Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by J.R.R. Tolkien (Editor)

Author:unknown (edited by E.V. Gordon and translated by J.R.R. Tolkien)
Title:Sir Gawain and the Green Knight; Pearl; Sir Orfeo
Published:1975 by George Allen & Unwin


This is a translation of three medieval tales. "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" and "Pearl" are two poems by an unknown author written in about 1400. "Sir Gawain" is a romance, a fairy-tale for adults, full of life and colour; but it is also much more than this, being at the same time a powerful moral tale which examines religious and social values. "Pearl" is apparently an elegy on the death of a child, a poem pervaded with a sense of great personal loss: but, like "Gawain" it is also a debate on much less tangible matters. "Sir Orfeo" is a slighter romance, belonging to an earlier and different tradition. The three translations represent the complete rhyme and alliterative schemes of the original.

description from the back-cover of the book


Tolkien and E.V. Gordon had collaborated in the early 1920s in making an edition of Sir Gawain and when it was published 1925, they began working on an edition of Pearl. The work soon was abandoned by Tolkien and eventually finished by Prof. E.V. Gordon alone. Tolkiens translations of these 3 poems, however, remained unpublished until after Tolkien's death.

Below is a brief example of the original text together with Tolkien's translation:

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Ženne he houed, and wythhylde his hors at žat tyde,
And ofte chaunged his cher že chapel to seche:
He se3 non suche in no syde, and selly hym žo3t,
Saue, a lyttel on a launde, a lawe as hit were;
A bal3 ber3 bi a bonke že brymme bysyde,
Bi a for3 of a flode žat ferked žare;
Že borne blubred žerinne as hit boyled hade.
Že kny3t kachez his caple, and com to že lawe,
Li3tez doun luflyly, and at a lynde tachez
Že rayne and his riche with a ro3e braunche.
Ženne he bo3ez to že ber3e, aboute hit he walkez,
Debatande with hymself quat hit be my3t.
Hit hade a hole on že ende and on ayžer syde,
And ouergrowen with gresse in glodes aywhere,
And al watz hol3 inwith, nobot an olde caue,
Or a creuisse of an olde cragge, he couže hit no3t deme
with spelle.
'We! Lorde,' quož že gentyle kny3t,
'Whežer žis be že grene chapelle?
Here my3t aboute mydny3t
Že dele his matynnes telle!
'Now iwysse,' quož Wowayn, 'wysty is here;
Žis oritore is vgly, with erbez ouergrowen;
Wel bisemez že wy3e wruxled in grene
Dele here his deuocioun on že deuelez wyse.
Now I fele hit is že fende, in my fyue wyttez,
Žat hatz stoken me žis steuen to strye me here.
Žis is a chapel of meschaunce, žat chekke hit bytyde!
Hit is že corsedest kyrk žat euer I com inne!'
Then he halted and held in his horse for the time,
and changed oft his front the Chapel to find.
Such on no side he saw, as seemed to him strange,
save a mound as it might be near the marge of a green,
a worn barrow on a brae by the brink of a water,
beside falls in a flood that was flowing down;
the burn bubbled therein, as if boiling it were.
He urged on his horse then, and came up to the mound,
there lightly alit, and lashed to a tree
his reins, with a rough branch rightly secured them.
Then he went to the barrow and about it he walked,
debating in his mind what might the thing be.
It had a hole at the end and at either side,
and with grass in green patches was grown all over,
and was all hollow within: nought but an old cavern,
or a cleft in an old crag; he could not it name
'Can this be the Chapel Green,
O Lord?' said the gentle knight.
Here the Devil might say, I ween,
his matins about midnight!'
'On my word,' quoth Gawain,' 'tis a wilderness here!
This oratory looks evil. With herbs overgrown
it fits well that fellow transformed into green
to follow here his devotions in the Devil's fashion.
Now I feel in my five wits the Fiend 'tis himself
that has trapped me with the tryst to destroy me here.
This is a chapel of mischance, the church most accursed
that ever I entered. Evil betide it!'




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