Posted by: Brad Nixon | December 24, 2018

The Knight’s Christmas Eve. A Reading from “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”

As each year ends, I mark the turn of the season by rereading the Middle English verse romance, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

What did the language sound like around the year 1400?

Below is a video recording in which I read a portion of the poem in Middle English.

We know a considerable amount about how the language probably sounded in the west Midlands of England in about 1400, where it’s believed the poem was composed. Scholars have devoted an enormous amount of effort to determining how English sounded as it evolved across time and in various regions.

It’s “alliterative” verse. There are are four rhyming lines at the end of each stanza, but the primary motif is similar to what you may have encountered with Beowulf. Three stressed words in each line begin with the same sound. I’ve made an effort to preserve the alliterative scheme in my modern English version below.

In the recording, captions show my translation into modern English while I read the original.

This is one of my favorite passages from Gawain, specifically the poet’s description of faring in the wild during a harsh winter.

We find the questing knight in the midst of wild lands in midwinter, threatened by giants, wild animals, human foes and bitter weather. It’s Christmas eve, and Gawain, beset by circumstances, is determined to find somewhere to celebrate the holiday in order to honor his Savior and — especially — the Virgin, to whom Gawain is a dedicated servant.

In my opinion, it’s some of the most powerful poetry in our language, and I hope you enjoy it. See below for a transcription of the original with my translation into modern English

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Stanza 32, lines 740-762

Each Middle English line followed by my modern English translation

The unfamiliar symbol þ is “th” sound

bi a mounte on þe morne meryly he rydes
Past a mountain that morning he merrily rides

into a forest ful dep þat ferly wast wylde
Through a forest full deep and fairly wild:

highe hilles on uche a halve and holtwodes under
High hills on each side and a heavy deep woodland.

of hore okes ful hoge a hundreth togeder
Hoar-oaks huge and looming in hundreds together.

þe hasel and þe hawþorne were harled al samen
The hazel and hawthorne haphazardly hung

with roghe raged mosse rayled aywhere
With rough, ragged moss all arrayed everywhere.

with mony bryddes unblyþe upon bare twyges
Little birds all beset, bundled on the bare boughs,

þat pitosly þer piped for pyne of þe colde
Pitiably peeping with pain of the cold.

þe gome upon gryngolet glydes hem under
Great Gawain on Gringolet gliding along

þurgh mony misy and myre mon al hym one
Through the mist and the mire — that man: all alone;

carande for his costes lest he ne kever schulde
Determined to dedicate holy devotion,

to se þe servyse of þat syre þat on þat self nyght
Serving his sovereign sire on the night

of a burde wast borne oure baret to quelle
He was born of the Virgin our burden to bear.

and þerfore sykyng he sayde I beseche þe lorde
So, seeking, he said, “I beseech you, my Lord,

and mary þat is myldest moder so dere
And, Mary so mild, mother so dear,

of sum herber þer heghly I myght here masse
To some haven hale me to hear the mass

ande þy matynes tomorne mekely I ask
And matins tomorrow: meekly I ask

and þerto prestly I pray my pater and ave
I patiently pray my pater and ave

and crede
And Credo.”

he rode in his prayere
He rode the while in prayer,

and cryed for his mysdede
Repented his misdeeds;

he sayned hym in syþes sere
Sign of the cross he made,

and sayde cros kryst me spede
And said, “Christ give me speed.”

What do you think? Any appeal? Not quite as recognizable as Chaucer? Shakespeare? Please leave a comment.

You can find more of my articles about the poem in the “Categories” widget in the right margin:

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

© Brad Nixon 2018, 2019. Modern English verse translation by Brad Nixon. Depending on your browser, you may see a portion of one illustration from the sole existing manuscript of Sir Gawain, held in the British Museum. A digital scan of the entire MS was once available online from the University of Calgary, Canada, but in the time elapsed since I retrieved it, that portion of the site has either changed or its security certificate has not been maintained and may not be secure.

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Responses

  1. Thanks, Brad!
    1400s, is that even Middle English yet?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Most assuredly. Written almost exactly at the time of Canterbury Tales, but a different dialect un the west Midlands than Geoff’s more mainstream London English.

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    • We’d be more familiar with the sound of the language back then if there hadn’t been the disastrous fire at the Bodeleian Library in 1621 that destroyed all the Eyght-Trakke Taypes the monks recorded.

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      • Yes, a great loss to both rock and roll!

        Like

  2. That’s quite some reading. I had a literature teacher when I was a teen who was fluent in middle-English, it was lovely to hear her read, but I never did get to grips with it!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Val. There are plenty of disagreements about precisely how certain phonemes were pronounced in specific regions at various times, but even approximation helps us appreciate this is poetry, not just scribbles on an ancient page.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, GP. Merry Christmas to you and yours, and all who serve.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. First: great reading. I really enjoyed it.

    I read the translation first, before listening, and was struck by the degree of alliteration. Listening, I heard it in the language, too. There were a few places where I wondered whether your translation was chosen to heighten the alliterative effect, as when you chose ‘bough’ rather than ‘branch’ or ‘twig’ for twyges.

    Your choices certainly keep the rhythm going. My favorite translated line is “Little birds all beset, bundled on the bare boughs,” although I laughed at “The hazel and hawthorne haphazardly hung.” That’s a nice contrast to “The stockings were hung by the chimney with care.”

    I did find myself wondering about possible connections between this Middle English (or Old English) and the Welsh language. I have a friend who lives in Wales, and every time I send something to her, there’s a postal clerk who looks at the address, looks at me, and says something like, “Is this for real?” She lives on Ynysenlli, in Tywyn, Ffordd Gwynedd. You can see why her address came to mind.

    I was thinking about Sir Gawain recently because of an old English carol. Every year I like to present a carol that is off the beaten track, and this year’s was to be “Down in Yon Forest.” I got myself into a bit of a historical thicket, though, and Christmas passed. No matter; it still will do for a winter post.

    Anyway, this is what brought Sir Gawain to mind:

    “Anne Gilchrist [in the Journal of the Folk Song Society, IV, pp. 52-56] interpreted this ballad in terms of the Holy Grail legend. Christ’s blood was collected in the Grail by Joseph of Arimathea, and was borne to Avalon for safe-keeping and sanctification. The hall in the forest is the castle of the Grail, the bleeding knight is Jesus, the hound licking the blood may be Joseph (or possibly the Church), and the thorn mentioned in the last stanza is the Thorn of Glastonbury which blossoms once a year (on old Christmas Day) in honour of Jesus’ birth.”

    I’m looking forward to sorting through all that in the coming year.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Careful, you’ll get me going! Thanks for the comment and what I’ll take as a compliment. Yes, I labored over that modern rendition to preserve the alliteration, and you point to one of the milder substitutions that was necessary: boughs for twigs. Others are far tougher, and I was actually pleased I came up with the “haphazardly” line for one that doesn’t have any exact equivalent in modern English (or at least none in my vocabulary, which isn’t unlimited).
      More problematic are lines that hang on words that simply no longer exist and one has to reconstruct them with some other alliterating sound. A classic is the one about the savior being born or a woman etc. etc. The poet uses one of the MANY alliterating words for “woman,” “burde.” Yep, that’s “bird,” still a slang word for woman, but scarcely appropriate for referring to the Virgin in a respectful way (one pictures John Lennon referring to Mary as a “that bird”).
      With your wide-ranging background, you probably know that Old English, and to a somewhat lesser extent, Middle English, had large numbers of synonyms or metaphorical words and phrases that could stand for common words like “man,” “woman,” “king,” “home,” etc. You can practically run the phonemic alphabet with words for “man” in OE.
      Few translators can sustain that determined effort to maintain alliteration in every line when rendering the entire poem. I’ve attacked a handful of stanzas over the years, and can’t picture myself accomplishing more than 2,500 lines with any sort of grace.
      I’m particularly gratified that you liked those shivering birdies huddled on the bare twigs. Those are two of my favorite two lines of poetry in any language, living or extinct.
      I’ll continue in a second comment. I do go on.

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    • As for the grail, Joseph of A., etc., that legend and how it plays out in Medieval tales, poems, romances and stories is a hobby horse of mine, and I’m always happy to mount it and ride.
      I plan to read a number of versions of the Parsival/Percival story in 2019. Ol’ Parsifal got right there to the hall of the Fisher King. The grail was there in the castle, and all Parsifal had to do to claim and redeem the world (so the legend goes) was ask the gravely wounded King, “Why do you suffer” (reflecting Christ’s mercy, etc. etc.). He blew it, never got the grail, wandered back out into the forest and traveled on. Nothing was redeemed, and we’re left with a grail-less world. It is, in once sense, a failure related to Gawain’s, although not a perfect match. A failure to see himself and his role in relation to the world and the other people in it, and the codes by which we have to conduct ourselves.
      I’ve been to Glastonbury and seen the thorn tree, a long time ago. The one there know is a graft or clone of the original that was destroyed by vandals some years after 19 year-old me visited. I wrote about the tree and Glastonbury in a post, here: https://wp.me/pH6ZJ-18h
      Obviously, once one starts *looking* for symbolism, it’s difficult to know just where to stop, and that’s why it’s fun to read!
      Happy Boxing Day.
      Thanks for all the comments today. I won’t have time to comment on all of them right away.

      Like


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