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Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Modern English Translations

"Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" is a late 14th-century Middle English alliterative romance poem. It has been estimated to have been written around 1340-1400 AD, in the West Midlands of England, in the Lancashire dialect. "Gawain" (for short) remains one of the best-known Arthurian stories, being a legend of King Arthur's court with its famous Knights of the Round Table. The Green Knight has been interpreted as a representation of the Green Man of ancient Celtic folklore, but also as an allusion to Christ and the Resurrection. (For instance, the word "evergreen" suggests "eternally alive and growing." The Christmas tree, an evergreen, is symbolic of the ever-living Christ.)

Written in "bob and wheel" stanzas, "Gawain" draws on Welsh, Irish and English mythology, as well as the French chivalric tradition and Christian theology and symbology. It is an important poem in the romance genre, which typically involves a hero who goes on a quest that tests his character, faith, morals, resolve and/or prowess.

The poem describes how Sir Gawain, a major knight of the Round Table, accepts a challenge from a mysterious "Green Knight." The Green Knight invites Gawain to take off his head with an axe, if he can return the blow in a year and a day. Gawain accepts the challenge and beheads the green-skinned trollish being (sort of a medieval Incredible Hulk), who then stands up, picks up his head and reminds Gawain of the appointed time. In his struggles to keep his bargain, Gawain demonstrates chivalry and loyalty, until his honour is called into question by a test involving Lady Bertilak, the lady of the Green Knight's castle and the Green Chapel.

Why is the hero Gawain, rather than Lancelot, Galahad or Percival? Perhaps because Gawain goes back further in time―to a time when Arthur (Artos) and his warriors were Welsh, rather than English. The name Gwalchmei appears in some of the earliest Welsh Arthurian sources. Like Gawain, Gwalchmei was said to be Arthur's nephew and one of his greatest warriors. The Welsh "gwalch" means "hawk" and according to several baby name dictionaries the names Gawain and Gavin also mean "hawk," so it seems quite possible that Gawain is simply an English translation of the original Welsh name Gwalchmei. If this interpretation is correct, Artos was "the bear," Gwalchmei was "the hawk," and Myrddin (Merlin) was "the falcon."

In the earliest texts, Gawain was renowned for his compassion, chivalry and being a champion and defender of women. He was one of the chief defenders of Guinevere when she was accused of infidelity. But it seems likely that because Lancelot was preferred by French writers (perhaps because he was French?), over time Lancelot became Guinevere's heroic defender, while Gawain was cast into a secondary (and sometimes less positive) role. One possibility is that Gawain was the original model for knights like Lancelot, Galahad, Percival and Valiant.

In any case, the original "Gawain" survives in a single manuscript, the Cotton Nero A.x., which also includes three religious narrative poems: "Pearl," "Purity" (or "Cleanness") and "Patience." These poems are believed to have been written by the same unknown author, who has been dubbed the "Pearl Poet" and the "Gawain Poet." It has also been suggested that the same poet wrote "Saint Erkenwald." One poet who has been suggested as the author is John de Mascy (John Massey), a member of Cheshire's landed gentry. Other suggested authors include Huchoun ("little Hugh"), Hugh de Mascy (Hugh Massey), Hugh of Eglington, James Cottrell, Sir John Donne and John Prat.

"Gawain" remains popular today in a number of modern English translations and adaptations. The best-known translation is by J.R.R. Tolkien, of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings fame. Here is a comprehensive (if not necessarily complete) list of authors of translations, adaptations and other related material, many of which appear on Amazon with the title "[Sir] Gawain and the Green Knight" or something similar:

J.R.R. Tolkien
J.R.R. Tolkien, E.V. Gordon and Norman Davis
Simon Armitage
Theodore Banks
Harrison Birtwistle
Marie Borroff
Marie Borroff and Laura L. Howes
A. C. Cawley
John Chater
Helen Cooper and Keith Harrison
Norman Davis
Paul Deane
John Gardner
Joseph Glaser and Christine Chism
Sir Israel Gollancz
Selina Hastings and Juan Wijngaard
Keith Harrison and Helen Cooper
Francis Ingledew
Ernest J.B. Kirtlan
A. S. Kline
Charlton Miner Lewis
Michael Morpurgo and Michael Foreman
W.S. Merwin
Miriam Youngerman Miller and Jane Chance
Ray Moore
Michael Morpurgo
William Morris, Rachel Taylor, Tennyson, Alfred, Lord and Wilfrid Blunt
W.A. Neilson
Ruth Nestvold
Bernard O'Donoghue
Mile O'Keefe
Lynne Plowman
Burton Raffel, Brenda Webster and Neil D. Isaacs
John Murray Ridland
Jacob Rosenberg
Boria Sax
Mark Shannon
Myra Stokes and Ad Putter
Brian Stone
William Vantuono
Stephen Weeks
Jessie L. Weston
James Winny

Though the surviving manuscript dates from the fourteenth century, the first published version of the poem did not appear until as late as 1839, when Sir Frederic Madden of the British Museum recognized the poem as worth reading. Madden's scholarly Middle English edition of the poem was followed in 1898 by the first Modern English translation: a prose version by literary scholar Jessie L. Weston. In 1925, J.R.R. Tolkien and E.V. Gordon published a scholarly edition of the Middle English text of "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight." A revised edition of this text was prepared by Norman Davis and published in 1967. The book, featuring a text in Middle English with extensive notes, is frequently confused with the translation into Modern English that Tolkien prepared, along with translations of "Pearl" and "Sir Orfeo," late in his life. Many editions of the latter work, first published shortly after his death in 1975, list Tolkien on the cover as author rather than translator.
The poem has been adapted to film twice, on both occasions by writer-director Stephen Weeks: first as Gawain and the Green Knight in 1973, then again in 1984 as Sword of the Valiant: The Legend of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, featuring Miles O'Keeffe as Gawain and Sean Connery as the Green Knight. Both films have been criticized for deviating from the original plot.

There have been at least two television adaptations, Gawain and the Green Knight in 1991, and the animated Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in 2002. There was also a BBC documentary presented by Simon Armitage in which the journey depicted in the poem is traced.
The Tyneside Theatre company presented a stage version of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight at the University Theatre, Newcastle in 1971. It was adapted for the stage from the translation by Brian Stone.

In 1992 Simon Corble created an adaptation with medieval songs and music for The Midsommer Actors' Company. It was performed as walkabout productions in the summer 1992 at Thurstaston Common and Beeston Castle and in August 1995 at Brimham Rocks, North Yorkshire. Corble later wrote a substantially revised version which was produced indoors at the O'Reilly Theatre, Oxford in February 2014.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was first adapted as an opera in 1978 by composer Richard Blackford. The libretto was written for the adaptation by the children's novelist John Emlyn Edwards. The "Opera in Six Scenes" was subsequently recorded by Decca between March and June 1979 and released on the Argo label in November 1979.
The poem was also adapted into an opera called Gawain by Harrison Birtwistle, which was first performed in 1991. Birtwistle's opera was praised for maintaining the complexity of the poem while translating it into lyric, musical form. Another operatic adaptation is Lynne Plowman's Gwyneth and the Green Knight, first performed in 2002. This opera refocuses the story on Gawain's female squire, Gwyneth, who is trying to become a knight. Plowman's version was praised for its approachability, as its target is the family audience and young children, but was criticized for its use of modern language and occasional preachy nature.

[Note: This page contains excerpts from the "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" Wikipedia page.]

Free A. S. Kline Translation:

Free Project Gutenberg Translation:

Related pages:

Anglo-Saxon Riddles and Kennings; Wulf and Eadwacer; Caedmon's Hymn; Bede's Death Song; The Wife's Lament; Deor's Lament; How Long the Night

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