Dan Sandman

49: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by Simon Armitage

In Adventure, Books, Fiction, Poetry on 02/12/2016 at 12:00 pm

sir-gawain-and-the-green-knight-by-simon-armitageAt a Christmas banquet, King Arthur’s nephew Sir Gawain accepts a wager given by a green-coloured knight riding a green horse. Before the passing of one year, Gawain must seek the green knight and fulfill his promise to receive a blow in return for decapitating the green knight — who, incidentally, walks off holding his head in his hand. On his adventure, Gawain comes across a fine castle run by a noble lord who offers Gawain another deal. Each day, the lord will go out hunting and give Gawain whatever he gathers. In return, the noble knight promises to exchange anything that he wins whilst the lord is absent. An amusing love scene ensues before Gawain must travel to meet his fate, and rendezvous with the mysterious green knight at New Year.

In his introduction, the poet and broadcaster Simon Armitage makes it that Old English is probably closer to German than English. Thanks to Armitage’s translation, which can be seen as an original poem in its own right, the modern reader can once again enjoy this Arthurian legend anew. The metre of the poem has the regularity of music, an inert tempo which leads without rhyme from line to line, until the final lines close off each stanza with four shorter rhymed lines. This is best shown by example, as the following opening lines, which give the poem an appropriately epic context: –

Once the siege and assault of Troy had ceased
with the city a smoke-heap of cinders and ash,
the turncoat whose tongue had tricked his own men
was tried for his treason – the truest crime on earth.
Then noble Aeneas and his noble lords
went conquering abroad, laying claim to the crowns
of the wealthiest kingdoms in the western world.
Mighty Romulus quickly careered towards Rome
and conceived a city in magnificent style
which from then until now has been known by his name.
Ticius constructed townships in Tuscany
and Langobard did likewise, building homes in Lombardy.
And further afield, over the Sea of  France,
on Britain’s broad hill-tops, Felix Brutus made
his stand
And wonder, dread and war
have lingered in that land
where loss and love turn
have held the upper hand. (I. 1, 1-19)

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