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Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

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“A medieval romance…but also an outlandish ghost story, a gripping morality tale and a weird thriller.… I couldn’t put down Simon Armitage’s compulsively readable...energetic, free-flowing, high-spirited version.” — Edward Hirsch, New York Times Book Review

One of the founding stories of English literature, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight narrates the strange tale of a green knight on a green horse who rudely interrupts Camelot’s Round Table festivities one Yuletide, casting a pall of unease over the company and challenging one of their number to a wager. The virtuous Gawain accepts and decapitates the intruder with his own axe. Gushing blood, the knight reclaims his head, orders Gawain to seek him out a year hence, and departs. The following Yuletide, Gawain dutifully sets forth. His quest for the Green Knight involves a winter journey, a seduction scene in a dreamlike castle, a dire challenge answered—and a drama of enigmatic reward disguised as psychic undoing.

Preserved on a single surviving manuscript dating from around 1400, composed by an anonymous master, this Arthurian epic was rediscovered only two hundred years ago and published for the first time in 1839. Following in the tradition of Ted Hughes, Marie Borroff, and J.R.R. Tolkien, Simon Armitage—one of England’s leading poets—has produced an inventive translation that resounds with both clarity and spirit. His work, presented here with facing original text and a note by Harvard scholar James Simpson, is meticulously responsible to the sophistication of the original but succeeds equally in its ambition to be read as a totally new poem. It is as if two poets, six hundred years apart, set out on a journey through the same mesmerizing landscapes—acoustic, physical, and metaphorical—to share in and double the pleasure of this enchanting classic.

201 pages, Kindle Edition

First published January 1, 1350

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Books can be attributed to "Unknown" when the author or editor (as applicable) is not known and cannot be discovered. If at all possible, list at least one actual author or editor for a book instead of using "Unknown".

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 3,180 reviews
Profile Image for Jason Koivu.
Author 7 books1,257 followers
May 19, 2014
Contains the greatest "OH FUCK" moment in medieval literature!

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight - listed here as written by Unknown, though I believe it may have been penned by that prolific Greek author Anonymous - is a classic tale from Arthurian legend in which the code of honor attributed to chivalry is heavily ensconced.

There are many interpretations of the poem's meaning, and historically speaking it's often dependent on the reader's bias. For instance, Christians latched on to the sex aspect and pagans saw a Green Man parallel. Me? I just see it as damn good fun, just as I'll wager the eagerly listening common folk heard it told by their smoky peat fires so many hundreds of years ago.

Profile Image for Vivian.
2,847 reviews398 followers
January 3, 2016
Enchanting translation that made me love words again. The cadence and rhythm Armitage employed gave life to the modern English rather than direct translation. The Introduction laid out precisely what he would do and why he made the choice he did--to preserve the beauty of the poetry, both the alliterative Anglo-Saxon and the breakout stanzas of continental rhyming.

And I fell in love with language again. I found myself speaking aloud or mouthing them to feel the words tumbling out. For that joy, I am grateful again. As a selection for my Yuletide reading, I was most fortunate.

The tale itself is quite simple, but filled with so many tidbits. It is a heroic story as Sir Gawain is tested. The similarities between the Green Knight and the Green Man mythology was one of the most interesting to me. But, the amalgamation of Christianity and pagan beliefs is fascinating. I'm going to ignore the misogynistic aspects of Christianity and women as the downfall of man when it is clearly their own decisions at play or here specifically, at the behest of another-- Yes, please continue to abdicate personal responsibility. Thus, I found the judgment at the end interesting.

Sir Gawain got off lightly, and I concur with his interpretation of his actions over those of the Knights of the Round Table. The poem itself might be only a four star read, but how it made me feel bumps this to five stars, easily.
Profile Image for Jan-Maat.
1,566 reviews1,896 followers
October 13, 2020
The season if not of mellow fruitfulness than of frost and fog brings this back to me with the childhood memory of going to school in a proper pea souper, every familiar landmark lost, only the tarmac footpath remained solid beneath my childish feet, occasionally a hut would burst out of the milkiness to demonstrate that I was making progress. My little quest however did not take a year and a day, as all self respecting quests must.

Alas the language is beyond me, I am comfortable with Chaucer (though I suspect that's just the false friends fooling me), and I found Langland, with concentration, manageable, but this dialect of English, roughly contemporary to the other two a bit too much, maybe if I knew some Norse or Danish, or had been born and raised in that country where it had been written rather than close to the dark waters of the Thames I would find it easier. But this edition does have a fine cover illustration which takes you to the heart of the matter.

If you don't know it all, then it is a medieval English poem dealing with a knight of King Arthur's court, who gets into a beheading game with a wandering Green knight and in order to take his turn at being beheaded Sir Gawain must first find the aforementioned Green knight, so the entire story is about being lost in the fog - a mysterious antagonist cannot be found, playing a game of which you don't know all the rules, mysterious temptations (as illustrated by the front cover), is the hero going to die, what does it all mean? Lost in the fog, wandering, but you reach the destination all the same.

I thoroughly enjoyed the Simon Armitage translation if the gentle reader is curious enough.
bonus fun
Profile Image for Antonomasia.
978 reviews1,222 followers
January 25, 2019
Simon Armitage translation (Faber & Faber / Norton), and the Oxford edition's notes

I'd half forgotten about Gawain and the Green Knight - and I'd definitely forgotten it was set over Christmas and New Year, until I heard this mid-December episode of In Our Time. As I thought during the programme how bored I now was of Simon Armitage - he's become a very regular fixture on BBC arts shows in the last few years - I didn't expect to end up reading his translation of Gawain. But I looked at a couple of others and they seemed too formal and RP. The poem's northernness (or perhaps more precisely north-west-midlandness) is one of the most distinctive things about it, and is what makes it different from other 14th-century English works like The Canterbury Tales or Piers Plowman, and I wanted that to be evident in the translation. Although the beginning of Armitage version didn't have as many dialect words as I'd hoped (nor did it in the full poem), you can hear an accent in it if you're looking, the way you can't in the Penguin or Oxford translations.

However, he says about the translation, "the often-quoted notion that a poem can never be finished, only abandoned, has never felt more true. Even now, further permutations and possibilities keep suggesting themselves, as if the tweaking and fine-tuning could last a lifetime" - and a new revised edition was published in October 2018, so there may even be more dialect in it now.

And - its other great advantage I only fully realised after starting to read it properly - Armitage's version uses alliteration like the original, rather than blank verse or a rhymed meter. One edition's introduction explains that Germanic languages frequently use alliteration as a poetic device, whereas romance languages use rhyme. I love alliteration, but it's kind of uncool: done to excess (and excess is easy to do with alliteration) it can seem like the dad-dancing of English wordplay. (Is that anything to do with its being an older, pre-Norman component of the language?) It was perhaps my favourite aspect of Armitage's Gawain, seeing, for the first time, alliteration used in such quantity and so well, and utterly *allowed*, and never once with a need to cringe.

On the appearance of the Green Knight at Camelot:

The guests looked on. They gaped and they gawked
and were mute with amazement: what did it mean
that human and horse could develop this hue,
should grow to be grass-green or greener still,
like green enamel emboldened by bright gold?
Some stood and stared then stepped a little closer,
drawn near to the knight to know his next move;

Gawain's adventures on the journey northwards in winter:

Where he bridges a brook or wades through a waterway
ill fortune brings him face-to-face with a foe
so foul or fierce he is bound to use force.
So momentous are his travels among the mountains
to tell just a tenth would be a tall order.
Here he scraps 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 giants.
Only diligence and faith in the face of death
will keep him from becoming a corpse or carrion.

It brings home how bloody cold a medieval winter felt, with so many fewer hopes of getting warm than we have.

And the wars were one thing, but winter was worse:
clouds shed their cargo of crystallized rain
which froze as it fell to the frost-glazed earth.
With nerves frozen numb he napped in his armour,…

So in peril and pain Sir Gawain made progress,
crisscrossing the countryside until Christmas

Now night passes and New Year draws near,
drawing off darkness as our Deity decrees.
But wild-looking weather was about in the world:
clouds decanted their cold rain earthwards;
the nithering north needled man’s very nature;
creatures were scattered by the stinging sleet.
Then a whip-cracking wind comes whistling between hills
driving snow into deepening drifts in the dales.

It's clear how exhausting a journey through this was, with rest and recuperation much needed, and no shame in the knight lying abed while the lord went out hunting.

“You were weary and worn,
hollow with hunger, harrowed by tiredness,
yet you joined in my revelling right royally every night.

What a contrast Christmas was with the rest of winter under these conditions:
And with meals and mirth and minstrelsy
they made as much amusement as any mortal could,
and among those merry men and laughing ladies
Gawain and his host got giddy together;
only lunatics and drunkards could have looked more delirious.
Every person present performed party pieces
till the hour arrived when revellers must rest,

(Which may have been later than you'd think; A Tudor Christmas, which I read a couple of weeks earlier, stated that in 1494, Henry VII processed at 11pm after mass on Twelfth Night.)

As with all good long poems, there are a handful of lines that don't work, but those that do outweigh those that don't sufficiently to make the off-notes negligible.

Needless to say, all this left me with renewed respect for Armitage, and I enjoyed watching this documentary in which he visited the likely locations the Gawain-poet thought of as he was writing. Lud's Church in North Staffordshire, the probable site of the Green Chapel, really did look like somewhere a high-fantasy film hero would fight a pivotal battle with a monster (or maybe they just filmed it well to make it look that way). If you also remember Armitage from the 90s Mark Radcliffe Radio 1 show, you will probably enjoy the soundtrack too.

Armitage's edition has a short - and interesting - intro, but if you want the best historical background info, the Oxford edition is the place to look, at Helen Cooper's introduction and notes. (The Penguin Bernard O'Donoghue version doesn't have nearly as much.) Info like this was exciting (to me at least) after having heard several briefer, less detailed histories of the text:

the precise detail of this location may however represent the origin of the scribe who copied the poems into the manuscript rather than of the poet himself, who certainly came from the same region but may not be possible to locate with quite the same degree of exactness.

The Wirral was notorious as a refuge for outlaws though the comment here on the wildness of its inhabitants could also be a joke against the poem's first readers since Gawain is travelling into their own home territory. This is, however, the dangerous past, not the familiar present. (So the Liverpool jokes have an ancient history…)

Other highlights included various estimates of when wild boar became hunted to extinction in England; the ranked, and also gendered, classification of hunted beasts; when carpets were probably introduced by Eleanor of Castile; mini-biographies of candidates for the authorship and dedication; the influential coterie of Cheshiremen around Richard II in the 1390s; and that Gawain was part of an Alliterative Revival in poetry, all known works written "in the north or west of England or in southern Scotland".

For a long time I was not all that interested in reading Gawain because I'd never found chivalric culture very interesting and couldn't help but imagine it taking place in the sanitised scenes of Victorian Gothic revival paintings, even though they were obviously hundreds of years later. Not only did I enjoy the alliteration and the descriptions of the winter weather and its effects in the poem, but it helped me start to see chivalry in a different context: grittier, for want of a better word, and part of what seems to have been a confusing, demanding and perhaps sometimes contradictory set of social standards for medieval nobility which I'd actually like to know a bit more about (but paper-length rather than book-length).

The only reason for giving 4 stars rather than 5 is the known fault with the original, that the purported plot by Morgan Le Fay, as explanation for events, is unconvincing. Otherwise, the poem ends with a beautiful and unexpectedly moving final line, as if it were a prayer; although the story is playful and mythical, this reminds the reader of the religion at the heart of medieval life.

(read Dec 2018, review Jan 2019)
Profile Image for Paul Haspel.
563 reviews82 followers
January 1, 2023
Sir Gawain of Camelot encounters, in this poem of the late 14th century, a formidable antagonist – a knight in green armour, who displays supernatural powers and makes a deadly pact with Gawain at King Arthur’s court one New Year’s Day. And in the process of trying to fulfill that grim bargain, even at the cost of his life, Sir Gawain, as depicted by the unknown poet who composed this work of narrative verse, reveals much regarding the medieval world within which this poem was written.

While scholars of medieval literature have put forward a number of possible authors of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, all that can be said with reasonable certainty is that the unknown poet who composed this poem probably did so sometime between the years 1375 and 1400 – or, to put it another way, in the England of King Richard II or King Henry IV. Interesting to wonder if either of these kings – both of whose reigns were later dramatized by William Shakespeare – might have heard this poem recited at court.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight begins as King Arthur, his wife Queen Guinevere, and the knights of the Round Table sit down for a New Year’s feast. As it is a feast-day, King Arthur announces that he will not begin to dine until some marvellous event has occurred. And just then, the feast receives an unexpected visitor – an unknown knight of gigantic stature: “A fellow fiercely grim,/And all a glittering green” (p. 26).

It is not just that his armour is green; his horse is green, and his skin and hair and beard and everything about him are green. Clearly, King Arthur has the marvel that he was seeking.

And the Green Knight, bearing a huge Viking-style battle-axe, has a challenge for the knights of the Round Table:

"I crave in this court a Christmas game,
For it is Yuletide and New Year, and young men abound here.
If any in this household is so hardy in spirit,
Of such mettlesome mind and so madly rash
As to strike a strong blow in return for another,
I shall offer to him this fine axe freely;
This axe, which is heavy enough, to handle as he please.
And I shall bide the first blow, as bare as I sit here….
Then shall I stand up to his stroke, quite still on this floor –
So long as I shall have leave to launch a return blow unchecked."
(pp. 31-32)

Many of the Arthurian knights whose names are familiar to readers of Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur – Agravaine and Ywain, Sir Bors and Sir Bedivere and Sir Lionel and even Sir Launcelot – are present at the feast; but of all the knights, the only one willing to take up the challenge is Sir Gawain.

It is worth mentioning here that the Sir Gawain of this poem is quite different from the Gawain of Malory’s epic. In Malory’s work, Gawain is selfish, judgemental, and not unfrequently treacherous – a foil to truer-hearted knights like Launcelot and Gareth. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, by contrast, Gawain is brave and humble, always acting with goodwill and out of good intentions. Indeed, Gawain, sitting at Guinevere’s side, seems concerned to protect his queen from the horrifying sight of the Green Knight – and to keep King Arthur from impetuously taking up the challenge himself.

Accepting the Green Knight’s challenge, and binding himself to the grim bargain, Sir Gawain takes up the Norse battle-axe and strikes off the Green Knight’s head. But regular readers of Arthurian romance tales will not be surprised to hear that the story does not end there:

The fair head fell from the neck, struck the floor,
And people spurned it as it rolled around.
Blood spurted from the body, bright against the green.
Yet the fellow did not fall, nor falter one whit,
But stoutly sprang forward on legs still sturdy,
Roughly reached out among the ranks of nobles,
Seized his splendid head and straightway lifted it.
Then he strode to his steed, snatched the bridle,
Stepped into the stirrup and swung aloft,
Holding his head in his hand by the hair.
He settled himself in the saddle as steadily
As if nothing had happened to him, though he had no head.
(p. 37)

The feast, I would imagine, goes uneaten. The Green Knight’s disembodied head meanwhile commands that Gawain keep his end of the bargain:

"Be prepared to perform what you promised, Gawain;
Seek faithfully till you find me, my fine fellow,
According to your oath in this hall in these knights’ hearing.
Go to the Green Chapel without gainsaying to get
Such a stroke as you have struck. Strictly you deserve
That due redemption on the day of New Year."
(p. 37)

And Sir Gawain, believing that keeping to the bargain will mean his death, nonetheless is true to this word, leaving Camelot the following All Saints’ Day in order to make sure that he will have plenty of time to find the Green Chapel and fulfill his deadly bargain. His journey takes him from one vague and mythic landscape (Camelot) through some recognizably real locations of the border region between northern England and eastern Wales – Holy Head, the isles of Anglesey, the wilds of Wirral – before making his way back into the realm of the mythic.

Eventually, Sir Gawain finds himself at a castle whose lord, Sir Bertilak, offers Gawain a lavish welcome and suitably noble hospitality, saying that “God has given us of his grace good measure/In granting us such a guest as Gawain is” (p. 55). He further informs Gawain that the Green Chapel is just a short distance away – and that Gawain, with three days to spare before his New Year’s appointment, can spend those three days lodging comfortably at Bertilak’s castle.

Yet Sir Bertilak’s castle proves to be the site of further testing of Sir Gawain; for over the course of each of those three days, while Sir Bertilak is out hunting with his noble retainers, Sir Bertilak’s beautiful young wife comes to Sir Gawain’s bedchamber and offers herself to him.

As Sir Gawain struggles to resist this temptation, it is not just that Gawain is a healthy young man being invited to make love with a beautiful young woman who is alluringly dressed in “a ravishing robe that reached to the ground….Her fine-featured face and fair throat were unveiled” (p. 86). It is also that she appeals to him in terms of the conventions of courtly love that were so prevalent within the culture of medieval nobility – to wit, the idea that strong young knights and beautiful young ladies should be able to talk, in private, about matters of love, without that emotional intimacy ever leading to physical intimacy. Spoiler alert: It didn’t always work out that way.

Working from within that context, the Lady tries to tempt Gawain by appealing to his sense of knightly honour, playfully accusing him of “know[ing] nothing of noble conventions”, of being unaware that “the choicest thing in Chivalry, the chief thing praised, is the loyal sport of love” (pp. 77-78). Emphasizing that she is alone and unchaperoned, she states that “You ought to be eager to lay open to a young thing/Your discoveries in the craft of courtly love./What! Are you ignorant, with all your renown?/Or do you deem me too dull to drink in your dalliance?” (p. 78)

Truly, this temptation is multi-dimensional. If you were a real knight, you would love me. Do you even know what you’re doing as a knight? Or is it that you don’t think I’m pretty enough, or smart enough, to be worth your time?

And it creates a real moral dilemma for Gawain. On the one hand, he cannot simply reject her with harsh words; doing so would break the chivalrous code of courtly love. It would be “blackguardly”, and “his upbringing forbade him to rebuff her utterly” (pp. 83, 87). But on the other hand, if he were to succumb to her blandishments, then he would “plunge into sin,/And dishonour the owner of the house treacherously” (p. 87). For all of these reasons, the passages dealing with Gawain and the Lady are alive with sexual tension.

And as if the temptation of forbidden sensual delights is not enough, Sir Gawain faces one final test when New Year’s Day arrives and he is on his way to the Green Chapel, to face what he thinks is certain death at the hands of the Green Knight. Sir Bertilak’s servant, appointed to guide Gawain to the Green Chapel, instead emphasizes the Green Knight’s murderous cruelty, and encourages Gawain to flee:

“Therefore, good Sir Gawain, leave the grim man alone!
Ride by another route, to some region remote!
Go in the name of God, and Christ grace your fortune!
And I shall go home again and undertake
To swear solemnly by God and His saints as well…
Stoutly to keep your secret, not saying to a soul
That ever you tried to turn tail from any man I knew.”
(p. 100)

Sir Gawain, “somewhat galled” at the suggestion, nonetheless replies courteously, telling the servant that “if I quit this place,/Fled from the fellow in the fashion you propose,/I should become a cowardly knight with no excuse whatever,/For I will go to the Green Chapel, to get what Fate sends” (p. 100). And thus the stage is set for Gawain’s final confrontation with the Green Knight – a Green Chapel visit that unveils a number of surprises, and that invokes familiar Arthurian characters like Merlin and Morgan le Fay.

Translator Brian Stone, a drama scholar at Great Britain’s Open University, includes with this Penguin Books edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight not only a helpful introduction but also six (!) critical essays that enhance the reader’s understanding of the poem, and of the world within which the poem was composed. I was struck, for example, by Stone’s suggestion that the Green Knight, with his non-human qualities, “wants and apparently needs…to bask in the light of a human virtue which he cannot himself have” (p. 125).

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a New Year’s tale, takes place at a time of endings and beginnings, and emphasizes the importance of remaining true to one’s principles, even when one may think that all hope is lost. Considering how tough Gawain is on himself for the few times that this sorely-tempted knight fails in even a small way, I find myself thinking that it is a particularly propitious book to read at a time of year when so many of us find ourselves looking back at our failings from the previous year, and resolving to do better in the New Year to come.
Profile Image for Ahmad Sharabiani.
9,564 reviews44 followers
March 3, 2020
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Unknown, Burton Raffel (Translator), Neil D. Isaacs (Afterword)

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl‬, ‎edited with an introduction by A. C. Cawley‬, ‎London‬: ‎J.M. Dent AND Son‬, ‎1962 = 1341‬. ‎Pages: 16, 150, xxv

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a late 14th-century Middle English chivalric romance. It is one of the best known Arthurian stories, with its plot combining two types of folk motifs, the beheading game and the exchange of winnings.

Written in stanzas of alliterative verse, each of which ends in a rhyming bob and wheel, it draws on Welsh, Irish and English stories, as well as the French chivalric tradition. It is an important example of a chivalric romance, which typically involves a hero who goes on a quest which tests his prowess.

In Camelot on New Year's Day, King Arthur's court is exchanging gifts and waiting for the feasting to start when the king asks to see or hear of an exciting adventure. A gigantic figure, entirely green in appearance and riding a green horse, rides unexpectedly into the hall. He wears no armour but bears an axe in one hand and a holly bough in the other. Refusing to fight anyone there on the grounds that they are all too weak to take him on, he insists he has come for a friendly christmas game: someone is to strike him once with his axe on the condition that the Green Knight may return the blow in a year and a day. The splendid axe will belong to whoever accepts this deal.

Arthur himself is prepared to accept the challenge when it appears no other knight will dare, but Sir Gawain, youngest of Arthur's knights and his nephew, asks for the honour instead. The giant bends and bares his neck before him and Gawain neatly beheads him in one stroke. However, the Green Knight neither falls nor falters, but instead reaches out, picks up his severed head and remounts, holding up his bleeding head to Queen Guinevere while its writhing lips remind Gawain that the two must meet again at the Green Chapel. He then rides away. Gawain and Arthur admire the axe, hang it up as a trophy and encourage Guinevere to treat the whole matter lightly.

تاریخ خوانش روز چهارم ماه جولای سال 2015 میلادی

عنوان فارسی: سر گاوین و شوالیه سبز؛ نویسنده ناشناس؛ شابک 0140440925؛ تعداد صفحه (نسخه چاپی - نسخه الکترونیکی) 187؛

سر گاوین و شوالیه سبز، «سر گاوین و شوالیه سبز» در سالهای میانی سده ی چهاردهم میلادی از ماجراجویی سر گاوین، که یکی از شوالیه های میزگرد شاه آرتور بودند، میگوید؛ در داستان، سر گاوین یک چالش ��ا از یک جنگجوی مرموز که پوست آن سبز است، را میپذیرد. یکی از افسانه های بنیادی و بسیار با ارزش است. ا. شربیانی
Profile Image for Ruby Granger.
Author 3 books46.9k followers
October 23, 2019
One thing I wasn't expecting in this was such beautifully clear descriptions of landscapes. Perspectives on the bleak winterscapes undulate, moving from terrifying cold to almost beautiful mists. It's really *Sublime*.

One of my favourite lines:
"So the year passes on through its series of yesterdays".
Profile Image for Richard Derus.
2,981 reviews1,991 followers
November 27, 2017
Rating: 5* of five

This is the book to get your poetry-resistant friend this #Booksgiving 2017. I read it on a dare. I don't like poetry very much, it's so snooty and at the same time so pit-sniffingly self-absorbed that I'd far rather stab my hands with a fork repeatedly than be condescended to in rhyming couplets.

This tale is fabulous in every sense of the word, which is no surprise since it's survived for so many centuries. But poet and translator Simon Armitage has made the old world new again. He sucked me right in and never let me come up for air with his gorgeous words and his carefully chosen words and his alliterative rhythmical phrases.

If the idea of a Norton Critical Edition is keeping you far away from this delightful read, rest assured it's not stodgy or dry or just plain boring. It's vibrant, alive, shimmering with an inner power, waiting for you to open its covers and fall utterly under its spell. Become happily ensorcelled, gentle reader, relax into the sure and strong embrace of a centuries-old knight and his spectacular tale.
Profile Image for John Hatley.
1,214 reviews205 followers
August 19, 2021
I suppose I have a weakness for medieval literature. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, as one of the earliest surviving works of English literature, is also a prime example of the virtues that the knights of King Arthur’s Round Table adhered to and the ideals to which they aspired. Simon Armitage’s brilliant translation breathes new life not only into the characters but also into the poetry itself.
Profile Image for Bradley.
Author 5 books4,109 followers
January 8, 2022

Originally, I read this alongside LotR for the connection to Tolkein (having been a translation of Tolkein, himself, from the original Middle English), but it was surprisingly great all on its own.

Allegory? Of course. But it was also a tale of Sir Gawain the most pure, going on his own little quest and getting seduced and bumping heads against mother nature.

Literally, in this case.

I loved the pride and the twist back then and enjoyed it just as much again. And I also have a great fondness for the Green Knight, regardless, so this story was a bit of a no-brainer for me.

Profile Image for Terry .
402 reviews2,148 followers
May 22, 2012
One of the best of the 'classic' Arthurian tales. Gawain is presented a bit differently here from many of the other ones. Usually he's a bit of a braggart and kind of a jerk, especially to women, but here he is presented as the perfect exemplar of courtoisie. He's also a bit young and still untried, so maybe that explains it for those who want to be able to have a grand unified theory of Arthuriana.

Anyway, you probably all know the story: Arthur is about to have a New Year's feast, but according to tradition is waiting for some marvel to occur. Right on cue in trots the Green Knight on his horse, a giant of a man who proceeds to trash the reputation of the entire court and dare someone to cut off his head as long as he gets to return the favour. No one makes a move and Arthur decides he better do something about this until Gawain steps up and asks to take on this quest himself. Everyone agrees and Gawain proceeds to smite the green head from the Knight's body. Everyone is fairly pleased with the result until the Green Knight gets up, picks up his smiling head, and says: "See you next year, G. Don't forget that it's my turn then." (I paraphrase, the middle english of the poet is far superior.) Needless to say everyone is a bit nonplussed by this.

The year passes and Gawain doesn't seem to do much of anything until he finally decides it's time to get out and find this green fellow and fulfill his obligation...hopefully something will come up along the way to improve his prospects. What follows is a journey to the borders of the Otherworld as well as a detailed primer on just how one ought to act in order to follow the dictates of courtliness. Gawain ends up being the guest of Sir Bertilak, a generous knight who says that the Green Chapel, the destination of Gawain's quest, is close by and Gawain should stay with them for the duration of the holidays. We are treated to some coy (and mostly chaste) loveplay on the part of Bertilak's wife from which Gawain mostly manages to extricate himself without contravening the dictates of politeness, as well as the details of a medieval deer, boar and fox hunt with nary a point missing.

In the end Gawain goes to the chapel and finds that his erstwhile host Bertilak was in fact the Green Knight. Gawain submits himself and is left, after three swings, with only a scratch as a reward for his courteous behaviour in Bertilak's castle. Despite the apparent success of Gawain, he views the adventure as a failure since he did not come off completely unscathed and he wears a girdle he was gifted by Bertilak's wife as a mark of shame to remind himself of this. Harsh much?

The language of the Gawain poet's middle english is beautiful and I highly recommend reading it in the original with a good translation at hand to catch the nuances of meaning. The poem is replete with an almost dreamlike quality that is made real by all of the exquisite details of medieval life that are interspersed throughout the text. This is a great book to read at Christmas time.
Profile Image for saïd.
6,321 reviews978 followers
January 24, 2023
The poem commonly known as Gawayn and þe Grene Knyȝt is written in the North West Midlands dialect of Middle English, employing alliterative verse and the bob-and-wheel combination. The original text, which survives in a single manuscript (Cotton Nero A.x., late 14th c.), consists of 101 stanze, or 2530 lines. The Middle English text of the poem is available online for what I would hope would be obvious reasons. The translations I have on hand at the present moment are, in chronological order of publication, those by Jessie L. Weston (1898), William Allan Neilson (1917), Brian Stone (1959), Marie Borroff (1967), Burton Raffel (1970), Keith Harrison (1983), W.S. Merwin (2003), Bernard O’Donoghue (2006), and Simon Armitage (2007).

Here are the first seven lines of the first fit:
Siþen þe sege and þe assaut watz sesed at Troye, 1
Þe borȝ brittened and brent to brondeȝ and askez,
Þe tulk þat þe trammes of tresoun þer wroȝt
Watz tried for his tricherie, þe trewest on erþe:
Hit watz Ennias þe athel, and his highe kynde, 5
Þat siþen depreced prouinces, and patrounes bicome
Welneȝe of al þe wele in þe west iles.
Grene Knyȝt is believed to have been written around the same time as Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, i.e., sometime at the end of the 14th century. While the majority of the vocabulary is actually quite understandable to a modern reader fluent in the current form of English, the syntax is far more flexible, a relic of Germanic influence. (The German-style verb endings will also be noticeable; for example, “depreced” is the past-tense form of dēprecen, dēpressen, “to depress; to press down; to subjugate.”) Roughly translated, as literally as possible, this section reads as follows:
Since the siege and the assault was ceased at Troy,
The [burg/borough] [britted (destroyed)] and burnt to brands and ashes,
The [tulk] that the [trams (machinations)] of treason there wrought
Was tried for his treachery, the truest on earth:
It was Aeneas the [athel (nobleman)], and his [high (exalted)] kind* (*or kin),
That since depressed provinces, and [patrons (masters)] became
Well-nigh of all the wealth in the west isles.
Words in brackets are the direct descendant of the Middle English word, but which have a different or obsolete meaning in Modern English; those in parentheses differ greatly either in meaning or context, and have therefore been replaced by loanwords.

As you can see, with the exception of “brit,” “tram,” “athel,” “high,” and “patron,” every word is essentially understandable without assistance. The verb “to brit,” inherited from Middle English “brytten, brutten,” itself inherited from Old English “brȳtan, bryttian,” means “to break into pieces; to divide” (when transitive) or “to shatter, fall apart, fade away” (when intransitive); the word “brittle” (meaning “breakable” or “able to be broken”) is a derivative. “Tram” exists in Modern English as a type of thread for weaving; it formerly had a figurative meaning as well as the literal one, referring to machinations or schemes. “Athel” is only used in reference to the obsolete sense. “High” in this context refers to one’s breeding or family, i.e., Aeneas was born of Troy’s ruling class. While the Modern English word “patron” can technically mean “master” or “lord,” the other senses are so much more common that this sense is lost unless specified. The only word that has no direct descendant in Modern English is “tulk,” which meant “man” or “soldier” (not “traitor,” as it’s often glossed).

(Nota bene: I’m not one to make claims without backup; I asked several non-expert friends—by which I mean, native English speakers but without a specific background in Middle English or even anything linguistically adjacent—who’d not read the original text to scan through that first fit and give me their best interpretation of what it meant, in Modern English. The results included slight variations, which were only to be expected, but overall the data supported my hypothesis that most native English speakers can understand a good 90% of the Middle English text without help.)

Additionally, and significantly, the original text does not actually rhyme. Keep all of this in mind when reading the following translations.

Weston (1898):
Since Troy’s assault and siege, I trow, were over-past, 1
To brands and ashes burnt that stately burg at last,
And he, the traitor proved, for treason that he wrought,
Was fitly tried and judged,—his fortune elsewhere sought
The truest knight on earth, Æneas, with his kin, 5
Who vanquished provinces, and did, as princes, win
Of all the Western Isles, the wealth and worth alway;
Neilson (1917):
1. After the siege and the assault had ceased at Troy, the city been destroyed and burned to brands and ashes, the warrior who wrought there the trains of treason was tried for his treachery, the truest on earth. This was Aeneas the noble; he and his high kindred afterwards conquered provinces, and became patrons of well nigh all the wealth in the West Isles.
Stone (1959):
The siege and the assault being ceased at Troy, 1
The battlements broken down and burnt to brands and ashes,
The treacherous trickster whose treasons there flourished
Was famed for his falsehood, the foulest on earth.
Aeneas the noble and his knightly kin 5
Then conquered kingdoms, and kept in their hand
Wellnigh all the wealth of the western lands.
Borroff (1967):
Since the siege and the assault was ceased at Troy, 1
The walls breached and burnt down to brands and ashes,
The knight that had knotted the nets of deceit
Was impeached for his perfidy, proven most true,
It was high-born Aeneas and his haughty race 5
That since prevailed over provinces, and proudly reigned
Over well-night all the wealth of the West Isles.
Raffel (1970):
Once the siege and assault had done for Troy, 1
And the city was smashed, burned to ashes,
The traitor whose tricks had taken Troy
For the Greeks, Aeneas the noble, was exiled
For Achilles’ death, for concealing his killer, 5
And he and his tribe made themselves lords
Of the western islands, rulers of provinces,
And rich:
Harrison (1983):
After the battle and the attack were over at Troy, 1
The town beaten down to smoking brands and ashes,
That man enmeshed in the nets of treachery—the truest
Of men—was tried for treason; I mean
Aeneas, the high-born, who, with his noble kinsmen, 5
Conquered many countries and made themselves masters
Of almost all the wealth of the Western Isles.
Merwin (2003; bilingual):
Since the siege and the assault upon Troy were finished, 1
The city destroyed and burned down to embers and ashes,
And the man who made the decoys that deceived them
Was tried for his treachery, though no man on earth was more true,
It was the noble Aeneas and his high-born kin 5
Who came to conquer provinces and become the lords
Of almost all the wealth of the Western Isles.
O’Donoghue (2006):
When the war and the siege of Troy were all over 1
and the city flattened to smoking rubble,
the man who’d betrayed it was brought to trial,
most certainly guilty of terrible crimes.
Then the noble Aeneas and his royal line 5
swept across Europe and lived as the rulers
of every country in the western world.
Armitage (2007; bilingual):
Once the siege and assault of Troy had ceased,
with the city a smoke-heap of cinders and ash,
the traitor who contrived such betrayal there
was tried for treachery, the truest on earth;
so Aeneas, it was, with his noble warriors
went conquering abroad, laying claim to the crowns
of the wealthiest kingdoms in the western world.
My favourite is automatically Merwin’s because it’s bilingual and relatively well-translated, but I’d put Borroff’s at a close second, then Armitage’s right behind.
Profile Image for withdrawn.
263 reviews258 followers
March 2, 2019
I first read this in 1975. I've read it several times since. The translation (Marie Borroff) is good. I am entirely taken in by the parallel structures in the story. Sir Gawain comes off as a wonderfully human character in a type of literature not known for well developed characters.
Profile Image for Aubrey.
1,361 reviews795 followers
May 12, 2021
I gave this three stars because it whetted my bisexuality for , because seriously, if you hate women, there's only three things you can do to tide me over with your writing: not write about them, be glorious at everything else, or include a female character who for all your fancy rhythms obviously scares the living shit out of you. In the words of the immortal Shelley, if I cannot satisfy the one, I will indulge the other, and with twenty lines out of 2530 in this Arthurian tale, a little goes a long way.

Moving beyond the author's obvious issues and more towards the stuffs of academia, it's hard to be impressed by this if one encounters Beowulf and The Heptameron first. The former has it beat in terms of pure strength of utterance, while the latter has it beat in, well, everything else. It's the curse of encountering the critique before the critiqued, and while SGatGK has got a lovely sense of nature and hunting and male fashion, it doesn't make up for the utter flatline of the themes. Yes, lack of honor is the worst, yes, all women are lying whores, yes, it sucks that you can't get rid of sin no matter how many people are forgiven by, but guess what? Least you don't have to deal with Eve and all that biblical jazz. Gawain's mark of shame even turns into a fashion accessory of significant social status at the end which, as far as thematic meaning goes, I'm not even going to attempt to contextualize but will tell you for a fact that it must be amazing.

What else. If I had to write an essay about this I'd explore the relation of Nature to Humanity and all such Wicker Man themes, but it's not something I'll go after unless I have to. There was rhyme and meter and some interesting stuff about fundamental differences between Germanic and Latin senses of poetry in the introduction, so that'll be useful in the future. Armitage even gives the benefit of the doubt to whether the unknown is indeed male in the ending appendage, but frankly, he can have it. I'll take what bits and pieces I can manage and leave the glory behind.
So summer comes in season with its subtle airs,
when the west wind sighs among shoots and seeds,
and those plants which flower and flourish are a pleasure
as their leaves let drip their drink of dew
and they sparkle and glitter when glanced by sunlight.
Then autumn arrives to harden the harvest
and with it comes a warning to ripen before winter.
The drying airs arrive, driving up dust
from the face of the earth to the heights of heaven,
and wild sky wrestles the sun with its winds,
and the leaves of the lime lay littered on the ground,
and grass that was green turns withered and gray.
Then all which had risen over-ripens and rots
and yesterday on yesterday the year dies away,
and winter returns as is the way of the world
through time.
At Michaelmas the moon
stands like that season's sign,
a warning to Gawain
to rouse himself and ride.
P.S. Who else cannot wait for that upcoming Dev Patel adaptation? Ouh là là is a massive understatement.
Profile Image for Jan-Maat.
1,566 reviews1,896 followers
October 30, 2016
An enjoyable translation:
Yes, he dozes in a daze, dreams and mutters
like a mournful man with his mind on dark matters-
how destiny might deal him a death-blow on the day
when he grapples with the giant in the green chapel;
of how the strike of the axe must be suffered without struggle.
But sensing her presence there he surfaces from sleep,
drags himself out of his dreams to address her.
Laughing warmly she walks towards him
and finds his face with the friendliest kiss.
In a worthy style he welcomes the woman
and seeing her so lovely and alluringly dressed,
every feature so faultless, her complexion so fine,
a passionate heat takes hold in his heart.
Speech tripped from their tongues and they traded smiles,
and a bond of friendship was forged there, all blissful
and bright.
They talk with tenderness
and pride, and yet their plight
is perilous unless
sweet Mary minds her knight.

William Langland's The Vision of Piers Plowman, Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales and the anonymous Sir Gawain and the Green Knight all come from the end of the thirteenth century, all written in distinctly different regional styles of English. Distinct is an understatement, in purely personal terms Chaucer I can enjoy, Langland is work to read and understand while I find the language of Gawaine incomprehensible. But there are translations.

Armitage in his translation sought to achieve a distinctive Northern flavour, despite being a Southerner this wasn't something that held me away from the text and if he hadn't mentioned it in his introduction I wouldn't have noticed or thought of this as requiring a particular effort or intention on his part. On reflection not paying homage to the Northern origin in the word choice seems a distinctly odd idea.

The poem is on the one hand written in a Christian context with a nod as above to the idea of Courtly love while on the other the mutual decapitation challenge (not to be tried at home) that the Green Knight and Sir Gawaine are engaged in reminds me a bit of the Mabinogion in which occasionally the loss of one's own head, while moderately inconvenient, is not necessarily fatal.

Then Gawain called as loudly as his lungs would allow,
'Who has power in this place to honour his pact?
Because good Gawain now walks on this ground. Whoever will meet him should emerge this moment and he needs to be fast - it's now or it's never.'
'Abide,' came a voice from above the bank.
'You'll cop what's coming to you quickly enough.'

Though above all this is a poem that has the taste of childhood about it, not because we enjoyed decapitating each other back down in Sarf London, but because the story of Sir Gwain's quest is interwoven with the memory of walking through the park to school on a foggy autumn morning when the fog was so thick that I could not even see the trees lining the pathway, lost in the wilderness wandering wildly in search of the green chapel with only my little feet to guide me to my destination.
Profile Image for Theo Logos.
708 reviews113 followers
September 15, 2023
From the moment the hulking Green Knight rides into King Arthur’s Christmas banquet hall, axe in one hand, holly bough in the other, this tale has an eldritch, fey feeling — a haunting sense of otherworldliness. That haunted atmosphere is perfectly captured in Simon Armitage’s brilliant translation (from the original Middle English) of this late 14th century English poem. Armitage’s beautiful, descriptive poetry weaves a trance-like spell around this weird wonder tale that is far more powerful and evocative than the scholarly Tolkien translation that I read some forty years ago.

As for the tale, you could analyze it, attempt to delve its meaning and moral to its original 14th century audience. You could try to unweave its separate elements — Christian mythology, Welsh, Irish, and English folktales, pagan roots, French chivalric tradition. You could break it down using a modern feminist perspective, critiquing the trope of woman as temptress and the conniving Morgan le Fay as femme fatale villain. Or, like me, you could immerse yourself in this wonderfully weird and strange tale of quests, magic and illusion.
Profile Image for Ivana Books Are Magic.
523 reviews201 followers
November 12, 2021
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a rich and beautiful work. This chivalric romance kept me guessing and made me ask questions. That's something I always appreciate in any work of literature. I remember many of its scenes vividly, but some aspects of it are blurred in my mind. If I remember well, I read more than one version of this work and found different renderings interesting. Whose version did I prefer? What copy was my favourite one? Did I attempt to read it in original? Sadly, I don't remember. I did enjoy it a lot and I even wrote papers on it. That much I do remember. Another classic I clearly need to reread before attempting a longer review. I need to dig up my old textbooks and handbooks, I know I will find at least one copy of this chivalric romance in some of them.
Profile Image for Eddie Watkins.
Author 6 books5,471 followers
June 22, 2010
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.
Profile Image for Thomas.
1,521 reviews9,013 followers
September 12, 2013
Perhaps my favorite Arthurian classic so far. Loved the alliterative verse and the beautiful descriptions of seasons - the conflicting ideas centered on chivalry, courtship, religion, etc. all made the reading much more intellectually stimulating. Not to mention that the ending throws in a wedge that forces one to evaluate the overall theme of the poem, or whether a unifying theme exists at all. Highly recommended for those interested in British literature and for those who want to give it a try; it's much more bearable than Beowulf, and the seduction scene is one of my favorites.
Profile Image for Tamara Agha-Jaffar.
Author 6 books253 followers
November 29, 2018
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by an anonymous late 14th Century author is a chivalric romance written in Middle English. But you don’t have to be proficient in Middle English to read it as there are several excellent translations available, including some on line.

This is a delightful Medieval poem about the adventures of Sir Gawain, King Arthur’s nephew. The events occur during two consecutive Christmas seasons and involve a jolly green giant, a beheading, a quest, a journey into the wilderness, a magic castle, a beautiful lady, a couple of delightful seduction scenes, a ruse, an unexpected twist, and probably the biggest oops blunder in English literature.

The poet gently exposes the foibles of human nature and the difficulty of living up to courtly ideals with their concomitant code of chivalry. And he does so with sympathy and humor neatly gift wrapped in eloquent diction to celebrate the season.

Highly recommended.
Profile Image for Blair Roberts.
178 reviews1 follower
May 6, 2023
I’m not much of one for Arthurian tales, but Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is gripping.
Profile Image for Nicky.
4,138 reviews1,015 followers
September 21, 2012
"Note: you have also reviewed the following editions of this book:

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Paperback) (isbn )
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Paperback) (isbn 0140440925)
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Paperback) (isbn 0140424539)
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (isbn 0719055172)
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (isbn 0571223281)
Sir Gawain & the Green Knight (Paperback) (isbn 0030088801)
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Paperback) (isbn 1146360738)"


Anyway, I reread Simon Armitage's translation in honour of getting a signed copy (I was going to go to his talk about his new book in Leeds, but I ended up being in Cardiff due to my grandfather's death, so we phoned up and Waterstones arranged for him to sign a copy of Sir Gawain for me, which isn't as good as getting to speak to him but is still pretty good).

For my money, though Simon Armitage's translation isn't the most accurate academic translation, it captures something that even Tolkien doesn't manage to grasp, despite the care he took translating the poem, and that I haven't seen anywhere else. I remember doing a course on this poem (in the Middle English), and we talked about the poem being playful, and in part mocking the court and Gawain (but with affection). I feel like Simon Armitage's translation brings out that aspect very well, without losing the sense of nobility and chivalry that the poem is so rightly known for.

It also barrels along at a tremendous pace, and reads a lot more like popular literature than Tolkien or Brian Stone's translations. You might not think that a good thing, of course, but I think it suits the story.
Profile Image for Piyangie.
530 reviews495 followers
August 5, 2020
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a medieval poem by which a one of the stories of Arthurian legend is told. It concerns Sir Gawain, youngest Knight of the Round Table who is also King Arthur's nephew. On a New Year's Eve, a strange green knight enters the court of King Arthur and challenges the knights in to a "beheading game" which challenge, sir Gawain accepts. According to the challenge by the green Knight he was to be beheaded by his axe and whoever accepts the challenge to expect the same return in a year and a day. Sir Gawain beheads the green Knight and he retreats with his severed head informing sir Gawain to meet him in the green chapel on the stipulated day. The story progresses as sir Gawain journeys to the green chapel to meet his fate. And on this journey, his honour and loyalty is tested.

I'm interested in the legend of King Arthur and his Round Table but cannot recall to have read any other than childhood fables; so this work really piqued my interest. I read the poetic translation and it was quite interesting to read the verses while a story of courage, strength of character, honesty and loyalty is unfolded. The story was good enough though not great as I expected. But I'm happy to have read a proper Arthurian story after all.
Profile Image for Briar's Reviews.
1,901 reviews517 followers
October 13, 2020
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is another great read for one of my English classes. I honestly love being able to read classic literature and hearing someone else's thoughts on it. I like seeing if I had the same understanding or if I was "way off" (per say, literature can be subjective).

This one was not my favourite but it was pretty cool. I always wanted to venture into some King Arthur and Camelot stories, so this one fit the bill. While it's not my favourite, it was very interesting to read it!

There's a lot going on in this book depending on how you read it. Sir Gawain maybe being a coward or following the time's ideal hero trope. The sexual aspect of it. The ties of animals and how the heroes and villains act. Throw in the cool alliteration (depending on the translation you get), and it makes for one epic tale. It's all so interesting. And then, you know, maybe it was just meant to be a story and all of the themes weren't intended to be there?

Either way, I found Sir Gawain to be a more humanistic character than in other classic hero fiction. Sir Gawain seems like he fought for Arthur because he was the only one who had the guts to do it - not because he wanted too. He almost chickens out, avoids his problems for a bit and is actually scared. This romance doesn't feel as epic because he isn't the warrior prince we are all expecting, but instead he's a scared knight just doing his best. That's what I find super interesting about it. I didn't enjoy it as much, and maybe that's because he was... human? He acted reasonably and how we expect people to act? It's so strange.

If you get the chance, I recommend reading this and then finding some translations or explanation videos. Seeing all the different ideas about this work really made it stand out for me and make me enjoy it more!

Four out of five stars.
Profile Image for Kathleen.
Author 1 book165 followers
April 8, 2019
“But mind your mood, Gawain,
keep blacker thoughts at bay,
or loose this lethal game
you’ve promised you will play”

In addition to his own made-up bedtime stories, my father loved to tell us tall tales--sagas of heroes and bravery with fantastic, hard-to-believe aspects that made them special and memorable. Paul Bunyan and his Blue Ox Babe stand out in my memory. The fantastical elements, when told in just the right way, bring magic and trepidation that make for a mesmerizing and satisfying story.

Reading Sir Gawain and the Green Knight brought back that same gleeful feeling I had as a little girl listening to my father. It’s a tall tale for grownups, about life and decisions and temptation and honor and death. The magic, the suspension of disbelief, works because of the way it is told, in this case with timeless references and delightful alliteration. I was thrilled with Simon Armitage’s translation.

There are displays of derring do:
“Gawain, with the weapon, walked towards the warrior,
and they stood face-to-face, not one man afraid.”

There are encounters with the elements:
“clouds shed their cargo of crystallized rain
which froze as it fell to the frost-glazed earth…”

There are humans with hearts:
“But what lady in this land wouldn’t latch the door,
wouldn’t rather hold you as I do here—
in the company of your clever conversation,
forgetting all grief and engaging in joy”

And in the end, a compelling conclusion complete with timeless takeaway. Storytelling at its finest.
Profile Image for Mark Adderley.
Author 19 books50 followers
June 8, 2009
It’s always puzzling to know what to do with a book subtitled “A New Verse Translation.” It’s all very well for the moment, of course, but what about in a few years? When the translation is no longer new, will it need a new title? I have similar reservations about terms like “postmodern.” What comes after it? Post-postmodern? And is modernism now called pre-postmodernism?

All of which doesn’t seem strictly relevant, except that I can’t help feeling that there’s something slightly self-conscious about Simon Armitage’s new verse translation of the Middle English masterpiece Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which is somehow symbolized by the subtitle.

The other thing about the subtitle is that it is exactly the same as Seamus Heaney’s new verse translation of Beowulf, which, since it was published in 1999, isn’t really new any more. On the front cover of Armitage’s translation is a glowing review from Heaney, and in the Acknowledgements section, Armitage acknowledges Heaney himself and his translation as one of his inspirations. Inside the jacket-flap, another reviewer, this one anonymous (like both the Beowulf- and Gawain-poets, ironically) but writing for the Sunday Telegraph, enthuses about how both Armitage and, earlier, Heaney, have helped “to liberate Gawain [or, presumably, Beowulf:] from academia.” Like Heaney’s Beowulf, Armitage’s Gawain has a facing-page original text and translation; like Heaney’s Beowulf, Armitage’s Gawain has a black cover with a stylish armoured figure on it; like Heaney’s Beowulf, Armitage’s Gawain has ragged pages along the vertical edge, making is I suppose equally difficult to turn the page.

Heaney’s Beowulf was well known, among other things, for bringing the ancient poem right up-to-date—the new date, that is, not the eighth-century date at which the poem was composed. Thus, Heaney translated the poem’s famous opening word, “Hwæt!” as “So.” Further down the page, the Old English “þæt wæs god cyning!” became “That was one good king.” Such translations as these made many academics wonder about the advisability of providing “new verse translations” of medieval poems. But since, as the Sunday Telegraph’s reviewer enthusiastically proclaimed, the aim of both translations was to liberate the poems from academics, what they thought really didn’t matter. It didn’t matter that Faber and Faber in Britain, and W. W. Norton in America were turning not to translators with a knowledge of the Middle Ages for these translations, but to poets who had to learn the language as they went.

I’ll give you some examples from Armitage’s Gawain. Early in the poem, when the feast in Camelot, the Gawain-poet writes that the canopy over the royal dais “were enbrawded and beten wyth the best gemmes / That myght be preved of prys wyth penyes to bye / in daye” (78-80). This can be literally translated as “were embroidered and beaded with the best gems that could be proved of value to buy in that day.” The translation is rough and unpleasant, but it’s literal. Armitage translates that the tapestry was “studded with stones and stunning gems. / Pearls beyond pocket. Pearls beyond purchase.” Here’s it’s not specifically the translation that’s at issue. Armitage has translated into a style that is hip for the moment—the use of parallelism and fragment—but which, for one, gives undue emphasis to a rather unimportant feature of the description and, for another, uses a poetic trick that pulls the reader out of the world of the poem and into the modern world. That was one good canopy.

Here’s another example. When Gawain arms to face the Green Knight at the end of the poem, the poet describes his armour as “The gayest into Grece” (2023). Acknowledging that “into” might better be translated as “unto,” we can see that the line is supposed to imply that Gawain’s armour is the most splendid in Europe—in the known world, in fact. in the medieval imagination, Greece was the edge of the civilized world. It included Byzantium, the seat of the eastern Roman Empire, known for its stylized art, gold and blue, richness and wealth. The description places Gawain’s armour in that oriental world, giving audiences a mental image of splendour, brightness, colour, vividness. Armitage writes that “no man shone more, it seemed / from here to ancient Greece.” Armitage specifically limits the reader to thinking not of Byzantine art, but of the Greece of mythology. The original line held both implications. The translation directs us exclusively to one.

In all fairness, Armitage defends this practice in his introduction and, as we might expect, his argument is airtight. So would an argument be from the opposite perspective. That’s the nature of argument. But I can’t help wondering if there’s something wrong with entrusting the translation of a masterpiece of medieval literature to someone whose expertise is modern poetry—Ted Hughes and the like. It’s like entrusting brain surgery to a heart specialist. Sure, he knows enough anatomy to get away with it. But I’m not sure that “getting away with it” is really enough. I’d like to be imaginatively transported to the world of medieval romance, not of new verse translations.

It’s also only fair to add that this is a highly readable translation. You speed through these pages, and time flies away from you. You’ve just met Arthur at Camelot, and before you know it, you’re reading the concluding lines. Some lines are particularly beautiful, particularly the famous passage of the seasons, and one passage actually made me think about the poem in a different way. (It was the section detailing Camelot’s craven assertion that it would be “Cleverer to have acted with caution and care” [line 677:]; that puts their eventual glib and joyous acceptance of Gawain’s error into a wholly different perspective, for me.)

Ultimately, I think, we have to see a book like this not so much as a translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, but as Simon Armitage’s poem inspired by it. As such, it’s a beautiful achievement—certainly as beautiful as Heaney’s Beowulf—and will hopefully lure many readers to its source, the Middle English poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
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1,419 reviews4,497 followers
January 2, 2015
The meter on this thing is pretty impressive: a strict alliterative pattern of two stresses, a pause, and two more stresses, with a five-line rhyming stanza (a short line followed by four with an ABAB scheme) at the end of each passage. It should be terribly constrictive, but the Gawain poet flows through it like it's nothing.

Not that I can read the original, of course, so I have to take Armitage's word for it that it's as good as his translation, which I did like. This edition has the original on the left side and the translation on the right, though, which allows you to see how close he's hewing and also lets you play the "How well could I understand this?" game. (Answer: not at all. Those people talked funny.)

The intro here has an interesting point: Anglo languages, Armitage says, stress the beginnings of words, whereas Romantic ones stress the ends. For this reason, Anglo epic poetry tends to focus on alliteration, while Romantic ones focus on rhyme. Get it? It had never occurred to me before. That's kindof cool.

This isn't a long book; I blazed through it in a single night over a couple glasses of wine while Kirsten was out getting blasted at some company event.
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