The new translation of Sir Gawain

At chez Salt-Box, I am the one who reads “chapter books” to the Little Man, as opposed to books he can read by himself, or longer picture books or comic books, which anyone is allowed to read to him.  As a result, A Santa thoughtfully made to the Little Man and me a joint present: Simon Armitage’s new translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which we’re now about 40% through after polishing off the Iliad* Monday morning.

Armitage has produced an intensely alliterative narrative poem–almost every line has at least three prominent words that begin with the same sound, and some lines have more.  Here’s a representative bit:

In the standing position he prepared to be struck,

bent forward, revealing a flash of green flesh

as he heaped his hair to the crown of his head,

the nape of his neck now naked and ready.

Gawain grips the axe and heaves it heavenwards,

plants his left foot firmly on the floor in front,

then swings it swiftly towards the bare skin.

The cleanness of the strike cleaved the spinal cord

and parted the fat and the flesh so far

that the bright steel blade took a bit from the floor.

The handsome head tumbles onto the earth

and the king’s men kick it as it clatters past.  (417-28)

Obviously, such a translation is going to be necessarily somewhat free, which Armitage discusses his introduction.  In the main, I think only medievalists are likely to care very much about this: Armitage’s version is a great read, and the decision to imitate the Gawain poet’s alliterative style gives a kind of “percussive” (Armitage’s word) drive to what is already a gripping story.

I have three observations about reading the poem aloud:

First, although the free translation doesn’t bother me at all, there are some moments when Armitage’s desire to bring the poem into the modern world results in diction that is already a bit tired.  He describes the Green Knight’s “hoge and unmete” weapon as “the mother of all axes,” and elsewhere notes of Gawain that “Fastened in his armor he seemed fabulous, famous.”  (“When he was hasped in armes, his harnays was ryche.”)

The other two points are about Sir Gawain as a children’s book:

It’s a lovely parallel edition, and once the Little Man discovered that it’s the same poem in older language, he naturally wanted to hear both.  Let me just say that Middle English is *very* appealing to a 4-year-old.  Very.  We now read both versions.

Finally, while I’m sure that Armitage wasn’t thinking about child readers of his translation, his decisions to emphasize alliteration and to bring forward the narrative as dramatically as possible–well!  You couldn’t ask for a more powerful draw for a kid.  This has been the most popular “chapter book” by far over the past 6 months or so, including various Narnia books, the Iliad, lots of Roald Dahl, and some Star Wars-universe novels.  He follows it very attentively, picks up details, and repeats back phrases he likes.

If you read to your child, I would strongly recommend at least taking a look at this book.  Lots of fun for all.  (Thanks, Santa!)

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* Depending on how you count, that’s his 3rd time through the Iliad in his 4 years: I read the Fitzgerald translation to him when he was about 6 months old, and now we’ve read 2 prose versions marketed at kids.  He actually complained about the (admittedly, truly dreadful) Disney movie about Hercules because of its inaccurate portrayal of the Greek myths.

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3 Responses to The new translation of Sir Gawain

  1. Jane Hyde says:

    I love it! You are way ahead oi me, and I’m now wishing I’d done more. My first grandson, who is now 11 and a huge reader and a lover of all hero and sword tales, also started early in literature. We watched Branagh’s version of Henry V together when he was about 4 (to his mother’s intense dislike) and I started reading to him from Redwall and Arthurian stories. He also listened to lots of His Dark Materials long before he could read the books. We’ve had a terrific time together reading, watching and listening to these stories. From the start his memory was mcuh better than mine: no matter how long a delay between chapters he could always remember exactly where we were and what was going on. We never did the Iliad though!

  2. jbj says:

    Thanks for this! Henry the Vth wouldn’t have occurred to me . . . though I do think he’d like the Agincourt speech.

    I think Treasure Island or Kidnapped might be up next in our queue. Maybe more Arthurian legend, though.

  3. ELIZABETH VASQUEZ says:

    I NEED TO READ THIS STORY FOR ENGLISH 4. AT FIRST I THOUGH IT WAS GOING TO BE BORING BUT AS SOON I GOT INTO THE STORY MY EMAGINATION STARED TO WORK I LITERALLY FELT IN THE SCENE.. I LOVE IT! BEST STORY I’VE EVER READ.

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