Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

By Michael Smith

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

Saturday, 23 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 from Sir Gawain and I decided it would be great to include lines from the poem. I soon discovered that not only was each translation different but also there would be an issue of copyright. So, in order to get round this perceived problem, I decided to take on the translation myself!

Image: In this leather bound note book, my translation work began...

Translating in the stolen hours of day and night...

A translation of this nature is not something which should be done lightly - I was soon to discover. Translating Chaucer into modern English is tough enough; translating a work written in the West Midland dialect of the 1390s was even tougher! In stolen hours, slowly and surely, I began the painstaking work of prising from the manuscript what I thought the poet was saying. 

But then the problems crept in. Sentences were endless; tenses changed; words which appear modern have entirely different meanings. My first hand-written version, taking over a year to do in my spare time, was - like Dr Johnson's Dictionary - becoming overwhelming. 

Image: line by line the poem was translated, slowly in dark rooms...

Rewriting, re-interpreting, re-thinking...

Once completed, I then began the process of typing up the manuscript into a Word file. This was when new problems surfaced. While a translation is pleasing, you soon realise that you have interpreted a word or phrase incorrectly so you have to amend your thinking. Much of my first hand-written draft would need considerable revision…

Then there is the issue of the metre of each line and the delicate appearance of the ceasura – a feature of this poem stretching right back to Beowulf and beyond. With the ceasura in place, does a line still read effectively? If not, the line needs to be rewritten – not forgetting the importance of retaining the other feature of this great poem, the alliteration. Finding alliteration anew from a line already translated presents its own difficulties; assuming you can find the words, the line still has to make sense for the reader!

Image: the manuscript ready for the publisher - notice one of the illuminated letters

Difficult challenges to overcome...

Gawain and the Green Knight also uses the “bob and wheel” technique at the end of each stanza, whereby the last full line of the stanza ends with an additional two syllables to those previously (the bob) before announcing a pair of rhyming couplets (the wheel). Simple? No.

The wheel’s lines are shorter than the others and the way we use language has differed since the Gawain-poet’s day. Making these wheels work – and to maintain rhyme and sense – was one of the most difficult tasks I faced. At times, they almost defeated me; sometimes it would take an hour or two – or even a couple of days – to work out the answer!

In the end, my simple task of translation went through five iterations before I was happy. At the same time, as I learned more about the story and the time it was written, I began to produce the extensive suite of linocut illustrations which accompany this work and will make it particularly attractive.

Image: a selection of some of the many linocut images I have produced for the book

Linocuts and more research...

Each of these in themselves took between 40 a 80 hours to produce; not forgetting the nine individual illuminated letters which I have cut based on the original illuminations in Cotton Nero A.x in the British Library. In preparing each and every one of these, I have focused on period illuminations, carvings and even stained-glass windows to create characters which match the style and slightly disjointed technique of mediaeval artists.

And yet more work...

But these are not the only features of the book. In the manuscript, I have included an overview of the poet’s times to help readers formulate their own views on whether the poem has meanings beyond what might at first be apparent.

I’ve included a history of Cotton Nero A.x itself and I’ve also written copious notes which appear at the end which shed light on topics such as arms and armour, heraldry, castles, hunting methods and more. I also discuss some of the places which might have inspired the Gawain-poet in his task. This version of Gawain and the Green Knight will, I hope, be not only a pleasure to read but also offer the reader a deep and meaningful insight into the life and times of this anonymous genius.

So thank you - and do spread the word too; the book will be fantastic!

In the end, after five long years, the manuscript and all the illustrations are with Unbound and begin the next stage of their journey. Now, in the hands of copy editors and designers, the book will come to life as an extra special edition; what I call a mediaeval illuminated manuscript for the modern age. I would like to thank each and every one of you who has pledged support to make this book happen.

Everyone who has pledged – or who has yet to pledge – will receive a truly deluxe limited collector’s edition of the book which will be significantly different to those copies which will appear in the bookshops. I’m very excited by what the team at Unbound has shown me already; soon we’ll be able to give you a flavour of what the book will look like in the flesh once the cover designer gets to work. Watch this space!

Remember - everyone who pledges for the Collectable Edition or higher also gets entered into a special draw; with every ten pledges we receive, one lucky person will have their copy of the book upgraded to the Middle English edition where the book is personally dedicated to you (or a friend) and has a favourite line written by me in the front of the book in Middle-English and with my translated line below. This even applies for those who pledge for a a high value option (e.g. one of the Dedicated Print pledge rewards).

Thank you everyone - I am in your debt for helping make this happen.

Michael Smith

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