Booklog: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: A New Verse Translation

January 13, 2007

Sir Gawain and the the Green Knight: A New Verse Translation
W.S. Merwin
Read: 1.2.07
Rating: Very Good

One of the best things to emerge from my months of study for the GRE Literature in English test was a newfound appreciation for works of literature that I had read quickly and dismissively as a fiery-eyed freshman. I recently even read sections of Spencer’s Faerie Queen with some degree of enjoyment. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is the one work that stood out among these rediscoveries; I’ve since acquired a deeper understanding of Arthurian romances and chivalry tales, and better learned to appreciate the grandeur of longer works of poetry. When I unexpectedly discovered that American poet W. S. Merwin (whose poetry I have read only slightly, but like) had recently (2002) completed a translation, I knew the time had come.

On Christmas Eve (thanks, mom) I was pleased to discover that the book prints the original Middle English on the left-hand side of the page, like Seamus Heaney’s phenomenal Beowulf (which may have served as an inspiration to Merwin). I was ever more pleased to see that I could, to a certain extent, read the Middle English with comprehension. Skipping back and forth between the original and Merwin’s translation was great fun.

With this in mind, I can offer some amateur criticism of Merwin’s translation. Typically, when evaluating books in translation, I can only use the quality of the English as a guide, but with this text I have a better idea what to look for. I found Merwin’s language a bit loose for my taste, especially his treatment of the “bob and wheel” stanza format. In the original, the bob is typically two syllables, very rarely three — but Merwin often stretches it to three, four, or even five. This changes the rhythm of the stanza dramatically, and it looses it tight, marching feel. This is certainly a choice, not a failing, but I would have preferred a stricter adherence to the stanza form, which is unique and one of the poem’s greatest strengths.

As I mentioned, skipping back and forth between the Middle English and the translation was delightful. I would typically check the original when I read a good passage, and often found it more economical and dynamic. Here’s an example, with Merwin’s translation first:

Let us be merry while we may, and have joy in our minds,
For sorrow can catch us whenever it pleases.

Make we mery quyl we may and mynne vpon joye,
For þe lur may mon lach when-so mon lykez.

The meaning is nearly identical, but the imperative to “mind upon joy” is much more striking that the passive “have joy in our minds.”

With these general reactions taken care of, I’d like to focus on a particular series of scenes from Book Three, which makes up the heart of the poem. They occur in the castle of the chivalrous knight who takes Gawain in towards the end of his year-long search for the Green Knight. (If your not familiar with the plot of the tale, Wikipedia has a good summary). The Lord makes a deal with Gawain: as he is out hunting, Gawain can stay in his bed and rest, with the Queen to keep him company; each evening they will exchange the spoils of the day with one another. This happens on three consecutive days, and each morning the Queen, who is of course young and lovely, comes to visit Gawain in bed, flattering, tempting, and seducing him. Gawain behaves flawlessly, defending his honor without insulting the lady. To do so, Gawain must walk a very fine line, which exposes the limits of the code of chivalry. He obviously cannot make love to her, and must refuse her efforts to offer herself to him (in translation: “You are welcome to my body”; original: “3e ar welcum to my cors”). Gawain fends her off with humor and wit, “making light” of her seduction. On the other hand, Gawain must be careful not to offend the lady by denying her too adamantly, upholding his promise to engage her in the “art of love” — namely, flirting. Playing upon his inability to refuse her, and testing his resolve, the lady does get a kiss out of Gawain on the second day — but he is simply the receiver, not the initiator. Apparently this makes all the difference, for he is still praised for “behaving correctly.”

The Queen does manage to trap Gawain on the third day, offering him a magic belt which she promises will protect him from any harm. Gawain is greatly in need of the belt, as his scheduled appointment with the magical Green Knight is the next day; he must expose his neck to the Knight’s axe, without flinching or fighting back. At first, Gawain refuses the lady’s gifts (she offers him a gold ring before the belt), but eventually is convinced that taking the belt would be a good idea. After accepting it, he promises the lady that he will not tell the Lord, her husband, about the gift, for fear that he will be jealous. This binds Gawain even further, for he has promised to exchange anything he has received at the end of the day with the Lord. Immediately after taking the belt, Gawain goes to the chapel and confesses his sin, asking for mercy with added fervor — he is expecting to die the next day.

Gawain has been caught in a trap, after walking so carefully the razor-sharp line between chivalry, courtesy, and purity. When evening comes, Gawain keeps his promise to the Queen, and does not tell her lord about the belt exchange. The next day, Gawain meets the Green Knight, and the belt does (appear to) save his life: when the Knight takes a swing at Gawain’s bared skin, he misses, and the blade barely nicks his flesh. But this is not before Gawain flinches in fear on the Knight’s first attempt. In the end, Gawain is saved, the Green Knight reveals that he and the Lord are the same person, and explains that he and his wife joined forces to test Gawain’s purity and courage. They think Gawain has passed the test with flying colors, despite the fact that he has broken his promise and flinched as he saw the axe descend. Gawain, on the other hand, is deeply ashamed on both accounts, and vows to wear the belt evermore as a reminder of his weakness. When he returns to King Arthur’s court, his penance-belt becomes a fashion fad, and all the knights don it in his honor.

Two things stand out to me here. First, the gap between Gawain’s harsh judgment of himself and the praise the Lord and lady lavish upon him. The facts are the same, but the perception is not. The Lord and lady know that Gawain was being tested and was trapped; they devised the test just to try Gawain’s resolve, and are impressed that he stands up to it. Gawain, on the other hand, is very disappointed by his performance, even though he must know on a certain level that he was deliberately trapped. I think chivalry is like this in general: those who attempt to live by these high standards judge themselves more harshly than those around them. As a great knight, Gawain holds himself to a nearly monastic standard of behavior — from this deep personal resolves comes his greatness.

The darker side of this is the message of misogyny that emerges in the book’s final pages. Gawain is able to rationalize his failure, since it was a woman who led him to sin:

And he is brought to sorrow by a woman’s ways,
For so was Adam beguiled by one on earth,
And Solomon by several of them, and Samson also–
Delilah dealt him his fate–and David afterward
Was beguiled by Bathsheba and it brought him much grief.
All these were undone by their wiles, it would be far better
To love women without believing them, if ever a man could.
For these, in the old days, were the noblest, whom fortune favored
Above all others under the realm of heaven, and they were
bemused by love
And they were all led astray
By women they had known.
If that has happened to me
Perhaps I may be forgiven.

Gawain is saying this to the Lord about the Lord’s wife! How deplorable. This passage seems very out of place in the text, and it is most unfair to the Queen, who has been praised for her beauty and virtue throughout — and who was put up to it by her husband. Whew. If one wanted to deconstruct the text, this would be the kernel of dissonance from which to start.

In conclusion: Merwin’s Sir Gawain and the Green Knight makes for excellent reading; the poem truly deserves its reputation as one of the finest surviving pieces of pre-Shakespearean English writing. I will most certainly read it again many times before my life is over. Next time, I’ll pick a different translation, but Merwin’s served me well this time around: it reads quickly and pleasantly, and having the Middle English in close proximity is very rewarding.



  1. Very impressive that you can read the middle English so well. I’ve never been very good at it. I wonder why all these old poems are being re-translated for modern audiences? I’m glad about it, don’t get me wrong, but the publishers can’t be making much off of them. Or maybe they are. I’ll bet they are hoping the new translations will all be adopted by schools. If I ever get a hankering for Sir Gawain, I’ll be sure to give Merwin’s version a go.

  2. I certainly wouldn’t say I can read the Middle English “well” — just that I can usually follow the gist of what’s going on, picking up on half or slightly more than half of the words. Some passages are easy, if the words are ones that made it into modern English — the spelling is all that’s difficult. Other passages are completely indecipherable.

    I think that publisher’s do hope that the texts get taken up by schools. Often, as was the case with Heaney’s translation, a publisher commissions the translation for an anthology (Norton hired Heaney). There’s also always the hope that a translation will become “the standard” and sell well for 15-20 years. I don’t think this will happen with Merwin, but Heaney certainly met that expectation.

  3. comment from becky: (overhearing what I was reading aloud to dad) “Hey! I got that book for him!”

  4. Note, however, that while Gawain is on his misogynist rant, the examples he uses get less and less coherent, and in the case of David, it’s not Bathsheba’s fault at all that David sinned, but David’s alone. As for Samson, well, neither he nor David truly deserves the sobriquet of “noble,” at least, not in relation to Delilah and Bathsheba. What this shows, I think, is Gawain’s guilty conscience; he’s just lashing out without really thinking about the content of what he’s saying. I think you had it right when you said that such knights are much harsher on themselves than others are on them. But then, all these knights in the tale are in their “beardless youth,” and hopefully will learn tolerance as they grow older and more experienced. Especiall Lancelot. And Guinevere.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: