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

This Floral Bower My Prison

Bower 1

Hmm, may have mangled the title of that poem a bit.  I’m thinking, of course, of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison, which he wrote in — ha, for half a second I was about to write “1997” but nope, this one dropped in 1797.  I studied this poem in university under a wonderful professor who approached the poetry of the Victorian era like a lesson in modern celebrity gossip.  In particular, I loved her take on Coleridge and This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison, in which Coleridge, a Romance poet and philosopher afflicted with a debilitating hunchback, hangs back at home, morosely wandering about the titular lime tree bower, while his more able-bodied friends head out for an afternoon excursion in the country.

Physical limitations aside, Coleridge’s internal monologue is so unbelievably Eeyore-esque.  That he’s the better poet, the more reasoned, thoughtful and compassionate man than his close frenemy, the likewise talented but undeniably gorgeous and immensely popular William Wordsworth, is totally besides the point – that surely because of his unfortunate physical affliction and what just HAS to be his own searing unpopularity, he’s been once again relegated to the kids’ table while Wordsworth gallivants across the countryside like a Victorian era rock star.  It’s actually quite emo.  You really feel for the man; can’t have been easy being the socially maladjusted bestie to the guy everyone wanted to be and/or shag.

These are not lime bowers.  Boughs?  Are bowers boughs that have been arranged into the shape of a, um, bower?  I feel like we may have gone a bit snake-eating-its-own-tail here.  They’re boughs.  Of flowers.  Not bowers. 😉

Bower 2