Maybe this is odd but I’m not crazy about adventure stories. Characters are stereotypes, the adventures they must go through are stereotypes, and all ends up well in the end. I guess I just hope for a little depth or humor or ambiguity when I read.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was, in many senses, a knight’s adventure story as I’d stereotype them, with the addition that in the end (mini-spoiler!) he learns a lesson about Christian goodness that was necessary and appropriate for the 1400s, when this story was captured. What made reading Sir Gawain and the Green Knight a delight for me, then, was not the story, or the characters, or the lessons learned. I enjoyed reading Sir Gawain for the language.
Eva mentioned the luxurious alliteration in her recent review of the same work, so I sought out Simon Armitage’s translation. I loved the passages, and because I don’t know how else to say it’s awesome, I’m just going to give you a quote from my favorite part, the beginning of chapter two, in which the year passes.
So the festival finishes and a new year follows
in eternal sequence, season by season.
After lavish Christmas come the lean days of Lent
when the flesh is tested with fish and simple food.
Then the world’s weather wages war on winter:
cold shirnks earthwards and the clouds clim;
sun-warmed, shimmering rain comes showering
onto meadows and fields where flowers unfurl;
woods and grounds wear a wardrobe of green;
birds burble with life and build busily
as summer spreads, settling on slopes as it should.
Now every hedgerow brims
with blossom and with bud,
and lively songbirds sing
from lovely, leafy woods. (page 55-56, lines 500-514)
It just goes on in beauty, and if I didn’t have to worry about copyright, I’d share with you the summer and autumn passages too.
Compare to the same passages, translated by Marie Borrof (From the Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces, seventh edition).
And so this Yule to the young year yielded place,
And each season ensued at its set time;
Aftre Christmas there came the cold cheer of Lent,
When with fish and plainer fare our flesh we reprove;
But then the world’s weather with winter contends:
The keen cold lessens, the low clouds lift;
Fresh falls the rain in fostering showers
On the face of the fields; flowers appear.
The ground and the groves wear gowns of green;
Birds build their nests, and blithely sing
That solace of all sorrow with summer comes ere long.
And blossoms day by day
Bloom rich and rife in throng;
Then every grove so gay
Of the greenwood rings with song.
I like that one too, and it is interesting how different they are. I’ve just started a book about the history of the English language, so it may help me understand how Old English worked.
So yes, in the end, Sir Gawain learns a lesson. Although I predicted it, I still thought it was clever. And I enjoyed seeing a true knight in action: being honorable, true, and otherwise cool, like the guy in armor on the cover. I want to own this book just so I can look at this cover longer!
Next up: Beowulf! Although I am still not crazy about adventure stories, I should give it a try too. Plus, Heaney’s cover is just as pretty.
Which translation do you prefer for the passage above? While I haven’t the poem in the second translation, I like it as well, but the first (Simon Armitage) seems so much more accessible to me!
Do you like adventures or knights’ tales?