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James Naughtie and readers meet the 1982 Booker Prize winner Thomas Keneally. The chosen book is Schindler's Ark, based on the real life story of Oskar Schindler, a young German businessman who risked his own life to save more than a thousand Polish Jews from the gas chamber. The novel, which remains one of the best evocations of the Holocaust, was made into an Oscar-winning film by Steven Spielberg.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
translated by Simon Armitage
Poet Armitage describes this Middle English epic of Arthurian Sir Gawain and the mysterious Green Knight as ‘one of the jewels in the crown of English literature’. His version is told in gritty modern prose, concentrating on the alliteration and Northern voice of the original poet.
Once broadcast, you can listen to the programme again by finding Simon Armitage on the right hand side of the page at http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/arts/bookclub/ .
By the way, does anyone know what this new rendition is like?
You can hear a few bits on Armitage's website
This from the Bookclub newsletter - I hope it's not too long....
Somewhere at home I have a battered green paperback copy of
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a relic of student days. It’s
covered in pencil scribblings (there are quite a few question marks
among them) and I fear that the cover carries the signs of ill-
treatment: student abuse, I suppose someone might call it now.
The fact is that the book was often thrust aside, perhaps even
thrown, into a corner when a piece of translation proved too
troublesome or if the Middle English alliteration became just too
much. But of course I’ve mellowed over the years. Haven’t we
all. Gawain is a tremendous poem, and this month we’re talking
to Simon Armitage about his translation, the creation of a
contemporary poem (two and a half thousand lines long).
(Bookclub, this Sunday April 6 and next Thursday the 10th, both
at 4pm on Radio 4, and online too.)
Like Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf, which became a bestseller a few
years ago, Simon’s version catches the lift and the spirit of the
original, keeping the verve of a poem that sprang from the oral
tradition, although it was also consciously ‘literary’ in its
construction and stands out as the best piece of poetry, leaving
Chaucer aside in a category of his own, that we have from that
time : it was probably written near the beginning of the fourteenth
century. Not surprisingly, we don’t know precisely who wrote it,
though he was almost certainly a clerk. Unlike the Anglo-Saxon
Old English of Beowulf from an earlier age, the Middle English of
Gawain is not too impenetrable. Simon describes it as language
with frost on top of it that can disappear at the touch of warm
breath. A nice image.
The story is Arthurian, starting at the king’s table in the course of
the long Christmas celebrations, which seemed to go on for
weeks. The writer, however, has a point of view which is not
metropolitan – a pointless word in the context, but you know
what I mean – and the poem takes us on a journey to northern
parts. Sir Gawain accepts the challenge of the ghostly green figure
who appears in the banqueting hall, and gets one swing at him
with an axe in return for the promise that a year later he’ll turn up
at the Green Knight’s castle to get his come-uppance - the return
blow, and presumably certain death. Needless to say – because it
wouldn’t be much of a ghost story without this, and it is one of
the best – Gawain’s effort to cut off the Green Knight’s head is
magnificent but useless. So in a year’s time, he’ll die.
The journey northwards – it’s thought that the climax is set in the
Wirral – involves Sir Gawain in an erotic adventure among other
things which is, of course, a kind of test for him. At the recording
Simon pointed out that the bedroom scene is a little masterpiece
of sexual comedy, of the sort that could easily be written today.
Gawain’s discovery of the whereabouts of his nemesis involves
chance and what we might call fate and, of course, he manages to
survive. A sadder and a wiser man, as the saying goes.
In writing his version, which took three years and which he never
wanted to stop fiddling with, Simon wanted above all to keep the
alliteration of the original, which gives it so much of its flavour.
He also wanted to avoid an antique flavour, so he was happy to
import modern phrases here and there, which pop up in a way that
doesn’t seem at all odd. Even descriptions like ‘pear-shaped’
don’t jar as much as you might suppose. I think the use of
‘bumfluff’ to describe the fecklessness of the callow, younger
knights at the round table is perfect. In one of his few
interjections as a narrator – Simon tried to keep them because
their infrequency gives them a particular power – the poet says ‘I
kid you not’. That is exactly the flavour of the original.
Armitage poems have often been urban. He’s a Yorkshire poet
(still living in Holmfirth) who was inspired by Ted Hughes, and
has tended away from the pastoral lyricism of some others. That
means that Gawain is a good subject : its language is gritty and
dense, its pace quick and its story a tumbling affair that is made
for telling, with pauses for laughter, round a great log fire. If you
heard Ian McKellen’s reading on Radio 4 the Christmas before
last you will know what I mean.
In this translation, Simon is interested in the sound. He has a
northern voice, obviously, and feels some kinship with the poet,
whoever he was. The difficulty comes with alliteration. How far
to you go in creating the effect, without muddying the meaning?
It is, he told us, a compromise. As with the original, he’ll take a
letter and pile it on for a line or two…because although it might
introduce some artificiality, it’s precisely the effect that the
original poet wanted to produce. Here are a couple of lines from
the end of the poem when Gawain is heading for his
confrontation with the Green Knight, using two lots of ‘w’ and
‘b’ sounds in two lines.
In that wilderness lives a wild man, the worst in world,
He’s brooding and brutal and loves bludgeoning humans..
Read it aloud. That’s the trick. Simon read some passages for us,
and demonstrated how the carefully-assembled alliteration creates
the sound-world that brings the poem to life. And surely none of
us thinks it odd. Just remember Dylan Thomas in Under Milk
Wood. It’s not a cool description ‘recollected in tranquillity’ or
anything else, but a rattling story that needs to bring effects to
bear at the moments of drama.
As for the significance of the story, we talked about the influence
of Nature (the Green Knight having some obvious roots in the
tradition that associates such figures with fertility, spring, new
life, longevity) but Simon is anxious to avoid any simplistic
interpretation that pits the southern knight against the northern
force of nature in some strange social struggle for supremacy.
Northerners, in my experience, are quicker to spot that kind of
crudity than others. However, it’s fairly clear that Gawain learns
something in the course of his year-long wait and the journey to
his duel, and perhaps it is simply that there is more to existence
than the grandeur of the round table and the comfort of the high
After reading the poem just before Christmas, I bought a few
copies as presents and I’m glad to report that they prospered well.
There was a time, many moons ago, when I would have been
astonished to hear that a programme like ours would be reading
Gawain with such pleasure. It’s no longer a surprise. This is living
poetry. Whereas in the United States, for example, many poets
seem to be writing for some remote academic audience – for
fellow-critics in some cases – and have forgotten the concept of
public poetry, Gawain makes the case once more. It’s poetry for
reading aloud; and poetry to enjoy. What could be better?
I should let you know what’s coming up. There are still some
places for our recording with Jan Morris, which is one I’m
particularly looking forward to. Among the many books on
Venice, her hymn to the city – written not far off 50 years ago
now – is still, to my mind, the most majestic. We’ll be
broadcasting the conversation in the summer; the recording is on
April 29th. The book is a sheer delight. Anyone who does not
want to read the first two pages again and again has, I’m afraid,
lost the power to marvel at good writing : as an introduction to a
fabled city, it’s the best I know.
Always remember the website – www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/bookclub
where you’ll find all kinds of interesting things, and past
programmes that you can hear.
What's the november book for R4 bookclub?