming iambs.  Personally, I think the style is best described as “Completely Awesome.”  Alliteration is just good clean fun to read or hear.  It fits the rollicking, swashbuckling tone and plot of the story perfectly.   The language gets more excited and extra alliterative the more violent the story gets.

Favorite Snippet:

“Sumwhyle wyth wormes he werres, and with wolves als,

Somwhyle wyth wodwos that woned in the knarres,

Both wyth bulles and bere, and bores otherquyle,

And etaynes that hym anelede of the heghe felle.

Nade he ben doughty and dryye, and dryghten had served,

Douteless he hade ben ded and dreped ful ofte,

For werre wrathed hym not so much, that wynter was wors,

When the colde cler water fro the cloudes schadde,

And fre er hit falle myght to the fale erthe.”

Which roughly means: Sometimes he fought with snakes and wolves, sometimes with wildmen that warred in the caves, also with bulls and bears and boars at other times, sometimes he was chased by giants.  If he hadn’t been strong, bold and faithful, he doubtless would have been struck dead many times, for the fighting was not so bad that winter didn’t seem worse; when the cold, clear water fell from the clouds, and froze before it hit the pale earth.

Sigh.  So delightful.

You might like this book if you like:

  • Arthurian myth
  • swashbuckling adventure stories
  • Lord of the Rings and want to read a poem from the tradition that influenced Tolkien
  • fantasy
  • Middle English
  • alliteration

You might not like this book if you don’t like:

  • the list above
  • Middle English
  • reading poems in translation

Final thought: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is one of my favorite things I have ever read.