Thursday, July 11, 2013

Book Review: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Reading J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fall of Arthur reminded me of another work of Arthurian fiction that’s related to Tolkien and has been stuck in my the back of my bookshelf for years. That work is Tolkien’s translation of a fourteenth century poem titled Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The famous poem is the work of an unnamed English author who may have lived around the time of Chaucer. Only a single copy of the poem survives in the British Museum, but Tolkien translated it from medieval English and his translation was published in 1975, a few years after his death.

Small knight, big green man!
In the introduction to his translation, Tolkien calls the poem “a fairy tale for adults, full of life and colour.” The poem is written as an “alliterative romance,” but it reads a bit more like a modern day story than the Old English prose Tolkien employed for The Fall of Arthur. Speaking of Arthur, he’s but a minor character in this tale, a king whose “youth made him so merry with the moods of a boy, he liked a lighthearted life ...” Sir Gawain is young too – the youngest of Arthur’s knights, in fact – and he’s the singular protagonist of this tale.

The story begins at a New Year’s feast at Camelot when in barges the Green Knight – a gigantic, mysterious horseman whose flesh and clothes glow with a green hue. He issues a morbid challenge: a chance to strike a blow against him with his very own axe in exchange for the Green Knight delivering a return blow a year later, in a place called the Green Chapel. When none of Arthur’s knights answer the challenge, the young king is prepared to strike the blow himself, until the noble Gawain rises to the task. Gawain strikes hard with the Green Knight’s axe, severing his head. But undeterred, the Green Knight picks up his severed head and warns Gawain that his time will come a year from now when the Green Knight will deliver his own merciless blow.

Mr. Virtuous himself: Sir Gawain
Fulfilling his end of the bargain, Gawain eventually embarks on a journey into Northern Wales to find the Green Chapel. His journey takes him to a castle, where he meets its wily lord and his beautiful wife. While the lord is off hunting, his wife tries mightily to seduce Gawain, but being a virtuous and Christian knight, he steadfastly refuses her advances. He refuses her gifts too, until she offers him her silk girdle, which she claims has the power to prevent physical harm – not a bad thing to have when an undead Green Knight is waiting to behead you!

A big reveal comes in the poem’s climax when Gawain goes to meet his fate before the Green Knight at an overgrown barrow mound that serves at the chapel. There’s a twist at the end, and it drives home the poem’s theme, which alludes to biblical tales and even mentions Adam, Solomon, and David at one point. Even a little research about this poem will reveal that its message and its myriad of symbols – the green man, the garter, and even Gawain’s shield, which is emblazoned with a golden pentacle – have been subject to a number of differing interpretations over time. The poem’s ending and all of the symbolism left me pondering its meaning as well. And in my book, that’s often the sign of a good tale.

The original manuscript penned way back when ...


Shelly said...

I was about to buy some English books online, and found this post of yours.. Got another book to add in the list :)

Joseph Finley said...

Shelly - I'm glad I could help. I hope you enjoy the book, and thanks for stopping by my blog!

Virginia Silverstein said...

In freshman English at UPenn, back in the day, I wrote my term paper on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, with Tolkien's masterly analysis of the epic as my main resource. A year or two later, I was surprised to find the first two volumes of Lord of the Rings featured at our local library. I devoured them and waited anxiously for the library to acquire the final volume. (Vol. 2 had left off at a major cliff-hanger, with Gandalf apparently dead, and I was afraid Tolkien might die before he finished the series.) Ultimately I did get to read the end and vowed that I would buy all the books one day to pass on to my future children. Years passed. I got married, had children, and on my frequent shopping trips to downtown Brooklyn (conveniently situated near my obstetrician's office), I browsed in A&S's book department. They had hardcover copies of all the Tolkien books; I bought The Hobbit, which I hadn't read before (and did read it to my children), but felt the Lord of the Rings volumes were too expensive for my budget. (All of $5.50 each -- money was worth more in those days.) Months went by as I continued my pilgrimages to the book department to look at the three matched volumes on the shelf. I started to worry: "What if they go out of print and I can't buy them?" (This was before the advent of Finally I broke down, forked over my $16.50, and took the books home. Naturally, less than a year later the trilogy came out in paperback and became a smash best-seller. It's still very much in print now, close to a half-century later...

Btw, I loved your book and look forward to your next!

Joseph Finley said...

Virginia - thanks for the great post. I love your story about discovering The Lord of the Rings. And thank you so much for the kind comment about my book -- I'm very glad that you liked it!