“The Death of King Arthur” translated by Simon Armitage (Norton, 2011)

Death of King Arthur

Simon Armitage’s translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was a delight to read and well-received by many readers (it remains one of the top read reviews on BookBanter), and now Armitage is back with his new translation of The Death of King Arthur, appearing in 1400, also known as The Alliterative Morte Arthure; it is imbued with the passion and panache of Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf.

The story opens at a Christmas day feast where King Arthur is entertaining his round table of knights and the people of his court.  It is rudely interrupted by an emissary of the emperor Lucius Iberius, who is demanding Arthur pay taxes and tributes owed to the emperor.  Thus begins Arthur’s journey across Europe, as the reader learns of the extent of the king’s lands, as well as his power and ability as a leader and knight in these descriptive and alliterative scenes of conquest.  The Knights of the Round Table will eventually reach their destination, where Arthur will confront the emperor, but also meet his inevitable end.

Armitage does a fantastic job of creating a translation of this tale that is both entertaining and addictive to read, but still maintains its alliterative originality.  Published in a bilingual edition, readers can enjoy glancing over at the original Middle English text and see the original lines and stanzas, and also see how Armitage has masterfully crafted this text to be alliterative as well as encompass the modern English language.  Both King Arthur fans and fans of Armitage’s work will not be disappointed.

Originally written on February 6, 2012 ©Alex C. Telander.

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Sir Gawain and the Green Knight  Beowulf


“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.

“Death and the Devil” by Frank Schatzing [Translated by Mike Mitchell] (William Morrow, 2007)

Death and the Devilstarstarstar

With the runaway success of The Swarm originally in Europe and now in the United States, Death and the Devil, Shatzing’s first novel, has been translated and published.  It’s a medieval thriller; a murder mystery set with the back drop of thirteenth century Cologne.  This is a completely different genre and story line for Schatzing after the sci-fi/horror of The Swarm, nevertheless he delivers his unique storytelling style in Death and the Devil.

It is the year 1260, and the crowning achievement of Cologne – the great cathedral reaching to the heavens – is almost complete.  Its architect, Gerhard Morart, is a proud and respected man in the city.  That is until he is pushed from the one of the windows high up in his beloved cathedral.  He plunges to his death, whisper two words in his crushed form, and then dies.  The people of Cologne believe it an accident or suicide, except for one young boy, Jacob the Fox – so called because of his noticeable red hair – who happened to be sitting in a tree stealing apples when Morart fell.  Only Jacob saw Morart high up in the cathedral and he also saw the black shadow behind push the architect out of the window.

Now Jacob is on the run from this shadow that he believes is somehow the devil, chasing him, and will not stop until he is dead.  Jacob must use the city to his advantage, make as many allies as he can, and always keep one step ahead of this chasing shadow, or he will be done for.  The shadow is in fact a cold-hearted killer, a cruel assassin who will not stop killing until all proof of Morart’s murder is erased.

And so the chase continues set in the richly detailed medieval city in the style and texture of Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose, as well as Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth; Death and the Devil is a story that will both educate and terrorize the reader, for Schatzing has done his research well: the reader will learn of medieval life in a big city, the different classes, the power of the nobles over the poor, the power of the church; at the same time they will be biting their nails in fear and excitement each time Jacob the Fox barely escapes the cruel black nails of the man he believes is the devil.  Death and the Devil is a thriller that will delight any fan of this genre.

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

Originally written on August 17th 2007 ©Alex C. Telander.

“The Swarm” by Frank Schatzing [Translated by Sally-Ann Spencer] (William Morrow, 2006)

The Swarmstarstarstarstarstar

The Swarm is technically not a new book, but was originally published in 2004 in Germany by Frank Schatzing under the title of Der Schwarm, where it immediately climbed onto the bestseller lists and has stayed there ever since.  In 2006 the book was translated and published in Britain and the United States; a paperback edition was released in May, and in August The Swarm will be released in mass market edition.  In the style of Kim Stanley Robinson’s trilogy starting with Forty Signs of Rain, and Michael Crichton when he was at his best some books ago, and The Day After Tomorrow; this is an eco-thriller set in today’s world with a story that while fantastical is not completely out of the realm of possibility.  The paperback edition is 900 pages long, but the more you read of it, the more you will want it never to end!

It is the present time, the world is pretty much the same place, George Bush is still in office, but there are some very strange things happening in the oceans of our planet.  Fishing boats have begun disappearing off the coast of South America, no pieces or bodies are ever found.  Just off the coast of Vancouver humpback and orca whales that have been entertaining sights for tourists now choose to attack the boats: the humpbacks break them in two, while the orcas move in for the kill.  In France, fresh lobsters that are being prepared for dinners at famous restaurants burst open and exude a gelatinous substance; soon people begin dying.  Around the world ships of all shapes and sizes mysteriously begin disappearing, as do submarines and other submersibles, never to be heard from again.  Eventually a catastrophic event happens that shocks the world: the methane ice supporting the North European continental shelf collapses causing a Tsunami that drowns the west coast of Europe from Norway to Spain, and floods the east coast of Britain from Scotland to London; many people are dead.

The world is in shock, not sure what is happening or what they are going to do.  A crack team of scientists is convened in Canada at a secret location to come up with a solution to these catastrophes.  They include characters who have already had their lives put at risk: Sigur Johanson, a marine scientist who barely escaped the Tsunami; Karen Weaver, a journalist who specializes in marine stories and was rescued from the Tsunami by Johanson; Leon Anawak, a marine biologist who barely survived the whale attack off Vancouver, as well as many others, involving all agencies of the United States government.  They are working against the clock to find out what is going on and to come up with a way to stop this, whatever this is.  Meanwhile the land invasion has begun, with millions upon millions of crabs storming the beaches of the east coast again carrying this mysterious jelly substance; people begin dying in the thousands as the water supply is contaminated.  New York is doomed, Washington DC is next.

While The Swarm features a sizable cast, as these events take place all over the world, Schatzing keeps everyone clear and identifiable, with the reader is left wondering who’s going to make it and who isn’t.  With a depth of research that I haven’t read since World War Z, the author takes the reader into the minds of many people around the world, seeing through their eyes and their culture, as they try to deal with these terrible events.  It is a time to put differences aside, as everyone must work together to come up with a solution before it is too late.  As far as the translation goes, Sally-Ann Spencer has done an incredible job of making the book run fluidly, to the point where I forget this book was originally written in German.

The Swarm is the perfect summer read to cool you down in the heat, but it also opens your mind to ideas and possibilities you never thought of, and with a movie adaptation due in a year or two, this will be the book you’ll read and not be able to forget.

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

Originally written on July 18th 2007 ©Alex C. Telander.