Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: A New Verse Translation book by Translated by W.S. Merwin reviewed by James Coleman

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: A New Verse Translation book by Translated by W.S. Merwin reviewed by James Coleman

As everyone knows, a proper Knight of the Round table cannot tolerate an affront to his honor. Due to some clause in the chivalric code, Arthur and his boys seem completely unable to turn down a challenge. This peculiar weakness is the driving plot device behind a number of Arthurian legends: the quest for the Holy Grail, for example, started out as essentially a double-dare from the Deity. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a Middle English alliterative poem written by an unknown poet who lived (most scholars believe) in the late fourteenth century, also fits into this category. The poem opens at the court of Camelot around New Year’s, when King Arthur’s holiday office-party is disrupted by the appearance of a mysterious and threateningly monochromatic knight, who jumps off his matching green horse and issues a startling challenge to the partygoers: he will allow any man to strike him in the neck with an ax, if that man will promise to take the same sort of blow from him in one year’s time. Sir Gawain accepts the challenge eagerly with a fine swing of the ax, but gets a nasty surprise when the Green Knight picks up his own severed head and rides away, reminding Gawain that he is honor-bound to uphold his end of the bargain on the following New Year’s Day.

The cover of W.S. Merwin’s new translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight presents a hazy portrait of the green knight, his leering expression evoking the moment when he makes his sinister challenge to Arthur and company. Peering down from the New Releases shelf of Barnes and Noble, however, the green face offers a different sort of challenge: the attention-grabbing image, along with the book-jacket’s hip layout and nouveau-gothic typeface, dares readers who might ordinarily shy away from Middle English verse romances to pick up the gauntlet and give the book a second glance. The great commercial and critical success of Seamus Heaney’s recent translation of Beowulf demonstrated that an archaic English poem can, with the loving attentions of a widely read and well respected poet, successfully make the leap from the realm of English graduate seminars to best-seller lists and dinner conversations. W.S. Merwin, an American poet who has won both the Bollingen and Pulitzer prizes (among many other accolades) for his own books of poetry, and whose previous translations include a verse rendering of Dante’s Purgatorio, has produced a fresh and readable translation of Gawain that stands poised to introduce this delightful old poem to a new audience.

Merwin’s verse is rapid and rhythmic, employing a vocabulary that is natural and modern. He scrupulously shuns the familiar cast of archaisms that infiltrate many modern translations of medieval poetry , rendering the narrative of the poem in elegant and musical English without losing the emotional range of the original. He delivers the poem’s three hunting scenes, for instance, in exhilarated, violent verse, but fills the three parallel scenes of seduction with humor, guilt, and appropriately awkward lulls in the conversation. Describing the desolate stretches of wilderness through which Gawain must wander, Merwin’s language becomes increasingly bleak and oppressive:

In the morning, with a high heart he rides by a mountain
Into the depths of a forest so wild he marveled at it,
High hills all around him and woods on the hillsides,
Hoary oaks, huge ones, a hundred of them together.
The hazel and the hawthorn tangled in each other
With rough shaggy moss massed on them everywhere,
And many birds mournful on the bare twigs,
Piteously piping there from the pain of the cold.
Merwin’s preface to his translation is delightful. His very engaging (and concise) discussion of the history of the poem focuses on the transmission of the Arthurian stories across Europe. He explains how these tales, springing from the exploits of a putative historical British king Arthur, jumped the Channel to France to captivate the troubadour poets of the 11th, 12th, and 13th centuries, whose Arthurian romances in turn influenced Italian poets including Dante (the memorable Paolo and Francesca earned their place in Hell’s second circle when a steamy tale of Lancelot’s courtly exploits lured them to adultery). Merwin also charts the trajectory of his own fascination with the poem. Long hours of diligent study of the Middle English text (the definitive scholarly edition of which was produced, incidentally, by J.R.R. Tolkien in collaboration with E.V. Gordon) had left him with a technical understanding of the poem but the sense that the original force of the story had been lost in the arduous deciphering process. “I wanted not just to study the poem but to read it.” Merwin writes. “I began to try to turn the poem, line by line, into the English I understood, hoping in that way to get closer to what it was like. I was doing if for myself to begin with.”

Merwin recounts that, in the course of translating Gawain, he came to feel that the diction of the Middle English contained a certain “accent” that seemed familiar to him. He eventually came to realize that he was hearing, in the poetry, the intonations of the Welsh accent in English, sounds that he remembered from his childhood in the mining city of Scranton, Pennsylvania, where many of his family friends were Welsh. Since internal evidence suggests that Gawain may have been composed on the edge of North Wales, this intuition might in fact have some objective linguistic basis. In any case, Merwin writes that his instinctive perception of these sounds influenced the way he heard the lines of Gawain in translating them. There is an interesting parallel here to Seamus Heaney’s introduction to his Beowulf translation, in which he claims that his approach was influenced by a desire to bring to his translation certain sounds and even vocabulary drawn from the Irish language. In both of these cases the poet identifies sounds and voices remembered from childhood as major influences on his translation technique, demonstrating the fundamental importance, for each of these poet-translators, of developing a specific poetic voice uniquely tailored to his project.

Merwin’s Gawain lacks only one significant feature offered by other major translations of the text. The original Middle English of the poem is set into a complex alliterative verse scheme (in which three of the four stressed syllables in each line generally begin with the same consonant sound or with vowels), punctuated by short segments of rhymed verse. Yale Middle English scholar Marie Borroff published, in 1967, a translation of Gawain that received widespread acclaim and has since become the standard translation used in academic circles. Borroff’s translation is so well regarded partly because she succeeds admirably at the difficult task of translating the text into modern English while adhering scrupulously to a verse structure that very closely approximates the complex alliterative and rhyming scheme of the original Middle English poem. Thus the reader of Borroff’s translation is able to take in at once both the form and meaning of the Middle English. Merwin, however, chose not to constrain his translation with these rules , devising instead a poem that would feature a strong but generalized trend toward alliteration and a more loosely governed rhyme scheme. In his introduction he presents his reasons for taking this approach: “I did not want…to cramp and twist the lines in an effort to make an exact replica of a verse form in what has become, in six hundred years, another language. And for every reason I wanted to keep as close as I could to the meaning of the original words, so as not to mislead my first reader—myself.”

Merwin’s choice pays off. By forgoing strict emulation of the original verse structure, he is able to engage his own poetic gift to its fullest. The resulting poem has an uncompromised beauty and energy, as well as a certain easy familiarity that is not to be found in the earlier translations. Readers interested in getting a sense of the original alliterative language can do so with this edition, since the Middle English text is included in a convenient facing-page format. Be warned, however: even though the Gawain poet may have been contemporaneous with Chaucer, his Lancashire dialect is far more difficult to read than Chaucer’s London English. A few minutes of puzzling over the original text of the poem, dense and nearly incomprehensible to the uninitiated, will leave most readers all the more appreciative that Merwin has created a version of Gawain that is not only intelligible to all, but elegant, accurate, and exciting as well.

Different word?
Maybe something else? Pick up a little more on the idea of a knight’s challenge?
Not just commercial, right? OK
Something else?
Someone wanted an example. What do you think?
would you characterize it as a choice rather than something lacking?
Does he say why he chose not to? That would be interesting.
I’m not sure about this ending.