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A new and handsomely illustrated translation of the Arthurian mediaeval masterpiece.

A fabulous journey into a distant age

Written in the North West of England towards the end of the fourteenth century, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a masterpiece of mediaeval alliterative poetry. Comprising over 2500 lines, it draws on a rich vocabulary with ancient roots, including many dialect words still in use in Lancashire and Cheshire today. It is a magnificent work which rivals even Chaucer in the beauty and complexity of its language.

As a north-westerner and mediaevalist myself, I have been attracted to this exquisite work like Tristan to Yseult – bewitched by its power. Despite its age, the story and its characters are as fresh and vibrant as when the anonymous poet first put quill to paper over 600 years ago. It blends temptation and erotica with horror and suspense. It is exciting and funny yet melancholic and existential. Its descriptions of the passing seasons, the mediaeval hunt and the wintry landscape of Cheshire and Staffordshire are quite simply astounding.

As a writer, I wanted to capture the poet’s courtly style and translate his work in such a way that if the Gawain poet were to come back today he would feel at home reading it in modern English. And of course I was determined to maintain the wonderful alliteration, with its fabulous “bob and wheel” device at the end of each stanza.

But Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is also fabulous journey into the mediaeval world. When you look carefully there is, behind the narrative, a vivid description of courtly ritual, contemporary fashion, hunting techniques and so much more. There are also, I think, some coded references to the dark events surrounding the death of Richard II. So as a historian, I wanted not only to translate the work but to help provide a key to understand the social and political landscape within which the poem was set. Hence, I have also included detailed supplementary notes about words used by the poet and the references he makes to the world he knew.

An illuminated manuscript for today.

The result, I hope, is what might be described as a new courtly edition of this fabulous masterpiece which also enables the reader to get a flavour of the poet’s life and times. But I also wanted to make the book so much more than this, something really special. So, as an artist, I have created a collection of linocut prints especially for it.

Every print has been meticulously researched to reflect the style of the 1390s. I have also created illuminated letters replicating those in the original manuscript (known as Cotton Nero A.x in the British Library). Each print you will see in the book has taken at least 20 hours to cut before printing on a Victorian Albion press in the depths of Cambridgeshire.

The result is a beautiful volume to treasure and enjoy – like a really good book should be. It is like a mediaeval illuminated manuscript for the modern age, to be enjoyed again and again and passed down, like an heirloom, through the ages.

But this new illuminated manuscript cannot exist without your help. Please pledge your support and let the Gawain Poet speak to you anew!

Michael Smith comes from Cheshire and read history at the University of York, specialising in English and European mediaeval history. In later years, he studied as a printmaker at the Curwen Print Study Centre near Cambridge; you can find out more about his mediaeval-themed printmaking at www.mythicalbritain.co.uk.

For the head in his hand he then holds up,

Addressing his face to those dear on the dais,                                                               

And he lifts up his eyelids and looked full abroad

And didn’t mince much with his mouth, as you’ll hear.

“Look Gawain, now you must get ready to do as thou pledged

And, lord, look for me loyally until thou shalt find,

As thou hast promised in this hall and hereunto these knights.                                      

So I charge thee to choose the road to the Green Chapel, to fetch

Such a dent as thou dealt and deserve,

To be yielded by contract on New Year’s morn;

The Knight of the Green Chapel is how many men know me

And you’ll not fail to find me if you ask of my name                                                   

Therefore do come, or a coward be called, as you wish.”

With a raging rush the reins he tugs,

And hailed out of the hall door, his head in his hand,

So that fire as from flint flew from all those fast hooves.

To what kith he belongs, no-one there knew                                                                

No more than they knew to where he was winding.

What then?

The King and Gawain there

At the Green Knight laughed again;

He was blatant and full bare                                                                             

A marvel amongst those men. 

 

Though Arthur that honourable king held wonder in his heart,

He let no semblance of it be seen, but said full high,

To his comely queen with most courteous speech,

“Dear Dame, never let this day dismay you                                                                  

For it well becomes such craft upon Christmas,

As like an interlude to the laughter and singing

And most kindly carolling of our knights and ladies;

Nevertheless, to my meal must I now address -

I cannot forsake eating for the sight that I have seen.”                                                  

Then he glanced at Sir Gawain and gamely he said,

“Now, sir, hang up thine axe – it’s had enough of hewing.”

And it was put to dangle above the dais on the doser to hang

For all men to marvel at, who might care so to look,

And by true title thereof to tell of that wonder.                                                 

Then they busied to the tables, those nobles together:

The King and the good knight were both keenly served

Of all dainties double as befalls such dear men,

With all manner of meat and minstrelsy both;

With a wealth of warmth they passed that day till it wound to an end                           

on land.

Now think well, Sir Gawain,

Of the danger you can’t command

From this adventure so obtained

That thou hast taken in hand.                                                                           

 

 

For the head in his hand he then holds up,

Addressing his face to those dear on the dais,

And he lifts up his eyelids and looked full abroad

And didn’t mince much with his mouth, as you’ll hear.

(lines 444-495)

Read more...

The Part Played by Chivalry in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Saturday, 17 June 2017

Lady b and sir gawain

Chivalric test - Lady Bertilak tests the limits of knightly virtue to bring Gawain down

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is justifiably famous for many things; one of the most unusual is the way that it ends. Here, written in another hand, is the famous motto of the Knights of the Garter, Honi Soit Qui Mal Pense (missing the “y” of the full version). Founded by Edward III, the Order of the…

The place of nature in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Saturday, 10 June 2017

Gawain in the snow full size

One of the most dramatic contrasts in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is that between the action (in Camelot, Hautdesert and the Green Chapel) and the outside world. There is no doubt that the Gawain (or Pearl) Poet was a man deeply in touch with nature. Little wonder because the natural world, the seasons and their effects meant life or death in equal measure in a society where crop failure, famine…

The complex character of Sir Gawain revealed

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Sir john de la pole

The Arthurian canon is rich with many characters, many of whom have become known to us all: King Arthur, Guinevere, Lancelot, Galahad and of course Gawain. Sir Gawain, the subject of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, is himself a curious character who varies in personality depending on which of the stories one reads. He has certainly been a constant figure throughout the histories of Arthur.

Printing linocuts for Sir Gawain and the Green Knight - film

Friday, 26 May 2017

Livre de chasse

As well as my translation, the linocut prints I have produced for Sir Gawain and the Green Knight lie at the heart of my work. The film above shows you the actual printing process for each end every image in the book and below I tell you a little more about the research and production process.

Research

We know from clues within the original manuscript that, despite the anonymity of the Gawain…

Green Knight book plus greetings cards

Sunday, 21 May 2017

Shocked knight 2

One of the pledge options for my translation of Gawain and the Green Knight enables backers to receive 12 mediaeval greetings cards plus the book.Here's more information...

As you'll know from my other updates, and from reading about my book on Unbound, much of my work in recent years has centred around the creation of a range of linocut prints. In particular, they feature designs and images inspired…

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight - a wonderful story of pride and its downfall

Saturday, 13 May 2017

Green knight big aubergine

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a wonderful story set in a fabulous landscape of chivalric rules and the ever-present grip of nature and the seasons. It is also a masterpiece of what is now referred to as the Alliterative Revival of the fourteenth century, a form which achieved particular popularity in the north of England and parts of Scotland. Here, for those unfamiliar with the story, I give…

Researching and creating the front cover image for Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

Sunday, 7 May 2017

Green knight big aubergine

I was delighted to learn this weekend that pledging levels for my illustrated translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight has now reached 50%. Among the different pledge options are those which include either an original linocut print or an artist quality giclee print of the Green Knight himself, the same image which will also feature on the front of the book. Here I give an insight into how the…

Sir Gawain says thank you!

Sunday, 23 April 2017

20140211 195159 %282%29

Dear pledgers, fellow travellers, poets, artists, mediaevalists and lovers of literature, I wanted to thank all of you so far who have helped this edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight reach pledging of 40% after just three weeks. I am honoured by the reception to my work and by the many positive comments I have received.

40% is a great landmark; the equivalent of funding this translation…

How I make the illuminated letters for this edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Sunday, 16 April 2017

Img 3558

I have been overwhelmed by the support shown for my work on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. As well as the four years spent researching and translating my edition, the artwork itself has been a highly involved process. I thought I'd show supporters some of the methods involved in making the artwork itself. In this case, the illuminated letters which are to introduce each of the four Fitts of the…

Alexander Nirenberg
Alexander Nirenberg asked:

Hi,
Sir Gawain was featured in Prowling Dog: Cool Things:

http://www.prowlingdog.com/prowling-dog-cool-things-issue-130/

Kindest regards,
Alex

Michael T A Smith
Michael T A Smith replied:

Thank you for the update Alexander. Good to see the title page of Cotton Nero A.x in there; the writing is exceptional.

Very best

Michael

Ben Craik
Ben Craik asked:

Hi Michael,

How will you be binding your work? The leather-bound volume/folder you have in the video looks great. Might it look something like that?

Best,
Ben.

Michael T A Smith
Michael T A Smith replied:

Hi Ben,

I don't think it will be leather bound, unfortunately (nor, indeed, in old pages from one of William Caxton's lost tomes as per today's announcement from Reading University) - I dare say the tooling and vellum might indeed be prohibitive.

However, everything I have seen of Unbound's work is impressive and very high in quality. We intend I think to use the image you can see on my latest update (from my print, The Green Knight in the Woods) although at this stage I've no idea about how the final design will look. I think we'll know more once we get closer to our pledging target. Incidentally, the versions you saw in the video are not actually leather bound and date from the 1930s & 40s. You are right though, they do look most handsome and are amongst my favourites on my bookshelves.

Kind regards

Michael

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