Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: A Short Introduction

During the second half of the 14th Century, there occurred a literary phenomenon called the "Alliterative Revival." Suddenly, in the North and West of England, there appeared poems in a style that had not appeared in English literature (what little there was of it) since shortly after the Norman Conquest. This was the alliterative style of Beowulf and other Anglo-Saxon poems. It was used for a variety of purposes, though primarily in a narrative mode: there are alliterative poems composed to celebrate victories in battle, and a large group of romances about Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table

Not a lot is known about the circumstances in which these poems were written. What evidence is available to scholars suggests that alliterative poems were favored by the provincial gentry in those parts of England where the tradition had survived (as an oral tradition) during the long period in which English was the language only of peasants and commoners. Reflecting this background, they tend to be celebrations of chivalry and the knightly virtues - but not all. One of the best alliterative poems, Piers Plowman was widely read throughout England by tradesman and educated members of the middle class, and expressed their moral and religious concerns.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is considered the definitive masterpiece of the Alliterative Revival; it both embodies its tradition and surpasses it. It tells its story with wit and panache, using narrative techniques not used until the rise of the novel. And it somehow manages to affirm the positive values of chivalry, while telling a story that subverts much of its self-important posing. Gawain's heroic strength as a Knight of the Round Table is primarily demonstrated by his ability to chop off the head of defenseless guest. His knightly honor is confirmed mostly by his willingness to take a long journey to give the (miraculously surviving) guest a chance to finish their game ... and perhaps him ... off with a return blow. He lives up to his reputation in Arthurian romance as an inveterate lover of the ladies by flattering a lady who practically throws herself at him without ever letting her touch him -- and his successful defense of his chastity is made ridiculous when the lady convinces him to wear her girdle to his engagement to get his head chopped off, on the rather far-fetched assurance that it will provide magical protection. And yet he comes off as an exemplary knight, the best in Arthur's court, with real courage, honor, and moral purity.

Unfortunately, the language of the poem is impossible for anyone but a scholar to read. Not only is it in the Middle English of the 14th Century, which at its closest to modern English (as in Chaucer) is readable only with some effort, but it's in an obscure dialect of the north west Midlands of England, and uses all kinds of words that are totally obsolete today. So it's impossible for most people to read it in the original. Even worse, most of the translations I have seen fail to do it justice. Far too many take the "medieval chivalry" angle a bit too seriously, and make the poem sound stilted, arcane, full of stuffy self-important chivalrous sentiments. It's anything but: few poems are more down to earth in their descriptions of the facts of medieval life, or so lively in their rhythms, or combine high drama so effectively with a sly sense of humor. One of the best translations I have seen is Burton Raffel's, but you cannot read his version and get any real sense either of what alliterative poetry sounded like in the 14th century, or what it should sound like today.

Given these concerns, and especially since there is not even a bad translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight available on the internet, I have undertaken to provide a translation which will be posted on this site. The first installment - Book 1, through line 490 of the original - was posted at the end of March 1999, with more to follow as it is completed. In what follows, I try to give readers a sense of my philosophy of translations, so they will know where and how I have tried to remain close to the original, and where I have allowed my translation to diverge.

My intention is to produce a faithful translation of both the form AND the content of the original. The poem's 14th Century English is close enough to modern English in syntax and vocabulary, that it is often possible to salvage large bits of his original poetry with only minor modifications. But only sometimes. Much of the time, the original vocabulary has gone the way of the dodo, and the translator must find other words and phrasings that will carry the same sense as the original.

My strategy when faced with this dilemma has been to produce a translation that faithfully reflects the meaning of each LINE. but not of each individual word. In an alliterative line, if you change one key word, you have to change all the rest of them, in order to keep the alliteration synchronized. So there are cases where one of my lines varies considerably from the original, such as line 419, which I have translated "and raised the rich riot of his hair," when the original talks about the Green Knight lifting his locks above the crown of his head. Such translations are not word for word, but they preserve the narrative import of the line, while making it work as alliterative poetry. A similar, and somewhat more difficult problem, is presented by the fact that the poet uses short rhymed codas at the end of each strophe. These tags, called the "bob" and the "wheel" by medieval scholars, are a real challenge since it is very hard to translate the meaning clearly AND maintain a strict rhyme scheme in short lines typically six syllables long. I have tried as much as possible to preserve many of the author's original rhymes, since typically they are quite important to the meaning.

Since my goal is to keep the form of the original, to the extent that it can be reflected in modern English, I have also translated the poem into alliterative verse: that is, into poetry in which the lines are bound together by repetition of the initial consonants on the primary stressed syllables. I have chosen a form which is quite similar to the original, typically alliterating the first three of four stressed beats in the line, with variable numbers of unstressed syllables, and variants in which only two beats alliterate, or where two different consonants alliterate in the same line, or where the last beat in the line bears the alliteration (in contrast to the strict pattern observed by Beowulf, but not by the Gawain poet.)

I hope that this translation will convey to a modern audience something of the power, humor, and drama of the original.

Copyright © 1999 Paul Deane