Sir Gawain and the Green Knight



The BBC piece is not always good history -- there are a few real howlers in the commentary -- but I suppose that's part of the charm of television.
Þis kyng lay at Camylot vpon Krystmasse
With mony luflych lorde, ledez of þe best,
Rekenly of þe Rounde Table alle þo rich breþer,
With rych reuel oryȝt and rechles merþes.
Þer tournayed tulkes by tymez ful mony,
Justed ful jolilé þise gentyle kniȝtes,
Syþen kayred to þe court caroles to make.
With Old and especially Middle English, you can often work out the meaning approximately by sounding out the word, remembering that "Þ" or "þ" is a "Th-" sound. The poem will sound archaic, but only a few words have passed completely out of the language. One of these is "tulkes," which is translated as "fighting man" or "soldier." Tolkien gives "tulkes" as "knights," but then translated "kniȝtes" as "lords," probably simply so as not to repeat himself. Tolkien appears to me to have adapted "tulkes" for the name of his Valar of might and prowess, Tulkas the Valiant, who laughed in war so that Melkor fled before him.

Read more about "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" as a Christmas poem, if you like.

6 comments:

Tom said...

The Christmas poem link isn't working.

Grim said...

Wow, I'm not sure how that link code got so badly broken! But it should work now.

Tom said...

If I wanted to read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight over the holiday, and not bother with the Old / Middle English, which translation / edition would you suggest?

Grim said...

Tolkien's is good, as you would expect, if you like a more-or-less literal rendering: he had a love of the archaic forms, and so he tries to give you an accurate sense of the language, with alterations chiefly where the Middle English has become unclear (as in the example given).

If you prefer the sound of modern language, Simon Armitage's translation was well reviewed. I didn't like it myself because he departs very far from the actual verse where it doesn't strike me as necessary. On the other hand, it's available as a facing-page edition, so you can readily compare what the Middle English is with his version. He gives the section quoted above as:

"It was Christmas at Camelot -- King Arthur's Court,/
where the great and the good of the land had gathered,/
all the righteous lords of the ranks of the Round Table/
quite properly carousing and reveling in pleasure./
Time after time, in tournament of joust,/
they had lunged at each other with leveled lances/
then returned to the castle to carry on their caroling..."

He maintains the sense of an alliterative rather than a rhyming poem, and he does use language that's very easy on the modern ear, but for my money it loses something in going so far from the original text in many places. Still, many people like it.

Tom said...

Thanks!

Grim said...

You're welcome!