The great medieval English poem was discussed on Melvyn Bragg’s “In Our Time” with guests, including Simon Armitage, the Poet Laureate and recent translator of the work . (Check the BBC Radio 4 website if you wish to listen to the programme) The development of the strands of English into the language we know, is something thinking people can take too easily for granted. How did the language of the Angles and Saxons become one of the world’s greatest literatures? It is a matter of wonder that Sir Gawain in the English of the western Midlands, Langland’s “Piers Plowman,” also in the alliterative verse tradition inherited from Old English, in an English slightly more accessible than Gawain to “southren” readers or listeners and Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales,” in the very different vernacular of London and Essex, are all roughly contemporary achievements of the late fourteenth century.
I append a passage from the first few pages of the poem and I add the same passage from Armitage’s translation. If I may add some advice to first time readers of medieval verse. Do not be put off by the unfamiliar language. Try to read yourself into it, seeking to pronounce the words. You will find meanings will suggest themselves to you but don’t worry if they don’t. The main thing is to get into the feel of the verse. The translation will then help to clarify the meaning but don’t make it a crutch you cannot do without. Eventually you will come to love it in the original. This is how it has worked with me with Chaucer( now a poet I love) and Langland whose work I am still seeking to familiarise myself with. With so much to read is it worth doing? you may ask. Well quite as much as it is learning to read in any other language and with the additional incentive that this, if you are a native English speaker, is your language to be proud of.
Of this poem John Spiers has concluded in his Medieval English Poetry Faber 1971, “Sir Gawain is a superb work of art-a formly rooted, muliple-branched, gnarled but symmetrical northern oak”
Here is a verse paragraph early on on the Court of King Arthur:
“This kyng lay at Camylot upon Krystmasse
With mony luflych lorde, ledes of the best,
Reckenly of the Rounde Table alle tho rich brether,
With rych revel oryght and rechles merthes.
Ther tournayed tulkes by tymes ful mony,
Justed ful jolile thise gentyle knightes,
Sythen kayred to the court, caroles to make.
For there the fest was ilyche ful fiften dayes,
With alle the mete and the mirthe that men couthe avyse:
Such glaum ande gle glorious to here,
Dere dyn upon day, daunsyng on nyghtes;
Al was hap upon heghe in halles and chambres
With lordes and ladiees, as levest him thoght.
With al the wele of the worlde they woned ther samen
The most kyd knyghtes under Krystes selven
And the lovelokkest that ever lif haden,
And he the comlokset kyng that the court haldes.
For al was this fayre folk in her first age on sille,
The hapnest under heven,
Kyng hygest mon of wylle;
Hit were now gret nye to neven
So hardy a here on hille
And here is Simon Armitage’s translation of the same verse paragraph:
“It was Christmas at Camelot-King Arthur’s court,
where the great and good of the land had gathered,
all the righteous lords of the ranks of the Round Table
quite properly carousing and revelling in pleasure.
Time after time, in tournaments of joust,
they had lunged at each other with levelled lances
then returned to the castle to carry on their carolling,
for the feasting lasted a full fortnight and one day,
with more food and drink than a fellow could dream of.
the hubbub of their humour was heavenly to hear:
pleasant dialogue by day and dancing after dusk,
so the house and its hall were lit with happiness
and lords and ladies were luminous with joy.
Such a coming together of the gracious and the glad:
the most chivalrous and courteous knights known in Christendom;
the most wonderful women to have walked in this world;
the handsomest king to be crowned at court.
Fine folk with their futures before them, there in that hall.
Their highly honoured king
was happiest of all:
no nobler knights had come
within a castle wall.
Simon Armitage (tr.) Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Faber 2008