April 15, 2008

Review: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
translated by J.R.R. Tolkien

If you will listen to this lay bit a little while now,
I will tell it at once as in town I have heard it told,
as it is fixed and fettered
in story brave and bold,
this linked and truly lettered,
as was loved in this land of old.

Every time I read poetry I fall in love yet again. So it is truly a wonder that I don't read it more often. I must do something about that. You can be sure, though, that I will reread this one with some frequency. In fact, I plan to make this a read-aloud in our homeschool next year as we will be hitting this era in history. My daughter is a lover of poetry and my young son craves adventure.

The story begins in the courts of King Arthur who is celebrating the New Year with dainty food and hearty games, when a strange site rises before his eyes: a huge, emerald green knight atop a huge, emerald green steed. The Green Knight challenges the Round Table to a test of bravery; he and one brave knight will exchange one blow each with his mighty ax. Arthur's knight will strike that night but then he must find the Green Knight on the following New Year's day to receive his due. Strange sights are seen and a quest is started. There is seduction and a little magic. Will Sir Gawain be triumphant or will his worst fears be realized?

More than the storyline, which I took great pleasure in, what I loved the most was the alliterative poetic form. Look at this verse and watch how many times a particular sound repeats in each line:

Then was Gawain delighted, and in gladness he laughed:
'Now I thank you a thousand times for this beyond all!
Now my quest is accomplished, as you crave it, I will
dwell a few days here, and else do what you order.'

Notice the DLDL sound in the first line, the Th in the second, the Ck sound in the third, and the D sound in the last. Though I tried to pay close attention to the tale, I kept looking for the new sound that each line followed. I am in awe of the amount of work that goes into translating in this manner. Tolkien nails it beautifully. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a poem that should not be missed.

Though I've read this for the Arthurian Challenge I am thinking it would suit well as a folktale for the Once Upon a Time II Challenge as well. I may be stretching it a bit but I think anything related to King Arthur is so clearly cut from English cloth, that it tells us much about the people of that time and place, their beliefs and their longing for a hero.


Nymeth said...

This sounds simply wonderful - I am really looking forward to reading it. Thanks for the review :)

Rhinoa said...

I really must read this as I am trying to read all of Tolkiens work and I love Arthurian tales. I do have a copy somewhere...

Petunia said...

Nymeth-I'm sure you will love it.

Rhinoa-I have listened to The Hobbit but this was my first time actually reading Tolkien. I really must read more of him.

Robin said...

I must read this one! I love the artwork you included in this post!

Anonymous said...

I've read other translations but not Tolkien's. I must definitely look this one out.

Petunia said...

Robin-Me too! There is so much stunning Arthurian artwork that I have to include it.

Table Talk-I may have to look into other translations to see how they compare. I'd be interested in your opinion about it.

Jeane said...

I didn't know Tolkien translated this work! I'll have to read it someday. Curious: who are those other names on the cover? Pearl and Sir Orfeo?

hopeinbrazil said...

Thanks for the helpful review and lovely artwork.

Anonymous said...

I'm a fellow LTer. You were kind enough to visit my blog and express interest in Margot Livesey's Eva Moves the Furniture (I hope you enjoy a good cry).

When I saw your post on the Green Knight, I couldn't help but be reminded of a serialization of that work that is being done at an ezine to which I contribute called Open Letters. Here's the link to the first of the series: http://openlettersmonthly.com/issue/december-green/.


Petunia said...

Thanks Karen. I'll be sure to check it out and see how it compares to the Tolkien translation.