A conversation with my dad about a great medieval adventure story originally written in middle English and updated and translated into modern English by Simon Armitage. Dad talks about the origin of this story, its connection to the history of the English language, and the poetic devices used in the writing. In the second half I read a summarised version of the story and some verses from Armitage’s modernised version.
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— Jingle —
In this episode, my dad is back, but it’s not the Rick Thompson Report, so no politics this time. Instead we’re doing an episode that we have been hoping to do since Christmas last year.
In this one, Dad is going to tell us about an old story from the Arthurian legends – that’s a set of stories about the mythical King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. British legends and folklore.
The story we’re talking about is in the form of a poem called Sir Gawain & The Green Knight. This long poem was probably first written down in the 14th century by an unknown poet, but the story is probably much older than that, and part of a long oral storytelling tradition.
What Dad is going to do is describe the significance of this story, give us a summary of the plot and also he will make some comments about the history of the English language, and the rhythmic and rhyming style used in the original 14th century version, which was written in what we now call middle English. My dad studied English literature at university in the 1960s and this was one of the texts that he studied, and so he knows it quite well.
Recently the old 14th century version of this poem was updated by a modern poet called Simon Armitage (the current poet laureate in the UK). Armitage has managed to write a modern version of this poem using modern English vocabulary, but it retains many of the linguistic and poetic devices of the original, including certain forms of rhyme and rhythm that made the poem so effective.
My dad got that version for Christmas and that’s what inspired us to do this episode.
It should be interesting for you to hear the story, hear my dad’s comments about it and learn how this fits into the history of the English language.
In the second half of the episode I will read you a summarised version of the full story just to make sure you get to hear an uninterrupted version, plus I will read out a few verses of the Simon Armitage version of them poem, again, to give you a good chance to hear some the rhythm and rhyme of it uninterrupted.
So, if you are sitting comfortably, let’s begin.
Well, how was that?
You might be keen to hear more of the story and to hear more samples of the poem. That’s what I’d like to do in this ending part.
I’m going to do a couple of readings for you now.
I thought it would be useful for you to hear a brief version of the whole story, just to give you an overview and to make sure you’ve understood the whole thing. Then I’ll read a few of verses from the Simon Armitage version, in order to give you a flavour of the poetry with its distinctive style: wonderfully descriptive language and a particular rhythm, which was originally used in the 14th century version, as my dad described.
A Summary of the Story
This is a version of the story, from a TED Ed video by Dan Kwartler.
Credit for this version goes to Dan Kwartler and there’s an animated version of it here youtu.be/SaQImmPev2o I have adapted this version slightly.
This doesn’t have the rhythmic style of the original poem, or the richly descriptive language.
But it does tell the story quite briefly. I’m not going to explain all the words here. I might do that in part 2 (If there is a part 2).
It was Christmas time in Camelot
and King Arthur was throwing a party.
The entire court was invited,
except for the evil sorceress Morgan le Fay.
The food and drink flowed freely.
But in the midst of all the revelry,
the castle doors suddenly split open.
A tall knight riding an emerald horse
burst into the room,
stunning the court into silence.
He was green from head to toe,
including his skin, hair and clothes.
Even his horse was green.
Then, in a deep bellowing voice, he proposed a game.
The Green Knight declared that he would allow
the bravest warrior present
to attack him with his own axe.
If they could strike him down, they would win his powerful weapon.
However, the knight would be allowed to return that blow
in one year and one day.
Arthur and his knights were baffled.
No man could survive such a strike.
How would the Green Knight be able to return the blow in a year’s time?
The Green Knight began to mock their leader’s hesitance,
and Arthur stood up to defend his honour.
But as soon as he gripped the axe,
another person leapt up to take his place.
It was Arthur’s nephew,
who decided he could not let the king be drawn into such a macabre game.
Keen to prove himself as a worthy hero,
Sir Gawain took the weapon instead.
The Green Knight knelt down to receive the blow from the axe,
even moving his hair away to expose the naked green skin of his neck.
With one swift strike, Sir Gawain beheaded the knight.
But the moment his skull hit the ground, it began to laugh.
The Green Knight bent down,
collected his head
and mounted his horse.
As he rode off,
his severed head reminded Gawain of their contract
and told him to seek the Green Chapel
one year and one day from that moment.
In the months that followed, Gawain tried to forget this bizarre vision.
But despite the strangeness of the knight’s game,
Sir Gawain was determined to act honourably and fulfil his promise.
When the following winter approached,
he set out —
enduring foul weather
and encounters with dangerous beasts
in his quest to find the mysterious Green Chapel.
Finally, on Christmas Eve, he saw a shimmering castle on the horizon.
The castle’s lord and lady were thrilled to help such an honourable guest,
and informed him that the Green Chapel was only a short ride away.
They implored Gawain to rest at their home until his meeting with the Green Knight.
Thrilled at this news, Gawain happily accepted their offer.
However, in exchange for this hospitality,
the lord made a strange request.
Over the next three days, he would go hunting
and every night he would share whatever he caught with Gawain.
In return, Gawain must give him whatever he’d gained during his day at the castle.
At first, Gawain was perplexed by these strange terms.
But the lord’s meaning became quite clear the next day,
when his wife tried to seduce Gawain.
To rebuff the lady’s advances without offending her honour,
Gawain allowed one kiss —
which he then passed on to her husband in exchange for a slain deer.
The next day, Gawain allowed two kisses,
which he gave to the lord for a dead boar.
But on the third day,
the lady offered more than just three kisses.
She presented a magical sash that would protect Gawain
from the Green Knight’s blade.
Gawain accepted immediately,
but that evening,
when the lord returned,
Gawain offered only three kisses and did not mention the enchanted gift which he had received.
The next morning,
Gawain rode out to the Green Chapel—
a simple mound of earth
where the Green Knight was waiting and ominously sharpening his axe.
With the sash’s protection,
Gawain approached stoically —
determined to honour his agreement.
He bowed his head for the deadly blow.
He flinched twice,
but then with a massive swing,
the Green Knight cut Gawain’s neck —
but inflicted nothing more than a flesh wound.
Once more, Gawain was bewildered.
Why hadn’t the sash protected him?
And why hadn’t the knight killed him?
Bursting into laughter,
the Green Knight revealed himself to be the castle’s lord,
and that he’d been working with the sorcoress Morgan Le Fay
to test the honour and bravery of Arthur’s knights.
He was impressed with Gawain’s behavior,
and he’d planned to spare his neck entirely —
until Gawain concealed the sash,
and this is when the Green Knight chose to inflict the fleshwound upon him.
Filled with shame, Gawain returned to Camelot.
But to his surprise, his companions absolved him of blame
and celebrated his valor.
Struggling to understand this strange journey,
it seemed to Gawain that perhaps the whole world was playing a game —
with rules more wild and bewildering than any man could understand.
Ok, so that’s the story.
It’s a bit confusing and mysterious.
(Luke gives a quick summary again)
Reading Verses from the Simon Armitage version of Sir Gawain and The Green Knight
What you don’t get from that story summary (above) is the beautiful language.
- Wonderfully descriptive vocabulary
- Alliteration (the repetition of rhyming consonant sounds at the start of words)
- The “Bob and Wheel” (a rhythmic device which ends each verse)
There are some extracts from the Simon Armitage version available in the preview of the book on Amazon (other bookshops are available)
Let me read a couple of those initial pages.
The way the Armitage version of this poem is presented is that it gives one page of the modernised version, and then on the next page you have the equivalent original text, so you can compare them side by side.
I won’t read any of the original text because the English is so old fashioned that I frankly wouldn’t be able to pronounce it all. And before you fall out of your chair in disbelief that I don’t know my own language – hardly anyone is able to pronounce sentences written in middle English. Only academic experts can do that, and a lot of them disagree about how middle English should be pronounced. So, that’s not for us. Middle English is almost like another language, so there’s no need for me to read it to you.
The modern version of this poem on the other hand, is much more appropriate for us, and Simon Armitage has done a fantastic job because as my dad said, his version of the poem manages to keep the same alliteration, the same rhythm, and the bob & wheel – that structural device where after a few lines the verse comes to an end with a distinctive two syllable break (the bob) and then four lines which follow it (the wheel). You’ll have a chance to listen to examples of that again in a moment.
Simon Armitage, while managing to keep a lot of these literary and poetic devices from the original poem, has updated it using normal modern English words. So this is still written in a literary and poetic style, but these are words that are still regularly used by people today, more or less.
Listen carefully to the rhythm and sounds of this and you’ll see what I mean.
I’m now going to read the first few verses to you. This is very rich in terms of language. Again, I am not going to stop and explain everything here, or analyse the text. I’m just going to read it to you.
I do plan to do another separate episode in which I just read out some of these verses again and then break them down for language. Hopefully I will be able to make a video version of that too. Perhaps it will be the next episode. We will see. If not, I will do my best to get it done at a later date.
But now, for your listening pleasure, have a listen to this.
Extracts from Sir Gawain & The Green Knight, by Simon Armitage.
There is no script for the verses, but you can check the Amazon page for this book, where you can preview the first pages of the book, including many of the lines I’m reading here.