Literary Inspiration: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Gawain Collage

So here’s the thing about Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a 14th Century poem I recently re-read to satisfy the theme of an epic work in my friends’ reading challenge – it’s repetitive, preachy as shit, and as presented (in written form, translated from its oral, Middle English origins) it’s a deathly dull slog through what should be a thrilling tale of chivalrous knights, fair maidens and fantastic creatures.

Faulting neither the original, anonymous storyteller (or storytellers), nor W.S. Merwin, the scholar tasked with translating found snippets of actual archived text into something approaching readable English, Sir Gawain was simply not meant to be read, was in fact an oral tale designed to impart moral lessons whilst entertaining exhausted warriors around the campfire.

So if a read-through (my first since university) seemed stilted and lacking in detail (except for the endless passages devoted to inventorying the Green Knight’s admittedly pretty badass-sounding suit of jade-hued armor) that’s because the story was missing that certain – and quite necessary – dramatic flair that’s only present during the live performance of a thing.  I’ve no doubt that 14th Century audiences were enthralled by this spritely, sweeping tale of “verray parfit, gentil knyght”s and the murderous green giants who seek to behead them, but absent that live engagement, there’s precious little to the story itself.  Knights be knightin’, you know?

Ah, but the real fun (fun?) of Sir Gawain lies not in the story, but in the translation itself.  Just looking over the original Middle English will leave you feeling slightly disoriented, like staring at a door frame set ever so slightly out of square – there’s something wrong there, but you’re just not sure what that wrong thing might be.  But if you’re interested in linguistics and etymology, as I am, Sir Gawain is literary catnip.

Gawain 4

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a weird one, and I’m not sure I’d ever point to it as a favourite, but it’s an enjoyable enough read, and as a case study in translation, it’s utterly fascinating and indeed, quite epic. 🙂

Sir Gawain 1

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6 thoughts on “Literary Inspiration: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

  1. Knights may be knightin’ but I don’t have to read about it. I relate with the love of language and etymolgy-Shel has a vast knowledge on that subject. I swear he can answer 8 out of 10 queries based on word origin alone. And I do love me some epic adventure, especially The Odyssey in both translated and albeit more difficult less translated versions. But the difference there is the story is just so compelling and I can always root for Odysseus to outsmart his foes at the last moment before sailing into the next skirmish. Sir Gaiwin-I don’t know if I could do it. A classic to be sure. I enjoy the Arthurian legend and the derivative archetypes which come from it, the Knights of the Round Table, etc, yet it seems too unreachable for me. Perhaps I’ll peruse it sometime to see if I get hooked on the language.
    As for these nails, I adore the glorious almost malevolent green tone. Why is it your literary inspo nails are my favorite? Biased I guess:)

    • You’re really not missing much. Beyond coming at it from an educational perspective, there’s not much here. Thank you, I like these nails, too, and lots of the lit-related ones have turned out pretty well. I have so, so many designs in mind for The Night Circus – I think I should maybe just do all of them.

  2. Beautiful nails. The detail and textures are really elegant. The closest I have come to reading anything Arthurian was The Buried Giant. Or watching Monty Python. That is about as high brow as I have gotten in that area. I do like bard type tales though and epic stories. You remind me I need to to a reading update.

    • Thanks, Julie! I was going for an embroidered love knot belt kind of deal – fair maidens would give them to knights heading off to battle as a symbol of their devotion. Seems complicated – why not just a really nicely woven friendship bracelet? 😉

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