Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, by Simon Armitage and an unknown original author
Recently I read and enjoyed Peter Ackroyd’s take on Malory’s The Once and Future King. One of my few disappointments with it was that it didn’t include one of my favourite Arthurian myths (f0r the very good reason that it’s not from Malory, but I didn’t know that then). That myth was the tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which originates in a 14th Century poem of unknown authorship.
Simon Armitage is one of the UK’s leading contemporary poets, and a while back I caught a tv programme presented by him in which he talked about the poem and about his own modern translation of it. For Armitage key elements of the poem were its relationship with the landscape from which it originated, and its use of alliteration. He wanted his translation to capture that that Northern voice and that use of alliteration, as well as the excitement he found in the poem.
The essence of the poem is simple. Arthur hosts a great Christmas feast, and all are merry. They are interrupted in their revels though by a massive knight, a mountain of a man clad in green and with green skin, beard and horse. He is a perilously ambiguous figure wearing no armour and carrying in one hand a sprig of holly:
and in the other hand held the mother of all axes,
a cruel piece of kit I kid you not:
the head was an ell in length at least
and forged in green steel with a gilt finish;
the skull-busting blade was so stropped and buffed
it could shear a man’s scalp and shave him to boot.
The handle which fitted that fiend’s great fist
was inlaid with iron, end to end,
with green pigment picking out impressive designs.
Immediately there you can get a sense of Armitage’s style. He’s not afraid of modern references (“the mother of all axes”, “I kid you not”), but at the same time this is fine visual (and visceral) poetry. The whole scene comes richly to life and I’m already considering buying a second version of this poem, in audio form read by Armitage himself (I have Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf on audio read by Heaney, and it’s a marvel to listen to).
Arthur’s court is daunted by this figure, who offers doubtful reassurance:
‘I’m spoiling for no scrap, I swear. Besides,
the bodies on these benches are just bum-fluffed bairns.
If I’d ridden to your castle rigged out for a ruck
these lightweight adolescents wouldn’t last a minute.
But it’s Yuletide – a time of youthfulness, yes?
So at Christmas in this court I lay down a challenge:
if a person here present, within these premises,
is big or bold or red-blooded enough
to strike me one stroke and be struck in return,
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?
Who’ll spring from his seat and snatch this weapon?
I offer the axe – who’ll have it as his own?
I’ll afford one free hit from which I won’t flinch,
and promise that twelve months will pass in peace,
the duty I deserve
in one year and one day.
Does no one have the nerve
to wager in this way?’
The Northern voice is clear here, with references to “bum-fluffed bairn’s” and being “rigged out for a ruck” (for my non-native English readers bum-fluffed bairns are boys barely able to grow a beard, rigged out for a ruck means ready for a fight). This is regional poetry, born of a particular place and culture. That final cascade of words by the way (starting from “then claim”) is how each section of the poem ends. It should be indented but WordPress doesn’t yet allow me to do that (or if it does I don’t know how to do it).
Arthur’s knights are naturally reluctant, and it even looks like Arthur himself might have to take the task, but Sir Gawain is not content to endanger his king in that fashion and so accepts the challenge. He takes the axe, strikes the Green Knight and beheads him cleanly. Naturally though that is not the end of the matter. The Green Knight’s body remains standing, and picks up its head from the floor.
For that scalp and skull now swung from his fist;
towards the top table he turned the face
and it opened its eyelids, stared straight ahead
and spoke this speech, which you’ll hear for yourselves:
‘Sir Gawain, be wise enough to keep your word
and faithfully follow me until I’m found
This is of course a manifestation of that classic creature from English folklore, the headless horseman. It’s more than that though: the time is Christmas, the anniversary of the birth of Christ. The Green Knight bears a sprig of holly, an evergreen image of renewal. Though slain he rises again and now Sir Gawain must reenact the scene a year hence, but this time taking the Green Knight’s place. We’re in deeply symbolic territory here, winter, death and rebirth. This is Christian, but with Pagan elements too (the Green Knight being too a form of Green Man, itself an ancient personification of rebirth and renewal).
What follows is Sir Gawain’s quest to find the home of the Green Knight, and fulfil his side of the bargain. As the time for his appointment draws near he finds himself in another lord’s hall, where a great knight feasts him and makes him welcome. Sir Gawain spends his days entertained by this knight’s lady, who seeks to seduce Sir Gawain, while her husband rides out to hunt. Sir Gawain’s host says that whatever he wins at the hunt he will gift to Sir Gawain, but whatever Sir Gawain wins in the castle he must gift in turn to the host.
Sir Gawain then here faces a number of tests. Of courage certainly, but also of honesty and of virtue. Will Sir Gawain dally with his host’s wife? If he does will he give what is gained to his host? As Sir Gawain resides in comfort his host reassures him that none will judge him should he not face his challenge. Will Sir Gawain falter?
There’s little mystery in these questions, but that doesn’t make them any the less resonant or meaningful. Sir Gawain is a perfect knight, but even a perfect knight is mortal and open to temptation. The poem here serves as allegory, showing an idealised figure facing tests which while not literally like those the poem’s original listeners would face are nonetheless true in spirit to the challenges we all face.
Can we live up to our word and our image of ourselves? Can we resist the draw to do that which we desire, but know to be wrong? How do we behave in the face of what appears to be certain ruin, even death? Most tellingly perhaps for a medieval listener, can we hold on to both our faith in the next world and our loyalty in this one against both terror and temptation?
I talked above about this being one of my favourite Arthurian myths, and hopefully now you can see why. There’s just so much in this. It’s a richly allegorical tale but run through with romance, adventure and peril. It’s a meditation on death and resurrection, wrapped in magic and mystery.
Armitage takes these elements and brings them to life with language that sizzles along. His use of alliteration makes the poem a rich word-fest which is a pleasure to read and at times is positively playful. There are occasional jarring moments; Armitage isn’t afraid of anachronisms and even puns (“A human could not hear a headier music than the roaring which was raised for the soul of Reynard/who croaked!”, and at one point a reference to a “mega-blow”), but overall this left me with a new enthusiasm both for the work itself and for Armitage’s poetry more generally.
I wanted to include at least one quote describing the landscape, which Armitage makes as integral a part of the poem as any of the above. This final quote is short, but even though I don’t actually know what the word “mizzle” means I found it hugely evocative and it’s a tremendous example of Armitage’s use of alliteration. Here it is:
The clouds which had climbed now cooled and dropped
So the moors and the mountains were muzzy with mist
And every hill wore a hat of mizzle on its head.
The streams on the slopes seemed to fume and foam,
Whitening the wayside with spume and spray.