December 14, 2007


A Stranger in Camelot: a review of SIR GAWAIN AND THE GREEN KNIGHT: A New Verse Translation By Simon Armitage ()

“Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” is a medieval romance (it inherits a body of Arthurian legends that had circulated in England for a couple of centuries) but also an outlandish ghost story, a gripping morality tale and a weird thriller. It is a sexual teaser that keeps you on the edge of your seat. It’s easy to imagine huddling around the fire to listen to it. You can tear through it in a night or two — I couldn’t put down Simon Armitage’s compulsively readable new verse translation — and linger over it for years.

“Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” is one of the founding narratives of English literature. The storyteller nods to the “Aeneid,” thus invoking his epic lineage, and then settles down to tell his tale, which begins in the court of King Arthur, “most regal of rulers in the royal line.” 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, “otherworldly, yet flesh / and bone,” presents a startling challenge: he will endure one blow without offering resistance, but whoever deals it must promise to receive a reciprocal blow in a year and a day. Sir Gawain, nephew of King Arthur, rises to the challenge and beheads the stranger in one stunning strike. Then the Knight stands, picks up his head, and reminds Gawain to meet him at the appointed time. Thereafter Gawain, a bewildered southern innocent (he tells Arthur he is “weakest of your warriors and feeblest of wit”), honors his pledge to seek the Green Knight out and journeys into harsh northern terrain. A year of adventures ensues — an adulterous seduction, a series of graphically violent hunts, a meeting with the Green Knight in a green chapel — that constitutes the moral test and vision of the poem.

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 14, 2007 8:22 PM
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