Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
First page of manuscript
Illustration from the Manuscript
Yesterday evening, I went to St. John's Church in Ben Rhydding where Simon Armitage read from his latest translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Armitage's mildly mournful, incantatory voice, the church setting and the candlelight created an experience which the Gawain Poet would surely have found deeply moving. It captured the mystery, the eroticism, the thrill, the menace, the gallantry and the gruesomeness of the poem. Unforgettable.
At a personal level, it was also a poignant occasion because I went with a friend whom I haven't seen since his wife died, quite unexpectedly, from an aortic aneurism in France. He is one of the very few friends I have who shares my love of classical music and we talked about future events we might attend together.
Returning to the poem, the precariousness of its existence is extraordinary: there is one copy! It is bound together in a manuscript with three other poems, Pearl, Purity and Patience, all believed to be by the same author. All are unique copies and nothing is known of their creator. Known variously as 'The Gawain Poet' or 'The Pearl Poet', he (we imagine) was probably a near contemporary of Chaucer in the late 14C and wrote in the North West Midland dialect of Middle English.
Did he know the power of what he wrote? Was he at all acknowledged in his own lifetime? Did he think, ever, of posterity? Was he, like George Herbert, ever anxious that his writing might be seen as an act of vanity?
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