For those of you who love a good tale of knights errant who chop the heads off of mysterious green strangers, take a look at the review of Simon Armitage’s new translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, reviewed by Ed Hirsch in the NYT Book Review. Though scholars know that the author of the book was a contemporary of Chaucer, little else about him seems to have survived the passage of time. The story is intriguing, both for the epic tradition that it continues (Hirsch mentions a nod to the Aeneid that I’m intrigued by), and for its otherworldy and uncanny elements:
It is Christmastime at Camelot, and the chivalrous Knights of the Round Table are carrying on and carousing when suddenly an enormous stranger appears, a hulking interloper, “a most massive man, the mightiest of mortals.” The astonishing stranger is green from head to foot, a kind of emanation from nature. Even his horse is “a steed of pure green stock.”
The green knight tenders a challenge to the knights of the round table: he will bear one blow from any one of them with no resistance, if the person who delivers it promises to receive one in return, a year hence. Gawain rises to the challenge, and strikes the knights head off. The knight, after collecting his toppled head, reminds Gawain of his appointment the next year. The book follows Gawain on his year of travails seeking out the Green Knight.
I get the feeling that the book has been a favourite of Middle English enthusiasts down the ages. J.R.R. Tolkien, Ted Hughes and W.S. Merwin are just some of those who have attempted to bring the green knight into English verse. Of course each has its peculiar merit, and it sounds from Hirsch’s appraisal, that Armitage does well to preserve the pacing and adventure of the original text, and sagely works to transmit some of the poetic devices that the original author works into the poem. There’s an interesting—if basic—history of the use of alliterative rhyme in Anglo-Saxon poetry that I thought was delightful.