Review: Hack and Slash

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: A New Verse Translation, by Simon Armitage

From the suit of medieval armor on the bold black book jacket and the prominent blurb from Seamus Heaney, it's plain that publishers Faber & Faber (in the UK) and W.W. Norton (in the US) and poet Simon Armitage are aiming for a popular hit in the mold of Mr. Heaney's brilliant (and surprise) bestseller, Beowulf. (Mr. Armitage, in fact, thanks Mr. Heaney for his enthusiasm and support).

book/daddy doesn't think the big sales are going to happen. First, needlesss to say, the poems are very different. Gawain is a much more courtly work. Yes, Beowulf was almost certainly written for a noble audience and read before a lordly dinner party, but the nearly 600-year distance between the two counts for something. The Beowulf poet may admire the metal work on a sword or hail a well-built mead hall, but he has little to compare to the pages that the Gawain author devotes to fingering the embroidery, bedding, flowing silk robes, room decor, delicate silver spoons and then savoring the well-spiced servings of soup, fish and bread.

Second, Beowulf himself is basically an action hero -- the new Robert Zemeckis film, which by the way, judging solely from its trailer, looks absolutely horrrible -- is only the latest "sword and muscle" adaptation going back several decades. In typical Schwarzenegger fashion, for example, when the chips are down, Beowulf just rips off Grendel's arm bare-handed.

Again, I'm simplifying things here: Beowulf is also praised as a proper, courteous prince. Still, his appeal to fans of bludgeoning Visigothic video games is self-evident: He slays three monsters and goes down fighting. In contrast, Gawain's ultimate heroic act is lying in bed with a hot naked woman, a seductive wife who practically dry humps him -- and turning her down repeatedly. (Although considering that in the Zemeckis film, Grendel's dam has become Angelina Jolie, who the hell knows what's going to happen there?)

True, Gawain also wields a wicked sword, hacking off the Green Knight's head with a single stroke. But that happens in the opening, spooky scenes. For the two-thirds of the poem that follow, Gawain demonstrates his perfect humility and perfect courtesy (which is how he sweatfully eludes the bedroom traps of Morgan, King Arthur's half-sister). The influence of Christianity and courtly romances is clear: Ultimately, Gawain's heroism is one of self-denial and self-mortification.

The two narrative poems, then, are both "medieval" in the sense they're filled with armor and feudalism and curses and battles with the supernatural. But while Beowulf is a brooding, violent tragedy, Gawain is a sensual, erotic, game-playing poem.

So if Mr. Armitage's Gawain is definitely not Mr. Heaney's Beowulf, how is it -- as just plain old Gaiwain? Lively, fresh, highly readable. As it should be. Although, a little too readable, a little too clearly aimed at grabbing a contemporary audience.

Gawain, as Mr. Armitage writes, is "a ghost story, a thriller, a romance, an adventure story and a morality tale." It's also a fertility myth (although Mr. Armitage's attempt in his intro to make it an environmental fertility myth stretches things). Much of the translation's physicality and liveliness ("the bounce" as he likes to call it) come from Mr. Armitage's admirable decision to follow the poet's heavily alliterative, four-stress line.

To maintain the form, his lines can sound clunky and contorted at times -- this ancient form doesn't sound "natural" with modern idioms. But mostly Mr. Armitage's lines trot and clang and clink -- with the horses, the swordfights and the toasting. For all the shining, descriptive set pieces of weather and castles, it's the action verbs that jump: "rigged out," "battered and baited," "launching her words."

Like Mr. Heaney, Mr. Armitage is also unafraid of a touch of the antique, the local dialect. Although he comes from north of the Derbyshire area where, it's believed, the Gawain poet learned his own tongue, Mr. Armitage, as a northerner, recognizes not only "plenty of the poem's dialect but detects an echo of his own speech rhythms within the original."

What often jolts unpleasantly, however, are the slangy moments to keep things fresh and "real." A line like "the mother of all axes" is already badly dated, while "bum-fluffed bairns" is a little ridiculous in contex, too obviously "eye (and ear) catching." Mr. Armitage argues that the poem is formed from contrasts held together in tension, but that's hardly an excuse to let fly to keep up the reader's interest. Still, the original poem has its doldrums in any case; better if, unlike his hero Gawain, this poet-translator took a few risks.

November 7, 2007 3:23 PM |



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