Style the basics of clarity and grace 4th edition
The lady on the desk seems torn between taking me seriously and sliding her hand towards the panic button. Behind me, a couple of dozen readers, poring over ancient maps and documents, have overheard my outrageous request and have raised their eyes to just over the rim of their spectacles. The lady says, "You do realise it is one of our most priceless possessions? It isn't a particularly cold day in London, though when I left Yorkshire at 7am there was frost on the pavement.
This is why I am wearing a heavy-duty parka, a pair of big boots, and why I am sweating. I've never been in the British Library before, and with my new membership card laminated less than an hour ago, I'm beginning to wish that was still the case.
At this stage, the best course of action would be to say something like, "My name is Simon Armitage , I'm a published poet, and I've been commissioned to translate the poem.
But instead, I have entered what is often referred to in our house as Alan Bennett mode, characterised by the outward demonstration of inadequacy and unworthiness when standing before the edifices of the establishment. So instead of speaking, I just sweat some more, and the lady on the desk, says, "There aren't amany pictures in it. The lady says, "We have some nice postcards of them. You can buy them downstairs in the gift shop. From a little paper bag I pull out six or seven postcards.
The lady was right. They are indeed very nice, and beautifully reproduced. I can't pinpoint the moment when I decided to translate Sir Gawain, or remember how and why the idea came to me. A series of coincidences, probably: like noticing my wife's dog-eared copy of the Tolkien and Gordon edition, the "green book", poking out of the bookshelf; then the book falling open at a particular page, and my eye falling on a particular word - wodwo - a word well known to readers of Ted Hughes; then the poem coming up in a drunken conversation with Glyn Maxwell in a taxi in Poland; then remembering that Hughes himself had translated several sections of the poem, and going back to read them.
Incidents which, on their own, wouldn't have amounted to anything much, but when taken together seemed like some kind of big hint. All I know is that, within about a week, the idea had gone from a fanciful notion to a superstitious and preposterous conviction that I was put on the planet for no other reason than to translate this poem.
I spend a lot of time telling students that literature - like every book in the British Library, in fact - belongs to everyone. I've had many doubts while working on Gawain, wondering if I had the stamina, the aptitude, or even the right to be fiddling around with this ancient text. Looking back, I see that I began work on the translation while I was in Argentina.
I know this from a Malbec wine label gummed inside the first page of my notebook. Subconsciously, it's possible that I felt I had to approach this project as an outsider, even from thousands of miles away. And over the next three years, on those occasions when I had further doubts, I sometimes had to fall back on one partly naive but very helpful statement: this is a poem, and I am a poet.
What other permission is needed? We know next to nothing about the author of the poem that has come to be called Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. It was probably written around 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 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. Just as it fitted comfortably into my hand, eventually, when a contact at the library took pity on me and invited me into that part of the building which operates under conditions of high security and controlled humidity. Now referred to as Cotton Nero A. 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 that has made the poem so attractive to latter-day translators. The lack of 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 diction of the original tells us that its author was, broadly speaking, a northerner. Or we might 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 "ruze knockled knarrez with knorned stonez".
Lud's Church, a natural fissure in the rocks near the village of Flash, in Debyshire, has been proposed as the site of the Green Chapel. A similar strategy has informed my translation; although my own part of 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.
Naturally, to the trained medievalist the poem is perfectly readable in its original form; no translation necessary. And even for the non-specialist, certain lines, such as "Bot Arthure wolde not ete til al were served", present little problem, especially when placed within the context of the narrative. Conversely, lines such as "Forthi, iwysse, bi zowre wylle, wende me bihoues" are incomprehensible to the general reader. But it is the lines that 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, one interested in narrative and form, and to a northerner who not only recognises plenty of the poem's dialect but detects an echo of his own speech rhythms within the original, the urge to blow a little warm breath across that layer of frosting eventually proved irresistible.
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 is 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 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, or detailed accounts of the landscape, or 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. On the subject of those graphic descriptions, it should be said that verses 53 and 54 of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight are not for the faint-hearted, and that if the poem were a film it would surely require adult-only certification.
And not through nudity or foul language, but because while Gawain "made myry al day, til the mone rysed" ie lounged in the castle, flirting with the ladies , the lord of the land was out gralloching. I hadn't come across this term until I started looking into the art of deer-butchery, with which the Gawain poet was clearly well acquainted. Towards the end of an epic hunting scene, and with no little relish, he describes the whole process, from the hacking of the heads to the slicing of the stomachs.
No portion of the animal seems to escape the hunter's knife or the poet's eye, with some of the more grisly portions being guzzled by the dogs or tossed into the woods for the crows. But as full and frank as these passages are, I figured that only by seeing the real thing would I get a true sense of what was actually taking place.
For that reason, I found myself driving towards a farm on the Yorkshire-Lancashire border early one morning last year. And no ordinary farm, at least by Pennine standards, because the shapes in the fields above me were not those of cows and horses, but the less familiar outlines of elk and deer.
A llama peered over a dry-stone wall, sniffed the air, then returned to its ruminating. The farmer told me he'd had bison here as well, and other creatures of the prairies and steppes.
In his kitchen, we sat down for a cup of tea among the mounted heads of many a horned beast. On the windowsill a stuffed ferret bared the vicious white needles of its teeth. A bit later, I was standing in the yard in a pair of borrowed wellies when the single crack of a high-velocity rifle - like a wooden ruler snapped across the knee - echoed around the walls of the outbuildings.
A couple of minutes later the farmer comes skidding around the corner with his gun on his shoulder and a small, dead deer lolling over the back end of his quad bike. The slaughterhouse was a tall shed with a concrete floor. The farmer and his sidekick, both wearing blood-stained white smocks, like two mad dentists from a slasher movie, hoisted the deer in a kind of metal cradle and, in just a few seconds of mesmerising knife-work, removed its hide entirely.
Then, with a single cut from throat to groin, they opened it up. It was kind of horrible, kind of beautiful. I've never been very good with meat and blood, but the revulsion was tempered by the speed and expertise of the slaughtermen - it was too precise to be disgusting.
The only time I felt last night's supper rising towards my mouth was when he sliced open the gut and out dropped a big dollop of steaming green grass. The farmer gave me a running commentary on all the bits and pieces, especially those which crop up in the poem, such as the knot, the chine and the slot. The only term he couldn't help me with is "numbles". 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.
I read Tolkien's translation when I was in my mids; not surprisingly for someone who had studied and decoded the original text, his is a highly faithful rendition. But I never really responded to the antique diction and syntax - it struck me at times as even older than the original.
Marie Borroff's translation, printed in full in the colossal Norton anthology, also fights shy of contemporary vocabulary, but has a bounce and a flourish that I found much more satisfying. For a good number of years this has been thought of by many as the definitive poetic translation.
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.
The secret language of birthdays free
That edition - with the original on facing pages - would have been fine for students; and, as for the translation, it was, with one or two quibbles, "perfectly good enough". So forgive me for returning to the poem, but here now, thanks to Simon Armitage, we have a translation that not only can you actually read for pleasure, but which also takes you back closer to something of the thrill and wonder the poem would have had in the days when it was composed.
It might even be the best translation of any poem I've ever seen. In the acknowledgments at the end of the book, Armitage describes the coincidences that led him to entertain the "superstitious and preposterous conviction that I was put on the planet for no other reason than to translate this poem". We can be doubly glad that he had such a conviction. For a start, this kind of self-belief is essential to clear out the cobwebs in poets when engaged in such work - it gives their hunches an added layer of confidence.
And second, in this case it isn't a preposterous conviction at all. He's right: he was put on the planet to translate this poem. You notice it from the very first lines. Or rather, not just of its own: of its original, too.
Even the bob-and-wheel sections - the two-syllable line followed by a quatrain which closes off each stanza - which can cause some translators so much trouble, he handles with almost effortless ease. It can give rise, at times, to the sense that only the very best translations give rise to: that he's actually written the poem himself.
He has been helped by the fact that the original is not as far from modern English as, say, anything in French or German. It is a little harder than Chaucer, but the northwestern dialect is not too removed from Armitage's own experience and sentiment. They might not be from the same part of the north but, as Armitage puts it, "coaxing Gawain and his poem back into the Pennines was always part of the plan". We notice this occasionally, as when he rhymes "axe" with "ask" - and he's quite right to do so.
There are no notes, and no facing texts of Middle English: this isn't for the student, unless that student is interested in how first-rate translation works. It's for someone who wants to read a great narrative poem, one that contains mystery, sex well, sort of , comedy and astonishing evocations of the natural world.
In case there's anyone out there who doesn't know the story, or how it starts, I shall leave you to discover that surprise for yourself; I wouldn't want to spoil it. I resisted, for some time, the desire to check this against the original. I thought it best to experience it as any ordinary reader might.
In the end, I succumbed to such meagre scholastic urges as I have and started running translation past source. Well, as Armitage says in his introduction, liberties have been taken - but he can take as many liberties as he likes. All the ones I have seen conform almost wholly to the spirit of the work. There are even little in-jokes, such as when he uses the word "freak" - "freke" being one of the words the Gawain poet uses as a synonym for "man".
But the line Armitage's version comes from doesn't even use the word "freke" - it's "lede". Armitage uses "freak" to fit in with the alliterative scheme of his line; but I bet he privately enjoyed using it. My only complaint about this edition is that it didn't come out around Christmas, because that's when all the action happens. And that's not really much of a complaint, is it?
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