Title: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Translator: Simon Armitage
Publisher: BBC Audiobooks America
Listened to: April 2013
Star Rating: ****
Now, I’m not normally a person who enjoys audiobooks. I am very picky about them—if I don’t like the voice reading the book or how it reads the book, I will probably end up not liking the book. I suspect this has something to do with early trauma watching Milo and Otis with that one guy doing voices for ALL the animals, including a terrible approximation of a female voice. (There was also a bad experience involving the audiobook of Snow Falling On Cedars, with some offensive stereotypical “Asian” accents for the Japanese-American characters, but we shall speak no more on that matter…)
Additionally, I find it very hard to focus on the story and follow it if I’m listening to the audiobook for something I have not already read the normal way. My mind has a tendency to wander, because I’m usually trying to do something else at the same time, whether it’s cleaning up the house or chugging away on the elliptical at the gym. AHHHHHH MULTITASKING!
Of course, there are always some exceptions. For example, I adore Jim Dale’s readings of the Harry Potter books! They got me through many a cross-country drive to and from college in the summers between academic years. I also love Stephen Fry’s readings of the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide books. (Of course, I had already read and loved those series in analog format before seeking them out in digital form.) I also tend to enjoy works when they are read by the person who wrote them.
But I see this is swiftly turning into a discourse on my feelings regarding audiobooks, and that was not my intention. I only want to highlight how great it is that I found a) an audiobook I enjoyed, and b) a whole new venue of future audiobooks I may love! I shall explain.
I recently read a friend’s review of this particular audiobook, wherein she stated that the reason she thinks Sir Gawain and the Green Knight makes such a great audiobook is because it’s epic poetry, meant to be listened to rather than read quietly to yourself in your own head. It has a cadence and a rhythm that is more affecting when it’s echoing in your eardrums, and that aural quality is lost when you just look at words on a page. I thought this was quite brilliant, and immediately sought out a copy. My earlier experiences with epic poetry were at best uninspiring, and at worst, snooze-inducing. (Song of Roland, I’m looking at you!) But the idea of listening--these things were the product of the oral tradition after all, existing for a long time in audio format before being committed to the page, or tablet, or scroll, or whatever—was very intriguing to me. Of course, to experience epic poems the way it was originally intended would involve listening to languages I probably don’t understand, but a good translator would be able to preserve some of the beauty of the original verse in his or her translation. (I see that I am swerving from discourse-on-audiobooks territory to discourse-on-translation territory.)
And Simon Armitage’s translation is great. Granted, I don’t know Middle English, but the care with which the poem was translated is apparent. In fact, my favorite part of the audiobook was probably the foreword where Armitage discusses the choices that confronted him in translating Middle English to modern English, and explains why he did what he did, along with some of the finer points of the poem that I probably wouldn’t have appreciated properly had I not had someone explain to me what was going on. For example: In the Romance languages (French, Italian, etc.), the poetic device par excellence is rhyme. However, in Germanic languages, rhyme has no part in poetry—instead, it’s alliteration! So Gawain is a highly alliterative poem, and Armitage deftly reflects that in his translation.
That being said, the original (and unknown) author of the poem also wove in some rhyming in a pattern called “bob and wheel” to divide up the alliterative stanzas. I found the bob and wheel parts (you’ll know them when you’re listening—they’re quite striking) to be really beautiful and powerful. Now, maybe you can tell—I love this stuff. I could talk about it for hours. I wrote my thesis on translation and translating choices, especially as they relate to poetry, for gosh sake! But this is supposed to be a review of an audiobook, so I will try to curtail my nerding and get on with it. (Wanna geek out with me? Read here for more about the poem.)
Right, so. What was I talking about? Ah yes, summary of the story. Easy to follow, luckily for me. (Apparently this is a well-known story from the canon of King Arthuriana. Me, not being familiar with that, wouldn’t know one way or the other.) It’s Christmas at Camelot and everyone is having a grand old time, when in rides a green knight. Not just a dude in green clothes and armor—no, his skin is green, his hair is green, his horse is green. He says he has come for a game: someone strikes him a blow with his nice, shiny axe, on the condition that he gets to deal them the same blow in year. Sir Gawain ends up being the one to do it. So he strikes the blow and the green knight’s head is lopped off, but instead of keeling over dead, the green knight walks over, picks his head up, and says he’ll see Gawain in a year before riding off.
So the year passes and Gawain rides out in search of the Green Chapel to confront the knight and take his blow (and, assumedly, die in the process, since he is not magical as the green knight apparently is). Gawain comes upon a castle, where he is invited in to rest. So Gawain is feasted by the lord and his beautiful lady and an unnamed old woman and their court. The lord suggests a sort of game to Gawain—whatever the lord gains in his hunt the next day, he will give to Gawain, so long as Gawain gives whatever he gains during the day back to the lord. (Why does Gawain keep going along with these tricksy wagers???) The lord goes out hunting (some gruesome butchery scenes ensue), and the lady of the castle attempts to seduce Gawain. Gawain wants to maintain his honor, but doesn’t want to offend the lady, and so manages to give up only one kiss. The lord returns and gives the kill to Gawain, and Gawain gives a kiss to the lord. Next day, more hunting, more attempts at seduction—Gawain deters the lady with two kisses, which are then passed on to the lord when he presents Gawain with the day’s kill. Third day—the lady wants to give Gawain a ring, but he refuses. She instead offers him a green girdle that she says will keep him safe from all harm, and Gawain, fearful of losing his life the next day in his encounter with the Green Knight, accepts it, along with three kisses. An exchange like the prior two occurs, but Gawain does not tell the lord about his acquisition of the girdle.
The next day Gawain heads out to the Green Chapel while wearing the magical girdle. Want to be surprised when you read/listen to the poem yourself? Don’t hover over the word “spoilers.” If you don’t mind being spoiled, hover away: Spoilers!
Now, I’m sure I got parts of that wrong, having only listened to the thing once. In fact, in perusing the poem’s Wiki entry to help refresh my memory for writing this post, I see that the lord apparently had a name that I never picked up on (Bertilak), and that there were other adventures and battles alluded to before Gawain arrives at the castle. Those went completely over my head, because I distinctly remember thinking how strange it was that Gawain left Camelot and rode for a bit and then came upon this castle with nothing else exciting happening. So I think I would definitely pick up a lot more from a re-listen or –read, but the bare bones of the story are definitely comprehensible at first listen.
As I was listening, I thought to myself, wow, it sure would be cool to listen to this in the original Middle English, even if I won’t know what they’re saying! And sure enough, when I reached part 3 of the audiobook (wondering to myself where else the story was going to go for the next 3 hours of audiobook), the poem abruptly ended and seguewayed to a reading of it in Middle English!
Okay, this has gotten absurdly long. So, the long and short of it is: This is good. You should listen to it. I really enjoyed it, give it 4 stars, and will probably go listen to it again—this means a lot, coming from someone who has a history of disliking audiobooks and epic poetry.
Having this new venue of worthwhile audiobookery open to me, I will probably begin seeking out other epic poems and oral-tradition-type works of literature to listen to rather than read. It has also been brought to my attention that non-fiction also makes for good audiobooking. What sorts of books do you like to listen to? Is there any epic poetry you can recommend? Were you also scarred by Milo and Otis as a child? Let us know in the comments!