Book Review: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight translated by JRR Tolkien (with potential Spoilers)

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a timeless story for me. Yes, it was written in the 14th century and for us to enjoy it easily, it has to be translated. But once that obstacle is out of the way a tale of mystery, chivalry, loyalty and not least good humour begins.

It’s Christmas at the Court of Camelot and King Arthur has proclaimed he will not eat unless something marvellous happens. And sure enough, in bursts a huge green man on a green horse. He wants to play a game: One of the Knights of the Round Table should strike him with his large axe and he in turn can strike the knight in a year’s time. Gawain volunteers and hews off the giant’s head. The green man picks up his head and reminding Gawain of their tryst, rides off.

Gawain thinks that this marks his end, but he is an honest knight and rides out to find the Green Chapel the next year. He comes across a castle when it is nearly time for him to meet the Green Knight and the lord of the castle assures him that it’s not far and invites him to stay with him over Christmas. But little does Gawain know that his will, honour and loyalty is being tested already…

It’s such a lovely little tale. When you have studied a few old-fashioned terms and know a little about medieval culture, this will be a book you can read just like any other. And I love reading it again and again. I remember the first time I read it was for University and I was actually surprised at the plot twist at the end. I’m so horribly gullible! I’m sure everyone else saw that coming. Worst is: I’m a writer myself and have studied literature. I should see those things coming. But I never do…

Tolkien’s translation is just perfect in my eyes. I go into a little more detail in my post On Medieval Literature, but Sir Gawain and the Green Knight employs a mix of alliterative verse and (for us) more traditional rhymes. This is extremely difficult to translate, but the finished book in Modern English is just as beautiful as the original. I do tend to read the translation, as I can just treat it like any other book, whereas it takes me a little more effort to read Middle English. But it is worth the effort once in a while. I find our old language incredibly fascinating.

The characters in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight really move me. Most of them all Gawain. He has always been my favourite Knight of the Round Table and here in his own story he is so adorable. Always trying to do right, always trying to do good and so ashamed when he strays from the path just this once. I love his honesty and loyalty.

But in my opinion his journey also has something comical. We might just read those old lines and think it’s a plain old story. But in my opinion there is more behind it. It’s supposed to be funny. When I read a line for what it is and think about what it is actually saying, I sometimes can’t help but laugh at the image conjured up. And I believe that is intentional. People have always liked a good laugh. And we still find it in those tales of yore, we only need to bring it alive from the paper.

For me Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a definite highlight in the Arthurian legends. I love reading about all the different Knights of the Round Table, but Gawain keeps fascinating me. Honest, upright and always staying true to himself. Even if he wouldn’t agree – I admire his courage and will to do good. These are values that still count today and I love the fact that there are things that simply permeate time and place.


About Trampoline Nerd

I’m someone who feels at home in the night sky, on the road and inside imagination.
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