It is entirely appropriate that this new translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a long 14th-century poem from the English Midlands by an anonymous author, should be published in the depths of winter. For on 1 January, Sir Gawain - a nephew to King Arthur of Camelot, who has made an arduous journey through the badlands of the Wirral - has to face a terrible green apparition tricked out to look like a knight.
Exactly one year before, at Camelot itself, amid the careless revelry of Christmas, Gawain had chopped off the green knight's head. That blow had come with a price: that the knight should be allowed to do the same one year hence - assuming, of course, that Sir Gawain possessed the courage first to seek out his foe at the Green Chapel, and then to lay his lovely neck on the line.
In both original and translation, the story is a compelling and dramatic one, made all the more vigorous by the manner of its telling. The Gawain poet uses a four-stress line, and plentiful alliteration. The lines clang along like a hammer beating on an anvil. Armitage replicates all this, because the sound of the poem is absolutely fundamental to its success. But he also inserts many newnesses into the poem, locutions that remind you that he, too, is from the north of England - further north than the Gawain poet.
His use of striking verbs is especially good; when the knight "cops" hold of his severed head, we are struck by the word's clotted assurance, the brazenness and insouciance. On the other hand, the newnesses sometimes strike one as slightly jarring - does "bum-fluffed bairns" resonate as a way to describe members of King Arthur's court?
Set-pieces of descriptive writing stand out: nature in its changing seasons; the elaborate attention the poet gives to apparel. There are some excellent hunting scenes towards the end, which Armitage rises to with great verve and agility. But there are also many moments of slackness, when the translation seems to have gone off the boil; when it feels dutiful, even throwaway. This is a good and an enjoyable piece of work, but not in the same league as, for example, Seamus Heaney's version of Beowulf. It seldom becomes truly significant poetry in its own right. For that moment you have to wait until almost the end - page 93, to be exact.Reuse content