‘Gawain And The Green Knight’ Translated By Simon Armitage

FC9780393334159I purchased this particular book in this particular poem because Armitage will be reading at the Folger later in the season.

It’s a fast paced and enjoyable read. Armitage uses some alliteration and meter and also (as in the original Middle English) rhyming quatrains (ABAB) to end stanzas. The plot is that a green knight marches into King Arthur’s court, carrying an enormous axe (it’s later described as being ‘Danish’ in style). He says that anyone may take a swing at his neck with the axe and, in return, he gets to swing back on New Year’s Day next (it’s currently Christmas Eve, so in just over a year). Gawain, Arthur’s nephew, takes up the challenge and chops off the green knight’s head. The green knight promptly picks up his own head and says, see you in just over a year – by the way, you can find me at the Green Chapel.

Gawain dilly dallies and then heads off into adventure. A cold and unpleasant adventure. No great battles are described, but long, rainy nights and near starvation are described. He find a castle and takes refuge and lord of the manor goes hunting and offers to give Gawain whatever he wins at the hunt, if Gawain will give him whatever the Arthurian warrior wins at the castle. There then follows some humorous scenes of Gawain hiding under his sheets while the lord’s wife shameless tries to seduce him. She does ‘win’ some kisses, so when the lord comes home, Gawain gives him a kiss. Lather, rinse, repeat. On the third day, she also gives him a green sash, but Gawain keeps that rather than giving it to the lord.

He then goes off to find the green knight, he does and the knight’s axe merely nicks him. It was all a test. The green knight was the lord of the manor! But Gawain feels pretty guilty about the sash and takes that as a symbol of weakness, but the green knight laughs it off. Gawain goes back and starts a new fashion in sashes for knights in Camelot the end.

I was hoping for a bit more blood and thunder, but the bloodiest part if the description of the aftermath of the hunt. From lines 1325 to 1361 are the most graphic descriptions of how to butcher and skin a deer in the field that you could ever imagine. It’s bloody enough for torture porn and precise enough for an instruction manual. Yuck.

Armitage does a good job, but sometimes his tone is a little too modern for me. But in his defense, the Middle English (where intelligible to a fellow like me) is also clearly pretty relaxed and not ‘high falutin.’

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