joi, 19 iulie 2018

Green Green Horse at Home

Simon Armitage - Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Faber and Faber, 2007

Is this like... alien knight or smth?
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a medieval poem, written around 1400 in Middle English, of which Simon Armitage's decade-old rendition into modern English is the latest one. The poem draws on the Arthurian legends, though it is not contemporary to them in any way: the themes, language and atmosphere of the poem are a lot closer to the 14th century than the 6th century in which the Tales of the Round table originated: not only is it filled with Christian symbolism, but the attitudes and behavior of characters is a lot more representative of the late Middle Ages. Of course, Arthur and his knights could not have been Christian, though latter writers have not only made them so, but have slowly overlayed upon them motif after motif of medieval Christian virtue.

Such is the case here, where the unknown medieval author anchors the Camelot crowd firmly into the Christian values, so much so that our hero's shield is built along the coordinates of the star of David and has the face of the Holy Virgin painted on. The antagonist, the Green Knight, is probably the remnant of the Pagan era, hence his casting as the bad guy. While the medieval poet does not delve into the Green Knight's origins, his unusual, unnatural green coloring is reminiscent of the worshiping of nature that druid-wizards like Merlin were practicing. In addition, the Green Knight reveals a direct connection to Merlin towards the end of the poem, while his dwelling place is a 'green church', 'a ghostly cathedral overgrown with grass' (2190). Might it be then that Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is an attempt from the medieval poet to recover the druidic myths and traditions, to draw the attention of his contemporaries to them? The equation of Christmas with Yuletide is another argument to that, but you will need a better prepared scholar than myself for a definite answer.

The synopsis is relatively simple: during the Christmas feast a weird-looking Green Knight shows up at King Arthur's palace and issues a strange challenge: he will take an axe blow to the neck in exchange for returning it a year later. As the most virtuous of Arthur's knights, Gawain raises to accept the challenge, which means his next year is spent in search of the mysterious Green Knight whose chopped head left only a vague clue as to his whereabouts. As it happens, Gawain does discover the location of the knight's Green Church just in time, though in true epic poem tradition, more tests need to be passed before Gawain manages to reach that which, on the face of it, will mean his earthly end. Of course, the resolution is favorable to our hero, though there is a twist at the end with an important moral signification.

The modern reader is, of course, required to suspend his belief in regards to a series of motifs, actions of motivations throughout: how can a man be green? who issues such an outlandish challenge and, furthermore, who's silly enough to accept it rather than dismissing it as useless or childish? how can a beheaded man speak or ride and, most importantly, how is it that it just so happens that Gawain finds the green church just in the nick of time? Oh, God directed his step? I see, it all makes sense now.

That being said, the poem is largely entertaining, and one must appreciate how, in the tradition of Arthurian legends, the resolution is not as straightforward as in the typical fairy-tale. The good example walks hand in hand with the cautionary tale. Not to mention, the abundance of detail regarding castles' layout, hunting or dining habits are not only very valuable for historians and scholars, but also highly atmospheric. Plus, I love how the medieval poet is not tied by the rigors of modern writing, pacing it as slow as he likes in places that have no bearing whatsoever to the main plot, such as the butchering of the game - shown in great detail - while a few months' worth of adventures are dismissed as they're 'too long to tell here'. Sure, why the hell not, nevermind what the hero did, tell me more about how to chop a deer leg. This sort of detail, regardless how valuable or atmospheric, can become overbearing for the average reader, but luckily this particular poem is of acceptable length and, at least in Simon Armitage's rendition, quite readable.

In regards to the this particular rendition, I think Simon Armitage has done a decent job, though there are places where modern language creeps in on top of medieval structures and it sounds as out of place as a scratched record. The story is entirely preserved, but there are places where the language is butchered. IMHO, a greater care should have been taken to ensure the language preserves the medieval atmosphere and, if something had to be sacrificed, then maybe the poetic structure should be the first victim.

So, is this poem teaching us anything? Well, nothing of huge relevance, but for nostalgics of Arthurian legends like myself, it's a good light reading for a summer afternoon in the park.


'Why should I shy away? If fate is kind or cruel man still must try.' (560)

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