SIR GAWAIN & THE GREEN KNIGHT A NEW VERSE TRANSLATION by W.S. Merwin, a parallel text
edition, 174pp, £8.95, Bloodaxe Books Ltd., Highgreen, Tarset, Northumberland
NE 48 1RP.
The claim on the back cover of this book is that the ‘original poem and W.S.
Merwin’s modern version are comparable in stature and imaginative power to
another medieval (sic) epic, Beowulf, in Seamus Heaney’s rendering.’
Well, of course Beowulf is not a medieval poem. It is an Anglo-Saxon epic written,
not, as Sir Gawain is, in Middle-English but in Old English, Beowulf pre-dates Gawain by several centuries.
The two texts are hardly comparable and the respective translations are here
merely being brought together as a (dodgy) bit of sales-pitch. That said, if I
were challenged I’d say that Heaney’s Beowulf had a grittier hold on its
original than Merwin on his. Heaney’s is a translation in the strict sense and
the Anglo-Saxon poem does from time to time need rediscovering for us as
existing translations start to show their age..
Asked to review this book, I did not know, until it arrived in the post, that
it was a parallel-text edition. Remembering the delight I experienced in first
reading the poem as part of my university courses nearly fifty years ago, my
first thought had been why should such a poem need translating. It is not in an
entirely different language. A bit of effort and some adjustment on the part of
the reader can reward with so much pleasure that any translation must not only
feel like a discouragement of the effort that’s required and really worth
making but also an inevitable diminishing of the original. So the comparisons
to be made are not between Gawain and Beowulf or Heaney and Merwin
but between the original and its rendering into modern English.
Again, the back cover declares that ‘Capturing the pace, impact and richly
alliterative language of the original Middle English text…Merwin brings a new
immediacy to a spellbinding, timeless narrative written centuries ago by a
master poet whose identity has been lost to time’. The first half of this
sentence is insufficiently modest; the second half no-one ought to quarrel
The fact however that the texts are in parallel (on facing pages) allayed some
of my misgivings. This arrangement enables readers to make there own
comparisons and if the translation (though this isn’t entirely the right word)
directs them back into the original then it will have served a laudable
purpose. But it is not quite right to suggest that the ‘pace, impact and richly
alliterative language’ of the original has been captured with a ‘new
immediacy’. And it would be wrong to see Merwin’s version as a substitute for
the original. It is probably as decent a working into modern English as we are
likely to find but it can only be a shadow of the poem written six hundred
years ago. Middle English (or in the present case a North-West-England dialect
of it) has a wonderful muscularity, which, when expressed in alliterative
verse, has not just pace but propulsion and pulse which modern syntax
Compare this passage with Merwin’s version. (Unfortunately, as I have no access
to the Junius font, the Middle English which has its own symbols for ‘th’ and
‘gh’, I will have to use clumsy-looking brackets where technology lets me down).
gripped to his ax, and gederes it on hy(gh)t,
kay fot on (th)e folde he before sette,
it doun ly(gh)ly ly(gh)t on (th)e naked,
scharp of (th)e schalk schyndered (th)e bones,
schrank (th)ur(gh) (th)e schyre grece, and schade it in twynne,
(th)e broun stel bot on (th)e grounde.
This is the translation:
gripped his ax and heaved it up on high..
set his foot on the ground in front of him
brought the blade down suddenly onto the bare skin
that the sharp edge sundered the man’s bones
sank into the white flesh and sliced it in two
the bright steel of the bit sank into the ground.
‘ly(gh)tly ly(gh)t’ enacts the movement physically, while ‘suddenly’
doesn’t. The same with ‘schyndered’ and ‘sundered’, ‘schyre grece’ has more fat
to it than ‘flesh’. The test is to read the two passages aloud.
This is not to undervalue Merwin’s version. He is clearly doing the best he can
and clearly out of love of the medieval poem. But it is impossible to produce
something equivalent: what we have here is an honest and well-made
What of the original? New readers will find the form of the poem novel. It is
written in four parts or ‘fyttes’, each consisting of stanzas (or verse
paragraphs) of varying length made up of alliterating lines rounded of by a
rhyming quatrain. The way a line works is this: each one balances four heavy
stresses and any number of unstressed syllables around a pause in the middle:
a moúnte on (th)e mórne / méryly he rides
(the last word should be pronounced ‘reedez’ and the final ‘e’ on ‘morne’
should be given). Merwin’s translation is ‘In the morning, with a high heart he
rides by a mountain’ which is simply statement. The original suggests the
movement of the horse, almost to the jingling of the harness. I am tempted to
quote Robert Frost’s description of poetry as that which gets left out in
translation…which is, of course, not to say that all translations fit that
description: there are some which are clearly poems in their own right. Merwin
has exhilarating passages for sure and his whole enterprise is very readable
but, as I’ve suggested above, the result, with a poem of such vitality as Gawain, perhaps tells us more
about our modern sensibilities than those of the fourteenth century.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is an Arthurian Romance, a quest poem (its
narrative in a sense comes full circle) about chivalry, loyalty, courtly
love. It has intense narrative and dramatic drive. Arthur’s youthful court at
Camelot, Gawain’s journey through North Wales and the Wirral, the scenes of
sexual temptation and those describing hunting are all delivered to us in
extraordinary visual and concrete detail. Like fairy stories, the poem uses
number symbolism (threes and fives, a year-and-a-day) to pattern its structure
with. It is, to put it bluntly, a national treasure, one of the great poems.
Whether many students come across it in these days when poetry in Higher
Education seems to be more and more sidelined I frankly doubt. If this book
makes it possible for the poem to gain more readers then it will have
performed an important service. A dynamically alive piece of writing like this
does not belong in a museum. Despite the fact that Merwin has supplied a very
interesting and enthusiastic Foreword, it would, I am sure, have been of
some real assistance to have supplied some notes, either as footnotes or in a
separate section, to explain one or two of the poem’s references…for example
the historical perspective created at the beginning, which wonderfully traces
the history of Britain back to the Siege of Troy.
Matt Simpson 2003