The Magazine

The Green Quest

In 'brilliant' translation.

Mar 17, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 26 • By ELI LEHRER
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Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

A New Verse Translation

Translated by Simon Armitage

Norton, 352 pp., $25.95

The great Middle English poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight tells a simple story in a profound way. The poem, a long but hardly unwieldy 2,500 lines, begins in the midst of Christmas celebrations in King Arthur's Camelot where a mysterious stranger dressed entirely in green--the Green Knight--appears and proposes an apparently absurd wager: One of King Arthur's men should chop off his head and then allow the Green Knight to return the blow a year later.

Sir Gawain, King Arthur's nephew, takes up the challenge and cuts off the Green Knight's head. The Green Knight then picks up his own head and rides off telling Gawain to return to have his own head chopped off. Ten months later, Gawain, despairing of his fate but understanding his sworn duty, heads off (pardon the expression). He travels through wild countryside where, shortly before Christmas, he finds a warm reception at a mysterious castle.

The castle's lord, Gawain's host, informs Gawain that he knows the location of the Green Knight's lair. Furthermore, he arranges an unusual wager: Each day while the Host goes hunting, Gawain will stay in the castle; at the end of the day the Host and Gawain will exchange their daily winnings. For two days, after the Host leaves for the hunt, his wife enters Gawain's bedchamber and makes flirtatious advances. Gawain resists these advances and gets the wife to go away in return for chaste kisses. On the final day, before Gawain's scheduled appointment with the Green Knight, the Host's wife enters the bedchamber in revealing clothing. She again makes advances on the knight and offers Gawain what might be her wedding band as a gift.

He again rejects her advances, but in desperation, she offers him a green garter that she says will keep him safe from all harm. He takes it and kisses her three times. The following morning the Host leads Gawain to the Green Knight's lair. Gawain enters the lair and encounters the Knight, who takes two swings at his neck but checks them before striking a blow. Finally, he gives Gawain a small knick on the side of his neck and lets him go.

The Green Knight then reveals that he is actually Gawain's solicitous host, and that he sent him his wife in an effort to test Gawain. He invites Gawain back for more merrymaking but Gawain--embarrassed that his own honor gave out--declines the invitation and rides back to Camelot. Upon his return, he tells the story and reveals his own lack of virtue. Arthur commends him nonetheless and asks all his knights to wear the green sash as a memory that they, too, lack absolute virtue.

The poem celebrates chivalry, honor, Christian religious devotion, bravery, and sexual virtue. It contains fantastic hunting scenes, cinematic descriptions of arms and armor, and even some sexualized dialogue that Freudians and feminists have discoursed upon to no end. Postcolonial scholars have even tried to read it as an allegory for relations between the English and Welsh in the 14th century.

More than anything else, however, the poem tells a good story. While the four versions of William Langland's Piers Plowman remain largely unknown outside of academe, and Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales flirt into the popular imagination more for their bawdy, funny stories than the more difficult romances, Gawain remains alive as a narrative. In the past 50 years four films, an opera, several children's books, and at least two novels have used it as source material.

Its author--typically called the Pearl Poet by scholars--wrote three other poems, including the beautifully sad Pearl, which describes the loss of his beloved daughter. A near contemporary of Chaucer and Langland, he wrote in a northern dialect that lies a long distance from modern English: Unlike Chaucer, whom bright college students can simply pick up and read, Gawain requires some formal study of Middle English to understand the Pearl Poet's idiom.

Like Chaucer and Langland, the Pearl Poet wrote in alliterative verse. Gawain consists of 101 stanzas with uneven numbers of lines. Although nearly all lines come in the form of two metrical feet, and each stanza ends with a five-lined rhyming bob and wheel, the formality of this structure breaks down somewhere in almost every stanza. Instead, the poet achieves his effects through alliteration in nearly every line. For example, a particularly famous passage reads as follows:

Sumwhyle with wormes he werres, and with wolves als,

Sumwhyle with wodwos that woned in the knarres

Both with bulles and beres, and bores otherquyle

And etaynes that hym anelede of the heghe felle.

With the bouncy rhythm of alliterative Middle English poetry, this passage--describing Gawain's adventures on his way to visit the castle--achieves a plethora of poetic effects that a literal translation can't necessarily convey. The repeated "w" and hard "b" sounds create an animalistic, onomatopoetic sound evoking the beasts Gawain fought and the perils he encountered. It's an effect that works much better in the lilting, musical rhythm of Middle English than in modern English. It's not a coincidence that two of the best efforts at modern English alliterative poetry--Dana Gioia's Nosferatu and Richard Wilbur's On Freedom's Ground--were actually written with musical accompaniment in mind.

Simon Armitage, a younger British poet who shows a strong taste for the lyric in his own work, has embarked on an audacious effort in this new translation. For those interested in pure philology, the shockingly bright green scholarly edition of J.R.R. Tolkien, E.V. Gordon, and Norman Davis is, and will remain, the standard version. But Armitage has done something different: He has engaged in a deeply romantic effort to capture the spirit, feel, and music the Pearl Poet intended without lapsing into an entirely free translation. He succeeds.

Taking the passage quoted earlier, Armitage translates it this way:

Here he scrapes with serpents and snarling wolves,

Here he tangles with wodwos causing trouble in the crags,

Or with bulls and bears and the odd wild boar

Hard on his heels through the highlands come the giants.

Armitage takes some liberties. The word "wormes" probably refers to "dragons" rather than serpents, but using "dragons" would have destroyed the alliteration. And most translators have guessed that "wodwos" refers to "wild men." (Since the word appears nowhere else in the corpus of Middle English literature, leaving it untranslated is perfectly defensible.) Finally, the phrase "hard on his heels" likely adds a bit more urgency than the Pearl Poet's plain language intended, yet still conveys the feeling of the Middle English verse. But these minor nitpicks aren't really the point: Read aloud, the passage sounds a good deal like Middle English verse, and successfully captures the music of the original.

Now and then Armitage's poetic license gets the best of him: Distinctly un-Middle English terms like "spinal cord" (when it's not really implied by the original) and "bivouacs" (to create an alliteration) creep into the text here and there. But these are minor gripes. Simon Armitage's translation is a brilliant achievement, and truly captures the spirit of the original.

Eli Lehrer is a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.