A Successful Defiance

Time, like many another governing body, hands out titles. So it is that an untitled Arthurian romance from the fourteenth century, in Middle English, has come to be known as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Well dubbed. Arise, Sir Gawain, and likewise the Green Knight.

The existence of a title gives us something better than purchase. Forty years ago, the poem’s best critic observed the irreversible shift when, at the end of this mysterious, lucid tale, not only the name but the identity of the Green Knight is made known to Sir Gawain. “A knight who reveals his identity to others gives them, as in the modern metaphor, a ‘handle’—something to get hold of.”1 The apparatus of the security guard, to whom we proffer not only a name but (in our time) an ID, is there to grant us a certain kind of security, within a setting that—then and again now—may be a siege perilous. It is then characteristic of all such dangers that no indubitable assurance, no totally trustworthy handle, is likely ever to be forthcoming. For if the Green Knight’s name turns out to be Bertilak de Hautdesert, why are there those (of whom C.S. Lewis is the most vivid) who call him Bercilak? And, come to that, how are we even to pronounce the name Gawain? Simon Armitage, in the introduction to his ebullient translation, equivocates in exactly the spirit of the unequivocally great and teasing poem:

To many he is Gawain. The original author clearly alliterated on the “G,” suggesting he also stressed the first syllable of the word. But there are other moments in the text, such as the perfectly iambic quatrain at [line] 1948, where the rhythm suggests the opposite, as in Gawain, which is the way I have always referred to him.

Inogh,” quoth Sir Gawayn,

I thonk yow, bi the rode.”

And how the fox was slayn

He tolde hym as thay stode.

How the Fox Was Slain, or, How Sir Gawain Was Not. Such is the story of what will prove to be a two-fold testing of Sir Gawain by the Green Knight.

Into the hall of King Arthur, at Christmastide, there erupts a visitor:

a mountain of a man, immeasurably high,

a hulk of a human from head to hips,

so long and thick in his loins and his limbs

I should genuinely judge him to be a half giant,

or a most massive man, the mightiest of mortals.

And he, like his horse, green, “entirely emerald green.” He urges a duel, not quite of the usual sort:

So at Christmas in this court I lay down a challenge:

if a person here present, within these premises,

is big or bold or red blooded enough

to strike me one stroke and be struck in return,

I shall give him as a gift this gigantic cleaver

and the axe shall be his to handle how he likes.

I’ll kneel, bare my neck and take the first knock.

But instead of a simultaneous engagement, there is to be a preposterous postponement. For the knight who is now to behead the Green Knight must undertake what will be not a return match but this same returning match, a consummation in twelve months’ time. Gawain, partly so that King Arthur not risk the royal life, takes up the challenge. The head is struck from the Green Knight’s shoulders. Whereupon he “cops hold of his head and hoists it high,” and then, while it swings from his fist, the head speaks. See you, in a year’s time, at the Green Chapel. And exit. Or exeunt, if the head and the body are now held to be two.

The tale is of the testing of Gawain. He gives two undertakings. The first, this one, that he will allow the Green Knight a return blow with the axe in a year’s time. So Gawain’s given word compels him to seek out his own death. The second arrives when Gawain, in his journeying, arrives at a handsome castle where there is made by his host, one Bertilak de Hautdesert (who will later turn out to be the Green Knight), a handsome proposal: that the guest and the host exchange winnings after each day’s hunting.

The first undertaking, Gawain keeps. The second he partially fails in, since although he does give his host the kisses that the host’s wife (the most seductive of hostesses, sitting on the edge of his bed) deliciously extorts from him by day, he withholds from the returning host not only her gift of a belt but all knowledge of it, a belt which the lady assures him will save his life when he comes to bare his neck to the Green Knight.

What occurs within Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is what occurred to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: something of a miracle. Sir Gawain survives, against almost all odds, even as the poem survived. That a single copy endured in manuscript through the many centuries is, to say the least, providential. (But then the same is true of the heroic Old English poem, again untitled, that has come to be known as Beowulf.) The medievalists tell us the story of this story. So we all know that no one knows who wrote Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, though the author may have been the scribe who set it down, around the year 1380, bound with three other poems that are probably—but only that—by the same poet: Pearl, Cleanness (or Purity), and Patience.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was first edited by Sir Frederick Madden in 1839, in the early years of the resounding Arthurian resurgence of Victorian England. Tennyson, who disposed himself toward the Arthurian legends in a way that was both his own and that of his age, was to herald in 1891—the year before he died—an edition of Pearl. At its head, there was this quatrain:

We lost you—for how long a time—

True Pearl of our poetic prime!

We found you, and you gleam re-set

In Britain’s lyric coronet.

We shall never know how many people ever read the manuscript of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, through all the centuries from the 1380s to the 1830s. Not all that many, one would suppose, so of this poem, too, it might be said “We lost you—for how long a time.” But a narrative romance is not a lyric, is not a single pearl, which means that one necessity for the appreciator of this Arthurian tale—whether the appreciation take the form of translating it anew with creative delight or of simply reading it so—is to escape the Tennysonian. In his new translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Simon Armitage admirably and entirely does so. A price is paid for this, since some of Tennyson’s respectful ways with language are appropriate to the medieval poem, but Armitage’s markedly un-Victorian linguistic improprieties are seldom less than diverting, though sometimes a diversion from the poem proper.

Armitage’s translation joins a distinctive tradition that goes back to a lasting accomplishment by Marie Borroff in 1967 and is represented more recently by W.S. Merwin (2002, unmentioned by Armitage) and by Bernard O’Donoghue (2006). Armitage, with characteristic candor, makes the needed concessions:

Of course, to the trained medievalist the poem is perfectly readable in its original form; no translation necessary. And even for the nonspecialist, certain lines, such as, “Bot Arthure wolde not ete til al were served,” (85), especially when placed within the context of the narrative, present little problem. Conversely, lines such as “Forthi, iwysse, bi yowre wylle, wende me bihoves,” (1065) [“With your blessing, therefore, I must follow my feet”] are incomprehensible to the general reader. But it is the lines that fall somewhere between those extremes—the majority of lines, in fact—which fascinate the most. They seem to make sense, though not quite.

Those of us who are not medievalists will number among us some who once were budding ones, at least to some degree (a BA?). There is no forgetting, for instance, listening in Oxford to lectures by J.R.R. Tolkien (“incoherent and often inaudible,” as Sir Kingsley Amis accurately recorded, with gratitude for the last bit). And since the Middle English of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is not particularly difficult (merely to modernize the spelling facilitates a good deal), anyone who has a memory of some acquaintance with the poem is likely to be able to master or remaster it without much difficulty. But an effort has a way of not being made, and in any case there are certainly a great many readers out there whom a modern translation will tempt to read this superb tale of temptations. So Armitage is to be welcomed. This, even as Sir Gawain is welcomed by his host and hostess at Hautdesert….

I risk the ellipsis, because about all such welcomes there hangs a risk, some potentiality of danger. Armitage is at once a guest (of the original poem) and a host (be my guest, says the translator). It is a fine thing that at root the word host is the same as the word guest. Reciprocity itself, himself and herself. It is an extensive thought that the root of hospitality is also that of hostility: in what spirit does the stranger arrive, and in what spirit should he or she be met? In the hospitality at the castle there lurks the possibility—and then in some respects the actuality—of hostility:

At length his lordship tried

to get this guest to stay.

But proud Gawain replied

he must now make his way.

It is inconsistent of me, but while I am all too glad that “guest” was added to the original here, I wish that “proud” had not been; the original has a simple reticence. “The lorde fast can hym payne/To holde lenger the knyght;/ To hym answres Gawayn/Bi non way that he myght.” There is a witty perversity, much to the point, in Armitage’s turning “Bi non way that he myght” through 180 degrees, into “he must now make his way.”

There are folk in this castle who keep courtesy to the forefront;

their master maintains them—happiness to them all.

And let his lordship’s lady be loved all her life.

That they chose, out of charity, to cherish a guest,

showing kindness and care, then may heaven’s King

who reigns overall reward them handsomely.”

I wish that this had been “over all,” since overall weakens into the less-than-omnipotent, generally speaking. If Whitman had written not “Word over all, beautiful as the sky” but “Word overall,” it would not have worn so well.

Well, as to hospitality/hostility, there were other things than kindness and care (it will be revealed) that the host and hostess were showing, or rather not showing, and it was not out of charity solely or simply that they chose to cherish Sir Gawain—he was, after all and before all, being set up for a controlled experiment in how much self-control he possessed.

Gawain courageously pays a debt of honor. In pondering what a troth is, and what truth is (and to these there can be added the pregnant word plight, both a pledge and a dangerous situation), John Burrow pointed out that

the ideal itself has lost much of its force in societies which—outside one or two eccentric institutions like the Stock Exchange—put all but the most trivial contracts in writing and enforce them with effective legal sanctions.

The odds were not of Gawain’s making, but a gambling debt is a point of honor, however ill-advisedly or inadvisably entered upon. Moreover, the debt of honor has always put honorable men in a difficult position when it comes to doing right by the claim of more simply mercantile debts. There are many reasons for honoring Charles James Fox, Britain’s first foreign secretary—his urging the abolition of slavery, his moving impeachment of Warren Hastings, and his opposition to the coercion of America by a tea duty—but this has long been one of the best:

He once won about eight thousand pounds; and one of his bond-creditors, who soon heard of his good luck, presented himself, and asked for payment. “Impossible, sir,” replied Fox; “I must first discharge my debts of honour.” The bond-creditor remonstrated. “Well, sir, give me your bond.” It was delivered to Fox, who tore it in pieces and threw them into the fire. “Now, sir,” said Fox, “my debt to you is a debt of honour”; and immediately paid him.

Fox rose to the challenge.

What occurs within Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is, in a related further round, what occurs to the translator of the poem, and also, differently but not less substantially, to the reader of it: a challenge. The word is not to be found in the original where this translation has it: “So at Christmas in this court I lay down a challenge” (“Forthy I crave in this court a Crystemas gomen,” a Christmas game), and again “the challenge at the chapel” (“The chaunce of the chapel”). But Armitage is right to wield the word, as he does in his introduction (“a seemingly absurd challenge”). For the translator, like the hero of the poem, faces a challenge, a double challenge in that the translator must be faithful both to his or her own art and to the original art.

A challenge is many things. Some of these have evolved since medieval times, but the etymology is and was there. As the Oxford English Dictionary records, “Challenge is thus originally the same word as calumny.” Latin calumnia: trickery, artifice, misrepresentation, false accusation, malicious action—several of which have a presence within Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The definitions roll on: “An accusation, charge, reproach”; “The act of calling to account”; “Hunting. The opening and crying of hounds at finding the scent”; “An invitation or summons to a trial or contest of any kind; a defiance”; “spec. A summons to fight, esp. to single combat or duel.” Further to which, the dictionary reaches the attenuated (but not empty) sense of the word that is prevalent in our day and that was not available to the original OED: “In weakened use: a difficult task, esp. one seen as a test of one’s abilities or character.” This, with the earliest citation, 1954, from William Faulkner. It is a measure of Armitage’s achievement that he is not content with a challenge “in weakened use” but conveys something of the bolder impetus that is at work in a combat, a duel, a defiance, his being called to account—and this lest he incur the accusation, charge, reproach, of having offered a misrepresentation of the poem as less brave, more cautious, than it is. His biggest single decision, to use alliteration, is itself a successful defiance.

Bernard O’Donoghue, a very fine poet whose translation has characteristic beauties, delicacies, and poignancies of his own, chose not to rise to one particular challenge:

In my version I have abandoned alliteration altogether, while keeping firmly to what seems to me to be the original stress-pattern as it survives into modern English.

But Armitage will have none of this, though he is perfectly courteous to those who do otherwise:

Some translators, for perfectly valid reasons and with great success, have chosen not to imitate its highly alliterative form. But to me, alliteration is the warp and weft of the poem, without which it is just so many fine threads.

Most dexterously done, this claim for alliteration that avails itself of the sequence “the warp and weft of the poem, without which….” He repeatedly scores with an amazing and yet convincing variety of pararhymes, to use the strange, familiar term for an effect which is not really a rhyme at all. (The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics assimilates it to something called NEAR RHYME.) Rhyme preserves the vowel sound and changes consonants; pararhyme, or whatever we are going to call the phenomenon, preserves consonants and changes the vowel sound. In “Strange Meeting,” Wilfred Owen availed himself of hall/Hell, to magnificently somber effect. In “On the Road,” William Barnes delighted in the pastoral comedy of this turn:

There the horse pranced along, with his neck a high bow,

And uptoss’d his broad nose over outspringing knees;

And the ox, with sleek hide, and with low-swinging head;

And the sheep, little knee’d, with a quick-dipping nod.

Or there is Robert Louis Stevenson, in “Keepsake Mill,” turning the words as the mill wheel turns:

Dusty and dim are the eyes of the miller,

Deaf are his ears with the moil of the mill.

(Eyes into ears, and then moil into mill.) It is a recurrent triumph in Armitage’s versification that he finds in this effect such persistent effervescence, such apt exuberance. It being, of course, completely consonant with, happily at home with, alliteration: “bare my neck and take the first knock,” in touch not only with “her neck was naked” but with “the nick to his neck was healed by now.” Other examples:

had slipped into sleep

taken to this day as a token of fidelity

beautifully furnished/with fine silken fabrics finished in gold

and mutters/like a mournful man with his mind on dark matters

and thinks/those nobles of renown/are due his thorough thanks

Armitage is due our thorough thanks. A device? If so, then with all the heraldic power that a device can possess.

But I want to put in a word against some of Armitage’s words or wordings. He has profited from the scholars’ confidence that the language of the original is very diverse, is often regionally distinctive (northern or north-midlands), and has its own intrepidities when it comes to the matter of register, in the linguists’ sense (i.e., “a variety of language defined according to social use, such as scientific, formal, religious, and journalistic”2 ). So far, so good. But he goes much further, and in exercising the courage to be modern, he veers into the postmodern or even the postmodernist, where anachronism is understood not as a price that may on occasion have to be paid but as manifest riches in itself.

Should not the Arthurian hall, even if not high-toned, be different of tone from our canteens? Doesn’t “with starters” make us start in something other than the right way? Is “double helpings” the way to help us imagine a world that, however much it may share with us, is not ours? Is the Green Knight best envisaged as proffering “the mother of all axes,/a cruel piece of kit I kid you not”? (“And an ax in his other, a hoge and unmete,/A spetos sparthe to expoun in spelle, quo-so myght”; in O’Donoghue’s words, “and an axe in the other, outlandishly big,/ too cruel a weapon for words to describe”). Armitage’s demotic flashes come to strobe the mind’s eye. “They upped and left,” “chunters the knight” (as though “quoth” were being said not in the poem but in a costume movie), “mulled it over,” “a heck of a lick,” all this slang then consorting with corporation-speak, corpse-speak (“seal the deal,” “to finalize your affairs”).

Such modern phrases are characterized more by vivacity than by vitality. And the sequence “keeping his cool./ A warm welcome, sir” may avoid the archaic but only by choosing to be arch. Armitage has set himself to give us, and the poem, a fillip. This often slips into the flippant, the flip. “But don’t be so shocked should the plot turn pear-shaped.” At such a moment I prefer O’Donoghue’s apprehension that there are some decorums that really do need to be preserved, and that “Bot thagh the ende be hevy” asks to be shaped more along the lines of “if the outcome be tragic.”

But then the sense of it all must not become, in the protesty idiom, heavy, not least because of the comic energies that C.S. Lewis so delightedly evokes when he challenges a particular anthropological reading of the poem that seeks to identify the Green Knight with the eniautos daimon, or seasonal woodland deity (literally “annual spirit”) originating in ancient Greek ritual:

Bercilak is as vivid and concrete as any image I have met in literature. He is a living coincidentia oppositorum; half giant, yet wholly a “lovely knight”; as full of demoniac energy as old Karamazov, yet, in his own house, as jolly as a Dickensian Christmas host; now exhibiting a ferocity so gleeful that it is almost genial, and now a geniality so outrageous that it borders on the ferocious; half boy or buffoon in his shouts and laughter and jumpings; yet at the end judging Gawain with the tranquil superiority of an angelic being. There has been nothing really like him in fiction before or since. No one who has once read the poem forgets him. No one while reading it disbelieves in him.

Lewis does well to invoke Dickens and the comic energies of the novel. For one way in which to relate the two tests (the duel and the seduction) is by the pairing of a duel with a woman’s honor (in the name of which many a duel was fought). William Empson’s praise of Tom Jones, the character as well as the novel, is germane here. Of Tom Jones’s sexual behavior (“where he is most scandalous,” says Empson, not scandalized a bit),

one might, instead, find him holy, because he never makes love to a woman unless she first makes love to him. Later on (XIII, 7) we find he thinks it a point of honour to accept such a challenge from a woman, no less than a challenge to fight from a man (and that is the absolute of honour, the duel itself); but in his first two cases, Molly Seagrim and Sophia, he is unconscious that their advances have aroused him, and very grateful when they respond. Fielding reveres the moral beauty of this, but is quite hard-headed enough to see that such a man is too easily fooled by women; he regards Tom as dreadfully in need of good luck, and feels like a family lawyer when he makes the plot give it to him.

Gawain, too, was dreadfully in need of good luck, and it is a mercy that the plot gives it to him. Never is he discourteous to the woman who so directly woos him (“Ye ar welcum to my cors”), and he behaves like an even more perfect gentleman than Tom Jones. Which might bring us back to Sir Kingsley, who was very good at imagining a different type, the imperfectly ungentlemanly man. He does this, as it happens, in a novel that has many affinities with Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: The Green Man (1969). At what ought to be a climactic moment, there is a smack at the alliterative tradition, not at this romance of a poem but at the more pious one, Langland’s Piers Plowman:

Let’s make love to one another, my darling,” said Diana.

The new problem was to prevent her from making too many remarks in this style until the stage of no remarks was reached. I got out of the truck, went round and helped her down.

In a summer season,” she said, actually looking up at the sky, “when soft was the sun….”

Well, we can’t say we haven’t been lucky with the weather,” I babbled, pulling her along beside me. One more really corking cock-crinkler like that one and I would be done for.

We are at some remove from the poem that famously opens:

In a summer season when soft was the sun

I shope me in shrouds as I a shepe were…

Better to undress than to dress oneself in sheep’s or shepherd’s clothing. Amis was the man to put the gland back into Langland. (To Philip Larkin, January 18, 1946, from Oxford: “Oh Christ I’ve got to write a bleeding essay all about that sodding old bore Langlad gland I mean.”) But his hero, if that is the word for these remarkable men of his, does (like Gawain, in the face of his challenging lady) stay altogether courteous in the face of his woman, even though her words turn worse than pear-shaped:

I want to be naked,” she said. “For us, I must be naked.”

She took off her shirt and this once I overlooked her literary style.

  1. 1

    J.A. Burrow, A Reading of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Routledge, 1965), p. 59. The Penguin edition of the Middle English text of the poem is by Burrow (1972).

  2. 2

    See The Oxford Companion to the English Language, edited by Tom McArthur (Oxford University Press, 1992).