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Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: A New Verse…

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: A New Verse Translation (original 1925; edition 2009)

by Simon Armitage

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6,259741,005 (3.77)270
The famous Middle English poem by an anonymous English poet is beautifully translated by fellow poet Simon Armitage in this edition. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight narrates in crystalline verse the strange tale of a green knight 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 ax. 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.… (more)
Title:Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: A New Verse Translation
Authors:Simon Armitage
Info:W. W. Norton & Company (2009), Edition: Reprint, Paperback, 208 pages
Collections:Your library
Tags:middle english

Work details

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by Gawain Poet (1925)

  1. 161
    Beowulf by Beowulf Poet (OwenGriffiths, chrisharpe)
    OwenGriffiths: If you like Old/Middle English texts translated by great poets...
  2. 91
    Idylls of the King by Alfred Tennyson (chrisharpe)
  3. 60
    Sir Gawain and the Green Knight / Pearl / Cleanness / Patience by A. C. Cawley (OwenGriffiths)
  4. 40
    Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, Sir Orfeo by J. R. R. Tolkien (Muscogulus)
    Muscogulus: Tolkien's fluent translations of "Sir Gawain" and "Pearl" are an excellent introduction to the genius of the anonymous Pearl-Poet. "Sir Orfeo" with its strange images of Faerie makes a good addition to the volume.
  5. 40
    The Sagas of Icelanders by Örnólfur Thorsson (chrisharpe)
  6. 30
    The poems of Ossian by James MacPherson (ghilbrae)
  7. 31
    The Death of King Arthur by Simon Armitage (jm501, jm501)
  8. 11
    Pericles, Prince of Tyre by William Shakespeare (EerierIdyllMeme)
    EerierIdyllMeme: Two works in older forms of English which play with forms from even older forms of English.
  9. 33
    The Odyssey by Homer (chrisharpe)
  10. 22
    On Hunting by Roger Scruton (bertilak)

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» See also 270 mentions

English (71)  Spanish (3)  All languages (74)
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Chivalry is when you don't make a cuck out of your host ( )
  hatingongodot | Aug 12, 2019 |
The poem

The only known manuscript of the poem known as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight comes, oddly enough, from Sir Robert Cotton's collection, the same source as the Beowulf MS. But the Gawain MS was filed there under the bust of the emperor Nero, rather than Vitellius...

We know next to nothing about the poet - there are three other poems in the same MS that look to be stylistically linked and are assumed to be by the same poet ("The Pearl", "Purity", and "Patience"), and a separate poem, "St Erkenwald", that has also been suggested to be by the Gawain poet, although Davis doesn't find the evidence for this convincing. The MS is dated to around 1400, and the poem seems to have been written sometime in the second half of the 14th century.

In form, it's a classic Arthurian romance, taking up two themes that appear in several other texts of the period - the beheading contest, and the (attempted) seduction of the knight by his host's wife. What's unusual about it, though, is that the two themes are rather tightly linked, and that the story sticks closely to what all this is doing to Gawain's state of mind, and doesn't ramble off into other embedded narratives as medieval texts tend to do. Very little happens in the poem that isn't obviously relevant to the main storyline in some way (apart from a few little things that look relevant, but the poet appears to have forgotten to come back to). So it feels like a very modern story, in many ways. Gawain is a man who has an appointment with almost certain death coming up in a few days (as a result of a foolish bet that he can't honourably back out of), and he finds himself the guest of a generous and affable stranger who breezily goes off hunting saying "look after my wife whilst I'm out". Gawain is perhaps a little more surprised than we are when the wife turns up in the guest-room in her nightie as soon as the coast is clear, and the handsome young knight has a hard time defending his virtue...

The language of the poem - as well as the places referred to in it - places it in the north-west of England, probably somewhere around Cheshire or North Staffordshire. The poet obviously knows his French romances, but the language feels solid and earthy, even when you compare it to Chaucer. There were a surprising number of words that I recognised as (cousins to-) dialect words still in use in the north-west when I was growing up - bonke (bank) for a hill, for example. And it was a surprise to discover that "bird", the coarse word for a girl we were brought up not to use, has its entirely respectable roots in Middle English burde, which originally meant "someone who does embroidery", i.e. a young lady. And much else of the same kind.

Because the language is quite close to Old English and doesn't have much French or Latin in it to guide us, there are a few places where it's hard to make sense of it on a first read-through, but there are plenty of other parts where you get a good idea of what's going on even if you don't recognise absolutely all the words. And the Davis edition comes with a comprehensive word-list and good, clear notes, so it didn't take me long to get to grips with even the most obscure parts.

Simon Armitage's translation

For those who are primarily interested in the story, and want something that reads naturally, the Armitage translation is a good bet. It's written with a clear sense of the "northernness" of the poem (even though he's from the "wrong" side of the Pennines...), and Armitage is even happier to include modern dialect expressions than Heaney was in his Beowulf, even when it means leaving the literal sense of the original behind (e.g. in l.2002, where he is so gleeful about rediscovering "nithering" that he drops the slightly puzzling but memorable image "to harass the naked" in the original. But his is a great line, and definitely in the spirit of the original (I'm not going to quibble about nithering being a Yorkshire word, so technically out of place here...). But occasionally he seems to get the tone slightly wrong, making it just a bit too modern-informal, e.g. "He leaps from where he lies at a heck of a lick" (l.1309) which was "..he ryches hym to rise and rapes hym sone" (he decides to get up and hastens himself at once). Sometimes the drive to alliterate seems to be a bit too much.

But on the whole it's a very lively, consistent translation, giving the progress of the story priority over the shape of the words and drawing the reader on with the energy that a text like this needs. Now I've read the original I wonder whether this is a text that really needs translating, but if you want a translation to read in isolation, this is the one to go for. It's not much use as a literal crib for the Middle English, though. ( )
1 vote thorold | Jan 22, 2019 |
I've always liked the story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, but I never enjoyed reading it before. I first encountered this tale in a survey course of British Literature early in my college career (first semester--Beowulf to Sheridan; second semester--Blake to the Present Day...I still have the texts), in which we were exhorted to remember that the knight's name was pronounced GOWan. With apologies to the late Mr. Graham (who I believe preferred the 18th century to the 14th), I'm all in favor of Armitage's approach---let the rhythm and the alliterative requirements of the text dictate which consonant or syllable gets the stress. This version is so read-out-loudable that I feel it banishes any objection that might be raised to liberties Armitage took with literalness. (I'm not much of a purist that way when it comes to translating poetry anyway. I mean...it needs to remain poetic, above all.) I later had some exposure to the medieval language of the poem in a more advanced course; I may even have been expected to claw some of it into modern English myself, an effort best lost to time. This edition places the ancient version side-by-side with the new translation. It's interesting to compare, and to try to remember the sounds of the good old Anglo-Saxon, a clankier language by far. I counted four different spellings of our valiant knight's name in that text--Gawan, Gawayne, Gawen and Gauan. Surely that isn't just sloppiness or inconsistency, but suggestive of varying pronunciation in the original? In any case, if you're inclined to visit this classic tale, I commend you to Armitage's translation. It's just plain fun. ( )
  laytonwoman3rd | Nov 20, 2018 |
This is the book to get your poetry-resistant friend this #Booksgiving 2017. I read it on a dare. I don't like poetry very much, it's so snooty and at the same time so pit-sniffingly self-absorbed that I'd far rather stab my hands with a fork repeatedly than be condescended to in rhyming couplets.

This tale is fabulous in every sense of the word, which is no surprise since it's survived for so many centuries. But poet and translator Simon Armitage has made the old world new again. He sucked me right in and never let me come up for air with his gorgeous words and his carefully chosen words and his alliterative rhythmical phrases.

If the idea of a Norton Critical Edition is keeping you far away from this delightful read, rest assured it's not stodgy or dry or just plain boring. It's vibrant, alive, shimmering with an inner power, waiting for you to open its covers and fall utterly under its spell. Become happily ensorcelled, gentle reader, relax into the sure and strong embrace of a centuries-old knight and his spectacular tale. ( )
4 vote richardderus | Nov 27, 2017 |
The poet of this poem (and a few others) is unknown, and scholars have been guessing and debating for decades. In any case, this poet was a contemporary of Chaucer, but his poems are much more accessible. I can only imagine how difficult the translating is, as this poem is alliterative, with clear cadences throughout. I actually read about half of it out loud, simply because it sounds good.

Gawain is a well-known character in Arthurian circles, though I am unfamiliar with him. In this poem he takes on a challenge given by the Green Knight--and fulfills it. No spoilers, but a quest of sorts is involved, as well as honesty.

There are also some short essays on the manuscript, the poet, the pentangle, Arthurian themes, and there are a few pages of original text (which is almost readable but not quite).

Very much worth reading! ( )
  Dreesie | Aug 25, 2017 |
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» Add other authors (1 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Gawain Poetprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Pearl Poetmain authorall editionsconfirmed
Pearl-Poetmain authorall editionsconfirmed
Armitage, SimonTranslatormain authorsome editionsconfirmed
Kirtlan, Ernest J.B.Translatormain authorsome editionsconfirmed
Tolkien, J. R. R.Translatormain authorsome editionsconfirmed
Banks, Theodore HowardTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Borroff, MarieTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Burrow, J.A.Editorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Cooper, HelenIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Harrison, KeithTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Jones, GwynTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Lawrence, FrederickIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Markus, ManfredEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Merwin, W. S.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Neilson, William AllanTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Ridley, M. R.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Rieu, E. V.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Stone, BrianTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Vantuono, WilliamTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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My Lady of Dreams
My Wife
(Ernest Kirtlan edition)
First words
Siþen þe sege and þe assaut watz sesed at Troye,
Þe borȝ brittened and brent to brondeȝ and askez,
Þe tulk þat þe trammes of tresoun þer wroȝt
Watz tried for his tricherie, þe trewest on erþe:
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.

(translated by Simon Armitage, 2007)
When the war and the siege of Troy were all over
and the city flattened to smoking rubble,
the man who'd betrayed it was brought to trial,
most certainly guilty of terrible crimes.

(translated by Bernard O'Donoghue, 2006)
After the battle and the attack were over at Troy,
The town beaten down to smoking brands and ashes,
That man enmeshed in the nets of treachery—the truest
Of men—was tried for treason; I mean

(translated by Keith Harrison, 1983)
Once the siege and assault had done for Troy,
And the city was smashed, burned to ashes,
The traitor whose tricks had taken Troy
For the Greeks, Aeneas the noble, was exiled

(translated by Burton Raffel, 1970)
Last words
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Disambiguation notice
Please do not combine this work with the Sir Gawain and the Green Knight/Pearl/Sir Orfeo or any other omnibus work. Thank you.
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Haiku summary
Gawain chops green neck
But flinches when it's his turn.
He is forgiven.
The winter axe falls
and the green fruit rolls away;
Gawain will suffer.

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W.W. Norton

2 editions of this book were published by W.W. Norton.

Editions: 0393060489, 0393334155

Penguin Australia

An edition of this book was published by Penguin Australia.

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