Sir Gawain and the Green Knight seldom receives its due as an enduring piece of early English literature. Partly that’s because, after being composed by an anonymous medieval poet around 1400, the manuscript disappeared into a private collection for centuries, only re-emerging when, as Simon Armitage wittily notes, “Queen Victoria was on the throne.” Scholars have long since recognized its greatness, and scores of writers — Ted Hughes and J.R.R. Tolkien among them — have translated or retold it.
And yet, though one version or another is sometimes foisted upon college students, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight has attained neither the ubiquity nor the literary glamour accorded to those other two prime examples of ancient English literature, Beowulf and The Canterbury Tales.
This new version by Armitage, a prolific and award-winning British poet still in the early portion of his career, should go far in correcting that slight. It’s far from perfect — Armitage indulges in some screamingly funny verbal anachronisms — but it nonetheless manages to convey both the poetic brilliance and the narrative verve of the original.
Though written in a Middle English similar to Chaucer’s, this poem actually has more in common with the fierce Nordic heroics of the much older Beowulf.
The unknown poet sets his story among the knights at Camelot, though it appears to be an original creation outside the Arthurian cycle. It has nothing to do with the sword in the stone or Lancelot’s affair with Guinevere or the struggle against the invading Saxons, or Percival’s quest for the Holy Grail, or, indeed, any of the story lines made familiar by Thomas Malory in Le Morte d’Arthur.
A strange green knight shows up at Camelot one Christmastide with a challenge: He will allow any bold knight to strike his unprotected neck if, in a year’s time, he is permitted to return the blow. Though Gawain lops off the fellow’s head, the Green Knight simply picks it up. Mounting his horse, he commands the astonished Gawain to seek out his home within a year to repay the debt.
Armitage’s version is the rare book that gives extra pleasure, though some of it is surely not intended by the author, or in this case, the translator. For one thing, in his zeal to capture the powerful rhythms of the alliterative poetry, Armitage occasionally veers into the region of “Green Eggs and Ham”:
“I shall give him as a gift this gigantic cleaver
“and the axe shall be his to handle how he likes.
“I’ll kneel, bare my neck and take the first knock.
“So who has the gall? The gumption? The guts?”
Then there’s Armitage’s ill-considered decision to meet modern readers more than half way by means of slangy modern language. I don’t know what “A spetos sparthe to expound in spell, quo-so might” means in Middle English, but surely Armitage could have found something less jarring than, “a cruel piece of kit I kid you not.”
Only a few lines later, Armitage gives us a description of a blade so sharp “it could shear a man’s scalp and shave him to boot,” while in another passage a character is said to be “keeping his cool” — which conveys the sense, but surely not the sensibility of the original.
The error Armitage makes here is the all-too-common assumption that modern readers are looking for familiarity when they turn to ancient stories. This is, of course, true, but only in part. We wish to find the familiar among the alien. We read to see the human heart, which is always familiar, acting in strange lands and at strange times.
Yet while I marked up the early pages of Armitage’s text with many a derisive observation, these fell away as the lines soldiered on, and both the poetry and the narrative took hold.
The question of whether Gawain will succumb to the intense seductions of the mistress of a remote castle becomes a matter of surprisingly intense suspense.
And in the descriptions of boar and deer hunts in the raw northern wilderness readers may find some of Tolkien’s inspiration for The Lord of the Rings.
In the end this version of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight succeeds at almost everything: It tells a rousing story with mostly superior poetry.