The last installment of our Arthurian Legends series ends with another tale where the writer is now unknown. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a particular joy to listen to because it’s one of J. R. R. Tolkien’s completed translations and his original introduction also survives.
Like many of the original literary Arthurian tales, Sir Gawain can be a little difficult to read, so I would highly recommend that you find an audio version. In fact, you can get the one read by the late, great, Terry Jones.
Yes, the same Terry Jones who was with the Monty Python troop. And it’s Tolkien’s translation so you get to satify two of your nerdy inclinations at the same time.
Oh, and enjoy the pictures of my own attempt to re-create a New Year’s feast of my own, like the one King Arthur has at the beginning!
Listening to the Green Knight allows you to fully appreciate the original way the story would have been told.
Literature wasn’t originally for private reading alone. That is a very modern way of reading, believe it or not. Literature was nearly always enjoyed in public performance, either through a court minstrel or through the actual writer performing it.
Chaucer, for instance, performed his own works and read them to noble audiences. Charles Dickens would later do the same thing. Publishing is a modern invention and the “books” of medieval periods and earlier had to be hand written.
The minstrel’s performance was far cheaper and entertaining. Not to mention even the people who couldn’t read or write got to enjoy it too.
So, if reading a medieval epic poem is a little daunting, or you don’t have the time, attention, or energy, then try listeningto it. You’ll get much more enjoyment out of it.
Personally, I listened to it again over the course of a couple of morning walks. It was energizing enough for me to keep my pace, but relaxing enough to not make me push myself too hard. Prose books are best for knitting. Poetry is for walking.
You get to appreciate the alliterative verse Tolkien’s translations are famed for.
If you’ve read The Lord of the Rings, then you’ve also read some of Tolkien’s original poetry. But, to read his translations is a real treat. LOTR fans already know how brilliant he was with languages, but to see it in action is something altogether different.
If you read his translation compared to, say, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, you will notice the difference almost immediately. The first is that Chaucer’s lines rhyme—more of what the less literary of us (or the more traditional) think of as poetry.
Sir Gawain, however, uses alliteration.
It has more in common with Anglo-Saxon poetry in a way. Seamus Heaney’s famed translation of Beowulf uses a very set alliterative pattern, for instance. It’s very different and more in line with our own modern tastes in poetry overall.
The one drawback? You don’t get the full appreciation or effect for it unless you read it out loud. Or have someone else read it for you. The audiobook wins again.
Listening to the book being read actually allows you to do something with your hands so you can focus on the words.
Fans of audiobooks will know this one already, but when you’re attempting to enjoy something that is a little more difficult to appreciate or understand, movement while listening to the book does help, especially if the task is repetitive, or makes you exert yourself.
With a poetic piece like Sir Gawain, I find it actually helps you keep pace when you’re walking. Or any other repetitive movement, for that matter. For me, it also helps me stay calm when doing something like exercise, which makes my time doing that task more effective.
Poetry is especially conducive to this because it’s more rhythmic, but unlike a modern music track that has a good beat, this is a more soothing rhythm. It focuses the mind rather than distracts it. Just as it would have for whoever was reciting it for their audience.
It makes you understand why “Brave” Sir Robin from Monty Python and the Holy Grail travels with minstrels. There was a method in the madness after all.
The triple test of the fairytale makes it easier to understand when spoken.
Fairytales of any kind, but especially of the mythical variety, are famed for having repetition in them. Usually, it’s always in threes. Sir Gawain has three encounters with his host’s wife as she tried to seduce him. The green knight presses Sir Gawain with questions and threats three times before he strikes. And then three times more, the green knight urges Sir Gawain to not return to Camelot.
You can always debate the meaning behind the repetition in the fairytale, but I think it was one of those devices which served two purposes: it was allegorical on one level. Threes, especially since they are a feature in many world religions.
Now, if you’re just talking about the fairytales we all read as children, that’s one thing. But something on a more mythic level like Sir Gawain? It’s easier to get lost in the language in the first place, and there are significantly more elements to the story.
It helps when you know there is going to be a repetition, and it has a greater impact when you hear it as opposed to when you read it. I suspect, too, that it was easier for the person telling the tale to remember it!
Still prefer to read? Look for similarities with other aspects of the King Arthur story.
The first is that the Sir Gawain author did as Geoffrey of Monmouth did—he referred to the fall of Troy and Aeneas’ journey to Italy where his descendants would establish Rome. The writer does this twice: once at the beginning to open the tale and again at the end to close it.
Another similarity is that the tale opens during a major festive season. Queste del Saint Graal opens during Pentecost, for example.
Sir Gawain opens during the Octave of Christmas. Major feast days like Christmas, Easter, etc had eight days of celebration and New Year’s falls within the Christmas Octave.
There is more, such as the ever-present reminders of the Celtic past, the gloss of Christian virtue, and the temptations along the path towards the end of the quest.
Whether you choose to listen to the audiobook, or head out and get your own copy to read and annotate at your leisure, Sir Gawain is enjoyable and a very befitting start to a New Year.
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