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Translation of 'Green Knight' opens a window to the past

October 21, 2002|Merle Rubin | Special to The Times

The gallant knights and lovely ladies of King Arthur's court are enjoying a Christmas celebration when an enormous ax-bearing green stranger rides into the hall and issues a preposterous challenge: Any man who is bold enough may take a swing at his head with the ax and he will offer no resistance. In return, that man must come to the Green Knight's place a year hence and allow the big fellow a swing at his head. When no one in the stunned assembly makes any response, King Arthur agrees to take up the challenge. At this point, the king's nephew and bravest knight, Sir Gawain, steps in to relieve his sovereign of the onus. The green giant obliging bares his neck and Sir Gawain takes a mighty swing.

Here's what happens next, as relayed to us in modern English by the latest translator of this medieval verse romance, the distinguished American poet W.S. Merwin:

The handsome head fell from the neck to the earth

And rolled out among their feet so that they kicked it.

The blood gushed from the body, glittering over the green,

And the knight never staggered or fell, for all that,

But he stepped forth as strong as ever, on unshaken legs,

And reached in roughly among the knights

To snatch up his lovely head and at once lift it high.

And then he turns to his horse and takes hold of the bridle,

Steps into the stirrup and swings himself up,

Holding his head in his hand by the hair,

And settles into the saddle as firmly as ever

With no trouble at all, though he sits there headless.

In due course, the brave and courteous Sir Gawain sets out, with some trepidation, to fulfill his part of the bizarre covenant. He must leave the comfort and fellowship of King Arthur's court to seek out the Green Knight in the untamed wilderness. Before facing the final, terrifying test, Gawain finds a different kind of challenge en route, when he stays as a guest at the castle of a hospitable, hard-riding lord who loves hunting, and the lord's beautiful young wife, a lady whose idea of hospitality includes offering herself to the handsome visitor while her husband's out chasing after wildlife.

What's a knight to do? It would be wrong to betray his host, yet a chivalrous paladin is also supposed to honor the request of a lady. Readers who enjoy a well-told story, not lacking in sex and violence but also endowed with a sense of moral purpose, will find a wonderful one here.

To this day, scholars do not know the name of the poet who penned the great medieval verse romance "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight." It is generally believed that the poet lived in the western midlands, perhaps Cheshire or Lancashire, "somewhere near the Welsh marshes." Although he (or she) seems to have been roughly a contemporary of Chaucer's, living in the latter part of the 14th century, the "Gawain" poet's language and style are redolent of an earlier time and more rural place than Chaucer's London. College textbooks generally print "The Canterbury Tales" in Chaucer's brand of Middle English, with glosses and notes to help the modern reader. In the case of "Sir Gawain," glosses and notes are not enough and the poem is usually read in translation.

Most translators of "Sir Gawain" -- including poet Keith Harrison, scholars Brian Stone and Marie Boroff, and novelist John Gardner -- have opted for verse, attempting to convey a sense of the style and form of the original, with its alliterative stanzas, each capped by a rhyming five-line "bob and wheel." This latest verse translation by the redoubtable Merwin features the text of the original poem on the left-hand page, so that readers with a mind to do so can compare the two and see what may have been lost (or found) in translation.

In the original poem, there is a great deal of alliteration, but there is not as much in Merwin's version. And, in translating the rhymed "bob and wheel" parts, Merwin often contents himself with vague feints in the direction of rhyming:

What then?

Gawain and the King smile

And laugh about that green man.

All agreed that he was marvel

Enough for anyone.

Brian Stone, for example, renders the same lines thus:

What then?

At the Green Knight Gawain and King

Grinned and laughed again;

But plainly approved the thing

As a marvel in the world of men.

But Merwin's translation has a directness and simplicity that can be quite powerful:

Gawain said, "I flinched once

And I will not again.

But if my head falls on the stones

I cannot put it back on."

On the minus side, Merwin offers no notes or glosses. Perhaps it was thought they would slow the reader's progress or lessen the immediacy of the poem's impact, but a few judicious ones might have been helpful. Fortunately, Merwin's foreword provides a good overview of the poem's textual and historical background.

The "Gawain" poet's portrait of knightly chivalry, Merwin reminds us, was written during the Hundred Years' War, "an era of grotesque and all but constant violence between the English and the French ... while the Arthurian stories traveled back and forth in waves, as entertainment, across those same areas." Slaughter, rape, pillage and plunder were the order of the day, and there was even more profit to be made from capturing hostages and holding them for ransom.

The romantic ideal of the Round Table cloaked an ugly reality. Or perhaps the vision of Camelot expressed the innermost dreams of all who longed for a better way. Whatever the case, "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" endures -- charming, strange, tantalizingly mysterious -- and Merwin's translation catches at least some of the gleam of its vanished world.



Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

A New Verse Translation

By W.S. Merwin

Alfred A. Knopf: 176 pages, $22

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