As a rule, I do not enjoy having someone read to me. I never really liked it very much as a small child, I hated when other people were chosen to read aloud in school, and I’m not a particular fan of audiobooks either. I do, however, belong to a storytelling group–one that leans heavily on stories, songs, and sagas from the Middle Ages. When the leader of our group expressed an interest in having a group reading of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, I decided to attend despite my usual feelings about being read to. After all, many of the stories we had previously discussed in the group had originally been passed down orally. Listening to Sir Gawain was the historically accurate thing to do.
The version I’m reviewing–the Simon Armitage translation–was not the sole version used during our group reading. Sir Gawain was originally written down in Old English, which is far enough removed from the language’s current incarnation that multiple translations exist (it will shock no one to learn that Tolkien wrote one). They all have one thing in common: they use the same line number notation. It was therefore possible for our group leader to give each of us a different translation, along with an index card of line numbers. When the numbers on each card came up, that person would read from their designated translation. It was an utterly fascinating way to work through the story because it was possible to follow along without actually reading along with the exact same words. Each translation was distinctly different but had enough similarities with the others that it was easy to keep pace, while pondering the different choices each translator made and how those choices affected the presentation of the narrative.
Each of the translations had something distinct to offer, but the Armitage translation (which is the one I read from) was without a doubt one of the most enjoyable. Though I had not previously known the entirety of the story of Sir Gawain, I knew enough about it that I could really take pleasure in the language in front of me, without wondering too hard about the plot. (Re: the plot: there is not a lot of it but that’s probably for the better; I’ll get back to that shortly.) Armitage’s translation relies heavily on alliteration; the experience of reading it aloud was absolutely amazing. The words had a lush, sensual quality to them that proved incredibly satisfying. (Especially with the descriptions of food. Oh! And of clothing! Especially that of the Green Knight. My lips and tongue still tingle just thinking about it.)
The plot is…not much. Gawain is a very young knight in King Arthur’s court. When the Green Knight arrives during a feast, he sets a challenge that only Gawain is willing to consider. It results in–surprise, surprise–a quest, the realization of which is likely to end in Gawain’s death. There is much feasting, a bit of fighting, some acts of chivalry and descriptions of women that bear further thought and scrutiny on my part, and a bizarre, moralistic ending. None of this really matters in light of the language. It’s definitely a book to be read aloud and savored. And if you happen to know someone who can read Old English all the better! A friend of mine can do so with remarkable fluency, and she started the reading that afternoon. If you closed your eyes and just listened to her voice, you could almost hear the crackling of a long-dead fire and feel the last, sad touches on your cheek of a breeze that had been still for centuries. …Of course, that could also be attributed to the effect of the mulled wine I was drinking at the time.
(Bonus: BBC4 produced a documentary about the poem that is hosted by Armitage: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=74glI1lg1CQ)