In the Steps of the Green Knight

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.

Arnside 045



3 thoughts on “In the Steps of the Green Knight

  1. Thank you Freedom To Roam! This is exactly what I was needing this morning! Here in Wisconsin on the shores of Great Lake Michigan in the cold and snow one feels so removed from the lore and mystery of England (Anglophile talking here) and I’ve been thumbing through Tolkien’s Beowulf, my Anglo-Saxon reader and a score of other texts looking for that ‘right’ one for the season. I’ve just located my copy of Simon Armitage’s translation and set my Tolkien-edited edition nearby for good measure. Many thanks, and I look forward to an afternoon of great reading!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, yes this poem does seem to really get to the heart of our countryside, and there seems little doubt that the poet was native to those same Staffordshire moorlands. The wonderful thing is that you can still walk landscapes that are fundamentally unchanged and which the poet would recognise, much as you can with Langland. Interesting that the writer Alan Garner in his novel Boneland – and Garner is a great admirer of this poem – uses the same landscape in part of his tale.
      The Green Knight is certainly ideal reading for this time of year. We look out and walk through very similar places.
      Very best wishes for the New Year, John B.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s