10 May 2017
Bookish Musing: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Amazement seized their minds,
no soul had ever seen
a knight of such a kind -
entirely emerald green.
On a cold Christmas night in Medieval Britain, the knights of King Arthur were gathered for a feast at the Round Table, and a party-crasher comes in - a big, green knight who challenges someone to a wager. He will allow one of them to cut of his head, if they will come to him a year later and allow the same thing to be done to them. An interesting proposition, you might think. Sir Gawain is the one who steps forward (he is King Arthur's nephew), who cuts off his head with one swing. The Green Knight then promptly picks up his head, and still carrying it as he gets on his horse, says he will see Sir Gawain in one year's time at the Green Chapel for his end of the wager.
We then follow the story of Sir Gawain leaving to cross the British landscapes one year later to honour his side of the bargain. Along the way, he deals with self-doubt, loneliness, his honour and his morality is tested, and he then must confront the gargantuan Green Knight in the end.
Now through England's realm he rides and rides,
Sir Gawain, God's servant, on his grim quest,
passing long dark nights unloved and alone,
foraging to feed, finding little to call food,
with no friend but his horse through forests and hills
and only our Lord in heaven to hear him.
I bought Simon Armitage's translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight while in Oxford, and was quite excited to hear him talk one evening during the Oxford Literary Festival, where he signed my copy of this book afterwards. I had already started reading the book each night as I sat by the open window looking out to the Queen's College back quadrangle. His translation captures the ancient feel of the story, with all the alliterative sentences, while making the book so approachable and readable with his modern verses. The original poem was written sometime in the early 1400's and we don't know who wrote it. If you were ever curious what it would be like to read such a story, I would encourage you to pick up this translation. It is so enjoyable.
Our friend Sir Gawain, thankfully comes to a castle, and is welcomed to stay with ultimate hospitality from the lord of the castle, who treats him to a grand feast by the fireside, gives him a room to stay that is furnished with silks and gold, along with his boisterous company. Here, there will be tests of his character, as the lady of the castle comes to his chamber. After many temptations, the knight keeps true to his morals and remains honourable.
Gawain gazes at the lord who greeted him so gracefully,
the great one who governed that grand estate,
powerful and large, in the prime of his life,
with a bushy beard as red as a beaver's,
steady in his stance, solid of build,
with a fiery face but with fine conversation;
a man quite capable, it occurred to Gawain,
of keeping such a castle and captaining his knights.
After staying for some time, he knows he must go face his fate. He must continue on his journey to contend with the Green Knight. So, he departs from his new friend and makes it to the Green Chapel, which is hidden in a cave or crevice in the crag. The whole scene is dark, mysterious, and soulless.
With head helmeted and lance in hand
he scrambled to the skylight of that strange abyss.
Then he heard on the hillside, from behind a hard rock
a beyond the brook, a blood-chilling noise.
He hears the Green Knight sharpening his blade. Instead of being gripped and frozen in fear, He shouts out to the Green Knight to show himself, and then they meet again....
I must stop there, so you can read it yourself.