Most of us can respond with deep childhood memories to the line ‘I’m going to tell you a story’, words which we repeat to our own children and grandchildren; and this is the formula applied by the anonymous fourteenth-century author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, perhaps the greatest of Middle English poets, surpassing even Chaucer.
His is a poem which appeals to the ear rather than the eye; its art is oral, and also linear in that it does not encourage its audience to flick the pages, of which there are ideally none; and although the modern reader of a Penguin Classic can do just that, it’s a temptation to which you are unlikely to submit, the suspense being too full of fascination. And as you soon realize, or are asked to believe, that even the narrator himself does not fully understand what is going on but can only relate what he has been told, you readily slip into the spirit of the thing and return to childhood. Even after the Green Knight has initially come and gone, it’s not clear if he is a goodie, a baddie or something in between; or if he’s a ghost, a person in disguise, the Green Man or Death. Anything is possible: so right from the start you are in the midst of a ripping yarn.
How many know the story already? The question takes me back to my last year in primary school, when I was awarded the only literary prize I have ever won. It was for an essay ‘On the Evils of Alcohol’, set by the village Ladies’ Temperance Association – a misnomer, as abstinence, not temperance, was their aim. The prize was Stories of King Arthur and His Knights, retold for youngsters by Barbara Leonie Picard. I devoured this book and was gladdened by the far-away world it created, and saddened at its dissolution. Yet curiously, by the time I re-
encountered Gawain a decade later as a student, I had forgotten the drift of the story, so my enjoyment was undimmed, even though we had to translate all 2,500 lines of it from a med
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