Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: An Introduction

Simon Armitage explores Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and reflects on how he approached his own translation of the poem.

By Simon Armitage / 01.31.2018
Poet and Playwright

We know next to nothing about the author of the poem which has come to be called Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. It was probably written around 1400. In the early 17th century the manuscript was recorded as belonging to a Yorkshireman, Henry Saville of Bank. It was later acquired by Sir Robert Cotton, whose collection also included the Lindisfarne Gospels and the only surviving manuscript of Beowulf . The poem then lay dormant for over 200 years, not coming to light until Queen Victoria was on the throne, thus leapfrogging the attentions of some of our greatest writers and critics. The manuscript, a small, unprepossessing thing, would fit comfortably into an average-size hand, were anyone actually allowed to touch it. Now referred to as Cotton Nero A X, it is considered not only a most brilliant example of Middle English poetry but also as one of the jewels in the crown of English Literature; it now sits in the British Library under conditions of high security and controlled humidity.

The Middle English masterpiece Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is the story of a quest undertaken by Gawain, the nephew of King Arthur. This folio from the manuscript portrays the Green Knight, Gawain, King Arthur and other members of the court. / British Library, Public Domain

To cast eyes on the manuscript, or even to shuffle the unbound pages of the Early English Text Society’s facsimile edition, is to be intrigued by the handwriting: stern, stylish letters, like crusading chess pieces, fall into orderly ranks along faintly ruled lines. But the man whose calligraphy we ponder, a jobbing scribe probably, was not the author. The person who has become known as the Gawain poet remains as shadowy as the pages themselves. Among many other reasons, it is partly this anonymity which has made the poem so attractive to latter-day translators. The lack of definitive authorship seems to serve as an invitation, opening up a space within the poem for a new writer to occupy. Its comparatively recent rediscovery acts as a further draw; if Milton or Pope had put their stamp on it, or if Dr. Johnson had offered an opinion, or if Keats or Coleridge or Wordsworth had drawn it into their orbit, such an invitation might now appear less forthcoming.

The dictation of the original tells us that its author was, broadly speaking, a northerner. Or we could say a midlander. The linguistic epicentre of the poem has been located in the area of the Cheshire-Staffordshire-Derbyshire border. Some researchers claim to have identified Swythamley Grange as the Castle of Hautdesert, or the jagged peaks of the Roaches as those ‘rogh knokled knarres with knorned stones’ (l. 2166). Lud’s Church, a natural fissure in the rocks near the village of Flash in Derbyshire, has been proposed as the site of the Green Chapel. ‘Hit had a hole on the ende and on anyther syde, / And overgrowen with gres in glodes aywhere, / And all was holw inwith, nobot an olde cave / Or a crevisse of an olde cragge’ (ll. 2180–84). It may or may not be the place, but to stand in that mossy cleft, which cannot have changed much over the centuries, is to believe that the author had an actual landscape in mind when he conceived the poem and lured his young protagonist into a northern region to legitimise his vocabulary and make good use of his surrounding geography. A similar strategy has informed my translation; although my own part of northern England is separated from Lud’s Church by the swollen uplands of the Peak District, coaxing Gawain and his poem back into the Pennines was always part of the plan.

Gawain, in armour and on horseback, approaches a cave (bottom right), as the Green Knight wields his axe. The artist has portrayed a dense, grassy landscape, populated with many plants. / British Library, Public Domain

Of course to the trained medievalist the poem is perfectly readable in its original form; no translation is necessary. And even for the non-specialist, certain lines, such as ‘Bot Arthure wolde not ete til all were served’ (l. 85), especially when placed within the context of the narrative, present little problem. Conversely, lines such as ‘Forthy, iwis, bi your wille, wende me behoves’ (l. 1065) are incomprehensible to the general reader. But it is the lines which fall somewhere between those extremes – the majority of lines, in fact – which fascinate the most. They seem to make sense, though not quite. To the untrained eye, it is as if the poem is lying beneath a thin coat of ice, tantalisingly near yet frustratingly blurred. To a contemporary poet interested in narrative and form, the urge to blow a little warm breath across the layer of frosting eventually proved irresistible. And even more so for a northerner who not only recognises plenty of the poem’s dialect, but who also detects an echo of his own speech within the original. Words such as ‘bide’ (wait), ‘nobut’ (nothing but), ‘childer’ (children), ‘layke’ (play), ‘karp’ (talk), ‘bout’ (without), ‘brid’ (bird), ‘sam’ (gather up) and ‘barlay’ (truce) are still in usage in these parts, though mainly (and sadly) among members of the older generation.

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

Gawain returns to the court of King Arthur / British Library, Public Domain

Over the years there have been dozens, possibly hundreds of translations of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, ranging from important scholarly restorations, to free-handed poetic or prose versions, to exercises in form and technique by students of Middle English, many of them posted on the Internet. Some translators, for perfectly valid reasons and with great success, have chosen not to imitate its highly alliterative form. But to me alliteration is the warp and weft of the poem, without which it is just so many fine threads. In some very elemental way, the story and the sense of the poem is directly located within its sound. The percussive patterning of the words serves to reinforce their meaning and to countersink them within the memory. So in trying to harmonise with the original rather than transcribe every last word of it, certain liberties have been taken. This is not an exercise in linguistic forensics or medieval history; the intention has always been to produce a living, inclusive and readable piece of work in its own right.

On a line-for-line basis, those who choose to read and compare the translation with the original will occasionally be presented with something like a mirror image, or at least a striking resemblance. The first line of the poem, for example, ‘Sithen the sege and the assaut was sesed at Troye’, has become ‘Once the siege and assault of Troy had ceased’. Aside from the odd bit of touching up, it’s a fairly honest reproduction. Other lines, however, will be less recognisable in their altered state. So there is plenty to argue with here, and for some commentators this kind of approach will always be unacceptable. But this is a poem, not a crib or a glossary, and imitating the alliterative style of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight necessitates an immediate move away from the words of the original and their direct contemporary equivalents. Take, for example, the much discussed issue of the Gawain poet’s many words for ‘knight’ or ‘man’. Terms at his disposal include ‘freke’, ‘hathel’ and ‘gome’. In a literal translation, each of those obsolete words could be replaced by a modern word of the same meaning, without too much agonising as to its acoustic properties or pronunciation. But in an alliterative translation those agonies must be experienced; in trawling for appropriate substitute words, the net must be cast wider. In the ‘bob and wheel’ sections, where along with alliteration, metre and rhyme also enter the equation, further deviations are inevitable. Lines 81–82, say: ‘The comlokest to discrye / Ther glent with yyen gray’ – broadly speaking, ‘the fairest to behold / looked on with grey eyes’. A literal translation gives us the cold facts of Guinevere’s beauty, yet the unspoken poetic intelligence suggests that her eyes are precious stones, more priceless than the ‘best gemmes’ mentioned in the previous line. Of all the jewels which surround her, it is her own eyes which glint and gleam the most. My own poetic response has been to introduce ‘quartz’ and ‘queen’, despite neither of those words being present in the original lines. I hope that readers will be able to see this as a kind of controlled and necessary flirtation, rather than carefree unfaithfulness or mindless infidelity.


‘Sithen the sege and the assaut was sesed at Troye’: the poem’s opening lines in manuscript. / British Library, Public Domain

Aside from the technical requirements of the poem, there are other reasons for departing from the literal, and those reasons are to do with the very nature of poetry itself. Poetry is not just meaning and information. Poetry is about manner as much as it is about matter – the manner in which words behave under certain conditions and in particular surroundings. Such behaviours give the poem its unique character. Over time these behaviours change, or come to signify different things, and their latter-day counterparts are more likely to be found in the imagination than in the dictionary or the encyclopaedia. For this reason, the poet who works as a translator will rarely be content with the tit-for-tat exchange of one language into another, no matter how scrupulous the transfer. Here is line 1137:

By that any daylight lemed upon erthe

‘By the time that some daylight shone’ would be a reasonable literal translation. At first sight this is not a particularly appealing line. To begin with, it is one of the moments in the poem when the alliteration, usually such a strong pulse, completely flat-lines. Also, for a description of the life-bringing dawn, and as a curtain-raiser to one of the greatest hunting scenes in all literature, it seems pretty tame. But there is power here, and much of that power is invested in that single word ‘lemed’, from an Old Norse word, ‘ljóma’, meaning to shine. It is not a word used in English these days, which is a pity, because as a verb it has much to recommend it. The mouth opens to announce this word, and the tongue pushes forward, launching that first ‘l’. Then something is projected outwards for the duration of the word, right the way through the agreeable, humming ‘m’, and keeps on being projected until that final ‘d’, like a soft landing, the laying down of light upon the ground. If it is onomatopoeic, it is also metaphorical, magical even, a one-word image. It signals to me that poetry is at work here, and it seems to demand a poetic response. My own ‘So as morning was lifting its lamp to the land’ introduces words and concepts which are foreign to the original line but not, I hope, out of keeping with its ambitions or intentions. Neither does it derail the storyline or contradict the basic facts. Ornamentation has happened here, but the structural integrity has not been compromised.

Returning to the subject of alliteration, it should be mentioned that within each line it is the stressed syllables which count. A translated line such as ‘and retrieves the intestines in time-honoured style’ (l. 1612) might appear not to alliterate at all at first glance. But read it out loud, and the repetition of that ‘t’-sound – the tut-tutting, the spit of revulsion, the squirming of the warm, wet tongue as it makes contact with the roof of the mouth – seems to suggest a physical relationship with the action being described. If the technique is effective, as well as understanding what we are being told we take a step closer to actually experiencing it. It is an attempt to combine meaning with feeling. This is a translation not only for the eye, but for the ear and the voice as well. Further to that, it is worth noting that the pronunciation of our hero’s very name is not universally agreed upon. To many he is Gawain. The original author clearly alliterated on the ‘G’, suggesting that he also stressed the first syllable of the word. But there are other moments in the text, such as the iambic-sounding quatrain at line 1948, where the rhythm suggests the opposite, as in Gawain, which is the way I have always referred to him. So for the convenience of having my cake and eating it, sometimes I have allowed the tough-looking ‘G’ to perform a visual alliteration, and sometimes I have required the ‘w’ to act as the load-bearer.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a poem which succeeds through a series of vivid contrasts: standard English with colloquial speech; the devotion and virtue of the young knight with the growling bloodlust of his green foe; exchanges of courtly love with none-too-subtle sexual innuendo; exquisite robes and priceless crowns contrasting with spurting blood and the steaming organs of butchered deer; polite, indoor society with the untamed, unpredictable outdoors … and so on. Those contrasts stretch the imaginative universe of the poem and make it three-dimensional. Without the spaces they open up, there would be no poem to speak of. The same contrasts can be observed in the form of the poem as well as its tone, with elements of order and disorder at work throughout, often operating simultaneously.

On the side of order we have the four-beat pulse of each line, the very particular number of verses, and the rhyme and rhythm of the ‘bob and wheel’ sections. On the side of disorder we have the unequal line lengths, the variable verse lengths and the wildly fluctuating pace of the story. Even the alliteration, constant and insistent for the most part, occasionally fades from view altogether. So within the strictures and confines of this very formal piece we detect a human presence, the Gawain poet, a disciplined craftsman who also liked to run risks and take liberties. He would appear to have set himself a series of rules, then consciously and conspicuously gone about bending them. As his translator, I hope to have been guided by his example.

Originally published by the British Library under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.