‘Not all poems are stories, but Sir Gawain and the Green Knight most certainly is’

The original manuscript of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is held at the British Library and a wealth of material on the poem, and on Arthurian literature in general, can be found on their blog.

In this extract from the introduction to his 2009 translation of the poem, Simon Armitage firmly situates the tale in the landscape of the Peak District, discusses the challenges of translating the Gawain poet’s alliterative Middle English verses, and speculates on its contemporary relevance as a work that explores our relationship with the wild.

‘After briefly anchoring its historical credentials in the siege of Troy, the poem quickly delivers us into Arthurian Britain, at Christmas time, with the Knights of the Round Table in good humour and full voice. But the festivities at Camelot are to be disrupted by the astonishing appearance of a green knight. Not just a knight wearing green clothes, but a weird being whose skin and hair are green, and whose horse is green as well. The gatecrasher lays down a seemingly absurd challenge, involving beheading and revenge.’

‘Alert to the opportunity, a young knight, Gawain, Arthur’s nephew, rises from the table. What follows is a test of courage and a test of his heart, and during the ensuing episodes, which span an entire calendar year, Gawain must steel himself against fear and temptation. The poem is also a ghost story, a thriller, a romance, an adventure story and a morality tale. For want of a better word, it is also a myth, and like all great myths of the past its meanings seem to have adapted and evolved, proving itself eerily relevant 600 years later. As one example, certain aspects of Gawain’s situation seem oddly redolent of a more contemporary predicament, namely our complex and delicate relationship with the natural world.’

‘The Gawain poet had never heard of climate change and was not a prophet anticipating the onset of global warming. But medieval society lived hand in hand with nature, and nature was as much an enemy as a friend. It is not just for decoration that the poem includes passages relating to the turning of the seasons, detailed accounts of the landscape and graphic descriptions of our dealings with the animal kingdom. The knight who throws down the challenge at Camelot is both ghostly and real. Supernatural, yes, but also flesh and blood. He is something in the likeness of ourselves, and he is not purple or orange or blue with yellow stripes. Gawain must negotiate a deal with a man who wears the colours of the leaves and the fields. He must strike an honest bargain with this manifestation of nature and his future depends on it.’

Read Simon Armitage’s introduction to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight on the British Library blog: https://www.bl.uk/medieval-literature/articles/sir-gawain-and-the-green-knight-an-introduction

Join our fellowship on 8 December, when we shall be wassailing and carousing on the topic of all things Green Knight related. https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/cardiff-booktalk-the-green-knight-registration-182773860537

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