Thursday, December 3, 2009

Review: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: A New Verse Translation My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I have to kick myself for not reading this sooner, and, while I'm at it, give a few kicks to anyone who has not read it yet. I say you're missing out. It's a fun, fairly short, and even goofy artifact of medieval Britain. Good stuff, I say.

It's rollicking and maybe even a little Christmas-y, which makes it fun reading for this time of year. "Festive" is a good word for the opening scenes: Yuletide at King Arthur's Court -- and I feel that this poem never really loses that carnival-like atmosphere. Everything in this poem seems a game: from the initial challenge by the Green Knight, to the hunting scenes, to the unwilling courtship, all the way to the climax (hint: it involves an axe and a green girdle -- *meow*)

And yes, it is goofy, as only the English can manage. I couldn't help but laugh at some of the outdated symbolism, as the above "hint", uh, hints at. The picture of an all-green man barging into King Arthur's court, demanding someone cut off his head? A little ridiculous. But then, when the deed is done, he picks it up and carries the damned thing off!

And the language, with the original Middle English included on the left-hand pages of this edition, has goofiness within it as well. Despite having no clue about correct pronunciation, I gave it a good old shot and I'm convinced that it was more fun that way. Stumbling over those odd but somehow familiar words, often sounding like I had potatoes in my mouth? As a sage once said: you can buy potatoes, but not True Happiness.

This translation by Simon Armitage is also worth mentioning. Though I have no experience with any other translations of this poem, I don't know the language of the source text at all, and I have little info on literary translating in general -- despite all this, I'd say this is a mighty fine translation. This guy, Armitage, seems to "get it." He is completely aware of the feeling and mood of this poem and he does all he can to preserve it. In fact, he seems more intent on holding on to the original feel than the exact, literal translation (As showcased most prominently by his decision to preserve the alliteration; I feel it would not at all be the same poem without that feature, so good on him.)

I had fun with this -- though I assure you, I was always laughing with and not at. Even the inevitable heavy-handed moral and religious symbolism did not dampen the mood. Sure, we all know that the green means something, that Gawain is a hero of this or that kind -- but with a story this good, who really cares? I prefer to leave the criticism to the critics -- I like to enjoy the stuff I read.

I saw the messages there, but they didn't stick out as much as they could. This poem could be compared to a sermon, in that it tries to get religious messages across while still being entertaining. Even in the Middle Ages, you needed a little flare to gain and keep people's interests. The problem with this approach, though -- at least with this poem, and no doubt with modern-day sermons from enthusiastic preachers trying to attract a bigger crowd -- is that it perhaps entertains too much. It's no Bible. (Some people might actually read it.)

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