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We know next to nothing about the author of the poem that has come to be called Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. It was probably written around 1400. In the early 17th century the manuscript was recorded as belonging to a Yorkshireman, Henry Saville of Bank. It was later acquired by Sir Robert Cotton, whose collection also included the Lindisfarne Gospels and the only surviving manuscript of Beowulf. The poem then lay dormant for over 200 years, not coming to light until Queen Victoria was on the throne, thus leapfrogging the attentions of some of our greatest writers and critics. The manuscript, a small, unprepossessing thing, would fit comfortably into an average-size hand. Just as it fitted comfortably into my hand, eventually, when a contact at the library took pity on me and invited me into that part of the building which operates under conditions of high security and controlled humidity. Now referred to as Cotton Nero A.x., not only is it a precious possession, it is considered one of the finest surviving examples of Middle English poetry.

To cast eyes on the manuscript, or even to shuffle the unbound pages of the Early English Text Society's facsimile edition, is to be intrigued by the handwriting; stern, stylish letters, like crusading chess-pieces, fall into orderly ranks along faintly ruled lines. But the man whose calligraphy we ponder - a jobbing scribe, probably - was not the author. The person who has become known as the Gawain poet remains as shadowy as the pages themselves. Among many other reasons, it is partly this anonymity that has made the poem so attractive to latter-day translators. The lack of authorship seems to serve as an invitation, opening up a space within the poem for a new writer to occupy. Its comparatively recent rediscovery acts as a further draw; if Milton or Pope had put their stamp on it, or if Dr Johnson had offered an opinion, or if Keats or Coleridge or Wordsworth had drawn it into their orbit, such an invitation might now appear less forthcoming.

The diction of the original tells us that its author was, broadly speaking, a northerner. Or we might say a midlander. The linguistic epicentre of the poem has been located in the area of the Cheshire-Staffordshire-Derbyshire border. Some researchers claim to have identified Swythamley Grange as the Castle of Hautdesert, or the jagged peaks of The Roaches as those "ruze knockled knarrez with knorned stonez". Lud's Church, a natural fissure in the rocks near the village of Flash, in Debyshire, has been proposed as the site of the Green Chapel. "Hit hade a hole on the ende and on ayther syde / And ouergrowen with gresse in glodes aywhere / And al watz holz inwith, nobot an olde caue / Or a creuisse of an olde cragge." It may or may not be the place, but to stand in that mossy cleft which cannot have changed much over the centuries is to believe that the author had an actual landscape in mind when he conceived the poem, and lured his young protagonist into a northern region to legitimise his vocabulary and to make good use of his surrounding geography. A similar strategy has informed my translation; although my own part of England is separated from Lud's Church by the swollen uplands of the Peak District, coaxing Gawain and his poem back into the Pennines was always part of the plan.

Naturally, to the trained medievalist the poem is perfectly readable in its original form; no translation necessary. And even for the non-specialist, certain lines, such as "Bot Arthure wolde not ete til al were served", present little problem, especially when placed within the context of the narrative. Conversely, lines such as "Forthi, iwysse, bi zowre wylle, wende me bihoues" are incomprehensible to the general reader. But it is the lines that fall somewhere between those extremes - the majority of lines, in fact - which fascinate the most. They seem to make sense, though not quite. To the untrained eye, it is as if the poem is lying beneath a thin coat of ice, tantalisingly near yet frustratingly blurred. To a contemporary poet, one interested in narrative and form, and to a northerner who not only recognises plenty of the poem's dialect but detects an echo of his own speech rhythms within the original, the urge to blow a little warm breath across that layer of frosting eventually proved irresistible.

Not all poems are stories, but Sir Gawain and the Green Knight most certainly is. After briefly anchoring its historical credentials in the siege of Troy, the poem quickly delivers us into Arthurian Britain, at Christmas time, with the knights of the Round Table in good humour and full voice. But the festivities at Camelot are to be disrupted by the astonishing appearance of a green knight. Not just a knight wearing green clothes, but a weird being whose skin and hair is green, and whose horse is green as well. The gatecrasher lays down a seemingly absurd challenge, involving beheading and revenge. Alert to the opportunity, a young knight, Gawain, Arthur's nephew, rises from the table. What follows is a test of courage and a test of his heart, and during the ensuing episodes, which span an entire calendar year, Gawain must steel himself against fear and temptation.

The poem is also a ghost story, a thriller, a romance, an adventure story and a morality tale. For want of a better word, it is also a myth, and like all great myths of the past its meanings seem to have adapted and evolved, proving itself eerily relevant 600 years later. As one example, certain aspects of Gawain's situation seem oddly redolent of a more contemporary predicament, namely our complex and delicate relationship with the natural world. The Gawain poet had never heard of climate change and was not a prophet anticipating the onset of global warming. But medieval society lived hand in hand with nature, and nature was as much an enemy as a friend. It is not just for decoration that the poem includes passages relating to the turning of the seasons, or detailed accounts of the landscape, or graphic descriptions of our dealings with the animal kingdom. The knight who throws down the challenge at Camelot is both ghostly and real. Supernatural, yes, but also flesh and blood. He is something in the likeness of ourselves, and he is not purple or orange or blue with yellow stripes. Gawain must negotiate a deal with a man who wears the colours of the leaves and the fields. He must strike an honest bargain with this manifestation of nature, and his future depends on it.
    -INTRODUCTION: to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Simon Armitage)
That Introduction nicely captures the importance of this text, but not the pure pleasure that Mr. Armitage's translation affords thanks to the application of his warm breath. The first surprise of Gawain is how nearly novel-like it is. It tells one sustained story in which characters have some psychological depth and their relationships develop over the course of the tale. indeed, were the poetry not so alliterative it could almost be taken for a novel instead of a poem, which would make it one of our earliest.

But the real treat here is how easily Mr. Armitage can make it feel contemporary and downright funny. Some have objected to his use of modern slang, but if we assume that this story was once part of an oral tradition it reads as if he was just carrying on that tradition. And any anachronistic effect is certainly trumped by the accessibility afforded. You're hardly likely to find another classic work as old as this one that you can enjoy so effortlessly. Quite an achievement on the part of Britain's reigning poet laureate.


Grade: (A+)


See also:

Simon Armitage Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Simon Armitage
    -FILMOGRAPHY: Simon Armitage (IMDB)
    -FACULTY PAGE: Simon Armitage (University of Leeds)
    -BOOK PAGE: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (W.S. Norton)
    -PODCAST: Poetry with Simon Armitage (Oxford)
    -ESSAY: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: an introduction (Simon Armitage, 31 Jan 2018, British Library: Discovering Literature: Medieval)
    -ESSAY: The knight's tale : Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is one of the finest surviving examples of Middle English poetry, but little is known about the author - except hints that he came from the north of England. How could fellow poet and Northerner Simon Armitage resist the challenge of translating this grisly story for a modern audience? (Simon Armitage, 16 Dec 2006, The Guardian)
    -POEM: Poem of the week: The Straight and Narrow by Simon Armitage: A school visit by a careers adviser is the occasion for an unexpected epiphany and some ‘West Yorkshire magic realism’ (Carol Rumens, 28 May 2018, The Guardian)
    -VIDEO LECTURE: Damned if he Does and Damned if he Doesn't? Dilemmas and Decisions in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Simon Armitage, 23 Nov 2018, The Michaelmas Term 2018 Lecture)
    -INTERVIEW: ‘Bringing Gawain Home’: Simon Armitage on Translating ‘The Green Knight’ (Dennis Abrams, August 29, 2017, Publishing Perspectives)
    -PODCAST: “Swimming through Bricks”: A Conversation with Simon Armitage (Rob Roensch and Quinn Carpenter Weedon, World Literature Today)
    -PODCAST: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight with Simon Armitage (Melvyn Bragg, Dec 13 2018, In Our Time)
    -PODCAST: Poet Simon Armitage on his translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Simon Armitage talks to James Naughtie, 11 December 2018, BCC 4 Book Club)
    -LECTURE: Simon Armitage, 2005 Griffin Poetry Prize Judge, Opens the 2006 Awards Ceremony
    -LECTURE: Out of the Blue: Order from Chaos: Award-winning English poet Simon Armitage reads several of his poems, including a commemorative of September 11, 2001 and his translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. (Simon Armitage, Apr 9, 2010, Boston University)
    -VIDEO: BBC Four The Making of King Arthur: Poet Simon Armitage traces the evolution of the Arthurian legend (Simon Armitage, BBC)
    -POEMS: Two Poems (Simon Armitage, 6/05/97, London Review of Books)
    -POEM: Of Two Knights Stationed in Neighbouring Castles (Simon Armitage, 20 August 1992, London Review of Books)
    -POEM: For the Record (Simon Armitage, 21 August 1997, London Review of Books)
    -POEM: Deor (Simon Armitage, 21 February 2013, London Review of Books)
    -POEMS: Three Poems (Simon Armitage, 22 July 1993, London Review of Books)
    -POEM: The Invasion (Simon Armitage, 23 July 2009, London Review of Books)
    -LECTURE: Unseasonal Produce (Simon Armitage, edited version of a lecture given by Oxford Professor of Poetry Simon Armitage at Examination Schools, Oxford University, on 19 May 2018, The Poetry Review)
    -POEM: The Invigilator (Simon Armitage, August 2014, Australian Book Review)
    -VIDEO: 'The Brink' a film specifically created for Art 50. Written and performed by the Poet Laureate Simon Armitage, it explores post-Brexit British identity and meditates on the relationship between Britain and Europe (Simon Armitage, Sky: Arts)
    -EXCERPT: from Pearl (Financial Times)
    -EXCERPT: Pearl Lines 973-1092 Simon Armitage (PN Review)
    -ESSAY: 'Writing was just for fun then': Simon Armitage on writing Zoom!: The poet laureate reflects on capturing life as it appeared to a West Yorkshire twentysomething in the collection that launched his career (Simon Armitage, 9/19/20, The Guardian)
    -ENTRY: Simon Armitage (Poetry Foundation)
    -ENTRY: Simon Armitage (British Council: Literature)
    -ENTRY: Simon Armitage (Poem Hunter)
    -ENTRY: Simon Armitage (Poetry Archive)
    -ENTRY: Simon Armitage (
    -ENTRY: Simon Armitage: British poet, playwright, and novelist (Patricia Bauer, Encyclopaedia Britannica)
-INTERVIEW: ‘I’m more optimistic’: poet laureate Simon Armitage tells of Britain’s great ordeal (Vanessa Thorpe, 12/26/20, The Guardian)
    -PROFILE: Simon Armitage: ‘Nature has come back to the centre of poetry’: The poet laureate’s new prize for a collection that focuses on the environment highlights a crisis that can no longer be ignored, plus an exclusive new poem (Alison Flood, 21 Nov 2019, The guardian)
    -PROFILE: The language of politics is 'shallow and threadbare', says poet laureate: Simon Armitage criticised politicians’ use of cliches in a discussion about ‘truth’, this year’s theme for National Poetry Day (Alison Flood and Jade Cuttle, 3 Oct 2019, The Guardian)
    -PROFILE: How our poet laureate has embraced his new role (Richard Brooks, 22 Sep 2019, The Guardian)
    -PROFILE: Moon landing poem launches Simon Armitage as poet laureate: Conquistadors – reproduced exclusively below – knits memories of first love and the Apollo 11 pioneers with reflections on colonialism. Read it below (Alison Flood, 27 Jul 2019, The Guardian)
    -INTERVIEW: Simon Armitage: ‘I always thought, if Ted Hughes can do it why can’t I?’: Grit, wit and a focus on the everyday made the 21st poet laureate a popular choice. He shares his plans for his tenure, his aversion to ‘big P political poetry’ and the rejected poem that got him started (Lisa Allardice, 7 Jun 2019, The Guardian)
    -ESSAY: ‘Language is my enemy – I spend my life battling with it’: The poet on creative chaos, the cathartic effect of table tennis and writing on the undersole of a slipper (Simon Armitage, 3/25/17, The Guardian)
    -AUDIO PROFILE: He's the post-punk storyteller with a taste for panto and The Smiths (Becky Milligan, 5/18/19, BBC 4)
    -PROFILE: Simon Armitage, Oxford Poetry Professor, Finds Inspiration in the Mundane (NY Times, 7/11/15)
    -PROFILE: The deadly serious poet’s society: Simon Armitage, 46, on rejection, perfect steak – and why he never writes poetry drunk and always by hand (Anmar Frangoul, May 23 2010, Times [London])
    -PROFILE: There goes rhymin' Simon: Bit of a lad, was Armitage, well before `Loaded'... And eight years after he first shot to fame, he still manages to remain a Nice Ordinary Bloke - as well as Our Best Young Poet (even at 34) (Suzi Feay, 21 September 1997, Independent)
    -INTERVIEW: Simon Armitage Interview (Conducted by Mike Alexander in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, during the sixth annual San Miguel Poetry Week, Monday, January 7, 2002,
    -INTERVIEW: Interview: Simon Armitage (Emma Hewitt, 16th February 2014, Cherwell)
    -INTERVIEW: Jaundiced Reality: Simon Armitage Interviewed (Alex MacDonald , October 12th, 2014, Quietus)
    -PROFILE: Literary Life: Simon Armitage on the art of dissent: The poet talks about his new collection and why the ‘small, quiet, strong voice’ is more vital today than ever (Suzi Feay, MARCH 17 2017, Financial Times)
    -INTERVIEW: Style Counsel: Simon Armitage has been acclaimed by Poetry Review as ‘the front man of his generation … the most imaginative and prolific poet now writing’. He speaks, says the Times, ‘with an utter lack of sentimentality or pomposity of the transcendent mysteries that lie beyond the ordinary moment.’ (Simon Jones, 27 September 2005, High Profiles)
    -INTERVIEW: Simon Armitage: ‘The events of this year are all I can see and think about’: The poet laureate talks to Laura Barton about life in lockdown, keeping up with changes in language, and why writing the words for the first album of his musical project LYR has been ‘like dissecting a rat’ (Laura Barton, 02 July 2020, Independent)
    -INTERVIEW: Simon Armitage: The poet discusses his brand new collection and his many other creative projects. (STEVEN FRASER, 28 AUGUST 2017, The Wee Review)
    -PROFILE: Oxonian Bob Dylan: Camille Ralphs hears Simon Armitage talk about the lyrical art of a great songwriter (Camille Ralphs, TLS)
    -INTERVIEW: The Unaccompanied: An Interview with Simon Armitage (Leah Broad, JUNE 18, 2015, The Oxford Culture Review
    -INTERVIEW: Homer is where the art is: In adapting 'The Odyssey' for radio, Simon Armitage took a great epic poem back to its roots. (Tom Payne, 26 August 2004, The Telegraph)
    -INTERVIEW: Simon Armitage on The Odyssey, Liverpool Everyman: Following last year's Lily Cole-starring dramatisation of The Iliad, Simon Armitage now turns his hand to Homer's other great work. We caught up with the poet to discuss The Odyssey: Missing Presumed Dead, which premieres at Liverpool's Everyman Theatre (Michael Pedersen | 25 Sep 2015, The Skinny)
    -Web Resources for Pearl-poet Study: A Vetted Selection
    -AUDIO BOOK: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (LibriVox)
    -ESSAY: Translating Troubles: Alliterative Verse in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Alicia Espinosa, WR: Journal of the CAS Writing Program)
    -ESSAY: 10 of the Best Simon Armitage Poems Everyone Should Read (Dr Oliver Tearle, Interesting Literature)
    -ARCHIVES: Simon Armitage (Poeticious)
    -ARCHIVES: Simon Armitage (Financial Times)
    -REVIEW ARCHIVES: Simon Armitage (Publishers Weekly)
    -ARCHIVES: Simon Armitage (Paris Review)
    -ARCHIVES: armitage (Poetry Archive)
    -ARCHIVES: simon armitage (London Review of Books)
    -ARCHIVES: Simon Armitage (The Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight translated by Simon Armitage (Chloe Todd Fordham, The Observer)
    -REVIEW: of Sir Gawain (Kevin Crossley-Holland, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of Sir Gawain (Nicholas Lezard, the Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of Sir Gawain (Edward Hirsch, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Sir Gawain (Frank Kermode, London Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of Sir Gawain (John Garth, The Telegraph)
    -REVIEW: of Sir Gawain (Chauncey Mabe, South Florida Sun-Sentinel)
    -REVIEW: of Sir Gawain (Eric Ormsby, NY Sun)
    -REVIEW: of Sir Gawain (Michael Glover, Independent)
    -REVIEW: of Sir Gawain (Tom Bourguignon, Comitatus: A Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies)
    -REVIEW: of Sir Gawain (Penry Buckley, Cherwell)
    -REVIEW: of Sir Gawain (Christopher Rush, Slightly Foxed)
    -REVIEW: of Sir Gawain (Jordi Sánchez-Martí, University of Alicante)
    -REVIEW: of Sir Gawain (Tom Shippey, WSJ)
    -REVIEW: of Sir Gawain (Publishers Weekly)
    -REVIEW: of Sir Gawain (Susannah Mandel, Strange Horizons)
    -REVIEW: of Sir Gawain (Bernard Norcott-Mahany, Kansas City Library)
    -REVIEW: of Sir Gawain (The Poetician)
    -REVIEW: of Sir Gawain (The Wycoller Scarecow)
    -REVIEW: of Sir Gawain (Rebecca Reid, Rebecca Reads)
    -REVIEW: of Sir Gawain (Alex C. Telander, Bookbanter)
    -REVIEW: of Sir Gawain (All Manner of Things)
    -REVIEW: of Sir Gawain (Paul Deane, Forgotten Ground Regained)
    -REVIEW: of Sir Gawain (Pechorin's Journal)
    -REVIEW: of Sir Gawain (Murrey and Blue)
    -REVIEW: of Pearl, translated by Simon Armitage (Peter Pierce, Sydney Morning Herald)
    -REVIEW: of Pearl (Robert Hawkins, London Magazine)
    -REVIEW: of Pearl (Josephine Livingstone, The New Yorker)
    -REVIEW: of Pearl ( Jeremy Noel-Tod, Times [uk]
    -REVIEW: of Pearl (Phil Brown, Huffington Post)
    -REVIEW: of Pearl (Greg Brown, World Literature Today)
    -REVIEW: of Pearl (Siew-Teip Looi, Southeast Asian Review of English)
    -REVIEW: of Sandettie Light Vessel Automatic by Simon Armitage (David Wheatley, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of Sandette Light Vessel Automatic (Alice Wilson, Cherwell)
    -REVIEW: of Sandette Light Vessel Automatic (David Sexton, Evening Standard)
    -REVIEW: of Sandette Light Vessel Automatic (Tristram Fane Saunders, The Telegraph)
    -REVIEW: of Sandette Light Vessel Automatic (Hannah Bradburn, Oxford Student)
    -REVIEW: of Sandette Light Vessel Automatic (Jeremy Noel-Tod, Times [london])
    -REVIEW: of Sandette Light Vessel Automatic
    -REVIEW: of The Unaccompanied by Simon Armitage (Kate Kellaway, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of The Unaccompanied (Helen Mort, Poetry Society)
    -REVIEW: of The Unaccompanied (Andrew Roycroft, Thinking Pastorally)
    -REVIEW: of The Unaccompanied (Sean O'Brien, TLS)
    -REVIEW: of Paper Aeroplane: Selected Poems 1989-2014 by Simon Armitage (Charlotte Runcie, The Telegraph)
    -REVIEW: of Killing Time by Simon Armitage (Dennis O'Driscoll, London Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of Walking Home by Simon Armitage (Christina Hardyment, Times [London])
    -REVIEW: of Walking Home (Publishers Weekly)
    -REVIEW: of Walking Home (Kirkus)
    -REVIEW: of WALKING AWAY: Further travels with a troubadour on the South West Coast Path by Simon Armitage (Nat Segnit, TLS)
    -REVIEW: of Little Green Man (Ian Sanson, London Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of The Odyssey: A Dramatic Retelling of Homer's Epic by Simon Armitage (Publishers Weekly)
    -REVIEW: of Odyssey (Oliver Taplin, the Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of Odyssey (James Parker, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Moon Country by Simon Armitage and Glyn Maxwell (Michael Wagg, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of Moon Country (Ian Sansom, London Review of Books)
    -PLAY REVIEW: of The Odyssey: Missing Presumed Dead by Simon Armitage and Nick Bagnall (Susannah Clapp, The Observer)
    -PLAY REVIEW: of The Odyssey: Missing Presumed Dead (Michael Billington, The Guardian)
    -PLAY REVIEW: of Hansel & Gretel review – Armitage's dystopian horror, with puppets: In this striking modern update, set to words by Simon Armitage and music by Matthew Kaner, the children are refugees and the fairytale is a nightmare (Rian Evans, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of Gig by Simon Armitage (Beards and Triathlons)
    -REVIEW: of Walking Home and Walking Away by Simon Armitage (Beards and Triathlons)

Book-related and General Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
    -ENTRY: Gawain (The Camelot Project)
    -ETEXT: original version Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Corpus of Middle English Prose and Verse)
    -AUDIO BOOK: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, translated by W.A. Neilson (LibriVox)
    -Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (British Library)
    -VIDEO LECTURE: Great Books: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Dr. L. Michael McCloud, Mar 30, 2017, JCCC)
    -AUDIO: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (KUT Austin radio broadcast performance from 1970s)
    -STUDY GUIDE: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Spark Notes)
    -VIDEO: The Quest for Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
    -VIDEO: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’s Beheading Game (DHWTY, 8 MARCH, 2020, Ancient Origins)
    -VIDEO PLAY: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (The Actors Studio of Newburyport, December 2017)