Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

ISBN: 0393097544
ISBN 13: 9780393097542
By: Unknown Marie Borroff

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About this book

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a late 14th century Middle English alliterative chivalric romance outlining an adventure of Sir Gawain, a knight of King Arthur's Round Table. In this Arthurian tale, Sir Gawain accepts a challenge from a mysterious warrior who is completely green, from his clothes and hair to his beard and skin. The "Green Knight" offers to allow anyone to strike him with his axe if the challenger will take a return blow in a year and a day. Gawain accepts, and beheads him in one blow, only to have the Green Knight stand up, pick up his head, and remind Gawain to meet him at the appointed time. The story of Gawain's struggle to meet the appointment and his adventures along the way demonstrate chivalry and loyalty.

Reader's Thoughts

Rebecca Payton

"Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" by Pearl Poet, was about the Green Knight coming to a New Year's celebration in Camelot. King Arthur and his knights were sitting around the round table, feasting in celebration when all of a sudden, the Green Knight shows up out of nowhere. Everybody around the table just stared in awe, wondering what to do. The Green Knight showed up wanting to play a game, but not just any old game. This game was called the beheading game, and was a very simple game to play. The beheading game was a deal made between Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Sir Gawain has the chance to decapitate and kill the Green Knight with his sword, but if the Green Knight doesn't die, a year and day later the Green Knight will have his chance at beheading and killing Sir Gawain. Sir Gawain, not realizing all of the red flags going up all over the place, had agreed to the game. He took one swipe of his sword and cut the knight's head off, leaving it to roll on the ground. The Green Knight didn't die, and picked his head back up. A deal is a deal, and so a year and day later Sir Gawain had to go to the Green Chapel where the Green Knight lived to fulfill the beheading game. Along the way, unknowingly Sir Gawain was faced with different challenges before he was able to finish the game. These challenges were a test of his chivalry, but unfortunatley he had failed them. The Green Knight taught Sir Gawain a valuable lesson at the end of the story."Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" was taken place at Camelot, King Arthur's castle,and also the Green Chapel where the Green Knight lived. It took place during the winter around Christmas time.Sir Gawain was from Camelot, and the Green Knight lived in the Green Chapel. Some valuable themes from the story dealt a lot with chivalry; those being loyal, honest, and brave. All of these themes were being tested on Sir Gawain by the Green Knight. Toward the end of the story, the Green Knight shapeshifted into the lord of the castle, and Sir Gawain was put through three different tests unknowingly. These tests that were taken place was when I thought the themes of the poem really came through. Two of the themes occured at the beginning of the poem, when Sir Gawain had volunteered to be a part of the game instead of having King Arthur risking his life. He showed he was loyal and brave to his King. I thought this was a very creative story, and I wasn't expecting the ending to be the way it was. I thought somebody was going to die at the end, but clearly I was wrong. I enjoyed reading the poem and would recommend this to all students taking english classes, because no matter what they're going to have to read this anyways.


One of the best of the 'classic' Arthurian tales. Gawain is presented a bit differently here from many of the other ones. Usually he's a bit of a braggart and kind of a jerk, especially to women, but here he is presented as the perfect exemplar of courtoisie. He's also a bit young and still untried, so maybe that explains it for those who want to be able to have a grand unified theory of Arthuriana. Anyway, you probably all know the story: Arthur is about to have a New Year's feast, but according to tradition is waiting for some marvel to occur. Right on cue in trots the Green Knight on his horse, a giant of a man who proceeds to trash the reputation of the entire court and dare someone to cut off his head as long as he gets to return the favour. No one makes a move and Arthur decides he better do something about this until Gawain steps up and asks to take on this quest himself. Everyone agrees and Gawain proceeds to smite the green head from the Knight's body. Everyone is fairly pleased with the result until the Green Knight gets up, picks up his smiling head, and says: "See you next year, G. Don't forget that it's my turn then." (I paraphrase, the middle english of the poet is far superior.) Needless to say everyone is a bit nonplussed by this.The year passes and Gawain doesn't seem to do much of anything until he finally decides it's time to get out and find this green fellow and fulfill his obligation...hopefully something will come up along the way to improve his prospects. What follows is a journey to the borders of the Otherworld as well as a detailed primer on just how one ought to act in order to follow the dictates of courtliness. Gawain ends up being the guest of Sir Bertilak, a generous knight who says that the Green Chapel, the destination of Gawain's quest, is close by and Gawain should stay with them for the duration of the holidays. We are treated to some coy (and mostly chaste) loveplay on the part of Bertilak's wife from which Gawain mostly manages to extricate himself without contravening the dictates of politeness, as well as the details of a medieval deer, boar and fox hunt with nary a point missing. In the end Gawain goes to the chapel and finds that his erstwhile host Bertilak was in fact the Green Knight. Gawain submits himself and is left, after three swings, with only a scratch as a reward for his courteous behaviour in Bertilak's castle. Despite the apparent success of Gawain, he views the adventure as a failure since he did not come off completely unscathed and he wears a girdle he was gifted by Bertilak's wife as a mark of shame to remind himself of this. Harsh much?The language of the Gawain poet's middle english is beautiful and I highly recommend reading it in the original with a good translation at hand to catch the nuances of meaning. The poem is replete with an almost dreamlike quality that is made real by all of the exquisite details of medieval life that are interspersed throughout the text. This is a great book to read at Christmas time.

Tanja (Tanychy) St. Delphi

I didn't know where to post this so I think this is a good place! It remains me of my Literature professor, in a good way of course! :)

Kelsey Trinkner

"Sir Gawain and the Green Knight," translated by Marie Borroff, is a Medieval Romance that focuses on the Code of Chivalry. While celebrating and feasting in Camelot, a Green Knight appears wanting to play the Beheading Game. The terms are any man who steps up is allowed a swing at the Green Knight, with his axe, to behead him. If they manage to kill the Green Knight, they may keep the axe. However, if they do not kill the Green Knight, they must meet him in a year and a day. On this day, the Green Knight is allowed one swing at the man that steps up. King Arthur is forced into accepting the invitation by the Green Knight. Sir Gawain offers to take his place instead. I enjoyed this story for the most part. I was somewhat confused in the beginning, but eventually understood.Sir Gawain is one of two things. Either he is extremely loyal to King Arthur and is willing to sacrifice his life, or he is greedy and hoping to keep the Green Knight's axe for himself. I personally felt as though he was loyal to King Arthur. I think this because he actually keeps his promise to the Green Knight, even though he knows it means his death. This story takes place in the 14th century. It is set in England at King Arthur's Castle with the Knights of the Round Table. Later on, Sir Gawain travels to north Wales to the Green Knight’s church.A major theme of this story is the theme of loyalty. We see how loyal Sir Gawain is to King Arthur. We also see how loyal he is, and is not, to his word. He meets the Green Knight, as he promised. For the first two days of his agreement to the Lord of the Castle. He then is disloyal to his word on the third day by keeping the green girdle.I probably would not recommend this book to anyone. I did enjoy this book but I do not know of anyone that would read this story on his or her own.


As poetry, Armitage's version of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is very good. As a translation, however, it leaves much to be desired, often sacrificing accuracy for the sake of, I guess, liveliness. This redaction of the great Middle English poem was widely praised on its publication, frequently along these lines: "Armitage's animated translation is to be welcomed for helping to liberate Gawain from academia." The problem with "liberating" a work from "academia," however, is that one can go too far and can change meanings, get essential things wrong, and even miss the point completely.A key theme of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight lies in the concept of "aventure," yet Armitage's translation often veres away from the term, so that, for example, "ere him devised wese / of sum aventurous thing" is rendered "until a story was told: some far-fetched yarn" (ll. 92-93). Similarly, Armitage neglects the importance of "mervayls" (marvels) to the text, so instead of "A mervayl among tho menne," we get "magic to those men" (l. 466). Why change a key word this way, when the change wasn't even necessary for the sake of alliteration or meter? My other major complaint is that Armitage constantly uses words like "fiend" (his translation of "the sturne"--basically "the stern man"; l. 214) and "ogre" (his translation of "aluisch mon"--"elvish man"; l. 681) to describe the Green Knight. These are definite choices on Armitage's part and they completely change the reader's perception of this character, making him out to be some kind of fourteenth-century Grendel. Perhaps that was Armitage's interpretation of the Green Knight, but it is not one, to my mind, that is grounded in the original text.Still, if Armitage's translation has indeed brought Sir Gawain and the Green Knight to a wider audience (as most reviews seem to claim), that's a good thing. With luck, at least some readers will go on to read Tolkien's or Boroff's translation and come away with a more rounded understanding of the Green Knight and of Gawain's encounter with "aventure."


Perhaps my favorite Arthurian classic so far. Loved the alliterative verse and the beautiful descriptions of seasons - the conflicting ideas centered on chivalry, courtship, religion, etc. all made the reading much more intellectually stimulating. Not to mention that the ending throws in a wedge that forces one to evaluate the overall theme of the poem, or whether a unifying theme exists at all. Highly recommended for those interested in British literature and for those who want to give it a try; it's much more bearable than Beowulf, and the seduction scene is one of my favorites.

Mark Adderley

This is probably the greatest medieval romance ever written. Maybe that's extravagant praise--there's also Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, Dante's Divine Comedy, and a few others, but I do think that if it hadn't been for Chaucer, the anonymous Gawain-poet would have been considered the greatest medieval English poet.The story is about a beheading test--the Green Knight challenges Gawain to exchange beheadings. Gawain will behead the Green Knight now, and then undergo the same thing a year hence. Sounds easy, but the Green Knight is magical, and doesn't die--he just picks up his head and rides away.The plot is intricately constructed, interweaving the beheading challenge with bedroom seduction scenes, hunting, questing, religious piety, chivalry and honour. The poet keeps you on your toes--he leads you to expect one thing, then surprises you with something else. You don't know what's going on until you've reached the last line.This text is the standard one in Middle English, and although it's tough-going, it's worth it. For a handy translation, I'd recommend either J. R. R. Tolkien's or Marie Borroff's.

Erik Simon

In no way was I prepared to enjoy this as much as I did. Auden once said something to the effect that the difference between poetry and prose is that prose can be translated. Whether or not this new translation is "good" I'm hardly smart enough to declare, but Seamus Heaney liked it, as did John Ashberry, and they ought to know. I guess I picked up the book because it was one I thought I should read. I'd read a prose translation of it years ago, in high school, and I've decided prose translations of poems should be banned. Anyway, having read it, I knew the story, an odd story at that, but this translation was really fun to read. And the introduction gave a great essay on alliteration. Who the hell knew there were two different kinds of alliteration, French and German? Well, I do now. This book was a treat.


Reading 'Sir Gawain and the Green Knight' took me over 10 years. I'm not a slow reader, but it did take me time to mature enough in order to understand and appreciate it. This version of 'Sir Gawain' is a rather simple, easy-reading, flowing one. It was a fantastic read for a classic, although I have a feeling that it is not delivering the exact intention and message as the original, maybe due to its somewhat contemporary mindset. Still, it is a perfect place to start with.I go the book at an old bookstore, I was browsing the shelves of the Fantasy/Sci-Fi books, looking for something good and exciting, and there it was - this strange cover from 1970's version. I saw it was in a poem format, which I wasn't reading that much back then, and decided to give it a go - for some reason which is beyond me. Had I known that it is going to be such a wonderful read, I would have probably given it a second go much earlier, but back then it was too much for me, and I didn't appreciate the intricate and playful poetic devices, the amazingly funny and witty composition and story, and basically - I wasn't that much in to poetry reading as I am now. So, coming down to it, what you've got here is an amazing introduction to the 'Sir Gawain' world, which really is a very good place to start. But it is just a start. A good one, but a start. The introduction to this book, one of the best introductions I've read in a long while, is so fantastic that it actually manages to reveal both the complexity of translating and understanding the original poem, and the approach of the translator of this edition - which is, for my taste, one of the better approaches to a poem such as this. And still, you can clearly see that there's more than just one approach, more than just one way to read it, and that this is but one aspect in an ocean of possibilities of understanding 'Sir Gawain and the Green Knight'.

Nicholas Walters

I read the story “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” translated by Marie Borroff. I thought this story was really hard to understand and took me a little longer than normal to figure it out, but that was 11th century. It starts off with Sir Gawain accepting the challenge from the Green Knight for the beheading game. Sir Gawain plays in place of King Arthur because he feels thats what he needs to do. The game seems like an easy win for Sir Gawain, but the Green Knight has supernatural powers and lives even after he has been beheaded. Sir Gawain now must let him return the favor a year and a day from the time the game took place,which kept Sir Gawain in suspense.The main characters are Sir Gawain, the Green Knight, King Arthur, and the Lord of the Castle. Sir Gawain is a knight of the round table and King Arthur’s nephew. The Green Knight is the proposer of the game and seeks to test Sir Gawain’s chivalry and saw if he holds true to what the people of Camelot are about. King Arthur is the King of Camelot and the uncle of Sir Gawain. The Lord of the Castle allows Sir Gawain to stay at his place, but is actually the Green Knight.The settings are Camelot on New Year’s Day, the Lords’ Castle, and the Green Chapel. This all took place sometime in the 11th century.The message of this story is chivalrous behavior. Sir Gawain still makes the trip to what he thinks is his death. He holds still for the second axe blow from the Green Knight. He also accepts the challenge in place of his king. We all can learn that people are not going to be perfect, but we can do everything we can to be the best we can be and not step down from a challenge.I would recommend this story to high school students that are interested in the time period of King Arthur and his knights of the round table, and who want to learn a great lesson.

Arthur Graham

She gave him her girdle, did she? A little something to remember her by, hmmmm? Personally, I found it rather hard to believe that a hound dog like Gawain would pass up the opportunity, but I did ultimately enjoy this humorous tale of chivalry and self-imposed cockblockery. Green Knight rules!

Mark Adderley

It’s always puzzling to know what to do with a book subtitled “A New Verse Translation.” It’s all very well for the moment, of course, but what about in a few years? When the translation is no longer new, will it need a new title? I have similar reservations about terms like “postmodern.” What comes after it? Post-postmodern? And is modernism now called pre-postmodernism?All of which doesn’t seem strictly relevant, except that I can’t help feeling that there’s something slightly self-conscious about Simon Armitage’s new verse translation of the Middle English masterpiece Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which is somehow symbolized by the subtitle.The other thing about the subtitle is that it is exactly the same as Seamus Heaney’s new verse translation of Beowulf, which, since it was published in 1999, isn’t really new any more. On the front cover of Armitage’s translation is a glowing review from Heaney, and in the Acknowledgements section, Armitage acknowledges Heaney himself and his translation as one of his inspirations. Inside the jacket-flap, another reviewer, this one anonymous (like both the Beowulf- and Gawain-poets, ironically) but writing for the Sunday Telegraph, enthuses about how both Armitage and, earlier, Heaney, have helped “to liberate Gawain [or, presumably, Beowulf:] from academia.” Like Heaney’s Beowulf, Armitage’s Gawain has a facing-page original text and translation; like Heaney’s Beowulf, Armitage’s Gawain has a black cover with a stylish armoured figure on it; like Heaney’s Beowulf, Armitage’s Gawain has ragged pages along the vertical edge, making is I suppose equally difficult to turn the page.Heaney’s Beowulf was well known, among other things, for bringing the ancient poem right up-to-date—the new date, that is, not the eighth-century date at which the poem was composed. Thus, Heaney translated the poem’s famous opening word, “Hwæt!” as “So.” Further down the page, the Old English “þæt wæs god cyning!” became “That was one good king.” Such translations as these made many academics wonder about the advisability of providing “new verse translations” of medieval poems. But since, as the Sunday Telegraph’s reviewer enthusiastically proclaimed, the aim of both translations was to liberate the poems from academics, what they thought really didn’t matter. It didn’t matter that Faber and Faber in Britain, and W. W. Norton in America were turning not to translators with a knowledge of the Middle Ages for these translations, but to poets who had to learn the language as they went.I’ll give you some examples from Armitage’s Gawain. Early in the poem, when the feast in Camelot, the Gawain-poet writes that the canopy over the royal dais “were enbrawded and beten wyth the best gemmes / That myght be preved of prys wyth penyes to bye / in daye” (78-80). This can be literally translated as “were embroidered and beaded with the best gems that could be proved of value to buy in that day.” The translation is rough and unpleasant, but it’s literal. Armitage translates that the tapestry was “studded with stones and stunning gems. / Pearls beyond pocket. Pearls beyond purchase.” Here’s it’s not specifically the translation that’s at issue. Armitage has translated into a style that is hip for the moment—the use of parallelism and fragment—but which, for one, gives undue emphasis to a rather unimportant feature of the description and, for another, uses a poetic trick that pulls the reader out of the world of the poem and into the modern world. That was one good canopy.Here’s another example. When Gawain arms to face the Green Knight at the end of the poem, the poet describes his armour as “The gayest into Grece” (2023). Acknowledging that “into” might better be translated as “unto,” we can see that the line is supposed to imply that Gawain’s armour is the most splendid in Europe—in the known world, in fact. in the medieval imagination, Greece was the edge of the civilized world. It included Byzantium, the seat of the eastern Roman Empire, known for its stylized art, gold and blue, richness and wealth. The description places Gawain’s armour in that oriental world, giving audiences a mental image of splendour, brightness, colour, vividness. Armitage writes that “no man shone more, it seemed / from here to ancient Greece.” Armitage specifically limits the reader to thinking not of Byzantine art, but of the Greece of mythology. The original line held both implications. The translation directs us exclusively to one.In all fairness, Armitage defends this practice in his introduction and, as we might expect, his argument is airtight. So would an argument be from the opposite perspective. That’s the nature of argument. But I can’t help wondering if there’s something wrong with entrusting the translation of a masterpiece of medieval literature to someone whose expertise is modern poetry—Ted Hughes and the like. It’s like entrusting brain surgery to a heart specialist. Sure, he knows enough anatomy to get away with it. But I’m not sure that “getting away with it” is really enough. I’d like to be imaginatively transported to the world of medieval romance, not of new verse translations.It’s also only fair to add that this is a highly readable translation. You speed through these pages, and time flies away from you. You’ve just met Arthur at Camelot, and before you know it, you’re reading the concluding lines. Some lines are particularly beautiful, particularly the famous passage of the seasons, and one passage actually made me think about the poem in a different way. (It was the section detailing Camelot’s craven assertion that it would be “Cleverer to have acted with caution and care” [line 677:]; that puts their eventual glib and joyous acceptance of Gawain’s error into a wholly different perspective, for me.)Ultimately, I think, we have to see a book like this not so much as a translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, but as Simon Armitage’s poem inspired by it. As such, it’s a beautiful achievement—certainly as beautiful as Heaney’s Beowulf—and will hopefully lure many readers to its source, the Middle English poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.


When I found out we had to read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight for a current university subject, I was a little worried. I often struggle with analysing poetry and something written in Middle English was not going to be easy. Thankfully we had to read the Brian Stone translation, which only hints at being Middle English. This is a famous 14th century Arthurian romance that is often known for the beheading game.This is a typical quest narrative; The Green Knight exposes the Knights of the Round Table as timid and cowards when he challenges them to the beheading game. The rules are simple, one knight tries to behead the Green Knight and in a year and a day he will meet them for the returning blow. The Arthurian world is governed by a well-established code of behaviour. This code is one of chivalry, a romantic notion that is deeply rooted in Christian morality, being a beacon of spiritual ideals in a fallen world.The beheading game is a plot device used as a test in the quest narrative, Sir Gawain is thrown into participating in the game and he is left with a choice, to be a man that lives by his code or not. A game that is meant to measure the inner worth of the knights and it does it in a big way, it exposes the Knights as cowards but Gawain steps up, sort of.There is a whole lot of humour in this story that often gets over looked when trying to analyse this difficult text. The idea of beheading someone and them returning for a reciprocating blow should have given that away. However the supernatural elements might have made this difficult to pick up on the comedic value. The Green Knight can be interpreted as an allusion of Christ and the strong religious overtones might lead you to think that but I saw him more as a plot device to represent life’s challenges.Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was a rather beautiful and interesting exploration for me. The translation I read did make it easier to understand, I don’t think I could handle learning Middle English. I had to do an assignment on this text and the quest narrative so I feel like I’ve already said plenty about this poem before sitting down to writing this review. I hope there is plenty of information here and gives the reader an idea of what to expect when reading this poem. It isn’t hard to understand if you have the right translation and is well worth reading.This review originally appeared on my blog;

Stephanie Sykes

I really enjoyed “Sir Gawin and The Green Knight” translated by Marie Borroff. We read this story as a class.This story is about about a guy named Sir Gawin, who goes in for King Arthur. Sir Gawin took the challenge of beheading the Green Knight, but the Green Knight lived and that meant the Green Knight gets to do the same to Sir Gawin in one year and a day. The main characters were: Sir Gawin, Green Knight, the lady of the castle, and King Arthur. Sir Gawin is the nephew of King Arthur and he is also a knight. The Green Knight comes on New Years Eve and offers the challenge to King Arthur. The Lady of the Castle gives Sir Gawin three gifts to give to the lord of the castle.The story took place in the 11th century. It took place at three places: Camelot, Lord’s Castle, and the Green Chapel. Camelot took place on New Years Eve. The Lord’s Castle took place in North Wales on the following Christmas Eve and New Years Eve. The Green Chapel took place on New Years Eve. The themes would be:live by the sword, die by the sword, chivalry, appearance vs reality, and if something seems to good to be true it probably is. Live by the sword, die by the sword was shown when Sir Gawin went in for King Arthur. Chivalry was shown when Sir Gawin goes in King Arthur. If something seems to good to good to be true it probably is that was shown when Sir Gawin keeps the belt, because he thought it would keep him alive. I would recommend this book to high school students, because I thought it was a little difficult to read. I would recommend this book to both girls and boys, because this book doesn’t really focus on one gender. I really enjoyed this book, because it had a good lesson behind it.


"Note: you have also reviewed the following editions of this book: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Paperback) (isbn ) Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Paperback) (isbn 0140440925) Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Paperback) (isbn 0140424539) Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (isbn 0719055172) Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (isbn 0571223281) Sir Gawain & the Green Knight (Paperback) (isbn 0030088801) Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Paperback) (isbn 1146360738)"Oops.Anyway, I reread Simon Armitage's translation in honour of getting a signed copy (I was going to go to his talk about his new book in Leeds, but I ended up being in Cardiff due to my grandfather's death, so we phoned up and Waterstones arranged for him to sign a copy of Sir Gawain for me, which isn't as good as getting to speak to him but is still pretty good). For my money, though Simon Armitage's translation isn't the most accurate academic translation, it captures something that even Tolkien doesn't manage to grasp, despite the care he took translating the poem, and that I haven't seen anywhere else. I remember doing a course on this poem (in the Middle English), and we talked about the poem being playful, and in part mocking the court and Gawain (but with affection). I feel like Simon Armitage's translation brings out that aspect very well, without losing the sense of nobility and chivalry that the poem is so rightly known for.It also barrels along at a tremendous pace, and reads a lot more like popular literature than Tolkien or Brian Stone's translations. You might not think that a good thing, of course, but I think it suits the story.

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