My Summer Reading: Gawain and The Green Knight – Michael Smith

Members of the Shiny reviewing team share previously published books from their shelves that they’re reading now…

Review by Rob Spence

Readers of Shiny New Books will be aware of the Unbound publishing enterprise, by which books are published through a subscription process, rather like the way in which eighteenth century authors such as Pope brought their work to the public. Pope’s bestsellers were his versions of the classics, including his translations of the Iliad and the Odyssey.  I don’t suppose Pope would have considered rendering Sir Gawain and the Green Knight into elegant heroic couplets, or if he was even aware of it. But like the epics of Greece and Rome, Britain has its foundational texts, and luckily a single copy of Sir Gawain survived from the fourteenth century to be seen today as a significant document of medieval England, and a major contribution to Arthurian legend.

The poem tells the tale of the mysterious Green Knight, who issues a challenge accepted by Sir Gawain. The challenge involves trading blows a year and a day apart, Gawain first. The knight duly beheads the stranger, who calmly picks up his head and rides off, leaving Sir Gawain to follow his chivalric duty and present himself to his opponent a year and a day hence at the appointed place, the Green Chapel. Of course, much else happens on Gawain’s quest, including encounters with a beautiful damsel and a mysterious crone. The story employs many of the familiar elements of the medieval romance, and also draws upon Irish and Welsh folk tales.

The poem is written in the alliterative style characterised by recurrent half-line rhythmic patterns, in effect a modified version of the Old English long alliterative unrhymed line. The poet’s dialect usage identifies him as from the north-west English midland counties, and several locations in the poem can be speculatively identified as being in that region. The poem has been translated into more modern English several times, notably by the present Poet Laureate, Simon Armitage. This splendid new edition by Michael Smith approaches the poem with reverence, attempting – and succeeding, it should be said – to preserve as far as possible the original’s rhythm and alliterative language. This results in a robust, sinewy poetry that presents no difficulty to the modern reader, but plunges us headfirst into a well-realised medieval world.

Michael Smith’s grasp of the cut and thrust of the tale is assured, and what makes this edition even more of a delight is the presence of the author’s own beautiful linocut prints depicting key moments of the narrative. The illustrations really contribute a lot to the overall effect, and make this volume one to treasure. Michael Smith’s skill in rendering the medieval verse is matched by his ability to produce startlingly apt illustrations to complement his text.  Here’s a taste of the lively, arresting style, from the moment early on, when Gawain has severed the head of the mysterious Green Knight:

For the head in his hand he then holds up,
Addressing his face to those dear on the dais,
And he lifts up his eyelids and looked full abroad,
And didn’t mince much with his mouth, as you’ll hear.

In that brief extract, we have the bloody scene perfectly captured in words and rhythms that echo the original, but yet communicate in a modern vernacular that gives it an immediate impact. The reader who might baulk at reading medieval romance will be surprised at how engrossing and swift-moving the narrative is, almost like a modern paranormal thriller.

It has to be emphasised also that this book is a beautiful artefact in its own right. The paper is of high quality, the design evocative and the illustrations eye-catching. What’s more, the volume has an excellent introduction, setting out the background to the poem and the author’s approach to the task of producing this version. In addition, extensive notes and appendices explore technical terms, the historical and literary background, and the potential geographical sites of the action. In sum, this presents a total Gawain experience for the contemporary reader.

This would please anyone with the slightest interest in the medieval world, and would be a brilliant introduction for someone who might want something with a little more literary heft than the usual dungeon-and-dragon merchants. This is the real stuff of legends! Michael Smith’s next Unbound venture, publishing next year, is his version of King Arthur’s Death, the alliterative poem that predates Malory’s more famous version of the matter of Britain.  I look forward to it with excitement.

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Rob Spence’s home on the net is robspence.org.uk. You can also find him on Twitter @spencro

Michael Smith, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Unbound, 2018). 978-1783525621, 220pp., hardback. Currently sold out!

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