Most years at this time, I dwell on the epic medieval poem of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. It’s an appropriate one for journeyers through our countryside as Gawain makes a winter journey to keep a date with destiny with the green knight.
It’s very much a story of the Staffordshire moorlands, for the story comes to a climax in the great fallen cavern of Ludchurch. The poem is wonderfully descriptive of wild countryside and a terrific adventure. One for every walker who loves the challenge of the great outdoors.
I was born in Staffordshire, though the other end. But from childhood I knew those north Stafforshire moorlands very well. Re-reading the poem is a joy to me. If you love the writings of Alan Garner, Tolkien, Pratchett et al, it will resonate with you.
Many years ago I struggled through it in the original Middle English, which I think is hard work even if you can manage quite well with Chaucer and Langland – as I could at the time.
A good translation is by the poet and Oxford don Bernard O’Donoghue (Penguin 2006). This translation concentrates on the tale itself and the rhythm of the original, veering away from the alliteration and half lines of the original. I think O’Donoghue captures the spirit of the poem well. As a variant, you might like to try the version by the poet Simon Armitage, who brings the local links very much to life. Ideally, you should try both, but if your Middle English is holding up do try the original.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a beautiful tribute to the English countryside. As Sir Gawain rides on his quest to the castle of the Green Knight we get wonderful pictures of the landscape of England, and possibly Wales, grand vistas of nature and the seasons, with a bit of sexual seduction, courtly love and romance – in the historic sense of the word – thrown in.
The poet is unknown but his words live on.
And this is a very good time of the year to read his words.