Saturday, January 2, 2021

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight - Simon Armitage

Back on Wednesday (was it Wednesday? Who knows, who even cares anymore?) when it was announced the Midlands were going into tier 4 I had a brief panic about having enough books to hand. It was stupid, I have more than enough books to hand, there must be well over a thousand hanging around waiting to be read, I was given a pile for my birthday a couple of weeks back, a bigger pile for Christmas, had just had an amazon delivery care of vouchers I'd been given, and minutes before had been feeling overwhelmed by the number of books hanging around. 

I managed to retain enough sense not to rush out to Waterstones for a last minute panic buy, and resolved that I'd actually read some of the many new books around me, and really try and hold off  buying any more books for a couple of months. That resolution lasted all the way to this morning. 

'Sir Gawain and the Green Knight' is the specific reason for my speedy downfall - although it would have been something else quickly enough. I bought the Simon Armitage edition after listening to the In Our Time episode first broadcast in 2018. I meant to read it that Christmas, and then last Christmas, have been faithfully carrying it around since early November before finally opening it yesterday.

As with Beowulf it turned out to be much quicker, and much more enjoyable to read than I had imagined - hence the swift abandonment of the no new books resolution, I've just re-listened to the excellent In Our Time episode, and happily discovered that there's bonus content (fund the BBC, my license fee is worth paying just for programmes like this, never mind all the other good stuff on there), which is really useful, but I also want a copy that has notes as well as an introduction. I also enjoyed it more than enough to want to read some more translations.

I have a confused memory of watching a televised version of this when I was a bit to young to really follow it - so probably in the very late 70's or early 80's, which left me with the impression that it was somewhat frightening. The trailers for the Dev Patel version also look like they're playing on the horror element, but actually reading Simon Armitage's version, and listening to Melvin Bragg's conversation about it, the thing that really sticks out is how much comedy the poem has in it. 

It also turned out to be as much a New Year story as a Christmas one, and so the perfect thing to read on New Years day when the action both begins and ends. It was also the perfect thing to kick off a years reading with - properly entertaining with a virtuous amount of cultural capital attached to it as well...

There is still something horrible both about the first appearance of the Green Knight, his odd challenge, and the way he picks up his severed head and leaves with it in such a matter of fact way, and then the final finding of the green chapel with all the attendant suggestion of the unknown and devilish about it, but the real fun pf reading this is how unheroic Sir Gawain spends a good chunk of time being.

Whilst his host is out hunting, Gawain spends what might be his last few days lounging in bed and flirting with his hosts wife who keeps accosting him there. It takes all his wiles not to sleep with her, in what turns out to have been a cleverly laid trap. We're invited to both laugh at Gawain's discomfort and sympathise with his predicament, something that the In Our Time episode gives really useful context for. The ending is also interesting - Gawain fails to uphold his own high standards, though he is forgiven or absolved by everyone else, including the Green Knight who he has in the end substantially wronged twice. 

But then the Knight never plays quite straight with Gawain either, the moral ambiguity, and absolutely human failings of both are deeply compelling. Most of us would surely behave exactly like Gawain just as surely as we find ourselves judging him for not being quite perfect. 


  1. Lovely review. I have also listened to the In Our Time programme, and enjooyed a copy of the Simon Armitage translation. Like you, I was surprised at how humourous it is - and how accessible.

  2. Yes, not particularly what I was expecting at all. I want to see the Dev Patel version, but I also want to see one that brings out the humour too, which I don't think that will much.