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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)

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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 Smith
Michael 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

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