Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

strong characterisation and dialogues lend a modern tone and relevance

Book Review by Gareth K Vile | 10 Feb 2007
Simon Armitage's translation of this Middle English romance into an easy vernacular rescues a story of chivalry from dusty criticism to revive it as a picaresque travelogue and vivid drama. Taking his cue from the original's northern dialect, Armitage litters his text with colloquialisms, weaving through the action at a steady pace. In spite of a solid discussion of the problems posed by updating an important, if over-looked, work, the weaknesses of the book lie in the lack of critical context. The world of Arthur's court and ideas of nobility have long since slipped from the school syllabus, and references to Classical heroes or other Arthurian legends can be mystifying. Nevertheless, the strong rhythm and consistent rhyme scheme ensure that the narrative is engaging: Armitage's poetic sensibility meshes with the original in an accessible way.

The story itself, following a challenge by the titular Green Knight to the famous Round Table, is partially an exposition of the medieval heroic code and partially an adventure yarn. Gawain's piety, alongside his valour and handsome appearance, make him the archetypal good knight: his green-skinned enemy is a worthy, sinister opponent. It is those passages where they are most stereotypical that have the strongest resonance.

While the extensive use of description can be wearisome, the strong characterisation and dialogues lend a modern tone and relevance to a story that could easily have remained a historical curio.
Release Date: Out now. Published by Faber and Faber. Cover Price £12.99 hardback.