Monday 15 June 2009

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Simon Armitage

" of the strangest and most compelling narratives of all time."

Screened on BBC Four over four programs from 4th to 13th June and frequently Broadcast of Radio 4, as part of the BBC’s 2009 Poetry Season, Simon Armitage walked us through the landscape of the poem, revealing the Arthurian legend in a modern quest form North Wales to Staffordshire.

Born in 1963 and living in the village of Marsden, West Yorkshire, Armitage is the latest writer to attempt a full translation of the poem’s 2500 lines, he claims to have carried out this momentous task for all kinds of reasons; some literary, some sentimental, and part private indulgence, the book has gone on to be his most successful, especially in America, where Armitage's translation has been nominated as one of 2008's best books by both the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times.

Simon Armitage goes on the trail of one of the jewels in the crown of British poetry, the anonymous Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, written about 600 years ago. There is only one known copy of the manuscript, and for a long period it lay dormant in a private collection. Armitage follows in Gawain's footsteps through some of Britain's most beautiful and mystical landscapes and reveals why the tale of a knight beheading a green giant is as relevant now as when it was written, “Death, violence and sex sit cheek by jowl in the poem.

Simon Armitage joins translators such as JRR Tolkien and Ted Hughes, in translating one of the earliest stories told in English. Tolkien’s translation was so faithful to the original that some commentators have described it as seeming almost older than the original, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight abounds with the supernatural, so it’s not difficult to see why it would appeal to the author of The Lord of the Rings and the creator of the Middle earth mythology.

The poem tells that on New Year's Day, a gigantic Green Knight, mounted on horseback, carrying an axe arrives at King Arthur ‘s court and challenges the knights to a wager: any who accepts must take the axe and strike a single blow against the Green Knight, on condition that the blow will be returned the next year. Gawain, the best of knights, is the only one to accept. Stepping forward, declaring 'this moment must be mine,' Gawain takes a swing with the axe and beheads the Green Knight, who promptly picks up his head and rides off.

One year later Gawain sets out for the Green Chapel, though he has no idea where or what the Green Chapel is, it is this journey that forms the narrative of the film, from start to finish, with Armitage attempting to retrace Sir Gawain’s shadowy footsteps. Armitage, starts at Tintagel in Cornwall with the author musing over the whereabouts of the mystical Camelot. He then traces Gawain's journey from Camelot to the Green Chapel across the rural landscapes of Wales and England.

Gawain’s journey takes him along the north coast of Wales, the poem tells us, keeping Anglesey to his left before crossing at “Holy Hede”. A similar beheading and miraculous recovery supposedly took place St Winifred’s Well, at Holywell in Flintshire, where St Beuno restored his niece Winifred to life after her head had been severed by Cardoc, although Armitage declines the invitation of a dip in the waters of the well, settling instead for a paddle in bare feet, before crossing the Dee by drier means in a motorboat. The tale gives graphic detail of the butchering of a deer caught while out hunting which was unnecessarily portrayed in the documentary

Passing the Wirral and treading into Cheshire, several locations have been suggested for the site of the Green Knight’s abode, but Armitage heads for the Staffordshire Moorlands, and the Roaches, North of Leek, "It looks a wild place with no settlement anywhere to be seen, but heady heights to both halves of the valley," states the poem, "and set with sabre-toothed stones of such sharpness, no cloud in the sky could escape unscratched.”

We know from the dialect in the original poem that Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was written by someone living in the North Midlands, Cheshire or Staffordshire, Armitage says "It can be traced to an area near the Staffordshire market town of Leek."

“The place you head for holds a hidden peril," Gawain's servant tells him. "In that wilderness lives a wildman, the worst in the world. He's brooding and brutal, and loves bludgeoning humans."

At Doxey Pool Armitage met with Leek Post & Times columnist and former editor Doug Pickford, author of many local books on the area of the Three Shires, and battled some pretty atrocious Moorlands weather;  "being in these parts makes you feel a kinship with the poet," said Armitage, as he pushed on for the strange moss-covered geological fault of Lud's Church, which he calls “the perfect setting for the poem’s finale,” The Green Chapel, that “perilous place where the knight would receive the slaughter man's strike.”

The terrified Gawain enters the chasm and hears above him the grinding of the giant’s axe being sharpened in anticipation of his fate. Gawain survived his ordeal being protected by a green girdle given to him by the lady of the house where he stayed, possibly the nearby Swythamley Hall.

I tuned in to this program by chance while channel flicking, as you do when there’s not much on, and it was pleasing to see a retelling of the poem that kept to the original, watching earnestly to find the location of the Green Knight’s Chapel, we had to wait to the last 15 minutes to find Armitage arriving in Lud’s Church which was indeed a dramatic setting for the ending to the tale.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is one of the finest surviving examples of Middle English poetry, but little is known about the author - except hints that he came from the north of England.

Tolkien identified the language of the poem as being of 14th century North Midlands. In the 1950s, Professor Ralph Elliott from Keele University in North Staffordshire went further and with field trips with his students identified many rare topographical terms used in the poem which appear in place-names all very local to the Roaches in the Staffordshire Moorlands. Notably, Elliott also identified the ‘Green Chapel’ as ‘Lud’s Church’ (or Ludchurch) the 300 foot long rock chasm near the Swythamley estate, just inside the North Staffordshire border.

John Levitt, another Keele professor, continued Elliott’s researches and claimed that the poet was probably a monk at the nearby, now ruined, Dieulacresse Abbey at Leek. Levitt claimed that if you read the poem with a Potteries accent, then it all became clear, and wasn’t then incomprehensible at all, having a magic, alliterative, hypnotic quality. Set in the wildernesses of the Staffordshire moorlands, it makes every tree and every rock come alive.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Simon Armitage’s book was published in 2006 and readily available, it has been described as the most readable version of the poem, while maintaining the strange alliterative verse of the original, Armitage makes the poem appear lucid, accessible, fresh and modern, bringing the text to life.

>> A Knight's Tale
Article by Simon Armitage in the Guardian on translating Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, 16 December 2006.

>> Author's website

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