A review of Simon Armitage's new translation of the larger--and stranger--than-life Middle English poem, "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight."
By Edward Hirsh
Poetry Foundation Media Services
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight A New Verse Translation. By Simon Armitage. $25.95, W. W. Norton & Company; 12.99, Faber & Faber.
"Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" is one of the eerie, exuberant joys of Middle English poetry. The poem was created in the latter part of the 14th century by an unknown author who probably hailed from the West Midlands of England. He knew the spoken dialect of the rugged country between north Staffordshire and south Lancashire.
The geography of the poem puts it a world away from cosmopolitan London. The sole surviving copy of the manuscript, now kept securely in the British Library, was recorded by a scribe and bound up with three other poems probably by the same creator ("Pearl," "Patience" and "Cleanness"). Thus the author is generally known as the Gawain or Pearl poet. He was a contemporary of Chaucer and a master of our mongrel English tongue.
"Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" is a medieval romance (it inherits a body of Arthurian legends that had circulated in England for a couple of centuries) but also an outlandish ghost story, a gripping morality tale and a weird thriller. It is a sexual teaser that keeps you on the edge of your seat. It's easy to imagine huddling around the fire to listen to it. You can tear through it in a night or two--I couldn't put down Simon Armitage's compulsively readable new verse translation--and linger over it for years.
"Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" is one of the founding narratives of English literature. The storyteller nods to the "Aeneid," thus invoking his epic lineage, and then settles down to tell his tale, which begins in the court of King Arthur, "most regal of rulers in the royal line." It is Christmas-time at Camelot, and the chivalrous Knights of the Round Table are carrying on and carousing when suddenly an enormous stranger appears, a hulking interloper, "a most massive man, the mightiest of mortals." The astonishing stranger is green from head to foot, a kind of emanation from nature. Even his horse is "a steed of pure green stock." The Green Knight, "otherworldly, yet flesh/and bone," presents a startling challenge: he will endure one blow without offering resistance, but whoever deals it must promise to receive a reciprocal blow in a year and a day. Sir Gawain, nephew of King Arthur, rises to the challenge and beheads the stranger in one stunning strike. Then the Knight stands, picks up his head, and reminds Gawain to meet him at the appointed time.
Thereafter Gawain, a bewildered southern innocent (he tells Arthur he is "weakest of your warriors and feeblest of wit"), honors his pledge to seek the Green Knight out and journeys into harsh northern terrain. A year of adventures ensues--an adulterous seduction, a series of graphically violent hunts, a meeting with the Green Knight in a green chapel--that constitutes the moral test and vision of the poem.
Alliteration, the audible repetition of consonant sounds at the beginning of words or within words, is part of the sound stratum of poetry. Its heavy percussive use in "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" brings the poem close to oral poetry.
Listen to the letter "v" in this line about the Green Knight - "And alle his vesture verayly was clene verdure" - which Armitage gleefully translates as "In all vestments he revealed himself veritably verdant!" Or consider the letter "g" in this comparable line - "Thou wyl grant me godly the gomen that I ask / bi ryght" - which Armitage renders as "you'll gracefully grant me this game which I ask for/by right." The repetitive consonants tie the stressed syllables together (grant, godly, gomen) and urge the interaction of the words upon us.
Armitage, an English poet from West Yorkshire, clearly feels a special kinship with the Gawain poet. He captures his dialect and his landscape and takes great pains to render the tale's alliterative texture and drive. Indeed, Armitage calls alliteration "the warp and weft of the poem." His vernacular translation isn't literal--sometimes he alliterates different letters, sometimes he foreshortens the number of alliterations in a line, sometimes he changes lines altogether and so forth--but his imitation is rich and various and recreates the gnarled verbal texture of the Middle English original, which is presented in a parallel text.
Simon Armitage has given us an energetic, free-flowing, high-spirited version. He reminds us that "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" still wields an uncanny power after 600 years. We're fortunate that "our coffers have been crammed/with stories such as these."
Edward Hirsch is president of the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, and his latest book is Special Orders.
© 2007 by Edward Hirsch. All rights reserved.
Distributed by the Poetry Foundation at www.poetryfoundation.org.