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Review of sir gawain and the green knight

Although I reflected that English students at Oxford were having a harder time of it, being expected to read Anglo-Saxon poetry, I found much of the stuff - even some of the Chaucer - somewhat primitive. It was all, as far as I could see, violence, courtly manners, piety and not getting laid.

Where, I moaned, was the sophistication of, say, Dante? Compared with him, the Brits were jumping about in woad, making strange, guttural noises. It was like Monty Python and the Holy Grail, but without the jokes. However, I made one exception to my scorn: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. For although this poem was written in a particularly tough north-western dialect, which necessitated a lot of trips to the glossary, and was, admittedly, almost exclusively about violence, courtly manners, piety and not getting laid, there was also a magic about it - and, to my surprise, a narrative sophistication.

Classics Reviewed: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Plenty of poems have that. Not many have the magic.

  • A sub-plot is provided by the vexed question of what to do, as a chivalric knight, when the lady of the house tries to seduce you;
  • He's also a bit young and still untried, so maybe that explains it for those who want to be able to have a grand unified theory of Arthuriana;
  • Gawain's dilemma - contrasted with wonderfully gruesome descriptions of hunts - has a very contemporary ring to it;
  • Arthur is about to have a New Year's feast, but according to tradition is waiting for some marvel to occur;
  • For although this poem was written in a particularly tough north-western dialect, which necessitated a lot of trips to the glossary, and was, admittedly, almost exclusively about violence, courtly manners, piety and not getting laid, there was also a magic about it - and, to my surprise, a narrative sophistication;
  • In rides an enormous green knight on a green horse, carrying a huge axe; he challenges anyone there to give him a blow which will be returned, at his own home, a year hence.

I almost hesitate to paraphrase the story, in case I spoil it for those who don't know it - skip this paragraph if you want to retain the surprise. It begins at Arthur's court, where the king and his knights are having a merry old Yule. In rides an enormous green knight on a green horse, carrying a huge axe; he challenges anyone there to give him a blow which will be returned, at his own home, a year hence. This insane-seeming wager is taken up by Sir Gawain, who, because he's only really there by kinship to Arthur, rather than his own merits, is anxious to prove himself.

And it seems like an unlosable bet, as he slices off the Green Knight's head.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

To general consternation, though, the Green Knight picks his head up, says, in effect "See you next year, then," and departs. So Gawain, bound by oath and with a whole year to get anxious, eventually sets off. What results is almost a kind of anti-romance: A sub-plot is provided by the vexed question of what to do, as a chivalric knight, when the lady of the house tries to seduce you.

  • Gawain's dilemma - contrasted with wonderfully gruesome descriptions of hunts - has a very contemporary ring to it;
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  • He's also a bit young and still untried, so maybe that explains it for those who want to be able to have a grand unified theory of Arthuriana.

Discourteous to refuse; disastrous to accept. Gawain's dilemma - contrasted with wonderfully gruesome descriptions of hunts - has a very contemporary ring to it.

  • The first Penguin translation, by Brian Stone, is now nearly 50 years old and, although first-rate, is looking a little dusty - archaic in not quite the right way;
  • With his new verse translation, Joseph Glaser, Professor of English at Western Kentucky University, adds to the number of available versions of the poem.

The first Penguin translation, by Brian Stone, is now nearly 50 years old and, although first-rate, is looking a little dusty - archaic in not quite the right way. Not Stone's fault; but a new translation was due although the essays at the back of the first Penguin were excellent. The ideal poet for the job would have been Ted Hughes, of course, who liked the poem's "wodwos" wild men of the woods so much he named an entire collection after one; but he's no longer with us.

Bernard O'Donoghue, also an acclaimed poet, is perfectly good enough. Now, a reviewer can complain about translations despite never having translated anything more taxing than a menu, so here follow a couple of pettifogging quibbles.

The most obvious point is that O'Donoghue has made life easy for himself by attempting to reproduce neither the alliterative scheme of the main body of each stanza, nor the rhyme scheme of the five-line "bob and wheel" appendix to each one. He has concentrated on retaining the rhythm, although not, it appears, with undeviating rigour. The "bob", almost invariably disyllabic in the original, can be rather longer here. Why "by the sheerest good fortune" when the original can be rendered as "through grace"?

Perhaps O'Donoghue thought that no one knows any more what "grace" in that sense means, although it could have been retained, as the person who's using the words at the time is trying, very hard indeed, to get into Gawain's breeches.

It's all part of a sex-magic plot, so "grace" is a heavily ironic word. But then there's so much else here that is excellent. In fact, the above are pretty much the only complaints I have in the entire translation.

O'Donoghue keeps things rattling along: