Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, and Sir Orfeo
by J.R.R. Tolkien
This was an interesting one. I’ve never been all that interested in The Silmarillion and the Lost Tales of Middle-Earth; I think The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit are such miraculous, incredible books that they are more than enough for one great author’s lifetime. But Tolkien wasn’t just a great author; he was also a scholar of languages, Middle English and several Scandinavian languages, Old Norse, Finnish, and so on. This translation, though it has its creative elements, seeing as how Tolkien had to re-create the original intent of the text in modern English, it really falls more in his scholarship than in his fiction. And just like On Fairy-Stories from The Tolkien Reader, this is a hell of a piece of scholarship (he says in a state of blissful ignorance).
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight I have read before; taught it to my students a couple of years ago. It was fun: it’s a King Arthur story, one that has a nice supernatural element as well as one of these ridiculous tests of chivalry that the Arthurian legends seem so attached to. (Sure, you can be the High King, act noble, unite the kingdom, bring back morality – but can you keep your cool when your wife is sleeping with your best friend? How about THAT!?!) In this story, a Green Knight appears at Camelot during Christmas, and offers a bet: any knight who is willing can take the axe he’s offering and trade a single blow with him: and the knight gets first shot. At the Green Knight’s bare neck. Nobody takes the Green Knight up on it: seems like such an obvious trap, you can almost hear Admiral Akbar shouting it in the background; and besides, they’re all full of yuletide cheer, wassail and meat pies and roast beast. So the Jolly Green Giant mocks the Round Table’s chivalry and courage – and King Arthur can’t have that (So you can fight off all of your enemies – but can you stand a nameless stranger calling you a wuss? DIDN’T THINK SO!), so he jumps up to take the challenge, but Sir Gawain, Arthur’s nephew and one of like five or six knights who all get called the second-mightiest after Lancelot, takes it in his place. He takes the axe, he takes a swing, he chops off the Green Knight’s head.
At which point the Green Knight picks up his head, tells Gawain to come find him in a year and get his return stroke. Then he laughs and rides off.
So it turns out, this is actually a common legend from Middle English time; so common that scholars call it The Beheading Game. The rest of the story is Gawain riding off to meet his doom, and spending some time visiting a strange knight in a castle, where Gawain is nearly seduced by the knight’s hot wife (This is that test of chivalry I was talking about.) Then Gawain goes and finds the Green Knight, where he receives his just desserts, which I won’t spoil.
I actually really love Tolkien’s translation. It’s both readable and grandiose, the way a 800-year-old epic poem should be; and Tolkien went for a more unusual verse form, one that is truer to the original: he doesn’t use end rhyme very much (SGATGK has verses that end with a brief four-line phrase that does have rhyme, and Tolkien keeps those), but every line has as much alliteration as he can squeeze in there, often focusing on the specifically important words in the line. It’s interesting, very rhythmic, very catchy. I recommend it.
Then you get to Pearl. Pearl is another epic poem, this one 101 verses, that came from the same manuscript that held SGATGK. It’s about a man who has lost a woman he loves; maybe his sister or mother, but most likely his daughter; he calls her nearer in blood than a niece or aunt, and he doesn’t feel romantic about her, but that’s all he says about their relationship. What he talks about is the fact that she has died, and he feels awful; then he goes on at length (Creepy, creepy length) about how she and thousands of other perfectly pure young dead women have now become the Brides of Christ in Heaven; then he gets chewed out by Pearl’s ghost because he isn’t sufficiently happy that she is now in Heaven and mass-married to Jesus, which apparently is the ultimate success for these people; then he has a long vision of Heaven and how swell it is there. It’s another excellent piece of translating, as this one does have end rhyme in a very specific scheme; there’s a nice turn in every stanza that I enjoyed spotting and then looking for. Most annoying thing is that it’s set up in five-verse segments, each set of five using the same ending line or phrase for all five verses, and thus having a connected rhyme scheme – except for one frigging verse in the middle, between 70 and 76, when there are six verses. Yeah, okay, you wanted 101 total; did you need to do it THEN?!? Not the beginning, the precise middle, or the end – no, this guy was like, “I think we should change it up at the ¾ mark. Yeah, that sounds good. Bah. Pearl is a lovely translation, but I kind of hated the story,
I did like Sir Orfeo, which is essentially the Orpheus story: Sir Orfeo is a king with a world-class talent for the lute; his wife is kidnapped by the Faerie, and Orfeo goes after her and wins her back with his lute-playing (Actually, I think it’s a harp, but in my epic Medieval English poetry, every instrument is a lute.) and then tries to recapture the kingdom he left behind to seek his wife. It’s the shortest, and the only actually romantic one, in my opinion; I liked that one, too.
Overall, it’s a nice book. Tolkien impresses, and the poems give interesting insights into Ye Olden Tymes, which I have enjoyed ever since Me Youngen Tymes. Recommended for other word- and myth- nerds.