Friday, April 1, 2011

School Reading - Sir Gawain and the Green Knight trans. by Marie Borroff

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, by the anonymous "Pearl Poet," is a 14th century poem. It is Arthurian - Gawain is one of the knights of the Round Table. The poem opens in Camelot during the Christmas season. King Arthur adores "challenges" (contests), so he's pleased when the Green Knight (he, and his horse, are literally completely green) rides in with a unique challenge: a "beheading game." Only one knight is brave enough to stand up to the contest - Gawain. He quickly beheads the Green Knight, who simply picks up his head, makes Gawain promise to find him in a year so he can likewise behead him, and rides off.

True to his word (after all, the main theme of the poem is chivalry), Gawain sets off to find the elusive Green Knight when the year has almost passed. He's tired, cold, and wet when Christmas Eve comes, but he conveniently finds a nice, warm castle. The lord of the castle welcomes him and informs Gawain that the home of the Green Knight is only a few miles away. Since Gawain now has some extra time before he will ride off to probably meet his doom, he stays at the castle for three days. The lord, who is about to go hunting, makes an agreement with Gawain that if the lord gives Gawain everything he obtains from the hunt, the knight will give the lord everything he receives while in the castle. The lord leaves for his hunt, while Gawain remains with his hostess - who has some temptations up her sleeve (don't worry, Gawain doesn't have to give the lord anything less chaste than a kiss). Will Gawain be able to live up to his chivalric ideals, or will he become a failure because he succumbs to temptation?

As with Beowulf, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed reading this poem. Poetry's not my thing, and Middle English literature isn't always the most fun thing to read. But Gawain's story turned out to be pretty interesting, and Borroff's translation was clear and did a good job of preventing the tale from being boring. Whereas intially I was rather irritated that my British Lit teacher gave us only  one week to read and analyze the poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight proved to be a quick, enjoyable read (which was good, because I waited until the last minute to read it...). I found myself rooting for Gawain ("Don't give in to the lady, Gawain! Don't give in to the lady!"), and the ending was as much of a shocker as passive 14th century literature can manage.

I read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, translated by Marie Borroff, in the Norton Anthology of British Literature, Vol. I. This book was provided by my school.

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