Translation of 'Green Knight' opens a window to the past
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: A New Verse Translation. By W.S. Merwin,
Alfred A. Knopf: 176 pages, $22.
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By Merle Rubin, Special to The Times
The gallant knights and lovely ladies of King Arthur's court are enjoying a
Christmas celebration when an enormous ax-bearing green stranger rides into
the hall and issues a preposterous challenge: Any man who is bold enough
may take a swing at his head with the ax and he will offer no resistance.
In return, that man must come to the Green Knight's place a year hence and
allow the big fellow a swing at his head. When no one in the stunned
assembly makes any response, King Arthur agrees to take up the challenge.
At this point, the king's nephew and bravest knight, Sir Gawain, steps in
to relieve his sovereign of the onus. The green giant obliging bares his
neck and Sir Gawain takes a mighty swing.
Here's what happens next, as relayed to us in modern English by the latest
translator of this medieval verse romance, the distinguished American poet
The handsome head fell from the neck to the earth
And rolled out among their feet so that they kicked it.
The blood gushed from the body, glittering over the green,
And the knight never staggered or fell, for all that,
But he stepped forth as strong as ever, on unshaken legs,
And reached in roughly among the knights
To snatch up his lovely head and at once lift it high.
And then he turns to his horse and takes hold of the bridle,
Steps into the stirrup and swings himself up,
Holding his head in his hand by the hair,
And settles into the saddle as firmly as ever
With no trouble at all, though he sits there headless.