The New York Times

December 16, 2007

A Stranger in Camelot


A New Verse Translation.

By Simon Armitage.

198 pp. W. W. Norton & Company. $25.95.

In 1967, Ted Hughes's third book, "Wodwo" — raw, spooky, elemental — sent me scurrying to find out the meaning of this strange Middle English word. The figure of "wodwo," which Hughes elsewhere characterized as a sort of "half-man, half-animal spirit of the forests," seemed to have loomed up out of the unconscious of English poetry. The book's epigraph came from a ferocious passage in "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight," and soon I was parsing the somewhat resistant Middle English text and bounding through J. R. R. Tolkien's faithful translation. I was transfixed. I had stumbled upon the underground alliterative tradition of English poetry.

"Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" is one of the eerie, exuberant joys of Middle English poetry. The poem was created in the latter part of the 14th century by an unknown author who probably hailed from the West Midlands of England. He knew the spoken dialect of the rugged country between north Staffordshire and south Lancashire.

The geography of the poem puts it a world away from cosmopolitan London. The sole surviving copy of the manuscript, now kept securely in the British Library, was recorded by a scribe and bound up with three other poems probably by the same creator ("Pearl," "Patience" and "Cleanness"). Thus the author is generally known as the Gawain or Pearl poet. He was a contemporary of Chaucer and a master of our mongrel English tongue.

"Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" is a medieval romance (it inherits a body of Arthurian legends that had circulated in England for a couple of centuries) but also an outlandish ghost story, a gripping morality tale and a weird thriller. It is a sexual teaser that keeps you on the edge of your seat. It's easy to imagine huddling around the fire to listen to it. You can tear through it in a night or two — I couldn't put down Simon Armitage's compulsively readable new verse translation — and linger over it for years.

"Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" is one of the founding narratives of English literature. The storyteller nods to the "Aeneid," thus invoking his epic lineage, and then settles down to tell his tale, which begins in the court of King Arthur, "most regal of rulers in the royal line." It is Christmastime at Camelot, and the chivalrous Knights of the Round Table are carrying on and carousing when suddenly an enormous stranger appears, a hulking interloper, "a most massive man, the mightiest of mortals." The astonishing stranger is green from head to foot, a kind of emanation from nature. Even his horse is "a steed of pure green stock."

The Green Knight, "otherworldly, yet flesh / and bone," presents a startling challenge: he will endure one blow without offering resistance, but whoever deals it must promise to receive a reciprocal blow in a year and a day. Sir Gawain, nephew of King Arthur, rises to the challenge and beheads the stranger in one stunning strike. Then the Knight stands, picks up his head, and reminds Gawain to meet him at the appointed time. Thereafter Gawain, a bewildered southern innocent (he tells Arthur he is "weakest of your warriors and feeblest of wit"), honors his pledge to seek the Green Knight out and journeys into harsh northern terrain. A year of adventures ensues — an adulterous seduction, a series of graphically violent hunts, a meeting with the Green Knight in a green chapel — that constitutes the moral test and vision of the poem.

Alliteration, the audible repetition of consonant sounds at the beginning of words or within words, is part of the sound stratum of poetry. Its heavy percussive use in "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" brings the poem close to oral poetry. Listen to the letter "v" in this line about the Green Knight — "And alle his vesture verayly was clene verdure" — which Armitage gleefully translates as "In all vestments he revealed himself veritably verdant!" Or consider the letter "g" in this comparable line — "Thou wyl grant me godly the gomen that I ask / bi ryght" — which Armitage renders as "you'll gracefully grant me this game which I ask for / by right." The repetitive consonants tie the stressed syllables together (grant, godly, gomen) and urge the interaction of the words upon us.

Alliteration was the organizing device of Anglo-Saxon poetry, predating rhyme, but it was dying out by the 14th century until a group of poets established what has been called an "alliterative revival." "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" inevitably evokes its precursor, "Beowulf," which has been powerfully translated by Seamus Heaney, who provides the model for Armitage's enterprise. Alliteration didn't predominate in later metrical verse, but it is a rough current in Sir Thomas Wyatt, if you listen, and thereafter becomes a subterranean stream in English-language poetry. It comes bubbling to the surface in 19th-century English poets, like Swinburne and Hopkins, who use it with startling boldness, and 20th-century Welsh poets, like David Jones and Dylan Thomas.

Rhyme had come into poetry, via France, by the 14th century. The vogue for Petrarch would help make it one of the dominant features of later courtly verse. The Gawain poet also knew how to rhyme. There are 101 stanzas of uneven length in "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight," and each one ends with five short, rhyming, tightly metrical lines known as the "bob and wheel." The first two-syllable line is the "bob," which is a bridge from the alliterated to the rhyming lines; the following four three-stress lines are the "wheel." This is how the translator renders it when Gawain turns up at an unknown court:

This knight,
whose country was unclear,
now seemed to them by sight
a prince without a peer
in fields where fierce men fight.

Armitage, an English poet from West Yorkshire, clearly feels a special kinship with the Gawain poet. He captures his dialect and his landscape and takes great pains to render the tale's alliterative texture and drive. Indeed, Armitage calls alliteration "the warp and weft of the poem." His vernacular translation isn't literal — sometimes he alliterates different letters, sometimes he foreshortens the number of alliterations in a line, sometimes he changes lines altogether and so forth — but his imitation is rich and various and recreates the gnarled verbal texture of the Middle English original, which is presented in a parallel text.

There have been dozens of translations of "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" over the years. J. R. R. Tolkien's authoritative edition was a gift to readers, though his own translation now seems somewhat flowery. Marie Borroff did an alliterative version that holds up after 40 years. Ted Hughes translated some key sections, newly available in his "Selected Translations," which marvelously recreate the Gawain poet's alliterative long line. Five years ago, W. S. Merwin published a learned, lyrical translation. Now Simon Armitage has given us an energetic, free-flowing, high-spirited version. He reminds us that "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" still wields an uncanny power after 600 years. We're fortunate that "our coffers have been crammed / with stories such as these."

Edward Hirsch's new book of poems, "Special Orders," will be published NEXT SPRING.

An illustration from The Sphere magazine showing the Knights of the Round Table.

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