A review of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight translated by Simon Armitage

Reviewed by Bob Williams

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
translated by Simon Armitage
Faber and Faber
2007, ISBN 0-571-22327-3, £12.99, ix + 114 pages

The author is unknown, but the work dates from around1400, and is known from a unique manuscript that slumbered until, comparatively speaking, yesterday. It has not, therefore, been clapper-clawed by previous generations of translators. Simon Armitage, born in 1963 and winner of prizes and awards for his books of poetry, brings a fresh and frequently unabashed talent to this presentation. It is not, as his introduction implies, the first translation to use the alliterative style of the original. Brian Stone (Penguin Classics) can match Armitage alliteration for alliteration. The amusing thing about both these faithful and readable translations is that neither translator matches the alliteration patterns of the original. (Penguin has notes; Armitage has not. And for the most part notes are unnecessary.)

For the original is in English. An English that is almost readable but troublesome enough to make us happy for a translation. Armitage has a slangy approach that makes the reader gulp (“Had I mustered all my muscles into one mega-blow,” the Green Knight says at one point as he flourishes his ax. Did Armitage confuse him with a different, more modern, kind of hacker?) These few lapses aside, the translation is very good.

But how easy for a gifted writer to take an excellent book that is already almost in readable English and bring it from out of the shadows into the light. It is wonderfully done but not as exacting in the doing as to translate The Aeneid, for example, from a dead language to English.

And it is an excellent book. The Green Knight comes to Arthur’s court and asks to be beheaded. Arthur himself will undertake the challenge when his knights, stunned by the enormity of the request, do not volunteer, but Gawain asks to take his place. There is peril here although the sort of peril is not yet known. The Green Knight accepts the replacement of Gawain for Arthur and spells out the rest of the challenge. In a year and a day Gawain must seek out the Green Knight and let him behead him as he now would the challenger. Gawain, being the übermensch, agrees. The beheading is not an unqualified success for, although Gawain strikes his head from his shoulders, the stranger picks it up, reminds Gawain of his oath, and leaves carrying his head with him.

The year is up and Gawain undertakes the quest. In the course of this he becomes the guest of a genial host who sees to it that Gawain is left alone with his wife. She sets out to seduce him. Gawain resists but not completely enough, accepting from her an article of her dress that she claims to be a charm against injury. When he meets the Green Knight, he finds that the knight and his host are the same and although he keeps his head, he must pay a forfeit for his imperfection.

The story may be primitive but the telling of it is not. The author calls on the time of year and the bleakness of winter to underscore the atmosphere of mystery and peril. He also uses the liturgical holidays to counteract this bleakness with hopes of redemption and divine aid. The perfect balance is exquisite and the nice presentation of the religious element would only be possible in a land or a writer not burdened with theological concerns or ecclesiastical burdens. Even at this early date England strained against the impositions of the church’s central authorities.

Is this a neglected book? If so, it deserves your attention. It will require perhaps two hours of your time, but it will be time spent acquiring a lasting experience and a durable memory of great value.

About the Reviewer: Bob Williams is retired and lives in a small town with his wife, dogs and a cat. He has been collecting books all his life, and has done freelance writing, mostly on classical music. His principal interests are James Joyce, Jane Austen and Homer. His writings, two books and a number of short articles on Joyce, can be accessed at: http://www.grand-teton.com/service/Persons_Places