Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

By Simon Armitage

Printed: 2007

Publisher: The Folio Society. London

Dimensions 26 × 34 × 3 cm

Language: English

Size (cminches): 26 x 34 x 3

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In a fitted box. Red cloth binding with green and gilt knight image. Spine has gilt title.

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Preserved on a single surviving manuscript dating from around 1400, composed by an anonymous master, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was rediscovered only 200 years ago, and published for the first time in 1839. One of the earliest great stories of English literature, after Beowulf, the poem narrates the strange tale of a green knight on a green horse, who rudely interrupts the Round Table festivities one Yuletide, casting a pall of unease over the company and challenging one of their number to a wager. The virtuous Gawain accepts and decapitates the intruder with his own axe. Gushing blood, the knight reclaims his head, orders Gawain to seek him out a year hence, and departs. Next Yuletide Gawain dutifully sets forth… His quest for the Green Knight involves a winter journey, a seduction scene in a dream-like castle, a dire challenge answered – and a drama of enigmatic reward disguised as psychic undoing.

Review – ‘Like The Iliad, which I have also read recently, this work is timeless. Or at least, it is when translated into modern idiom as well as Simon Armitage has done here.

The story is surprisingly subtle. Gawain is a “Master of the Universe” in the same sense as Sherman McCoy was in 1980s New York. Related by blood to King Arthur himself, he is physically strong and beautiful. He has all the knightly virtues. Fearless on the jousting field with courtly manners, he prides himself on his ease and learned conversation with the court ladies. He is held in high regard at Camelot and clearly holds himself in high regard.

Just as Sherman was taken out of his comfort zone, so is Gawain. The mysterious Green Knight crashes into the Round Table’s new year’s eve celebrations and Gawain finds himself entangled in an impossible duel.

Gawain does not shirk. He intends to meet his obligations, even though they can only lead to his death. He enters into bargain with another man he meets on his quest, but this bargain he does not keep to the letter. Offered a token that will save his life in the upcoming meeting with the Green Knight, he takes it and keeps it, even though this is owed, under the terms of the bargain he made, to the other man.

The Green Knight spares Gawain, leaving him with a scar on his neck to remind him of his insincerity. It is all done in good humour, but Gawain knows that his knightly honour has been compromised. He returns to Camelot a diminished man and his scar is a further symbol of the corruption that is at the heart of Camelot and will eventually bring it down.

The beauty of the poem is in its humour and understatement. Gawain is not a bad man. He is proud and unthinking, and he is trying to live to an honour code that is almost impossible to keep. He takes the chance to save his skin. Who wouldn’t in his position? The author does not condemn him and nor should we, but it is the beginning of the end of Arthurian golden age.

Of course, it is the Green Knight who is the instrument of his downfall. Green Knight/Green Man, symbol of the unstoppable thrust of nature. When Camelot falls, it will be overgrown by vegetation until it eventually disappears into the forest. This is the fate of us all. Master of the universe or not.

The poem is magical, and Armitage brings out the best in it. He has a lightness of touch that makes it an easy read. He wisely keeps the alliteration from the original, thereby retaining the poetry and the other-worldliness. My only complaint is that, in the dialogue especially, he tries too hard to render the modern vernacular. This is doomed to failure, because phrases like “Who is governor of this gaggle?” already sound more dated than the original.

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