Freshman year: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Today we’ve got a situation very much like the Beowulf one last week: Once again, I forsook Tolkien for another translator.  Ghastly of me, yes, but as with Beowulf, Tolkien’s translation felt needlessly flowery and complicated next to a translation we found by poet Simon Armitage. Again, Tolkien is wonderful, but reading his translations of Sir Gawain and Beowulf  kind of felt like reading the Council of Elrond all over again. I REGRET NOTHING.

Sir Gawain opens on a Christmas feast in Camelot, with King Arthur and his knights and everybody having a generally decent time. Until some guy in green armor decides to ride his freaking horse right into the hall and throw down his gauntlet in front of Arthur.  Arthur’s nephew Sir Gawain, being the overly-honorable hotheaded kid that he is, decides he’ll pick it up. The Green Knight rolls with it, and commands Gawain to cut off his head.  Gawain does so, but then the Green Knight just picks his head back up and holds it out for all to see before ordering Gawain to come to his castle in a year’s time to face him, and have his own head chopped off.  Adventures happen, there’s some mild romance, and it’s all quite fun for everybody except Gawain’s poor horse, who has to traipse through all sorts of weather.

Like Beowulf, no one really knows who wrote it, though it’s generally assumed that it was written some time around the fourteenth century, by a contemporary of Chaucer’s who lived somewhere in England (According to this website, at least).  Sir Gawain also uses an awful amount of alliteration (d’you see what I did there?), or at least a fair bit of it, which I guess was popular in poetry (okay that time it wasn’t intentional) for a very long time indeed.  It gave Armitage the opportunity to use a couple of not-quite-historically-accurate words which nevertheless work quite well, and are pretty funny to see in the context of an other wise very medieval story:  “He leaps from where he lies at a heck of a lick (1309)” and “No man felt more at home/tucked between those two/the cute one and the crone (1314–16).” To clarify, in that second one Gawain is sitting between his hostess and one of her ladies on a pew in a chapel during mass.

One of my favorite parts was probably when Gawain suddenly regrets everything, more or less. While trying to find the Green Knight’s chapel, Gawain stays with a Lord and Lady Bertilak.  Now, Lord Bertilak plans on going hunting on three consecutive days and invites Gawain along, but Gawain is like “Nah. Look, dude, I just rode hundreds of miles through a blizzard, I don’t want to go back outside” and they’re kind of drunk at this point so Bertilak says “Yeah, sure, okay. But you know what would be fun? If, like, we made a deal. Like, whatever I gain during the day I give to you, and whatever you gain during the day, you give to me” and Gawain’s like “Dude that is the best idea ever.” So bright and early in the morning, three days in a row Bertilak goes out hunting while Gawain sleeps in, and three days in a row Lady Bertilak comes in to wake Gawain up and ends up trying to seduce him. However, Lord Bertilak and Gawain are friends, so he’s all “Um, no, please stop” but it turns out his morals aren’t quite up to standard, and while nothing reputation-ruining happens, Gawain does gain a few kisses from Lady Bertilak.

…Which he then, on pain of loss of honor, has to give Lord Bertilak when he returns from hunting.  The three moments of “Oohhh crap I’m screwed” when he remembers are pretty funny.

Overall, it’s a really great story. We picked a really great time to be reading it, as there is a pretty recent BBC documentary about Sir Gawain, featuring Armitage retracing Gawain’s steps and seeing how close he can come to the general area where the Green Knight’s chapel was supposed to have been.  It’s really good, and I think it and the poem are worth reading. It’s not even really that long, which is nice.  And it’s about one of King Arthur’s knights! That was a big motivator for me. I love the Arthurian legend, and you know what I’m going to stop right here before this post becomes a full book on how much I love the Arthurian legend. Anyway, go read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, it’s fantastic.



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