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Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (14th Century)
This 14th Century poem is one of the earliest known works in English. Its provenance is a mystery because literally nothing is known of the poet. It is written in a unique dialect of Middle English and is pretty much unread in the original. This verse translation by Burton Raffel is terrific and does much to elevate the work to the level of Beowulf & Chaucer.
At Christmas time, a Green Knight enters Camelot and challenges any Knight of the Roundtable to smite him with one blow of a battle axe. The only catch is that one year hence the smiter must receive a similar blow from the Green Knight. Sir Gawain volunteers for this strange duty. He beheads the Green Knight who thereupon picks up his laughing head and reminds Gawain of his obligation & tells him to find him in exactly one year to receive the blow.
The enchanting adventure leading up to and inculding their subsequent confrontation is beautifully rendered by Raffel. The poem is exciting, humorous & deals with great themes: courage, honor, etc.
See also:(4 books reviewed)
-ESSAY : C.J. Cherryh's Fiction (Burton Raffel, Literary Review, Spring, 2001)
-Translation by JRR Tolkein The Middle English Collection at the Electronic Text Center, UVa
-ONLINE STUDYGUIDE: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by Anonymous. (SparkNote by Rebecca Gaines)