I originally picked up this book because it was part of the Penguin Classics miniseries called Legends from the Ancient North, curated because each of the five volumes contributed to J.R.R. Tolkien’s creation of Middle Earth. You may or may not know that I am a huge fan of The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings, and likely will be a fan of the rest of Tolkien’s oeuvre once I get around to reading all of his titles. Which I will.
Regardless, I had absolutely no idea of what to expect when I picked up this book, other than it hopefully wouldn’t take me long, considering it was only eighty pages or so in length. By the end of the epic poem, I found myself wishing it had been longer, and as in all things, once a person decides they like something they inevitable wish there were more of it.
So it was with Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. I’d heard of it before, of course: rarely can a person exist in a Humanities department anywhere, nor work in a bookstore (both of which I can attest to having done) without knowing the title. However, I’d never so much as read the blurb on an edition before so the day I read this was also the day I learned that it was a four-act poem, rather than the (short) prose story I had been expecting. I must admit, working out that it was a long poem did make me hesitate somewhat. While I like poetry, I like it better in short sprints, rather than marathon distances. Honestly, though, once I started Sir Gawain I found it impossible to put down. Despite my affection for Arthurian legend, I haven’t actually read much of the literature of the time, beyond what has filtered into the mainstream in the last decade or so. More’s the pity, apparently, because if the rest of the literature is anything like Sir Gawain we have all been missing out. Kudos to the English Lit majors who specialize in works like this one!
Interestingly, the tale itself is not all that original. Courtly, honourable knights; courtly, seductive ladies; a husband trompé and a fight for honour! It’s actually quite predictable. However, the author (unknown) clearly knew what he was about and the translator of this edition knows his work, because somehow the predictability of both the plot and the discourse within didn’t detract at all from my enjoyment of the poem itself. There is of course a heavy degree of religious teaching, and given the time it was written (c. 13th century) this is to be expected. It is mixed, however, with a certain pagan respect for magic and the natural unknown which I haven’t often found in literature with highly religious protagonists. Unless, you know, it’s David Eddings’ Sparkhawk, protagonist of The Elenium. That, however, is epic fantasy and probably only remotely related to the Green Knight tale. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is an interesting and respectful nod to an apparently (historically!) dichotomous set of beliefs, again in keeping with Arthurian legend: it somehow manages to portray the importance of chivalry and honour in the face of seduction and temptation; the importance of loyalty and respect in the face of danger and desire.
I thoroughly, thoroughly enjoyed Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and only wish that I had had the foresight to read it slower, that I might have enjoyed that first reading for a little while longer. I certainly have my eye on the other four volumes in the Legends from the Ancient North series now!
Five star read, people.
Photo credits: as usual, photos were taken by me.