Posted by: Brad Nixon | December 3, 2017

A Knight Appears on the Horizon … The Time Approaches.

The mounted knight is clad for battle: hauberk, helm and shield. His cloak is stained from travel and toil. He turns, looking, left, right, then urges his steed forward. A knight-errant whose errand seems a grim one: He is bound on some quest.

Those of you who’ve been with me for a year or two recognize that knight. He appears here every year as the season turns and New Year’s approaches: it’s Sir Gawain astride Gringolet, searching for the Green Chapel.

It’s time for my annual reading the 14th-Century Middle English alliterative poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Why re-read something I’ve read nearly every year for more than 4 decades? I have deep, philosophical reasons: I enjoy it.

Over the years, I’ve discussed some of the characters in the poem, the historical context (the horrible, terrible and simply not very pleasant 1300s), and a lot about the language of the poem.

Each year, the challenge is not just to successfully read a 600 year-old version of our language; I can manage that (with occasional reminders from the glossary).

The fun is looking for new aspects of the poem, or perhaps rediscovering something about it I might’ve known many years ago, but forgotten.

What will this year’s Sir Gawain blog post address? It depends on what I find. That, in turn, might be affected by what I’m looking for.

To help me consider approaches, I’d like to hear from you. If you’ve read the poem — long ago in school or recently — what aspect of the poem should I write about? More about that odd version of English? Any of the various conflicts? The manners and customs of the various courts in the story? Those gosh-darned hunting scenes?

If you haven’t read Sir Gawain before, perhaps this is your opportunity. Read it (or even part of it), in the original or a modern translation, and let me know what strikes you as meaningful, confusing, profound, beautiful or whatever.

I welcome the opportunity to take a new tack: perhaps one I’ve never considered.

I’ll start reading the day after Christmas, and post what I have to say for New Year’s (the day the crisis of the story occurs). Therefore, you have about 3 weeks to send me your suggestion for how to approach it this year before I open the book and start in once again.

If you’re in an English speaking country, your library probably has a copy of the poem. There are scads of versions available from online sellers.

I’ll be reading my well-thumbed Everyman’s Library edition of the Middle English text, A. C. Cawley, editor, 1962.

Sir Gawain Everyman 8851 (438x640)

There are other versions of the original text. I even have a free version I downloaded to my Kindle. I got it at this link on Project Gutenberg. I recommend against it. The transcription of the antique spelling is terrifically inaccurate. That Kindle book was compiled back in 1869. Get something newer.

For translations into contemporary English, there are many, and many of them are excellent. I’m partial to one of the more recent, by Simon Armitage, W.W. Norton & Company, 2007.

Two classic translations include one by Marie Borroff, also W. W. Norton, 1967, and another by J. R. R. Tolkein, Houghton Mifflin, 1975 (paired with 2 other poems, “Pearl,” and “Sir Orfeo”).

SGGK copies Brad Nixon 8849 (640x430)

Those are verse translations. There are innumerable prose versions, too. All are acceptable entry points to a classic tale. (I’d love to hear from any readers in non English-speaking countries if you find a translation into your language.)

Feel free to send me your suggestion or question for this year’s angle on Sir Gawain. If you prefer I simply read your comment and not publish it, let me know. If you prefer to email me, send your message to brad@underawesternsky.com.

I want to emphasize that I’m not a scholar. I’m a fan, possessing only moderate familiarity with the old language. This isn’t an academic exercise. We’re simply reading an interesting old verse tale.

NOTE that in some countries, “Gawain” may be spelled differently in publications, library listings, etc. Mr. Bolton writes from Australia that he finds it as “Gawayne.” That’s a legitimate spelling from the original text, copied by scribes before English was standardized. “Gawaine” might also net some results, as could “Greene Knight,” rather than “Green.”

I hope to hear from at least a few of you. I enjoy my annual pilgrimage back to Arthur’s court, the castle of Sir Bertilak and, ultimately, the showdown at the Green Chapel. It will be a pleasure to have you along with me.

Here are previous articles I’ve posted about Sir Gawain:

Silent Night, Green Knight Dec. 13, 2009
A 14th-Century Christmas Dec. 24, 2010
The Knight in Winter Dec. 26, 2010
Don We Now Our Green Apparel Jan. 1, 2011
When Worlds Collide Jan. 6, 2012
Another Visit with the Green Knight Dec. 10, 2012
New Year’s Knight Dec. 31 2015
Sir Gawain vs. the Poets: Translations Jan. 1, 2017
Cherchez les Femmes; It’s All Their Fault (per Sir Gawain) Jan. 2 2018
The Knight’s Christmas Eve. A Reading from “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” Dec. 24, 2018

If you read Gawain for the first time, I’d be delighted to hear what you think of it. Be careful: He tends to stick with you once you meet him.

What Does the Poem Sound Like?

Here’s a 3-minute recording in which I read one stanza of the Middle English with modern English subtitles.

© Brad Nixon 2017, 2019


Responses

  1. First, let’s get this out of the way. I hadn’t thought of the joke for decades. Thank goodness I could track it down by punch line or my whole day would have been spent with the seach engines.

    I’ve read Chaucer, of course, and a few others from the time, but I’ve never read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Because of some serious time constraints at work in the upcoming month, I’m not sure I can have it read before the end of December. I think I’ll start by reading your previous posts, and then see how things are going. Given current events, a little swerve back into the 14th century doesn’t sound bad.

    I’m a re-reader, too, but your willingness to engage and re-engage with the poem makes me curious, and eager to find out more about it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hah! That’s funny. Note to others: “This” is a link to click on to read the joke. Well, not much out-and-out humor in SGGK. Mr. Armitage’s translation has some funny word play and hilariously wry bits of translation, if you’re paying attention. Part of the fun when you know Chaucer is comparing SGGK. They’re nearly exact contemporaries, different in significant ways, from different parts of England. Thanks for the message.

      Like


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