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Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Paperback – March 30, 2004
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From Publishers Weekly
Written down at least once in 1400 but probably composed earlier (and orally), this Middle English tale is rendered line-by-line, with the original en face, by the indefatigable Merwin. This approach allows the full flavor of the poem to come through as one goes back and forth between them: "Dele to me my destin, and do hit out of honde" becomes "Deal me my destiny, and do it out of hand."
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
The first great story in English literature, Beowulf, is about fighting monsters--Grendel and his mother--and so is the next, the fourteenth-century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. A gigantic green knight crashes Round Table festivities one Yuletide, casting a deathly pall over them and challenging one of the company to a duel. The virtuous Gawain accepts and, invited to put ax-blade to the thing's neck, decapitates it. Gushing blood, the knight picks up his noggin, tells Gawain to meet him in a year, and leaves. Next Yuletide, Gawain sets out. Nothing matches the horror of the opening scene, but the poem's ambiguous allegorical development, which no one has satisfactorily explicated during the 200 years since the manuscript was discovered, remains deliciously eerie. Following the example of Seamus Heaney's Beowulf, Merwin's Sir Gawain replicates the propulsive alliteration and the rhymed-quatrain stanza endings of the original, and the translation appears face-to-face with the Middle English original. A major translation of a major English, and a major horror, classic. Ray Olson
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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This translation is superb. It flows nicely and has the Aurthurian air about it. It is the perfect piece for a one-sitting read.
King Arthur, his wife Guinevere, and the Knights of The Round Table are celebrating Christmas and New Year at the famous castle 'Camelot'. One evening a huge knight on horseback bursts into the Hall during dinner, brandishing a large and fearsome battle-axe. Everything about him is green, not only his armor - as one might expect - but also his face, his hair, and even his horse. He has come in peace as he is advertising more than once. In short he says: who is bold enough to step forward and try to chop my head off with this battle-axe? But after one year and a day it will be my turn to deal a blow. Gawain, one of the Knights of The Round Table, steps forward, takes the axe and beheads the Green Knight. As if nothing happened the Green Knight picks up his head, takes it under his arm and the head says: a year and one day from now it will be my turn to give you a blow. You have to promise that you will come looking for me. You can find me at the Green Chapel ( It's almost a joke but who knows? Maybe this is all just a joke ). If you survive my blow I will give you a great reward. The Knight doesn't want to say where the Green Chapel can be found. It's far away from here but you will find people who can show you the way. And remember, you promised. And so the adventure begins for Gawain. He has to go without a companion. He stands on his own for that was a part of the deal.
This Fantasy element is the only one in the story. Everything else is realistic. That could be an indication that some scholars are right when they say that the Green Knight is a symbol for the reviving of Nature after the winter. There is a parallel between this symbolism and Gawain who's becoming more mature as the story unfolds. Throughout the story he's tempted in many ways to betray his vow of chastity and loyalty to the Virgin Mary, and near the end of the story he's tempted into cowardice. After all is said and done Gawain has a more realistic view on knighthood. He becomes adult and reaches a new stage in his life just like the revival of Nature by the Green Knight.
One of the things I like in this medieval romance are the hunting scenes described very vividly and in great detail. It starts with a description of the animal they want to hunt down: its strong and weak points. During the chase it is as if you can hear the horns blow and the shouts of the hunters, the barking of the hounds and the grunting of the wounded animal and it ends with the cutting of the meat after the bowels are given to the hounds as a reward.
Accordingly, my primary interest is the language of the original.
Merwin's interest is primarily literary. His introduction focuses on the place of this Arthurian tale in the literary tradition.
His translation [I had a high school English teacher who insisted on calling "translation between" periods of English "adaptation". I don't agree but, in case anyone else out there shares my teacher's viewpoint, you have been heard and considered], as he states in his introduction, is an adaptation from another translation. His approach to translation is different from mine. He creates a somewhat different work of literature. I figure out the Middle English and then ask how would I express that thought and keep the poet's style in the English of today.
For those, like me, who want information about our language in the Middle English period, including its dialectical differences from Chaucer, your best sources are elsewhere.
Nevertheless, I appreciated the work for what it is, a literary translation of high readability, preceded by an introduction that sets it in literary context.