“Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” Translated by Simon Armitage (Norton, 2007)

Sir Gawain and the Green Knightstarstarstarstarstar

In February of 2000, renowned poet Seamus Heaney published a new verse translation of the classic anonymous epic poem “Beowulf.”  While not a complete literal translation, Heaney’s version set out to emulate the poetic style and meter of the original writers of the poem.  “Beowulf” was first committed to parchment around the year 1000, up to then it had only existed as a oral poem recited to friends, families and subjects over fires, in mead halls, and by bards to many people.  Heaney’s translation seeks to be this version, to be read aloud to people and appreciated in its original form.  Heaney’s Beowulf, in a bilingual edition with the original Old English verse on the left page and his translation on the right, has gone on to become the most popular translation; selected as the version for the Norton English Literature anthology, and has been made more accessible to ordinary readers who don’t have a background in medieval literature.

“Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” is a poem much like “Beowulf.”  While not as epic in scale, it was likely first written down in the year 1400 and up to that point had been recited orally.  It has survived in only one form, in the original early Middle English, and now resides at the British Library.  Simon Armitage, like Heaney, has employed the use of the bilingual edition, with the original Middle English on the left page and his translation on the right, allowing the reader’s eyes to wander from left to right and right to left, examining the translation and enjoying the story.  If anything, the translation is more visible with this version, as Middle English is just a few steps away from our modern language and many words can be easily recognized, even if the spelling is barely decipherable.  Armitage admits not going for a completely literal translation, but seeking to preserve the alliterative form of the original poem, even if it means using modern words and phrasing.  The result is nevertheless a magnificent story which one reads, imagining what it was like being read or reading this poem aloud over six hundred years ago.

The story begins with King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, as they enjoy a marvelous feast in each other’s company.  Then the party is suddenly disturbed by the entrance of a giant man dressed in a full suit of green armor, by his side he carries a gigantic axe.  He then challenges King Arthur with the offer for anyone to chop off his own head with the giant axe.  If he survives, then the person will return to the Green Knight’s abode to suffer the same fate in one year’s time.  Gawain being the just, proud and humble knight that he is offers to do this job for his king.  Taking the axe he makes a mighty swing and easily separates the Green Knight’s head from his shoulders.  The Green Knight then picks up his head and makes the deal with Gawain to do the same to him on New Year’s Day one year from now.

This essentially ends the first part of the poem, with the second part focusing on Gawain’s journey across the lands to find the Green Knight’s home.  On the way he finds a great castle where a gracious king looks after him during the terrible weather.  Yet, like the Green Knight, the king challenges him, offering to go hunting each morning, while his wife offers herself to Gawain, tempting him.  The deal is that whatever Gawain does, shall be dealt to the king upon his return from the hunt.  They do this for three days, but Gawain is pious and just, and does not give in to the king’s wife, giving the king just kisses upon his cheek.  The challenge certainly opens up an opportunity for some interesting interactions between Gawain and the king should Gawain have not been so just, but such was not the case.  The last part of the story is of Gawain leaving the castle, finding the Green Knight and accepting the challenge visited on him a year ago.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, again much like Beowulf, has now been translated in this clear and alliterative version, making it accessible to any reader.  Apart from being an entertaining tale, it asks many questions about what it is to be just and true to your king, how easy it is to be tempted.  With a solid introduction from Armitage on the history of the poem, the book sets the scene well, letting the reader imagine what life was like in the fifteenth century, and more importantly, what the people were like back then.

If you liked this review and are interested in purchasing this book, click here.

Originally written on September 8th 2007 ©Alex C. Telander.

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