Friday, June 7, 2024

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

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Once again the New Year has come and King Arthur gathers his knights for merrymaking in Camelot. As they savor the festivities, a gigantic humanoid crashes the party on his horse, both rider and equine of a natural green color from head to toe. He wields a battle axe despite not wearing any armor and announces his arrival to everyone with the purpose of having some Christmas fun. What he has in store for them is a little holiday challenge, should someone come forward and prove to be strong enough for him. It involves hitting him with his own axe anywhere on his body, on the condition that whoever does so would agree to receive a retaliatory blow exactly a year and a day later. King Arthur prepares to take on the challenge, but his young nephew Sir Gawain asks to do it in his stead. He quickly beheads the Green Knight, after which the latter stands up, picks up his head, and bids him goodbye before reminding him of their meeting the following year.

Remember those books about Ethics and Morality with scenarios like, “If you push the button a child will die. If not, twenty people will.” That’s immediately what came to mind as I was reading Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Some weirdo giant crashes your party and asks you to deal him a blow with his axe as long as he can do the same to you later on. We always hesitate in times like this between morality and survival. Should I be unfair and kill this guy so I won’t have to worry about retaliation? Or should I be fair, yadda yadda yadda? You opt to go for the kill and then, surprise! The weirdo lives and now you fear for your life.

Centuries have passed since this was written by some random poet during the Middle English phase of the language. The world was different back then. You had talk of knights and chivalry and various societal norms that are now considered alien to us in modernity. And yet, what the story brings to the table are the same internal struggles we still deal with as human beings. Opportunities and fairness, to name a relevant few. Times and circumstances might have evolved over time but the core of our humanity remains intact, and we can even argue that they have remained the same all throughout the centuries.

This means that interpretations will vary. Wildly, even. This is also why this poem still hasn’t lost its appeal to many scholars of Middle English, pretty much the same way Beowulf hasn’t done so either for students of Old English. Each translation is unique and adds more to the ongoing discourse. As for Bernard O’Donoghue’s translation, he opts for a convenient translation that conveys the main storyline with clarity, placing other technicalities in the backseat. If you are interested in some aspects of the original poem, which is said to have been written with a wealth of alliterative verse, then studying Middle English is probably the best way to go.

It is also interesting to note that Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is just one of numerous texts related to a certain corpus often referred to as the Matter of Britain. Works derived from those popular characters such as King Arthur have proliferated through the ages. If you happen to be knowledgeable about them, then reading this piece of poetry might end up being a more rewarding experience once you get to cross reference everything. Think of it as some sort of Middle English literary universe of its own. As for me, I’m just a pedestrian reader, although I’m not closing my doors to further Middle English scholarship down the line.

If you want a short specimen of Middle English literature, then Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is the best option with less than a hundred pages. If you want a deep dive, you can always opt for Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, all 500+ pages of it. Either way, it should be interesting to move on to the original Middle English version of the text after reading the modern translation. Of course, not everyone will be as geeky but this is a nice way of observing the English language’s evolution through the centuries.

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