Code of chivalry of a knight

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Imagine you are sitting at a Christmas dinner a thousand years ago with your band of knights. Your queen is next to you and there is food and drink and lots of rejoicing in the hall of your wonderful castle.

Suddenly, a stranger appears. Not just any stranger, but a green – astride a green horse and with a giant ax in hand. A green knight. He launches an absurd challenge: strike for strike. You, a king of legend with a line dating back to the beginning of Western history in Troy, rise from your throne to accept. But a younger man offers to take on the challenge for you. And his strike is true, decapitating the Green Knight. Except the knight doesn’t die and casually raises his head and says he’ll meet the young challenger in a year and a day to return the strike.

The beheading game has begun.

It is the inciting incident of the Middle English poem and what is considered a gem of English literature – Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The name of the original poet is lost to time, but a modern English translation by Simon Armitage brings it to thrilling and sensual life.

arthurian legend

At its heart, the poem is an Arthurian legend – all the elements of medieval life are here. The chivalrous code, violence, brave knights and beautiful women. There are more games and weird adventures once the young man, Gawain (who is Arthur’s nephew), embarks on his journey to the Green Chapel where he is to receive the Green Knight’s return strike. Gawain is brave, reckless, and understandably confused about what it means to live up to your word if you know it will end in your certain death. His concern, when he impulsively took up the challenge on behalf of his king and his uncle, was to spare his elder brother any embarrassment. But he also spied an opportunity to secure his own seat as a bona fide knight at the legendary table.

While the poem speaks of an earlier time before England became England, it is believed to have been written in manuscript form around 1400 and the poet, based on analysis of the linguistic style used, is believed to originate from the Midlands. The manuscript had disappeared for centuries before resurfacing in the collection of a Yorkshireman and changing hands a few times in the 17th century until it achieved its present place as a prized possession of the British Library.

Armitage, an acclaimed poet, playwright and novelist, has produced a translation that doesn’t sound modern at all – and that’s a compliment to his immense talent. It’s an incredible feat to preserve the mythical, medieval atmosphere and musicality of the original poem while making it accessible to contemporary audiences. One has the impression, reading the lines of Armitage, of being in a magical landscape, a parallel universe which is of this earth and yet not of it. The natural world is evoked in breathtaking splendor and its lushness seems to pop off the page.

When published in 2009, Armitage’s translation became a runaway bestseller – an astonishing achievement for a work of poetry. And recently it was adapted into a beautiful and visually decadent film by David Lowery starring Dev Patel. Although changes were made to the screen version, the story retains its vital themes of courage and honor and what it means to be mortal.

The author is a Bengaluru-based writer and communication professional with numerous published short stories and essays to her credit.

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