The Knights of the Round Table were expert at lance and broadsword and the terrible double axe, but their real strength lay elsewhere. They were undefeated as warriors because of their valor. This old word, now used only in military citations, doesn't just mean physical courage. When King Arthur wants to praise Sir Kay, he calls him "a steward of valor." The word comes from the same root as "value," and designates a moral quality. At Camelot, such valorous knights as Galahad or Gawain stand out through their loyalty and steadfastness as well as their purity of heart. In "The Canterbury Tales," Chaucer describes his paragon as "a perfect, gentle knight," meaning not only that he is well-born but that he has valor; he embodies the virtues of chivalry.
Sometime around 1400, an unknown contemporary of Chaucer composed a long poem in which this old-fashioned virtue springs thrillingly back to life. Now, in "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: A Verse Translation" (Norton, 198 pages, $25.95), the English poet Simon Armitage has provided a free and wonderfully offbeat version of this unusual masterpiece. Though the original text appears on facing pages — and a useful "Note on Middle English Meter" by James Simpson is included — this is not a scholarly translation, as Mr. Armitage is quick to make clear in his brief but perceptive introduction. For that the reader can turn to J.R.R. Tolkien's superb version, published posthumously in 1975, as well as to scores of others, both printed and online.
In fact, Mr. Armitage has done something better. His "Sir Gawain" is fresh and startling, as though it had been written yesterday; it is rough-knuckled and yet it sings. When he writes, of the Green Knight's axe — "the skullbusting blade was so stropped and buffed/it could shear a man's scalp and shave him to boot," the thudding alliteration (the principle feature of the original) has a deadly earnestness, but there is a tall-tale humor in the wording as well. From start to finish, Mr. Armitage has clearly had great fun; each of his words has been tasted with gusto. He uses English and American slang, dialect words, catchphrases and outrageous compounds — the Green Knight taunts Arthur's knights as "bumfluffed bairns" — to get the remarkable power, and the stylistic subtlety, of the poem across. His free approach communicates the sheer medieval strangeness of the poem.
And strange it is. King Arthur has thrown a Christmas party at which his knights are carousing, when suddenly an uninvited guest, a green-skinned man dressed all in green and riding a green horse, enters the banquet hall; in one hand he holds a sprig of holly, in the other "the mother of all axes." He challenges one knight to strike his bare neck with the axe, on condition that in twelve months and a day, that same knight will offer his own neck to the Green Knight's axe. To uphold the honor of the court, Sir Gawain accepts the challenge and beheads the intruder at a stroke:
Blood gutters brightly against his green gown,
yet the man doesn't shudder or stagger or sink
but trudges towards them on those tree-trunk legs
and rummages around, reaches at their feet
and cops hold of his head and hoists it high,
and strides to his steed, snatches the bridle,
steps into the stirrup and swings into the saddle
still gripping his head by a handful of hair.
Gawain is too noble not to abide by the Green Knight's terms and the rest of the poem shows him "on an errand in an unknown land," determined despite his dread to keep his vow. His errand is an extended trial, not only against the green ogre who awaits him, twelve months and a day hence, at the murderous Green Chapel, but against his own temptations. The stanzas which portray him at an enchanted castle where every day he is tempted by his host's wife, a wheedling seductress, and every day resists, make vividly plain that the perils Gawain faces are as much to his soul as to his neck. While the lady coaxes, the lord her husband hunts, and the hunting scenes, in all their gory splendor, are set brilliantly against the more intimate battlefield of the boudoir. Here Gawain is as much prey as the fox and the boar; but it is, of course, himself he must bring to bay.
The Green Knight, that monstrous apparition of spring in the dead of winter, seems at first to be a mockery of life itself; with his green hair and his green horse, his axe in one hand, his severed head in the other, he seems death dressed up as life. But in fact, by the end of the poem we don't know what he stands for; the anonymous poet planted him like a riddle at the heart of his poem. Perhaps it is the measure of Gawain's true valor to have met that riddle head-on, with no easy answers and his neck bared to the blade.