Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

By Michael Smith

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

Saturday, 10 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 and hunger was never far away. Here I highlight some of my favourite passages in the poem and the impact they make on the plot of the story.

Sir Gawain in the Snow (with original Poet's line) linocut by the author

The passing of the seasons

Following the "beheading" of the Green Knight by Sir Gawain and his challenger's insistence that Gawain meet him again in a year's time for the return match, we then have months to wait before Gawain heads on his way at Michaelmas. So it is that the poet tells us about the passing of the seasons with some truly wonderful and melancholic language. We are taken from Christmas, through Lent and then into high summer:

The wort is well joyful that waxes without,

And wet dripping dew drops from the leaves

Biding full blissful blushes of the bright sun.   

The poet makes us joyful before then dropping our mood and hinting too at the dangers ahead as the seasons move to Autumn and then into the darker months as life withers and dies:

Leaves loosen from lindens and alight on the ground,

And all grey is the grass that once was so green;

Then all that first rose now ripens and rots...

Just stunning. He has taken us from Camelot now and readies us for journey ahead to be faced by Gawain. It is a masterstroke of poetic tension and plot movement, preparing us now for what follows...

The journey to Hautdesert

By the time Gawain must set off in search of his nemesis, the seasons have moved to November. Gawain is dressed in armour for his journey and we fully understand, as the cold and snow descends, the sheer contrast between the icy weather and the ever-cooling plates of his armour. The poet uses the weather so we too experience the misery of our hero and truly feel the peril of his situation:

War worried him little – but winter was worse,

When the cold, clear water was shed from the clouds

And falls freezing where it might to the fading earth...

When Gawain pleads to Mary to help him find harbour to celebrate the coming Christmas, we too feel the agony of our hero, crushed by cold and desperate to be dutiful to Christ and to be able to find his nemesis by the appointed time.

Hunting at Hautdesert

Of course it is at Hautdesert, while Gawain is being entertained by Lady Bertilak, where the Gawain Poet himself pulls off his master stroke - the comparison between the hunting scenes of Lord Bertilak in the field with the seduction of Gawain by his own lady huntress.

We are shown in graphic detail the running of hounds, the chasing of deer, the cutting up of a deer's carcase and so much more. We are also told about the marshes and rocky crags of the Staffordshire Roaches and we run too with the pack as it charges through thicket and thorn. My personal favourite is where Lord Bertilak confronts the great wild boar, a creature so fierce it has been ejected from the sounder and roams woodlands alone and angry:

...he wins to a hole

In a rise, by a rock, where runs the bourn;

He gets the bank at his back, and begins to scrape,

The froth foamed in his mouth, foul at the corners,

As he whets his white tusks...

Here was a poet who knew the hunt, he knew the animals, he knew the environment. And he knew how to create totally remarkable dramatic tension.

The final journey to the Green Chapel

Finally, when Gawain must set out once more to the Green Chapel - "just two miles hence" - the poet makes the snow return once more. After the warmth of the castle we are again cast into the despair of a knight now facing his doom. Even his guide through the crags of the Roaches is unwilling to take him further once he has shown him the way.

They bear by banks where boughs are bare,

They climb by cliffs where clings the cold;

Beneath all high heaven it was ugly thereunder:

Mist mizzled on the moor, melted on the mountains;  

The melancholy words of the diary of Captain Scott himself come to mind here: "Great God! this is an awful place": The cold, the fear, the horror, all are bound together in the masterful craft of the poet. And all around, though we as humans care for Gawain, we know too that life, like a lamp in some dark castle corridor, can be snuffed out by the wild winds of the wilderness in just one puff.

The translation

In these few lines I hope I have been able to convey just a fraction of the incredible skill of the Gawain Poet. It is one thing to translate and illustrate his words, written over 600 years ago, but to have the craft to write these words in the first instance shows the genius of this anonymous wordsmith. In these passages, I have only shown a fraction of the way he describes nature and the natural environment - the full poem is just astonishing in this regard and I hope you will enjoy my illustrated translation when, thanks to you and fellow backers, it finally reaches publication.


Michael Smith

Translator and Printmaker


PS - Support my NEXT book!

If you enjoy reading my translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and would like to read others in this series, my second book, a translation of the Alliterative Morte Arthure (King Arthur's Death), was published by Unbound in February 2021 which you can order through all good bookshops or from me. I am also now crowdfunding my next book with Unbound - a translation of the allliterative William and the Werewolf (William of Palerne), first commissioned by Humphrey de Bohun, Sixth Earl of Hereford, in c.1350. Again it will be richly illustrated with linocuts, and feature a detailed historical introduction, glossary and notes. Please do support it (and have your name printed as a patron in the back) - here 


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