Eddie Watkins's Reviews > Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: A New Verse Translation

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by Unknown
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Jun 22, 10

Recommended for: youthful mediaevelists

I'd been attracted to this poem for years and years, but somehow never read it; tiptoeing 'round it like a gentleman too dignified to display his blood-gorged book lust. The title itself attracted me - the name Gawain and the idea of a Green Knight evoked plenty of mental imagery: greenery and silver clashings in fecund fairy tale landscapes. I also like the way Tolkien's name looks and sounds (evocative of tangled teeming forests clearly delineated) so I dipped into his version a while ago, but it seemed stiff and wooden, even opaque, or something, so I didn't pursue it. Then along came this version, translated by a fairly young English poet, Simon Armitage, with a back blurb by John Ashbery (a favorite poet of mine), so I gave it a whirl.

All of these old books should be translated by young poets. What freshness! What verve and bounce! I cantered right through it like a glossy horse over tight green turf. This is a remarkable poem; its literary sophistication tempered by rustic intemperence, striking imagery, bejeweled descriptions of gracile angelic maidens and boar hunting gore, and mysterious castles and the Woodwose (or Wodwo) the Wildman of the Woods. I'm sure scholars have taken issue with Armitage's obvious strayings from literal translation, but who cares! The point is to keep these old texts alive, and Armitage does that in sprightly spades. Instead of dead paper this book should've been printed on live leaves.

It's a fairly simple and well-known story, so I won't go into its details, but I must mention the overall chaste (yet pan-sexual) sexiness of it. Gawain is one of the great androgynous heroes in literature, but then the Middle Ages were filled with the likes of him - dandies with blood-smeared swords, lithe curvy athletes in bright body-hugging armor - and his mild, ambiguous undoing in the poem is his acceptance of a green silk girdle proffered to him by a temptress. The author momentarily lingers over his description of this silk garment worn beneath his shining armor, emphasizing the muscled curves. The girdle will protect him from harm; the harm being his accepting as part of a deal to be beheaded by the Green Knight (the Green Knight allowed Gawain to behead him at the beginning, before trotting off with his green head under his green arm). Mutual beheading? Green silken undergarment and a sword? There is some dense pan-sexual coding in that scene. But the sword merely knicks Gawain's extended neck, and he's allowed to return to Camelot lightly shamed, with a fast fading scar.
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Comments (showing 1-12 of 12) (12 new)

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message 1: by [deleted user] (new)

I remember there being a lot of sexy food in the poem, all this mutual feasting. Boy, it really is a big sexy riddle, isn't it?


Eddie Watkins Definitely a riddle, but an unintentional one, no?, like any good fairy tale. Makes me kind of long for the pre-psychology days when we didn't know so much about ourselves. Not that I think we know ourselves now; we only think we do.


message 3: by Moira (new) - added it

Moira Russell Hee, great review. I think I have this somewhere, but haven't read it yet.


message 4: by [deleted user] (last edited Jun 22, 2010 08:21AM) (new)

Probably unintentional, although I think that says more about the Gawain poet - it bothers me that he doesn't have a name; let us call him George - than it does about the pre-psych days, no? I mean, look at Chaucer - I had to go look to see if they were contemporaries, like I thought, and they were! - Chaucer is so sly and funny & winking and ironic - just a completely different tone than George, and one that would NEVER go on about underpants & food that way, unless he was making a satirical point.

Have you read The Pearl? I haven't, although I'm not really tempted because it doesn't seem like it's as much fun.


Eddie Watkins Haven't read The Pearl.

People have been winking and ironic forever, I'm sure, but I was thinking more in terms of deep imagery that's written on the surface as if only the surface exists, like in dreams and fairy tales. I suppose this requires a certain lack of sophistication/self-awareness to achieve as a writer, as "George" did. Or maybe he was a perfectly self-aware fetishist. Either way it does say more about the author than "pre-psych days", but I still long for them!


message 6: by [deleted user] (new)

People have been winking and ironic forever, I'm sure, but I was thinking more in terms of deep imagery that's written on the surface as if only the surface exists, like in dreams and fairy tales.

Yeah, I understand what you're saying here - I imagine if I read Gawain thinking he was a (M/m)odern writer - not sure how that would happen, but let's pretend - I'd think WHAT are you DOING, George? You are DEEPLY perverse. As it stands, it's almost...innocent? Although, arguably, there are many, many writers even now who avoid modern psychology completely - I can think of several sparkly vampires who have never heard of this Freud fellow and his wacky little theories about wish fulfillment, the death wish, etc - and I hates them, my precious.


Eddie Watkins I can think of several sparkly vampires who have never heard of this Freud fellow and his wacky little theories about wish fulfillment, the death wish, etc - and I hates them, my precious.

God! I didn't even think of that. You're exactly right. Maybe we're living in the new Middle Ages.


Esteban del Mal Ceridwen wrote: "I can think of several sparkly vampires who have never heard of this Freud fellow and his wacky little theories about wish fulfillment, the death wish, etc - and I hates them, my precious."

You crack me up, Ceridwen.


message 9: by [deleted user] (new)

Heh, thanks. :)


message 10: by Eddie (last edited Jun 25, 2010 04:06AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Eddie Watkins I'm far from a scholar in these matters, but it's obvious he took liberties while translating. I'm all for that, though, as long as the liberties aren't part of some insidious agenda. The more and varied translations the better as far as I'm concerned.

It's that faux-innocence, or way too late continuing actual innocence with blinders, that gets to me. A lot of that is from the smiley fundamentalist Christianity that's so pervasive, but some I think is just from cultural overload, causing people to retreat into childish optimism and willful ignorance, pretending 75% of what goes on doesn't exist.


Eddie Watkins I like YA books myself because often the authors' creativity is less fettered, or the imagination at play is just that, at play. And I don't mind expressions of goodness and true innocence, but intentional moral lessons just ruin it. But then I have the same problem with adult lit at times, when various themes and meanings are shoe-horned into otherwise enjoyable, less constrained, experiences. I read to have an experience first and foremost, not to so obviously learn anything.


message 12: by [deleted user] (last edited Jun 25, 2010 07:10AM) (new)

Yeah, YA is like regular books, just younger, which is a stupid thing to say, but I'm having a hard time formulating what I mean. I've read several YA books that really kicked my ass: Hunger Games, The True Meaning of Smekday, A Wizard of Earthsea. In some ways they were more remarkable for it because their authors were constrained by the genre: no descriptions of gore or sex, no profanity. (Actually, Smekday has a running gag about that.)

Anyway, then you put this up against message books - I haven't read any of those since middle school, but you know what I mean? Talk to your girls about anorexia nervosa? That sort of thing? - or books like Twilight, and I just shake my head. One's too calculated; the other's not calculated enough. But I subscribe to the 95% of Everything is Shit Newsletter, so I'm not surprised by this, really. I guess what surprises me is that, like you say Elizabeth, that the protagonists in escapist lit are getting younger every day, and I wonder why this stuff appeals at all? Do we like reading the pat moral conclusion because we're imagining young people reading it, and getting a little cultural moral medicine?


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