Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

By Michael Smith

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

Fiction | History
164% funded
498 supporters
Published

Publication date: July 2018

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Seduction

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A fabulous journey into a distant age


Discover King Arthur's Death here, Michael Smith’s new translation of the vibrant fourteenth century poem.

This book is now in production but you still have the chance to get the strictly limited collector's hardback edition with its coloured endpapers, embossed boards and spot laminate cover


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!

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  • Michael Smith avatar

    Michael Smith

    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...
  • Michael Smith has written 20 private updates. You can pledge to get access to them all.

    10th July 2018 Green Man or Green Knight in the story of Sir Gawain?

    One of the recurring themes in the discussion about the Green Knight in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is that he represents the Green Man of folklore. While it is possible that the poet may have drawn from this legend in the creation of his “enker-grene” monster, an association of the character with the legend is much more problematic.

    The folklore of the Green Man

    The Green Man in…

    2nd May 2018 How the Gawain-poet employs Nature in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

    A common technique employed by the Gawain Poet - and others in the Alliterative Revival of the fourteenth century - is the use of descriptions of bucolic idylls as a contrast to horror to create astonishing tension. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, we are introduced to a range of different uses of this technique - a range which makes him a master of the art. Let's take a look...

    We first…

    7th April 2018 Two Gawain Appearances for your Diary!

    As my translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight gets ever closer to publication (and your deluxe copies being sent at the beginning of July), I have a brief update about two events where I am appearing and which may be of interest: a stage performance based on the book, and an appearance at the Bradford Literature Festival.

    Sir Gawain and the Green Knight - a staged production with authentic…

    4th March 2018 Four Fitts or Nine Parts? Issues of layout in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

    In all the many translations there have been of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, it has long been accepted that the work breaks down into four fitts, or parts. Does this still hold true today?

    Recent analysis has attempted to change this way of thinking by examining the role played in the original manuscript by the series of illuminated letters which occur within it; indicating that the work…

    8th February 2018 Sir Gawain and the Green Knight - what you can look forward to when the book arrives.

    Dear supporter,

    As we approach 11th February, after which no more pledgers' names can be entered in the back of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, I wanted to take a brief moment to write to you to thank you for pledging and making this book a reality. I could not have achieved this without the kind and generous support of each and every supporter, each and every patron. 

    So what is there to look…

    1st February 2018 The sexuality of Lady Bertilak – empowered or manipulated?

    The character of Lady Bertilak in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is one of the most astonishing creations of the Middle English period. But what was the Gawain-poet’s intention in creating a woman of enormous sexual power and confident in her own needs?

    Lady Bertilak, or more simply “the Lady”, is characterised by the poet as someone who is eye-catchingly attractive, articulate and artful…

    29th January 2018 Exciting News!

    Dear supporters of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,

    Exciting news! I am posting this brief update to tell you all that last week I submitted the amended page proofs of the book to Unbound; very shortly the book itself will be ready to go to print. Publication is drawing ever closer!

    Still time for friends to have their names in the back:

    Unbound tells me that the book will go to print…

    2nd January 2018 New Year arrives for Sir Gawain – but what message does it bring?

    New Year is a time when we all try to change our ways and perhaps seek a greater virtue in the year ahead. Yet for Sir Gawain on his quest, New Year is a time of dread and foreboding. What was the poet’s real intention?

    Image: Temptation and renewal for Sir Gawain at new year?

    In setting his poem in the holidays of Christmas and New Year, the Gawain-poet knew exactly what he was doing…

    14th December 2017 The Spirit of Christmas comes to Camelot

    In many mediaeval romances, the “holiday” of Christmas features strongly in the story line – particularly, as is usual, if there is an “adventure” which takes place. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is no different; certainly, the festive season provides a backdrop to the story which, helped by its religious significance, works in placing Gawain’s personal struggle right at its heart.

    As is…

    26th November 2017 Something a little different - a colourful knight emerges in linocut!

    As readers will know, as well as translating Sir Gawain and the Green Knight I have also produced all the illustrations for the book using the linocut process. For this update, I thought I'd share with you some work I have been doing on a range of new prints featuring mediaeval knights from the time of the Gawain-poet. In this case, a Cheshire knight, Sir Hugh Calveley who may well have known…

    23rd November 2017 How pure is Sir Gawain? The role of the five-pointed star in Gawain and the Green Knight

    Before Sir Gawain sets off on his quest to find the Green Knight, he prepares dutifully for his journey, being ritually armed on a carpet of the finest Toulouse tapestry. It is here that we are introduced to his emblem – the five pointed star –which would mean much to the mediaeval reader, and which serves to explain Gawain’s seeming fall from grace as the poem progresses.

    A crucial component…

    11th November 2017 The Terrifying Journey of Gawain

    Image: The uncertainty of travelling alone is writ large in Gawain's first journey.

    One of the astonishing elements of the sheer genius of the Gawain-poet is his ability to place the reader/listener in the mind of the hero, preparing us for what is to come. This is no more so than when Gawain first travels across the land of Logres in search of the Green Knight.

    The dangers of travel…

    2nd November 2017 Cover design for Sir Gawain and the Green Knight!

    It feels strange, after five years of work, seeing a book come to life which I first started to work on many moons ago while waiting for my son learning to play the accordion!

    But now things are really starting to move forward - Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is beginning to emerge as a tangible entity. A book. It is leaving its own Camelot. It is journeying into a new realm. Like Gawain himself…

    22nd October 2017 Researching Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

    This week I learned the great news that my illustrated translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight will be published in July 2018. I thought I’d reveal a little bit about what you’ll see in the book when it’s published…

    (Above: a selection of versions of the poem consulted - plus a sneaky peak of the cover of the new edition!)

    Over the last seven days, I have been going through the…

    11th October 2017 The Secrets told by Landscape and Geography in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

    Image: St Winefride's Well - the "Holy Head" mentioned by the Gawain-poet

    One of the bewitching elements of the masterpiece which is Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is that its mediaeval writer is completely unknown. Yet, occasionally, the poet gives intriguing insights into who he was and where he lived – none more so than his descriptions of the landscape in which the poem is set; in…

    23rd September 2017 Sir Gawain goes to the publishers!

    It's been a long time in coming - five years in fact - but at long last the manuscript and illustrations for Sir Gawain and the Green Knight have been delivered to the team at Unbound for the next step in its story. Five years ago, I could little have imagined it getting this far - here's how it all came about...

    Back in 2012, I was busy producing a small range of greetings cards featuring scenes…

    10th September 2017 The Romance of Castles in the Landscape of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

    In the last decade or so, there has been a significant change in the understanding of castles in Britain. In addition to sophisticated architectural reconstructions and the innovative use of techniques such as lidar (light detection and ranging) in showing the lie of the land, much work has also been done into the concept of the castle as statement.

    In truth, this should not come as a surprise…

    4th September 2017 Help Gawain reach 130% funding - special competition and rewards!

    Thanks to you all for your support and helping us to spread Sir Gawain's epic story to a new audience. We're now at an incredible 117%. But Sir Gawain and our journey isn't over yet. 



    I've discussed the campaign with Unbound and we've decided to not only upload some exciting new pledge levels (check out the new giclee "dedicated print" options featuring some of my linocuts of castles and ancient…

    29th August 2017 Sir Gawain meets two ladies at Castle Hautdesert. Now let the story really begin...

    After his journey through the land of Logres, Sir Gawain arrives at last at Hautdesert where he meets Lord Bertilak. Then, as shown here in part of my new translation, he is introduced to two women who, it emerges later, yield more power than might be supposed...

    (Image: Lord Bertilak and the ladies. The original print of this illustration, framed and signed by me, is available to one lucky…

    19th August 2017 Gawain arrives at the Green Chapel - an excerpt from my translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

    One of the most haunting sections in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is when Gawain comes across the Green Chapel for the first time in his quest. What follows is the part of my new translation which relates to his arrival here.

    (above: the cave in its mound at Wetton Mill on the Manifold valley in Derbyshire; one of the candidates for the actual Green Chapel referred to by the Gawain-poet…

    9th August 2017 Is there a secret message buried in Gawain and the Green Knight?

    One of the strange features of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is the set of nine crudely drawn illuminated letters which the poet originally produced to accompany his work. Do they constitute a hidden message?

    Is there some form of invocation contained in the Gawain manuscript?

    There is a main letter for each of the four fitts (parts) and another five elsewhere in the poem (each of…

    31st July 2017 In search of the Green Chapel in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

    One of the many wonders of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is its magnificent setting; thought by many to be the Staffordshire Roaches The evidence is compelling...

    In translatiing and illustrating my telling of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, I've been fascinated by trying to understand the references made by the (unknown) poet and to grasp not just who he was but also where he was living and…

    14th July 2017 Now publishing soon - a mediaeval illuminated manuscript for the modern age!

    How wonderful it was to learn last week that Sir Gawain had managed to achieve 100% funding. I want to thank everyone who has pledged to help make this new translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight a reality - I could not have done this without you. But the story's not over yet - this is where the real hard work begins!

    Revisions and accuracy

    Since I began work on the translation…

    24th June 2017 The fabulous hunting scenes in Gawain and the Green Knight

    Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is rightly famous for its depiction of hunting – a favourite pastime of Richard II himself, in whose reign this fabulous work is thought to have been written. The inclusion of such sport is a masterstroke by the Gawain Poet in support of the main narrative: while Lady Bertilak hunts Gawain in the castle, her husband, Lord Bertilak, is away, hunting in the fields.

    17th June 2017 The Part Played by Chivalry in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

    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…

    10th June 2017 The place of nature in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

    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…

    7th June 2017 The complex character of Sir Gawain revealed

    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.

    26th May 2017 Printing linocuts for Sir Gawain and the Green Knight - film

    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…

    21st May 2017 Green Knight book plus greetings cards

    One of the pledge options for my translation of Gawain and the Green Knight enables backers to receive 12 mediaeval greetings cards plus a signed and personally dedicated copy of 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…

    13th May 2017 Sir Gawain and the Green Knight - a wonderful story of pride and its downfall

    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…

    7th May 2017 Researching and creating the back cover image for Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

    Among the different pledge reward options for supporters of my new translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight are those which include an Artiists Guild quality giclee print of my linocut print of the Green Knight himself, the same image which will also feature on the back of the book. Here I give an insight into how the image was created - and how you might acquire a signed and numbered limited…

    23rd April 2017 Sir Gawain says thank you!

    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…

    16th April 2017 How I make the illuminated letters for this edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

    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…

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  • 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

    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 Smith
    Michael 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

    cy harkin
    cy harkin asked:

    Is it possible to buy an edition, and a pack of the cards by Michael within the one transaction? thanks, clare

    Michael Smith
    Michael Smith replied:

    Hello Clare, yes the Greetings Cards Pledge Option is the one to go for (6th one down on the list). The cards and book will be sent out together on publication. Details about the cards in the set are included in one of my "updates" (click on updates and then search for the update about the greetings cards) Kind regards Michael

    Vic James
    Vic James asked:

    These look stunning, Michael. What size are the three-colour prints? Would there be a future opportunity to buy a print of one of the other inages (I love the stag...) Thank you so much! Victoria.

    Michael Smith
    Michael Smith replied:

    Dear Victoria, Thank you for your interest in my work and thank you too for your lovely comments about the book. The three-colour prints are in one of two sizes depending on the image itself. The larger ones (for example the Green Knight you can see on this page) are 12 inches (30cm) square (printed area); the smaller ones (the deer you mention) are 6 inches (15cm) square (printed area); the sheet of (Somerset Velvet) paper on which each is printed is much larger to enable you to frame accordingly. In terms of purchasing the original prints themselves, they are available via my printmaking site (www.mythicalbritain.co.uk). Kind regards Michael

    Kim Locke
    Kim Locke asked:

    This book looks like a real stunner! I can't wait to see the final version! :) Where could I purchase the cards?

    Michael Smith
    Michael Smith replied:

    Hi Kim - Thank you for your kind comments about the book - the manuscript is nearly ready for the Unbound team as we speak. In terms of the cards, you can purchase these as part of a cards pledge option with the book or just take a look at www.mythicalbritain.co.uk and click on the greetings cards section of my site. There's a variety of cards there for sale. Kind regards Michael

    Kim Locke
    Kim Locke asked:

    Thank you so much for your quick reply! I have a friend that would swoon over this edition and the cards, it's going to make an excellent Xmas gift for her :) BTW: Are you available for interviews the press regarding the print process that you are using for the book/cards and the translation of the book itself?

    Michael Smith
    Michael Smith replied:

    HI Kim. Wonderful that your friend would like my work; happy to oblige. In terms of the press, yes I'd be happy to talk about all aspects of this project. Kind regards Michael