Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, an Arthurian fable penned by an anonymous bard in the early 1400s, remained hidden for most of English history; the sole remaining copy of the manuscript wasn’t discovered until Victorian times. Since then, it’s become something of a Christmas classic: Written in a distinctive alliterative style that harkens to the earliest forms of English poetry, it meanders through dangerous castles and visits enchanted creatures on quests of honor. The story goes like this: In the middle of Christmas revelry, as everyone’s about to eat the roast, an enormous green giant party-crashes Arthur’s court. He challenges startled onlookers to a game: Let someone deal a blow to the Green Knight’s bare neck, then offer his own bare neck in return, a year hence. Not surprisingly, this invitation gets few takers — until Arthur’s cousin, Gawain, noted for honor, rises. Unfortunately, when he lops off the giant’s head, the green beast picks it up and rides out the door, all the while instructing Gawain to come find him next New Year’s. Fast-forward: In the waxen light of the following Christmas, Gawain sets out to complete his mission — and perhaps to meet his doom. In the meantime, he’s waylaid by a tempting queen, offered protection by a mysterious lord, and led to his final showdown. It’s an unforgettable story, and now it’s been lit again with the lamp of keen language. The rich tapestry of sporting, courting, hunting and wooing — of verbal sparring and physical spearing — is available anew in an energetic verse translation by noted British poet Simon Armitage. Among the joys of rediscovering Gawain is one this edition offers: the chance to look across the page and feel the violent strife and courtly play roiling beneath the old English. It’s hard not to be moved by lines like these, where Gawain takes a swing at the beast’s green head: “Let hit doun lightly on the naked, / That the scharp of the schalk schyndered on the bones, / And schrank thrugh the schiyire grece, and scade hit in twynne, / That the bit of the broun stel bot on the ground.” Once we’ve reveled in the rich sounds, we can see that Armitage has parsed them as “(he) sings (the axe) swiftly towards the bare skin. / The cleanness of the strike cleaved the spinal cord / and parted the fat and the flesh so far / that the bright steel blade took a bite from the floor.” It’s not all so gory as this, but what delicious-sounding gore it is. Equally rich are capturings of deer skinning, winter feasting, and fair ladies. The story that kilters along could be alternative to any Christmas movie — and it’s a tribute to this translation that it seems to demand a wintry day or fireside evening to read the words aloud to family or friends. The tale, with all its verbal jousting, gathers us in. -
About the Author
Tess Taylor is the author of the poetry collection The Forage House. Her nonfiction and poetry have appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, The New York Times, and The New Yorker.