The survival of poetry, especially if written before the invention of print, has often been a matter of luck or accident. Consigned to caves in the deserts of the Middle East, it might be preserved by the hot, dry climate for a couple of thousand years before somebody stumbled on it. And we are told that some hot, dry Alexandrian bureaucrat, no poetry lover, decided that seven plays by Sophocles, enough for one codex, would serve for the teaching of grammar and rhetoric. The surplus hundred-odd went for scrap. The single surviving manuscript of the Sophoclean remnant was rescued during the sack of Byzantium in 1453 and carried off to Italy. The story did not end there; the survivors were subjected to the depredations of vermin and, before the development of modern editorial skills, to the attentions of celibate, passionate scholars of the type studied by A.D. Nuttall, lately and sadly lost to us, in his brilliant book Dead from the Waist Down.
Of course one can look at the question from the opposite angle: how amazing it is not that so much was lost but that anything at all survived. A manuscript, now in the British Library, contains the only surviving copy of the late 14th-century romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. It lacks a title and shares the manuscript with three other poems of a devotional character, also without titles, and probably, according to the experts, by the same poet. Of this group Pearl, an allegory about a man’s grief at the death of his two-year-old daughter, is the most brilliant and mysterious.
Written around 1400, the manuscript is usually described as physically unattractive, not in the hand of the author and hard to read. It belonged, in the early 17th century, when antiquarianism was getting started, to a Yorkshire collector, Henry Savile, and then to the antiquary Sir Robert Cotton, whose books came mostly from the dissolution of the monasteries. The Cottonian library also contained the sole extant copy of Beowulf, which in 1731 narrowly escaped destruction in a serious fire. After a spell in the Bodleian the collection reached its presumably final destination in the British Library.
The greatest of all Old English poems, and, after Chaucer, the finest in Middle English, might well not have survived; conceivably we would never even have heard of them. No one knows when Beowulf was composed, let alone when it was first recited, and there is virtually no other survivor to compare with it. And Gawain, a magnificent poem by any reasonable criterion, also stands alone. It has some resemblance to other examples of Arthurian romance in France as well as in England, but as Tolkien remarked, it remains ‘a solemn thought’ that the name of the Gawain poet is ‘now forgotten, a reminder of the great gaps of ignorance over which we now weave the web of our literary history’. Much arduous scholarship has gone into that weaving, but the poem remains available to the laity as a poem, a strange and delightful experience. It is a worthy contemporary of Troilus and Criseyde, though written in a dialect very different from Chaucer’s.
It was probably the dialect of Staffordshire, Cheshire, Derbyshire and thereabouts. The author was apparently familiar with the Wirral, wild territory at the time, we’re told, so he may have been an extremely gifted Merseysider. But Chaucer had the advantage of speaking the English of London, from which modern English descends. Gawain is linguistically a far tougher proposition, and only specialists can comfortably read it, so there already exist a good many useful translations, and now we have two more, both by established poets. One of them, Bernard O’Donoghue, is a professional medievalist as well. The other, Simon Armitage, a Northerner, claims the advantage of familiarity with dialect forms that linger in his part of the country.
The first decision the translator must take is whether or not to alliterate. We are accustomed by centuries of poetry to think the normal English verse line is the iambic pentameter, as in Chaucer. Old English preferred alliteration to rhyme, as in Beowulf, and much 14th-century verse also uses it, though less strictly. It is rarely used in modern poetry, though there is an extended example in Auden’s The Age of Anxiety, but it was the norm until replaced as a structural principle by rhyme. Alliterative verse is a complicated affair, governed by quite firm rules, and Gawain offers a sophisticated model. Its four sections are divided into stanzas or ‘fits’, each ending with a device known as the bob-and-wheel: a short line, normally two words with one stress, followed by a three-stressed quatrain whose second and fourth lines rhyme with the bob. Thus:
So in peril and pain Sir Gawain made progress,
Criss-crossing the countryside until Christmas
At that time of tiding,
He prayed to highest heaven.
Let Mother Mary guide him
Towards some house or haven.
The effect of the bob-and-wheel is striking; it wraps up the stanza or section it is concluding with a decorative comment or summary that stresses its own difference from the routine of the alliterative verse to which it is attached. As for the rules of alliteration, O’Donoghue explains them thus: ‘The rhythmic alliterative line was divided into two halves, each containing two (or in the first half-line originally three) main stresses . . . The third stress (that is, the first stress of the second half-line) always alliterates with one or both of the stresses in the first half-line, but never with the fourth stress.’ There is more to it, but that is enough to show the problem facing translators.
O’Donoghue argues that the formalities of alliteration cannot be imitated in modern English without introducing anachronisms of vocabulary or word order. He offers as an illustration a modern version of the third and fourth lines of the poem, rendered thus by the authoritative Tolkien:
The traitor who the contrivance of treason there fashioned
Was tried for his treachery, the most true upon earth –
which, self-evidently, won’t do. O’Donoghue then quotes Marie Borroff’s translation:
The knight that had knotted the nets of deceit
Was impeached for his perfidy, proven most true
This is better, making more sense of the last phrase, and also, like Tolkien, observing the rules. But O’Donoghue doesn’t like it, and offers this instead:
The man who’d betrayed it [Troy] was brought to trial,
Most certainly guilty of terrible crimes.
This makes sense and, he claims, keeps the rhythm of the original while replacing the phonetic formalities (alliteration most importantly) with the ‘normal formalities of modern English’. And so he decided to abandon the alliterative structure, and declined to allow rhymes in the bob-and-wheel passages.
Armitage translates those lines thus:
The turncoat whose tongue had tricked his own men
was tried for his treason – the truest crime on earth.
And since he finds this satisfactory (despite the vague ending) and since he is capable of carrying on the practice with some ease and evident zeal, Armitage settles for alliteration: ‘to me alliteration is the warp and weft of the poem, without which it is just so many fine threads. In some very elemental way, the story and the sense of the poem is [sic] directly located within its sound. The percussive patterning of the words serves to reinforce their meaning.’
Perhaps it’s a pity to make this point by reference to some of the dullest lines in the poem, but once it is made one can see how it happens that we have before us two translations that are about as far apart as they could possibly be while each retaining its own fidelity to the original. Both positions are defensible; both allow for the variety of the content and for flexibility in its delivery; above all, both are continually aware that they are handling a rather beautiful object.
One can see that the subject of Gawain might well appeal to Armitage. It starts with Christmas celebrations and games; the action gets going with a particularly eerie game, the rules laid down by a disguised and uninvited guest. Once he sets out on his quest Gawain has to venture through the changing seasons (there are wonderful winter landscapes) and across a wilderness, challenging boundaries and, as obliged by his oath, putting his life at the disposal of a supposedly murderous opponent. And there were other attractions; most of all the lexical challenge of the alliteration, but also the temptation to give this high romance a touch of the demotic:
It was Christmas at Camelot – King Arthur’s court,
where the great and the good of the land had gathered,
all the righteous lords of the ranks of the Round Table
quite properly carousing and revelling in pleasure.
It was Christmas at Camelot, and there was the king
with his leading lords and all his best soldiers,
the famous company of the whole Round Table –
celebrating in style: not a care in the world.
‘The great and the good’ is the kind of thing we get rather too much of in Armitage: he will slide in an ironic modernism when he can. O’Donoghue’s ‘in style: not a care in the world’ is not quite so trendy, but is still fitted on like a prefabricated part. (And although he has forsworn alliteration he does have ‘leading lords’.) Is either of these an improvement on Tolkien?
This king lay at Camelot at Christmas-tide
with many a lovely lord, lieges most noble,
indeed of the Table Round all those tried brethren,
amid merriment unmatched and mirth without care.
That trace of archaism is something the two new translators understandably want to avoid. Yet Tolkien still seems closest to the original; his first line makes no change in it, and he keeps ‘lovely lords’ as a translator today might not think proper. In the last line he has to deviate because of the changed modern sense of ‘reckless’ – the original has ‘rechles mirthes’. He wants to keep as close as possible to the original, and would not, like these more recent translators, have supposed that archaism was a hindrance to his doing so.
When the music stops Arthur and his brilliant company at the Christmas feast are suddenly confronted by an ‘aghlich mayster’ (‘a perilous horseman’, Tolkien; ‘a monstrous apparition’, O’Donoghue; ‘a fearful form’, Armitage). The huge size of the visitor is emphasised, and the bob-and-wheel informs us further: he was green, and the next section spells out his greenness. Here Armitage scores by his rhymes:
Amazement seized their minds,
no soul had ever seen
a knight of such a kind –
entirely emerald green.
‘For at the hue men gaped aghast/in his face and form that showed;/as a fay-man fell he passed,/and green all over glowed,’ Tolkien says, this time struggling a bit.
The intruder has green hair and a green beard, and wears a green gown. He leads a horse that is as green as he is, in every part down to the tail – ‘to its tippety-tip!’ says Armitage for some reason. The knight is ‘otherworldly, yet flesh/and bone’, this poet says, in the spirit though not the language of the original. Armitage enjoys taking liberties. The knight’s dreadful weapon becomes ‘the mother of all axes,/a cruel piece of kit I kid you not’ and his courtiers had ‘seen some sights’, but this was ‘something special’. Too much of this, as when Arthur, ‘keeping his cool’, says he’s not ‘spoiling for no scrap’, and refers to his young liegemen not as ‘berdles childer’ (‘beardless children’) but as ‘bum-fluffed bairns’, and we may think he’s enjoying himself a bit too much at the expense of the poem. O’Donoghue’s ‘mere adolescents’ is probably too sedate.
The Green Knight, in a variant of the more usual kind of Christmas game (forfeits, for instance), offers to allow himself to be beheaded so long as his killer undertakes to meet him at a certain Green Chapel on New Year’s Day a year hence, and submit himself to one stroke of the great axe. But ‘who has the gall? The gumption? The guts?’ Armitage’s monster sneers. (‘If anyone’s so warlike as to give what I ask for,’ says O’Donoghue – which can hardly help being more accurate.) Gawain insists on accepting the challenge and the beheading is graphically described. Armitage revels in it: ‘in the standing position he prepared to be struck,/bent forward, revealing a flash of green flesh’ (not in the original, but worthy of it). The head rolls away, kicked along by the noble company; the Green Knight picks it up and sits at the table, blood pouring from his neck, the head still talking. He reminds Gawain of his bargain, and rides off. The king assures the ladies that ‘such strangeness’ was in the true spirit of Christmas.
The next year the pious and courteous Gawain, fully armed and bearing a shield with an image of the Blessed Virgin on its inside, sets forth in search of the Green Chapel to honour his knightly promise. The magnificent middle passages of the poem describe, with a profusion of natural detail, his journey ‘through the whole of England’. At the second Christmas of the poem he is welcomed in a grand castle and made to join in the lavish celebrations. The lord of this castle proposes another Christmas game: he himself will hunt hard for three days and everything he kills will be Gawain’s if Gawain, in return, hands over the benefits he may have received at the castle in the lord’s absence. The hunting is spectacularly described. On each day, when the lord is absent, his wife attempts to seduce Gawain: a kiss, two kisses, three kisses. Each of these benefits Gawain faithfully confers on the lord, embracing him when he returns from the field. The blend of brutal hunt and subtle seduction is described with extraordinary power and delicacy. Gawain remembers his vow of chastity but, against his will, accepts the lady’s present: a magic girdle which will protect him when the Green Knight strikes. He knew it was wrong to take it, but didn’t despise the chance of survival; he thought the girdle ‘could be just the job’ (Armitage, of course). The account of Gawain’s ordeal is masterly.
How he survived that ordeal with little more than a graze from the axe, who the Green Knight turned out to be, and why, after Gawain’s return to Camelot, Arthur’s knights began to wear girdles of the same design, provides the substance of what follows. We are told at the end that, since its foundation by refugees from Troy, Britain has known many such adventures and stories, but Gawain’s is unique.
If I needed to choose between these new versions I should have to prefer Armitage’s, despite his naughtiness. ‘Stunning’ is an adjective that precludes thought but Armitage uses it, along with ‘No way!’ and the like. Of a hunted fox it is said that he was ‘convinced that his cunning had conned those canines’. When the Green Knight has to alliterate with ‘the challenge at the chapel’ he becomes ‘the great green chap’. ‘We’re talking a hundred top hunters at least’ is pub talk. ‘Every person present performed party pieces’ is a stunt. But although he kicks up his heels occasionally Armitage has done much justice to these 2530 extraordinary lines, and has paid the anonymous poet the tribute of hard poetic labour. O’Donoghue is less sparky but still a very good read. ‘He grabbed the girdle and ungathered its knot/and flung it in fury at the man in front./“My downfall and undoing; let the devil take it,”’ says Armitage. ‘Then he snatched at the girdle and loosened its knot,/and violently flung it back to the knight./“Here, take the damned thing, and bad luck go with it!”’ So O’Donoghue. Both versions will do, and the choice really hangs on the view taken of alliteration. Not to be preferred is Tolkien’s ‘foul be its fate,’ which lacks that freshness translators ought to seek, perhaps especially in this case; for, as Armitage says in his introduction, the anonymity of the poem makes it more attractive to the modern poet, as if he could claim it, experience its presence and its delicate blend of chivalry and religion, of the domestic and the uncanny, something we probably can’t find anywhere else, save possibly in some paintings of the trecento.