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Sir Gawain and the Green Knight; Pearl; [and] Sir Orfeo Mass Market Paperback – December 12, 1979
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"Children of Blood and Bone"
Tomi Adeyemi conjures a stunning world of dark magic and danger in her West African-inspired fantasy debut. Learn more
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SIR GAWAIN AND THE Green KNIGHT, PEARL, and SIR ORFEO are masterpieces of a remote and exotic age--the age of chivalry and wizards, knights and holy quests. Yet it is only in the unique artistry and imagination of J.R.R. Tolken that the language, romance, and power of these great stories comes to life for modern readers, in this masterful and compelling new translation.
- Format: Paperback
- Publication Date: 7/1/1988
- Pages: 224
- Reading Level: Age 12 and Up
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The story begins at a New Year's feast at Camelot when in barges the Green Knight - a gigantic, mysterious horseman whose flesh and clothes glow with a green hue. He issues a morbid challenge: a chance to strike a blow against him with his very own axe in exchange for the Green Knight delivering a return blow a year later, in a place called the Green Chapel. When none of Arthur's knights answer the challenge, the young king is prepared to strike the blow himself, until the noble Gawain rises to the task. Gawain strikes hard with the Green Knight's axe, severing his head. But undeterred, the Green Knight picks up his severed head and warns Gawain that his time will come a year from now when the Green Knight will deliver his own merciless blow.
Fulfilling his end of the bargain, Gawain eventually embarks on a journey into Northern Wales to find the Green Chapel. His journey takes him to a castle, where he meets its wily lord and his beautiful wife. While the lord is off hunting, his wife tries mightily to seduce Gawain, but being a virtuous and Christian knight, he steadfastly refuses her advances. He refuses her gifts too, until she offers him her silk girdle, which she claims has the power to prevent physical harm - not a bad thing to have when an undead Green Knight is waiting to behead you!
A big reveal comes in the poem's climax when Gawain goes to meet his fate before the Green Knight at an overgrown barrow mound that serves at the chapel. There's a twist at the end, and it drives home the poem's theme, which alludes to biblical tales and even mentions Adam, Solomon, and David at one point. Even a little research about this poem will reveal that its message and its myriad of symbols - the green man, the garter, and even Gawain's shield, which is emblazoned with a golden pentacle - have been subject to a number of differing interpretations over time. The poem's ending and all of the symbolism left me pondering its meaning as well. And in my book, that's often the sign of a good tale.
There is no commentary or exegetical notes from Tolkien, like can be found in the recently published Beowulf translation. Which is a shame, as the reader can see many allusions to later works, especially in his Middle Earth stories, with the writing here. There is a popular Penguin translation, which does have end notes of some of the terms and a commentary on Sir Gawain.
As a story, Sir Gawain is very enjoyable, and Tolkien's translation is very lyrical and at times sounds better than it reads, making this story suitable for oral telling. As a moral adventure, of a knight, from one Christmas, to another a year later, the reader is drawn into the ethical decision making and high drama and mystery of the realm that the knight lives and travels in.
Pearl and Sir Orfeo make up the last 1/3rd of this compilation. These two stories compliment Sir Gawain, in that they highlight Tolkien's lyrical translating ability. Pearl is a poem from the same area and time as Sir Gawain, and tells the story of a dream sequence, where a father attempts to come to term with deep loss, from the context of Christian theology. Sir Orfeo is a 15th century story of an ancient British king, his wanderings in the wilderness, and his recovery and restoration to his kingdom after many years. As a story to read, Pearl, due to its imagery, was the hardest of the three to read, and Sir Gawain the easiest.
These are enjoyable stories that are lyrically translated and provide a window into English, middle age story telling.