Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: A New Verse Translation

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: A New Verse Translation

by W. S. Merwin


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A splendid new translation of the classic Arthurian tale of enchantment, adventure, and romance, presented alongside the original Middle English text.

It is the height of Christmas and New Year’s revelry when an enormous knight with brilliant green clothes and skin descends upon King Arthur’s court. He presents a sinister challenge: he will endure a blow of the axe to his neck without offering any resistance, but whoever gives the blow must promise to take the same in exactly a year and a day’s time. The young Sir Gawain quickly rises to the challenge, and the poem tells of the adventures he finds—an almost irresistible seduction, shockingly brutal hunts, and terrifyingly powerful villains—as he endeavors to fulfill his promise.

Capturing the pace, impact, and richly alliterative language of the original text, W. S. Merwin has imparted a new immediacy to a spellbinding narrative, written centuries ago by a poet whose name is now unknown, lost to time. Of the Green Knight, Merwin notes in his foreword: “We seem to recognize him—his splendor, the awe that surrounds him, his menace and his grace—without being able to place him . . . We will never know who the Green Knight is except in our own response to him.”

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780375709920
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 03/30/2004
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 208
Sales rank: 238,527
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

W. S. Merwin was born in New York City in 1927 and grew up in Union
City, New Jersey, and in Scranton, Pennsylvania. From 1949 to 1951 he worked as a tutor in France, Portugal, and Majorca. He has since lived in many parts of the world, most recently on Maui in the Hawaiian Islands.
His many books of poems, prose, and translations are listed at the beginning of this volume. He has been the recipient of many awards and prizes, including the Fellowship of the Academy of American Poets (of which he is now a Chancellor), the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry, and the
Bollingen Prize in Poetry; most recently he has received the Governor's
Award for Literature of the state of Hawaii, the Tanning Prize for mastery in the art of poetry, a Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Writers' Award, and the
Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize.

Read an Excerpt

In at the hall door comes a frightening figure,
He must have been taller than anyone in the world:
From the neck to the waist so huge and thick,
And his loins and limbs so long and massive,
That I would say he was half a giant on earth.
At least I am sure he was the biggest of men.
Yet he sat with a matchless grace in the saddle.
His back and his chest and whole body were frightening
And both his belt and belly were trim and small
And all of his features were in proportion to the rest of him.
But more than anything
His color amazed them:
A bold knight riding,
The whole of him bright green.

And all in green this knight and his garments
With a close-fitting coat that clung to his side,
A fine robe over it adorned on the inside
With furs cut to one color, an elegant lining
Trimmed brightly with white fur, and his hood also
That was caught back from his long locks and lay on his shoulders; Neat, tight-tailored hose of that same green Clung fast to his calf, and shining spurs below Of bright gold, on silk bands enriched with stripes, And so the knight rides with slippers on his feet And all that he was wearing was indeed pure verdure But the crossbars of his belt and the shining stones set Resplendent here and there in his gleaming garments All around him and his saddle, in silk embroidery– It would be too hard to tell half of the details That were there in fine stitches, with birds and butterflies In a high green radiance with gold running through it. The tassels of his horse’s trappings and the handsome crupper, The studs on the enameled bit and all the other metal, And the stirrups that he stood in were of the same color, And his saddle bow also and the rest of the fastenings, It all kept glimmering and glinting with green stones. The horse that he was riding resplendent with the same hue as all the rest.
A green horse, hard to handle,
A strong steed, huge and massive,
Tossing the embroidered bridle,
The right horse for that knight to have.

How splendid he looked, this knight in the green apparel,
And his horse’s hair was as lovely as his own.
Fair waving locks tumbled around his shoulders,
A beard big as a bush flowing over his breast,
And the full length of the noble hair of his head
Had been cut in a circle above his elbows
So that his arms were half hidden under it
As by the tunic that covers a king’s neck.
The mane of that mighty horse looked much like that,
Its curls well combed and caught into many knots
With gold cord wound around the bright green,
For every strand of hair another of gold.
His tail and his forelocks were enwound the same way,
And both were bound with a band of bright green
And precious stones adorning them to the tip of his tail,
Then laced up tightly in a twirled knot.
There many bright shining bells of fine gold were ringing.
No knight rides a horse like that anywhere on earth.
Never before had one been seen in that hall by anyone.
Bright as lightning he shone,
So they all said who saw him.
It seemed that no man
Could stand against him.

Yet he wore no helmet and no chain mail either,
Nor any breastplate, nor brassarts on his arms,
He had no spear and no shield for thrusting and striking,
But in his hand he held a branch of holly
That is greenest of all when the groves are bare,
And an ax in the other hand, huge and monstrous,
A fearsome battle-ax to find words to tell of.
The length of its head was at least a yard and a half,
The point all hammered out of green steel and gold,
The blade brightly burnished, with a broad edge,
Shaped for shearing as well as sharp razors.
The grim knight gripped the stout handle of the weapon.
It was wrapped with iron to the shaft’s end
And all engraved with green in graceful designs.
A lace was wound around it, fastened at the head,
Twining in many turns around the handle
With a fringe of fine tassels attached to it,
Rich embroidery above buttons of bright green.
This knight rides straight ahead into the hall,
Making for the high dais, undaunted by anything,
With no greeting to anyone, but his eyes high above them.
The first sound from him: “Where,” he asked, “is
The head of this gathering? I would be glad
To set eyes on that knight, and I have something to say to him.”
Over the knights he cast his eye
Riding up and down,
Stopping and looking hard to see
Who might have most renown.

They went on staring at the knight for some time,
Everyone wondering what it might mean
For a man and a horse to acquire such a color,
As green as the grass grows, and greener still, it seemed,
The green enamel glowing brighter on the gold.
All of them standing there stared and crept closer to him
With all the wonder in the world, to see what he would do.
For they had seen many marvels but never any like this,
So they all thought it might be a phantom or trick of magic,
So that many of the noble knights were afraid to answer,
And all were struck by his voice and stayed stone still,
And there was a silence like death through the great hall.
Not a sound rose out of them, as though they had all fallen asleep.
Not, I think, from fear only,
But some waiting for
Their King, out of courtesy,
To let him answer.

Then Arthur, addressing this wonder before the high dais, Greeted him courteously, for nothing ever frightened him, And said, “Knight, you are welcome indeed in this place. My name is Arthur. I am the head of this house. I pray you to have the grace to dismount and stay with us And whatever you want we shall learn later.” “No, as I hope for help,” the knight said, “from Him who sits on high, It was never my mission to stay long in this house. But because your fame, sire, is so exalted And your castles and your knights are said to be The best and strongest who ride in armor on horses, The bravest and most noble anywhere in the world, Worthy to contend with for the pure play of it, And I have heard of the famous chivalry of this place, All of that, I may tell you, brought me here at this time. You may be assured by this branch that I bear here That I am passing through in peace and not looking for enemies, For if I had set out intent upon fighting I have chain mail at home, and helmet too, A shield and a sharp spear shining brightly, And other weapons to wield also, to be sure. But since I did not come for fighting, my clothes are softer. But if you are as bold as knights everywhere say you are, You will be so good as to grant me the request that I
have the right to ask.”
Arthur gave the knight
This answer: “Courteous sir,
Whatever sport or fight
You came for, you will find here.”

“No, I tell you in good faith, it is not a fight I have come for. These are nothing but beardless boys around this bench. If I were buckled in armor on a big horse, There is no man here strong enough to be worth riding against. And so in this court I call for a Christmas game, Since it is Yuletide and the New Year and all these brave men are here: If anyone in this house thinks he has the courage And is so bold in his blood and wild in his way of thinking That he dares to exchange one heavy blow for another, I shall make him a gift of this great battle-ax, And a heavy one it is, this ax, to handle as he pleases, And I shall await the first blow without armor, just as I sit here. If any knight is brave enough to test my word, Run up to me right now and take hold of this weapon. I give it up for good, he can keep it as his own, And I shall take a stroke from him on this floor, without flinching. Then you must grant me the right to give him one in return without resisting,
But for that one he
May wait a year and a day.
Now let me see
What anyone here has to say.”

If he had stunned them at first, then they were even more still, All the courtiers in the hall, the high and the low. The knight on his horse turned in his saddle, And wildly he flashed his red eyes around, Arched his bristling bright-green eyebrows, And waved his beard, waiting to see who would stand up. When no one would answer him, he gave a loud cough And stretched as a lord might, and made ready to speak. “Well, is this Arthur’s house,” the knight said then, “That all the talk runs on through so many kingdoms? Where is your haughtiness now, where are your triumphs, Your belligerence and your wrath and your big words? Now the revel and the renown of the Round Table Are overturned by a word of one man alone, All cowering in dread before a blow has been struck.”

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