There’s a Poem in There: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Fitt I (Middle English)

As with any universally influential text that is through time made readable (translated, republished, etc.) for many walks of life, countries, and languages, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight has a flourishing and entirely different sound/feel in its original form that gets quite literally lost in translation. Reading first through the modern English translation of the poem, I got the sense that the lexicon/diction of the poem was just awkward – especially if read aloud. Of course, my experience (and I’m sure everyone else’s, too) reading with much more care through the Middle English version was quite different. I was actually pleasantly surprised at how much better Fitt I sounded. Anyone who has studied poetry or anyone who even just appreciates poetry knows that the entire art form itself lies in the very sound of the words, the syllables, the meter of the lines, the way it all looks and feels together. I really appreciate the way our Broadview editors lay out the two very distinct versions side-by-side; this helps us both come to familiarize ourselves with the approximate meaning of Middle English vocabulary AND get an authentic, first-hand experience with the actual rhythm of the poem itself. Even if we aren’t entirely sure of the profound implications associated with some of the Middle English words, it is fairly easy to a) use contextual clues or compare the Middle English text to the original text to pick up on the gist of the word or line and b) hear the words in our heads, knowing that the characters used in the Broadview are entirely familiar to us (aside from taking on slightly different/accented sounds). A line that clearly illustrates this significant shift in sounds is at the very beginning of Fitt I:

[Middle English]

The borgh brittened and brent to brondez and askez,

The tulk that the trammes of tresoun ther wroght…

[Modern English]

The city laid waste and burnt into ashes,

The man who had plotted the treacherous scheme… (ll. 2-3)

The words used in the original text’s example, though without meaning for us today, allow for the poem’s vibrant, traditional alliterative style. Since this was a tried-and-true value of poetry in the Middle Ages, I think it is important to experience these words the way they were meant to be rehearsed. Their arrangement, syllables, and timing lend a singsong, boisterous tone to the poem that just isn’t there in the Modern English translation. On the whole, I have really appreciated hearing what would have probably been a rousing poetic performance back in the day. Just for the sound of it (if nothing else), Fitt I in Middle English was a fun read.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *