Saturday 10 December 2011

The Green Knight

This illustration, taken from a Medieval manuscript, is on
the front cover of  an old Penguin edition of Sir Gawayne and the Green Knight.

Day Ten, and I’ve travelled back in time to 14th century, and the tale of Sir Gawayne and the Green Knight, written by an unknown poet around 1360. King Arthur and his court are holding their Christmas feast at Camelot when a strange knight – a green giant – appears and challenges one of the knights to decapitate him – but in return the knight must visit him for the blow to be returned. Sir Gawayne accepts the challenge, and much of the poem describes his adventures, but it opens with the great Christmas Feast, and the shock arrival of the Green Knight.
This always me wish I’d studied Middle English. Actually, it’s not that difficult to get the gist of what is being said, but I am sure I would appreciate it far better if my knowledge were greater. As it is, I have to make do with modern translations. Ideally I would like the Simon Armitage version, but somewhere I have an old Penguin edition, as well as the Tolkien. However,, despite my recent reorganisation of the bookshelves, I could not find either, so I’ve had to resort to Project Gutenberg (again) where there are several versions.

Anyway, here is the bit where the Green Knight arrives at court:

“So, as I said, the great doors opened wide.
In rushed a blast of winter from outside, 
And with it, galloping on the empty air, 
A great green giant on a great green mare Plunged like a tempest-cleaving thunderbolt, And struck four-footed, with an earthquake's jolt,
Plump on the hearthstone.
There the uncouth wight 
Sat greenly laughing at the strange affright That paled all cheeks and opened wide all eyes; Till after the first shock of quick surprise 
The people circled round him, still in awe, And circling stared; and this is what they saw: 
Cassock and hood and hose, of plushy sheen Like close-cut grass upon a bowling-green, Covered his stature, from his verdant toes To the green brows that topped his emerald nose. 
His beard was glossy, like unripened corn; His eyes shot sparklets like the polar morn. 
But like in hue unto that deep-sea green Wherewith must shine those gems of ray serene 
The dark, unfathomed caves of ocean bear. 
Green was his raiment, green his monstrous mare. 
He rode unarmed, uncorsleted, unshielded, 
Except that in his huge right hand he wielded A frightful battle-axe, with blade as green
As coppery rust;—but the long edge shone keen.”

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