Seamus Heaney. ‘Christmas in Camelot’, review of Bernard O’Donoghue, trans. and intro., Sir Gawain and the Green Knight , in The Irish Times ( 23 Jan. 2006 ), Weekend.

Bernard O’Donoghue has produced a winning - and timely - new translation of a Middle English classic.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is one of the best proofs of Ezra Pound’s contention that “literature is news that stays news”. Dating from around 1400 (the time of Chaucer’s death) and cast in the native verse form - alliterating lines of irregular length with mainly four stresses, as opposed to Chaucer’s five regular feet and Frenchified rhymes - this story has been translated and repeatedly transmitted on the world service which the modern English language provides.

Extracts from it are included, for example, in Ted Hughes’s recently published Selected Translations; a version of the whole thing by Simon Armitage is due to appear soon, and WS Merwin’s came out a couple of years ago. In 1953 Tolkien did one for the BBC, and since 1959 renderings by two different scholar-translators, Brian Stone (Penguin) and Marie Boroff (Norton), have dominated the student market. But now Penguin have gone one better and published this third-time- luckier translation by Bernard O’Donoghue.

Scholar, gentleman and poet, O’Donoghue was the ideal choice for a job requiring knowledge of the text, knowledge of the courtly Christian culture that produced it (among other things, it is a handbook of courtesy) and knowledge of the extraordinarily rich and rare Middle English in which it is written. At Oxford University he has been teaching the poem in the original for decades, and from his own work it has long been evident that he has what it takes to deliver a verse translation. He possesses what Auden regarded as the two necessary poetic qualifications - the capacity to be “bewildered and happy” and “most of all, the knowledge of life”.

The poem itself is by turns bewildering, happy and knowledgeable. It comes out of the great tradition of Arthurian romance, combining the “natural magic” of Celtic nature poetry with the highly developed conventions of knightly chivalry. It is the work of an artist completely in control of his material, playing with it as resourcefully as a Shakespeare or a seanachaí. Anonymous he may have been, but he was still capable of producing a masterpiece that has about it the uncanniness of an aisling and (as O’Donoghue observes) the irony and common sense of a Don Quixote.

The source material is threefold: a story about a giant knight - “this man and his clothes were all coloured green” - who arrives at Camelot with a beheading axe, gets beheaded by Gawain, resurrects himself and enjoins Gawain to appear at the Green Chapel on the following New Year’s Day, to receive a retaliatory stroke. A second story about Gawain’s stay at a lord’s castle as he travels to his rendezvous, during which he is visited in his bedroom on three mornings by the lord’s beautiful wife who tells him “You are welcome to my body” - as much a test of his knightly manners as his virtuous resolve. As Mary’s knight, however, and guest of the lady’s husband, he resists temptations of the flesh but compromises himself by accepting her girdle, if only as a tactic to avoid even closer entanglement.

And then there is a third odd, disorienting story about a pledge to exchange gifts, in which the lord hands over the spoils of his hunt on each of the three days of Gawain’s trysting, in exchange for the three kisses Gawain receives from the dallying wife.

THIS KIND OF reviewer’s summary does the work a disservice and for the potential reader can be more of a turn-off than an attraction. It should therefore also be said that the poem’s two and a half thousand lines contain some of the strongest and most beautiful passages of poetry in the language. Not Chaucer, not anyone has written more bewitchingly about the cycle of the seasons; not even Malory has given a more beguiling account of the ideal fragrance and formal reality of courtly love in action - or, more properly, inaction; and nobody has equalled the descriptions of hunting, cruel as they are, which separate the three love-duets in the chamber.

What goes on in the chamber is both insinuatingly carnal, elaborately courteous, and crucial to the outcome of the whole story. The poet puts it very clearly:

For the beautiful lady pressed him so hard,
propositioned him so plainly, that he was obliged
either to take her love or reject her discourteously.
He was worried for his chivalry, in case he’d seem boorish,
but more for his virtue.

Now, as they say, read on. But be aware that well down below the amours of the bedroom, at bedrock level, another drama may be going on. There’s an anthropological reading of the poem that sees the challenge between a green man with a holly bough and a young knight with a name suggestive of an archaic sun deity as the vestige of older mythic rites associated with the passing of the old year and the arrival of the new. This reading is further encouraged by the Yuletide setting, the overture to seasonal change that introduces Part I (”the rough wind . . . wrestles with the sun”), the fact that the young beauty is paired with an old crone, and much else.

”A line will take us hours maybe,” Yeats wrote, “Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,/ Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.” O’Donoghue has obviously gone through years of preparation for this work, in his college rooms and his student tutorials, stitching and unstitching the original line by line, but what distinguishes his treatment is the momentariness of the writing. It has an unanxious rightness, a feeling that the words are swarming up rather than being laboured over. The story has priority and the telling just seems to take care of itself.

Much of the lightness of touch comes from O’Donoghue’s decision - bold for him, brightening for the poetry - to free himself from some of the bonds imposed by the original metre. In the Middle English each line has three alliterations, which would have shifted the tale along briskly and naturally for the first audience, but which has tended to act more like a shackle than a shifter for the modern translator. O’Donoghue doesn’t rivet every rift with a consonant, but he does proceed with a line that keeps the four stresses; and he allows just enough of an echo of the older art to signify his respect for it, while insisting on his right to be up and away on a solo run:

It was Christmas in Camelot, and there was the king
with his leading lords and all his best soldiers,
the famous company of the whole Round Table -
celebrating in style: not a care in the world.

What I love about this is the spring in its verbal step: the vigour and vim of “and there was the king”, the off-the-cuff despatch of “celebrating in style: not a care in the world”. From start to finish, this same vernacular promptness is maintained, sometimes in a nice contemporary usage as when the lady “chivvies” and then frankly “propositions” Sir Gawain, sometimes in a nifty steal from the translator’s own Hiberno-English, as when the Green Knight comes with his axe, “planking the handle” on a rock, or shows off his forearms “so muscly and long”.

*

This translation would be a winner at any time, but it comes most carefully upon its hour, and not just because of the contemporary pitch of its language or the Christmas setting. It arrives like an answer to Italo Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millennium since it has several of the qualities Calvino desired and valued in good writing, such as lightness, quickness, exactitude and “visibility”. It also arrives in the winter of our world’s discontent, as neighbourhoods and nations turn ever more violent: it won’t change that situation, but as a story imbued with moral clarity and an undeceived understanding of human weakness, and as a body of poetic sound at once delicious and fighting fit, it reminds us that the species was meant to do better.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Translated and introduced by Bernard O’Donoghue Penguin, 94pp. £8.99

 

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