A notable. A knight.

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,                

then claim        

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.


Filed under Armitage, Simon, Arthurian myth, Epics and Sagas, Poetry

19 responses to “A notable. A knight.

  1. Misty drizzle = mizzle I’m only guessing along the alliteration path. In my dictionary it’s a synonym for drizzle.
    I liked that even though I didn’t understand all the words in the quotes, they still created a picture because he paints with sound.
    Very fascinating.

  2. Exactly. I didn’t look it up because I could guess it, and because not getting the occasional word isn’t fatal. As you say, he paints with sound, it’s one reason I’m quite keen to get the audio version.

  3. I’ve read Armitage’s Odyssey, which I liked as much as you liked this one. I was disappointed by how short he’d made that one, but.
    Another such one is Ramesh Menon’s Ramayana. Though it doesn’t have the anachronisms and the modern idiom and in fact goes very much for the original mythic voice, there is definitely something very modern in the conception of the writing — the epic sent through the grinders of Tolkien and then Moorcock.

  4. Not sure that I liked some of the more modern language, and this is an issue I just had with a translation of Marivaux’s The Game of Love and Chance. I’m going to see if I have this, and if I do, how my version compares.

  5. Ronak, glad to hear that as I’d heard mixed reviews and I’m a big Homer fan.

    Ramesh Menon, interesting. I also want to read Narayan’s Ramayana and Mahabarata. Have you tried either?

    Tolkien actually did a version of this which I want to try. I’m not a huge Tolkien fan but I can imagine how he could make a very good version of this.

    Guy, that’s why I drew attention to those elements. They jarred for me occasionally and for some readers would be a real issue. It’s absolutely intentional on Armitage’s part, but that doesn’t mean it’s for every reader and while in the end I was very taken by this I did wonder early on whether it would mean it wasn’t for me.

  6. I remember trying it, and it was too schematic for me. Having grown up with the stories, I’ve got to a point where only the details interest me rather than the main story, so Narayan’s short versions didn’t feel like they cut it. I suppose you’ll like them, because they are by Narayan after all.

  7. I like him as a person armitage not read anything but his modern stuff thou ,I read a version of this years ago but can’t place the writer in my head I know the are number of sir gwain stories about ,this looks like a accessible version Max ,all the best stu

  8. DKS

    I was grateful when I saw that you’d finished with Armitage’s version of one of my favourite parts of the poem. I came across it for the first time in Keith Harrison’s translation, which goes like this:

    “Clouds, high overhead; down below, danger.
    Mist drizzled on the moors, dissolved the summits.
    Each peak wore a hat, a huge mist-mantle.
    Brook-waters boiled, sluiced over the slopes;
    White water raged against the river-banks.”

    “Each peak wore a hat,” gives the reader a surprise that Armitage removes, I think, by not putting a comma there — you don’t have time to wonder, even very briefly, “A hat? What is he talking about, a hat? How can a mountain wear a hat?” (And he really does remove it, since the original Middle English has the suggestion of a nonpunctuated pause in the middle of that line: “vch hille hade a hatte a myst hakel huge.”)

  9. The stories are largely an unknown to me Ronak, which may make the Narayan a good bet still. Are you not a Narayan fan more generally?

    Stu, it’s definitely accessible, or as accessible as any book length epic medieval poem can be anyway. I have some of Armitage’s own poetry on the shelf as well which I’ll try hopefully fairly soon.

    DKS, I wanted a quote capturing the use of landscape in the poem and that one really stood out. I like the Harrison translation. Still highly alliterative I note, but descriptively rich and very visual. What do you make of that translation generally?

    Lovely point on the comma removal. Thanks for that. Fascinating.

  10. Yes, definitely a fan of Narayan otherwise. Very definitely.

  11. Oh good. I’ve only read his Painter of Signs, but I was very impressed by it.

  12. DKS

    Re. What do you make of …

    It’s a good, solid, intelligent, imaginative piece of work, as far as I can tell (not being an expert either in translations or in Middle English), and the more I think about it, the cleverer I can see he’s been, in solving some of the problems the original has given him, the alliteration, for example, not only in the first letters of words, but within the words too. For example there’s the ongoing sss and zz and mm in the second line of that excerpt, “Mist drizzled on the moors, dissolved the summits,” or, st, zz, rs, ssol, sum, ts, plus an almost evenly spaced, mi, mo, mm, which is subtle and ingenious.

  13. This sounds wonderful, but I think I would need a reading assistant, to point out the wonders of the parts that you haven’t covered here.

    I like the mix of faithfulness and modernity, and I don’t think it is entirely a bad thing that I read your entire post with an image of Monty Python’s The Holy Grail in mind…

  14. Thanks for the explanation of “bum-fluffed bairn’s” and “rigged out for a ruck”, very nice of you to think of us, non-native English speaking readers.

    The issue of the translation reminds me of The Art of Love by Ovid. I loved the French version I read. The translator changed the poetry into prose to make the text more accessible and also stating that he couldn’t give back the beauty of the Latin text into French. (two many Latin-only effects)
    Sarah (A Rat in the Book Pile) tried an English version after reading my enthusiastic post and couldn’t finish it, it was unsufferable. And I think it’s a pity for the text because Ovid conveys so much timeless concerns. So perhaps the translator was a bit unfaithful to the style, but at least I heard Ovid’s mind.

    It’s the same here, so, even if I won’t read it (too difficult for me) I can relate to the translation issue. Armitage probably makes this text more accessible to the modern reader. It’s a good opportunity to enjoy good poetry and realize how Middle Age humans can speak to us through the centuries.

    PS: the Middle English looks like nothing known. I don’t think the French from that time is so different from ours. Or I never really saw the real texts, only modernized versions. Caroline, if you read this, what do you think?

  15. DKS, that is clever. I’ll see if it’s still available. Thanks for the analysis.

    Sarah, I’m sure I missed tons that others would get, and I’m sure you’d pick up elements I’ve missed. The joy of this poem though is that it’s very enjoyable regardless of whether you think “aha! A Green Man reference” (or whatever) or not. After all, what’s not to love with Arthurian knights, fell faerie giants, enchanted castles, beautiful maidens, lonely ruined chapels and acts of bravery and romance?

    Emma, I was thinking of you when I wrote that bit.

    The balance between accuracy and spirit is key to translation isn’t it? Famously Nabokov’s Eugene Onegin is absolutely accurate, but deathly dull. Change too much though and you may have a rewarding read, but it’s become an original work.

    My favourite version of the Illiad so far is a prose translation, like your Ovid. That immediately makes it pretty inauthentic, it’s no longer even a poem. Still, for me it captured the terrible majesty and compassion of that work, and made me love it. Different translations perhaps have different ideal readers. I first read that Illiad as a teenager. There’s no way I would have read a treatment that stayed closer to the poetic nature of the original. If I were an academic writing about it though, would that be the right version?

    I reread that version of the Illiad incidentally a year before starting this blog. It remains majestic. It was the right version for teenage Max, but it definitely remains at the very least a right version now. It’s still on my shelf and I plan to read it again at some point. So, perhaps a bit unfaithful, but I heard Homer’s mind.

    Middle English is basically a different language. Translation here really is translation.

  16. Sorry for the late comment – I just stumbled across your site today!

    My story about Sir Gwain is this: As a High School senior I was tasked with writing some kind of essay about Sir Gwain and the Green Knight. I *hated* this poem. I hated reading it, I hated talking about it, hate, hate, hate. And so for my essay I decided that instead of tackling the assigned topic, I would write about how I felt that Sir Gwain and the Green Knight was not relevant for High School students and how it was, at best, an implement of torture. I was expecting to get a failing grade for my essay, but I was surprised to find that I had gotten an A-. My teacher noted that it would have been a full A but I’d made a number of spelling mistakes. He also thanked me for an entertaining read.

    To this day the thought of having to read this again makes me shudder. I like to think that I’ve matured in the 16 years since I graduated from High School, but Sir Gwain still makes me want to run screaming from the room. This new version, however, gives me hope. Thanks for the review!

  17. I should imagine that essay was a lot more fun to read than most of the others.

    It’s funny how school can ruin particular works. I can’t read The Grapes of Wrath to this day, I still have very little time for King Lear and even Hamlet I struggle with. There’s nothing like detailed compulsory analysis with your peers to put you off a book.

    Thanks for the comment. I love late comments – it’s always nice to see a post brought back.

    One other thing, I grew up in the UK, from the term High School I figure you’re from the US or Canada, I have a friend who grew up in France and as a result now can’t read Balzac or Flaubert or any of those writers because of long adolescent hours spent reading books that didn’t speak to him at all back then. Country to country, some things just plain don’t change. I’ll be right now some kid in Iran is being put off some classical Persian poet for life.

  18. You asked about my thoughts on the Armitage translation; well, I dug up my published review of some years ago and, tidied up, it’s now at http://calmgrove.wordpress.com/2013/02/07/gawain/, along with some comments on O’Donaghue’s nearly contemporary version. Not as detailed as yours, and absolutely no discussion of the poem itself as the original audience would have been fairly familiar with the background and context. Must read them both again soon! AndTolkien’s translation. And all the rest.

  19. Excellent, thank you. I’ll take a read and comment there.

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