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Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

by J.R.R. Tolkien translator

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Long before the Green Lantern lived the Green Knight. This Old English poem, written in the dialect of the Northwest Midlands, would be a muddle for most students apart from translation. Fortunately, J.R.R. Tolkien’s son Christopher published his father’s translation of this poem, along with his translations of Pearl and Sir Orfeo, shortly after his father’s death in 1973.

In modern English, the story is relatively easy to follow. It opens on Christmas Eve in King Arthur’s banquet hall, where the king and his knights are celebrating somewhat recklessly. Suddenly a huge green man, clad in green armor, strides into the hall and issues a challenge: Would any knight dare to strike him with a battle axe, knowing that by so doing he was bound to receive a blow at the hands of the Green Knight about a year later?

The company is pleased to find that their youngest knight, Sir Gawain, accepts the challenge. According to the rules, the Green Knight kneels down and offers his neck to Sir Gawain, who swings the battle axe and (not surprisingly) lops off the green head. Then things get really ghastly.

The Green Knight cheerfully scoops up his head and “held it up straight,/towards the fairest at the table he twisted the face,/and it lifted up its eyelids and looked at them broadly,/and made such words with its mouth as may be recounted.” His words centered around an obvious theme: he would do the same to Sir Gawain in about a year’s time. Then the headless man jumped on his steed and rode through the gate.

So far, the poem sounds like a straightforward adventure story. But the terrible Green Knight is really only a plot device setting up the heart of the tale: the temptations of Sir Gawain. Without revealing the end of the story, you can expect that the brave knight resists most of the temptations—but the author resists the temptation to make his hero a mere Superman.

by Jeff Baldwin