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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.

  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).

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