Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by Anonymous

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Anonymous
c. late 14th century, England
J.R.R. Tolkien, translator (pub. 1975)

And so this Yule passed over and
the year after, and severally the seasons ensued in their
turn: after Christmas there came the crabbed Lenten that
with fish tries the flesh and with food more meagre; but
then the weather in the world makes war on the winter,
cold creeps into the earth, clouds are uplifted, shining rain
is shed in showers that all warm fall on the fair turf,
flowers there open, of grounds and groves green is
the raiment, birds are busy a-building and bravely are
singing for sweetness of the soft summer that will soon be on
     the way
and blossoms burgeon and blow
in hedgerows bright and gay;
then glorious musics go
through the woods in proud array. (Stanza 22)

If I recall correctly, my familiarity with Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, prior to listening to The Great Courses® series The Western Literary Canon in Context, was seeing it listed as one of the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. This was a misattribution–although he contributed to a scholarly edition of the Middle English text, his only other involvement in a Sir Gawain story was as a translator. But even with the Tolkien connection, chances are it very likely would never have made it onto any of my Classics Club lists were it not for the aforementioned Great Courses series–I have not yet read a large number of the titles covered by Professor John M. Bowers, and so have started adding them to my various “to read” lists. Thus it was with Sir Gawain.*

Although written in the late 14th century, making the anonymous author roughly a contemporary of Chaucer, unlike the more famous works by the London poet, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight stayed in relative obscurity for centuries, with only one manuscript–a scribal transcription rather than an original–surviving. Little is thus known about the author of Sir Gawain, although based on his dialect, it is believed that the author was from the West Midlands of England, perhaps Cheshire, and it is possible that his work lost favor for political rather than literary reasons (the author may have been a part of Richard II’s court, who was deposed by the future Henry IV). It is possible–Tolkien thinks likely–that he wrote a number of other poems as well, including Pearl, Purity (or Cleanness) and Patience, all of which were contained in the same manuscript. It is also possible that he was a clergyman (so Bowers speculates), though Tolkien suggests that his interest in theology may have been that of an amateur.

‘But in this you lacked, sir, a little, and of loyalty came short.
But that was for no artful wickedness, nor for wooing either,
but because you loved your own life: the less do I blame you.’ (stanza 95)

Certainly, Christianity flavors the entire story, with references to Biblical stories and faith throughout. After introductory stanzas connecting the kings of Britain with Aeneas (of Trojan War and Aeneid fame)–apparently it was the thing to connect Britain to Troy–we enter a Christmastime scene at King Arthur’s Camelot court. It is a season of celebration, but King Arthur is also fond of a challenge, and is only too happy when the Green Knight–not merely dressed in green, but with hair and skin of a green hue as well, and towering over the knights at court–appears to challenge a courageous knight to trade blows. Sir Gawain takes up the challenge, beheading the Green Knight. Of course, this being a chivalric romance, the knight calmly picks up his head, reminds Sir Gawain that he has promised to appear before the Green Knight in a year to bravely take a blow from the Knight’s hands, and leaves. The remainder of the poem that follows is the story of Sir Gawain’s unplanned visit at Lord Bertilak de Hautdesert’s castle before his necessary departure to place his fate in the hands of the Green Knight. But the bulk of the poem–most of part II and all of part III–takes place at the castle, as we follow the games and temptations that ensue as both Lord and Lady Bertilak extract hasty promises from Sir Gawain who struggles to live up to the codes of Chivalry and courtesy in the face of temptations and the fear of his likely impending death. I can’t recall if it is ever directly stated, but even if not, it is clearly strongly implied that the codes by which Sir Gawain is expected to live and the courtesy for which he is known are considered not merely knightly virtues, but Christian ones, and by extension, the temptations he faces, are temptations to sin not merely against his host but against God.

The story is told over 101 stanzas of varying length, but following a poetic style known as the Alliterative Revival (revived from older Anglo-Saxon works). Unlike what we might think of as alliteration today, Sir Gawain’s alliteration is based on the sounds of words on the stressed syllable. To borrow an example from the Appendix, in the phrase “apt alliteration’s artful aide,” “alliteration” does NOT alliterate because the stressed syllable is “-lit-.” On the other hand, every word in the phrase “Old English art” would have been considered alliterative, because vowels alliterated with each other. Each line was divided into two halves, and the alliterative sound between the front and back half may not have always been the same (although, perhaps more so in the original than in translation). Interestingly, alliterating many (say 3 or 4) syllables in a half-line was not considered necessary. The stanzas ended with a device known as the “bob and wheel,” a five line structure of one very short (typically two to three syllables) line (the bob) followed by four more lines about half as long as the rest of the stanza (the wheel). In addition to maintaining alliteration in the wheel, a rhyme scheme, absent elsewhere, is added: ABABA. Amazingly, Tolkien is able to maintain all this complexity throughout his translation!

The language–dialect–of Sir Gawain is apparently even further from Modern English than Chaucer’s, and so Tolkien, in his introduction states that for any but the Medieval scholar translation is necessary. (A statement I easily believe based on snippets of the original in the Appendix of my copy as well as those I’ve seen online.) Reading it, I appreciate the availability of translation to bring us this gem, but is one of those many times when I have appreciated the difficulty of the translator’s task–and wondered how, with its poetic structure, it could possibly be translated into a language with completely different characteristics (as from a Germanic to a Romance language). Certainly, it seems it would bring a different reading experience–and makes me pause to wonder how different it is when translated into a descendant language. After all, there were times when I noted that the syntax seemed perhaps a bit Yoda-like: was this play of word order unique on Tolkien’s part in order to match the original’s alliteration as closely as possible, or is it a carry-over from the original? In his commentary on the verse form of the poem, Tolkien does note that at times he had to vary the alliteration more than the original, if for no other reason than that there were no appropriate equivalent-meaning words in Modern English that could alliterate with a key word that couldn’t change (a location name, for example)

(Source, Simon Armitage translation. Click either for full size)

It took me some time to decide on which translation I wanted to read of Sir Gawain. A decent number are available; the most recent by Simon Armitage is, I believe, the edition currently selected for the Norton Anthology of English Literature. However, when I read some bits as translated by Armitage, I was reminded of one of my particular translation preferences: when a work is old (especially very old, as with Sir Gawain and the Green Knight), I prefer the translation to sound as if it is old as well–almost as if it is of the same era, just in English I can understand. Perhaps other translations may be of a better quality or more readable, or flow better, but Tolkien’s fits my own preferences. Sir Gawain  is old and sounds it. Of course, sometimes this means that Tolkien uses archaic (or for that matter, obscure armor-related) terms; fortunately there is a glossary. But overall, I was satisfied with my choice. It doesn’t hurt that the book comes with two other Tolkien translations as well, Pearl and Sir Orfeo. Guess what’s up next on my reading plans?

* Context information from the Introduction and Appendix to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, translated by J.R.R. Tolkien, 1975 (HarperCollins) and from The Great Courses® course, The Western Literary Canon in Context, taught by Professor John M. Bowers, 2008 (The Teaching Company).

I read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight for the 20th Classics Club Spin. It also slots into the “translation” category for Back to the Classics 2019.

Musings on the Start of a Season

I was bent over a potter’s wheel yesterday, inscribing my initials and the year on a pot (Vase? Cup? Curio that just sits in a box or gathers dust in the corner for years? To be determined…) when I realized that my brain still hasn’t really caught up to the reality that this year is 2019. Which means next year is 2020, a number that somehow seems important, even if only for its neat repetition. It’s odd this flow of time, how dates can both seem so near and so distant. I was trying to remember when I read J.R.R. Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy-Stories” and had to flip through my “books read” lists all the way to 2012. Twenty twelve! Surely it can’t have been that long—I still remember it well. In contrast, I have read several books in the past year, where turning the final page, it’s felt as if it was years ago when I started the books—not in a negative way, but rather a feeling brought about by the growth and changes in the characters that made me somehow feel as if I had grown and changed as well. A strange sensation, one that usually requires me to put some space between one book and the next.

And real time seems fickle as well, somehow. Days that pass by too quickly while weeks stretch on forever, time playing games with us, taunting, teasing.

I didn’t realize I’d gone nearly a month since last posting. But it makes sense—how many weekends has writing blog posts pushed to the bottom of the to-do list of late? Even on my recent “staycation” there was always something that seemed of more interest.

It’s a fine line. To stay “busy” enough that I feel I’m making progress on all my many (many – I perhaps need to develop a more limited focus…sigh) projects, but not so much as to be overwhelmed. To have something to look forward to that unexciting time might pass, but to embrace the current moment that the desired event might stretch out forever.

Some days I think I’ve found it. It was a fine—wonderfully full without being overwhelming—weekend even without today’s (US Memorial Day) holiday off. Of critical importance for me is shuffling the “must dos” to early in the day that they might be out-of-the-way so that it feels as if much more time is open for the things of interest. A hard lesson for a life-long procrastinator to learn.

Oddly enough, despite my fondness for timing to deadlines, I’ve finished my current Classics Club spin read already. (Fingers crossed I get my act together enough to post on it by Friday!) It’s been an excellent reading month, in fact—after months of finishing nothing, I finished three other books and started another two.

And at long last I finished my sweater as well. Started over a year ago (March 2018), this one fits best yet…but I’m not eager to pick up any new projects with seams for a while! Besides, summer—and summer weather fast approaches, when reading is a more suitable pastime. I envision lazy afternoons on the back screened porch, lemonade in one hand and book in another. I have a tentative “hope to read” list for the coming months. It’s unrealistically long, of course, but it’s time to make some progress on the TBR list and the library pile.

Then of course there’s Cleo’s readalong. Encouraged by my May progress, I’ve signed up to join in on her June journey through C.S. Lewis’s The Four Loves.  It’s sitting here beside me; perhaps I will get started this afternoon. Or perhaps I’ll pick up the mystery immediately beneath it. Or any one of the various books scattered around, tempting me to their pages and the stories within.

This weekend marks the unofficial start of summer and so it seems to mark the start of a new season of limitless possibilities—here’s hoping it brings many good ones!

Completed: The Woman in White

Is anyone as shocked as I am to find out that it’s the end of April already? I’m really not sure where the past month went. And alas, my reading seems to have vanished with it–despite a readathon earlier this month, I haven’t finished a single book since mid-March. Guess what my plan is for May? But at least I still have a small pile of drafts to post here–it makes me feel like I’ve accomplished something, even if I also wrote these up over a month ago. Sigh.

Cover: The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

The Woman in White
Wilkie Collins
England, 1859

I was determined to finally read The Woman in White last autumn as a suitably seasonal read, and although I only write it up now, I did more or less succeed in reading it during the appropriate season.

I’ve long been a Collins fan, having found The Moonstone unputdownable when I read it in high school, but somehow or another I’d never managed to read his other famous mystery. While I didn’t fly through it the way I did The Moonstone (a fault, perhaps, of me as a reader), I found is surprisingly engaging considering that the mystery seemed slight, with much of the outcome well-foreshadowed.

It is a story told through the narration of several different pens, and it begins with a long section of narration by Walter Hartright, a drawing teacher who firsts meets the mysterious woman in white on his way home one night. In his recollections, he seems unexpectedly affected by the brief encounter, though perhaps this is to be expected when only days later he discovers a strong physical resemblance between the woman and one of his new pupils. The idea of a woman in white conjures up the idea of a ghost, and indeed, this flesh-and-blood woman proves to have a sort of ghostly presence throughout the rest of novel, turning up again and again, whether in person or in conversation. The mystery of her past and her present will prove to have unexpected ramifications for the remainder of our cast of characters.

And yet, it does not seem at first as if the existence of this mysterious woman should have any true impact. Walter is to teach Laura Fairlie and Marion Halcombe drawing in the months before Laura’s marriage to Sir Percival Glyde. The marriage was sanctioned by Laura’s father shortly before he died, and there seems nothing sinister in the arrangement, at least not at first. But time, money problems, and Laura’s unfortunate affection for Walter, will prove that all is perhaps not as it first seems with Sir Glyde or his friend Count Fosco.

No man under heaven deserves these sacrifices from us women. Men! They are the enemies of our innocence and our peace–they drag us away from our parents’ love and our sisters’ friendship–they take us, body and soul, to themselves, and fasten our helpless lives to theirs as they chain up a dog to his kennel. And what does the best of them give us in return?

An early example of the mystery genre, The Woman in White remains a classic of the form. It is full of suspense and mystery and memorable characters, none of whom are extraneous to the plot. And although it sits well with the realm of Victorian sensationalist novels, I found it surprisingly feminist–it seems that Collins was not a fan of the institution of marriage, or at least the ways it could harm women. It is not merely that he gives us Marion, a strong, intelligent woman, but the undercurrent of criticism of the limitations which Laura faced as a married woman, unable to control her destiny. And although Laura may at first appear to be the prototypical Victorian lady, she has her own sort of inner strength as well, disturbed though it may be by her husband’s harsh treatment.

Suspenseful and full of great characters–Count Fosco is a fascinating study–it is no wonder that The Woman in White endures. I imagine I could read it again and get something yet different out of it. Now I’ve only to wonder why it took me so long to read it in the first place?

And the Spin is…

Lucky number 19!

Sir Gawain first page 670x990

It never fails – the book that I get for a Classics Club spin is never one of the ones I had my fingers crossed for–or even one that the comments discuss! No one mentioned Sir Gawain and the Green Knight at all – apparently not very popular? Unfortunately, I don’t have a copy of my own, so it’s translation selection time. As I’ve been doing some quick research, I’m becoming more excited about this title, though–can’t wait to have it in my hands!

Did you spin? Are you looking forward to–or dreading!–your selection?

Happy reading!

Classics Spin #20

Question Mark - cover place holder

So there’s another Classics Spin? And I still haven’t finished my book from the last spin? And there’s a pile of library books still waiting to be finished?

Well, sign me up, of course!

It’s a mark of my consistent bookish optimism that I keep signing up for the spins, but there’s just something so irresistible about letting a “roll of the dice” decide my next read – at least, when dozens of other readers are playing along! And so, I present my semi-randomized list of twenty:

  1. Carson, Anne, translator – An Oresteia (Greece, 5th century BCE)
  2. Poe, Edgar Allan – Tales of Mystery and Imagination (U.S., 1830s-40s)
  3. Radcliffe, Ann – The Italian (England, 1797)
  4. Cervantes Saavedra, Miguel de – Three Exemplary Novels (Spain, 1613)
  5. Gaskell, Elizabeth – Cranford (England, 1853)
  6. Brontë, Anne – Agnes Grey (England, 1847)
  7. Anonymous – The Epic of Gilgaesh (Sumerian, c. 2150-1000 BCE)
  8. Huxley, Aldous – Brave New World (England, 1932)
  9. Wright, Richard – Native Son (U.S., 1940)
  10. Baldwin, James – Go Tell It on the Mountain (U.S., 1953)
  11. Cather, Willa – Death Comes for the Archbishop (U.S., 1927)
  12. Anonymous – Beowulf (Anglo-Saxon, between 8th-11th centuries)
  13. Camões, Luís Vaz de – The Lusiad (Portugal, 1572)
  14. Bolaño, Roberto – 2666 (Chile, 2004)
  15. Bromfield, Louis – The Farm (U.S.-Ohio, 1933)
  16. Woolf, Virginia – Mrs. Dalloway (England, 1925)
  17. Lawrence, D.H. – Sons and Lovers (England, 1913)
  18. Wharton, Edith – The House of Mirth (U.S., 1905)
  19. Anonymous – Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (England, 14th century)
  20. Anonymous – Nibelungenlied (Germany, 13th century)

I’m most hoping for The Farm (#15) as I’d like to read it this spring. Or there’s Gilgamesh (#7) which is one of those library books that I should be reading anyways… But really, I won’t complain (I don’t think…) if I get any of these.

Any favorites you hope I get?

Happy spinning!

Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

Cover: Tess of the D’Urbervilles (Penguin cloth bound edition)Tess of the D’Urbervilles
Thomas Hardy
England, 1891

I can’t believe tomorrow’s the first of April already. I really don’t know where the first three months of this year have gone (although I can tell you that they were cold, gloomy, but fortunately with not too much snow). But I’ve barely read anything–judging by the number of books finished so far. Hopefully the arrival of spring (err…off-and-on–it snowed last night, just a dusting) will prompt more reading?

Some of it could be what I’m reading, too. I’ve been attempting to read the first Harry Potter novel in Spanish, which is, of course, much slower going for me than it’s English counterpart. (But I’ve been learning, too: I didn’t know there were two words in Spanish for where we would say ‘owl’ – and they apparently mean different owls!) And I’ve been oh-so-slowly making my way through The Iliad–it’s simply proving a slow read for me, much the way Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell and Tess of the D’Urbervilles were for me last year.

I’ve seen a number of articles/listened to a number of stories about how the Internet has changed the way we read—that people don’t sit and read for long periods of time, that our eyes and minds wander, that we don’t think as deeply. I’m beginning to wonder if that mightn’t be true for me—it certainly took long enough for me to read Tess of the D’Urbervilles: nearly five months, and it’s only 398 pages in my copy. Nor do I remember such difficulties finishing classics when I was in high school (including reading Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge), before I had ready access to the Internet and its distracting influences. Of course there’s also option b, which came to me the other night as I was shifting in my reading chair yet again: in high school I could sit for hours on end in one position before I noticed a crick in the neck or a stiffness of the back. No such luck today!

But to Tess itself.

I believe it to be one of Hardy’s better known novels; it is the story of an initially naïve young woman (barely more than a girl at the start) and the trials of her life, starting from the time an amateur historian misguidedly informs her father that he believes the family of descended from the ancient D’Urberville line. It spans a number of years, and both highs and lows, but all following along a trajectory that is seemingly determined for Tess–though the narration makes clear several “if-only” moments–from the moment her father learns of his grand ancestry.

There is so much to unpack in the novel, and the more I think on it, the more I am convinced that it needs, if not more than one reading, at least a closer reading than I gave it. There is the analysis of character: of how Tess differs from her family and companions and so suffers in ways they might not, of how Angel Clare succumbs to a morality that seems at odds with his stated religious views and which Hardy apparently condemns, and so causes further suffering to Tess and pain to himself. It is a pastoral novel, and setting and scene undoubtedly play an important part in the atmosphere and the experience of reading the novel, but reading superficially as I did, I miss any significance, any connection to plot or revelation of character.

And most interestingly to me on this first read (I feel as if I will someday be pulled back), there is Hardy’s social criticism. I recently read Wilkie Collins’ suspense-thriller The Woman in White, and am fascinated that these two well-remembered Victorian male writers seemed to have the same criticisms for the institution of marriage and the suffering of women at the hands of men. They were not of a time that the 21st reader might think of as progressive, and yet it is clear that they were observers and critiquers of the social ills that British Victorian ease and prosperity did not alleviate or prevent. (And now my brain seeks to go down a rabbit hole – thinking of Dickens and Gaskell as well – and these are only the authors I’ve read; I imagine there are others.) This illustrates the attraction of literature for the acute observer of society, but what I find most fascinating is the idea that these books, critical of their times as they were, are the ones that survive. Is it the condition of great literature that it illumines our greatest flaws, individually and socially?

I found it hard to enjoy Tess–even for a reader who is better equipped to enjoy the prose and the pacing of the story than I am, it is perhaps difficult to say “enjoy” of an ultimately tragic novel–but as I think over it more, I find myself drawn back, in a way. There will certainly be more Thomas Hardy in my reading future. I only hope I can do him more justice going forward.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

Cover: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna ClarkeJonathan Strange and Mr Norrell
Susanna Clarke
2004, Britain

He wished he had stayed at Hurtfew Abbey, reading and doing magic for his own pleasure. None of it, he thought, was worth the loss of forty books. (Ch. 29)

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell has been on my shelf, and my to-be-read list for quite some time. It sounded just my thing: a tale of two magicians, set in Regency England. A sort of Harry Potter-Jane Austen mash-up. It took me some time to get to it, however, as I find so often with books I own rather than books I’ve borrowed.

It is a deliciously slow read, not the brisk jaunt through magic and manners that one might expect of a genre novel. Rather, it unfolds its tale gradually, taking us from York and the Society of Magicians–more a social dinner group, than anything–to the bustle of London, the battlefields of the Iberian Peninsula, the remote English countryside, and beyond. As the story opens, neither title character is anywhere in sight, and one wonders at first if the first magician we encounter, John Segundus, will perhaps morph into one of the titular characters. He is rather our introduction to this magical world–someone who believes in magic, but doesn’t know how to yet do it himself. It is not long, however, before Mr. Norrell comes on the scene and so begins the long, winding build-up to the great climatic battle of magic and wits. All in good manners and taste, of course.

There is an interesting tension in the world that Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell inhabits, between a reality that impresses upon the reader the idea that this is almost a pure historical fiction tale–the Regency era is rendered so fully–and the wonderous magical environment overlaid upon the history. King George III and the Duke of Wellington are characters, but so are the magical Raven King and the gentleman with the thistle-down hair. More fully rounding out the depth of the invented world are the delightful footnotes, complete with (fictional) citations to historical and magical books, telling tales of the (fictional) history of English magic and folklore.

I found Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell a delightful and immersive, if slow, read (though how much of that is one me?), and I could see myself returning to its magical world again. After reading it, I watched the BBC miniseries adaptation, and was equally charmed, though I really see the TV series as a complement, rather than replacement for the novel.