Enjoy with a mince pie

This very pretty (in a tasteful, minimalist way) Faber edition of Simon Armitage’s Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was given to me for Christmas so that I could read it aloud to my painfully cultured spouse and spawn. I’m not sure if I can call it a translation, as I don’t really think of Middle English as a different language, but it’s a good… transliteration? Transcription? Adaptation?

I think the last word is the best, as Armitage is not slavishly exact in his adherence to the Middle English text. He retains its prosody and its alliteration, and I imagine he is pretty much faithful to its overall structure and content, but much of the vocabulary is contemporary and colloquial. This approach proves entertaining, as much of what he leaves in seems incongruous to twenty-first century ears, particularly in relation to gender and religion, and juxtaposed to some of his language these elements ridicule themselves.

I have not actually read the original fourteenth-century poem; my exposure to the tale begins with Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, and the prose version he includes there. This may have been derived from the poem which has survived, or another very similar source; the particulars of Malory’s narrative certainly bear a very close resemblance to it. However, remarkable as the fabula may be, it was not the part of Malory that struck me most vividly, and it didn’t have anything like the impact there that Armtitage’s version did for me.

The form of the verse Gawain, which is retained by Armitage, is quite technically exacting, and lends a great deal of forward motion to the tale. Stanzas of varying numbers of lines, structured by internal alliteration, are terminated by a ‘bob-and-wheel’ of shorter, rhyming lines. These regular ‘turn-arounds’, combined with the way that the alliteration cuts across the meter, like the cross-rhythm rhyming of a rapper like Rakim, make the experience of reading or listening to the poem as musical as it is cognitive. You can almost dance to it.

The story is a supernatural Romance, with features that stretch credibility for a twenty-first century audience, although I’m sure they were clearly fantastical when the tale was first told. Also hard to credit is the protagonists’ continual harping on about faith and worship , but at the time of writing it would not have been possible to present a knight as virtuous without making them actively pious, even if this would not have been a credible portrayal of any historical knight. As Armitage adapts the poem, it feels as though the Christian elements have been appended to a pagan myth, although I have no idea if this is indeed the case.

It that is the case, it wouldn’t be unusual. Christmas is a good example of such a transposition, a festival which coincidentally (or not) forms the backdrop to the tale. And there is, in my opinion, something enjoyably festive about that combination, a set of clearly pagan, European practices making themselves felt around and through the moralising, monotheistic surface of Christian doctrine. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a poem to enjoy with a mince pie.

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