Gawain and the jolly green giant

Winter's journey
Winter’s journey

Bernard O’Donoghue transl
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Penguin 2006

Simon Armitage transl
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Faber and Faber 2007

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is one of the most magical of Arthurian tales: a jolly green giant who intrudes into King Arthur’s Christmas court at Camelot invites Gawain to chop off his head on condition that Gawain allows the return blow one year hence; the year up, Gawain then travels through Wales to northwest England to face his doom. Has he bitten off more than he can chew or will he acquit himself well and bring honour to king and court?

Over the years there have been many modernised versions of this wonderful anonymous Arthurian poem, including those of Gwyn Jones (republished in Wordsworth Classics) and Brian Stone (long available in Penguin Classics). Side by side with the popular renditions there have of course been scholarly editions, with the original Middle English text glossed in the margins and in footnotes (Tolkien’s is probably the best known to the wider public), but in general these have not made the poem really accessible to the modern public. How successful as translations the popular versions have been, from the rather Victorianised archaisms of Jones to the awkward 20th-century alliterations of Stone, is debatable, and so the need for a readable 21st-century presentation has been well overdue.

The celebrated children’s author Alan Garner hailed from the same north-west background as the Gawain poet, and as he has noted the Middle English of the poem has no mysteries for him, a native of Cheshire. For those of us brought up with Standard English or Received Pronunciation the problem is more acute, leading to a need for a modernised text retaining both the thrill of the story and the flavour of the language. Two relatively recent attempts are generally available in cheap editions and the question is, how successful are they in capturing that thrill and flavour?

Brian Stone’s elderly translation of 1959 has been replaced in Penguin Classics by that of Bernard O’Donoghue. He has eschewed the alliteration of the original while trying to retain the original stress-patterns and rhythms of the poem, leading often to what he terms “post-Shakespearean blank-verse”. When Gawain prepares for his re-encounter with the Knight, “He put on his magnificent clothes, | his topcoat with its emblem of the clearest design | emblazoned in velvet, with precious stones | set and sewn into it, embroidered at the seams, | and elegantly edged with most beautiful furs.” As a poet O’Donoghue cannot totally avoid alliteration, but it is not a slavish imitation of the original. With authoritative introduction and notes this is a more than worthy replacement of Stone’s version: Stone’s “While he was putting on apparel of the most princely kind…” now sounds quaint and archaic compared to O’Donaghue’s more accessible and colloquial rendition. This new verse translation won’t appeal to all: O’Donaghue, who was born in Ireland, spent his late teens in Manchester before moving to Oxford, but you may find it difficult to trace any hint of the northwest here.

Simon Armitage, also a poet, had his version – one that “you can actually read for pleasure” according to Nicholas Lezard – performed on BBC radio as a play, and no wonder. He does consciously attempt sustained alliteration, but it doesn’t feel forced: “He clothes himself in the costliest costume: | his coat with the brightly emblazoned badge | mounted on velvet; magical minerals | inside and set about it; embroidered seams; | a lining finished with fabulous furs…” A little later on the description of his horse Gringolet also comes over as natural: “The steed had been stabled in comfort and safety | and snorted and stamped in readiness for the ride.” When you hear Armitage read his translation you can hear that his West Yorkshire tones are closer in spirit to the anonymous poet’s Cheshire origins than any RP accent. While some may baulk at some of Armitage’s anachronistic turns of phrase, there is an inherent no-nonsense attitude which is refreshing.

Of these two translations I prefer Armitage’s for its flow and approachability; if you want some more literary background and an easy to read version then O’Donoghue’s may be the one for you. Either way, whether in translation or in the original with a parallel text, the poem, its narrative, its images and its echoes through myth and legend are an experience to be marvelled at and treasured.

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4 thoughts on “Gawain and the jolly green giant

  1. Glad to hear Stone has finally been replaced, although it loses a lot (IMO) without the alliteration. I’ve always found Tolkien’s translation (Ballantine Books, 1980; with Pearl and Sir Orfeo) to be very approachable, while maintaining much of the alliteration and other important structural aspect of the romance. My students seem to enjoy it as well (I’ve used it in Composition II courses).

    1. Thanks for commenting! What you say about the Tolkien edition is true, though I do know the academic apparatus of parallel text, copious footnotes and so on can put casual readers off, which these two recent editions won’t.

      The original review (which I’ve expanded slightly) was published in 2007 to an audience who would know the context, so I just concentrated on aspects that reflected accessibility, including availability in relatively cheap paperback editions, rather than giving a comprehensive overview of all the options. A drawback to this review, I suppose.

      The O’Donaghue edition is certainly an improvement on Stone’s, which also included dubious material in its introduction. You’ve reminded me: I must get back to the Tolkien edition some time…

      1. The Ballantine edition is not a parallel text edition, nor does it have notes (at least not many). It’s also not an academic/scholarly edition, it’s intended for a general audience (Ballantine’s not a scholarly press).

  2. Stupid me, I’m thinking of the OUP study edited by Tolkien, Gordon and Davis, which has no parallel text, and not Tolkien’s translation in Ballantine. Apologies. (mutters) Must dig that study out…

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