Undergrad Wednesdays – Momentum and Power Swing in the Confrontation

[This post, part of an effort to merge our undergraduate and graduate blogs, was written in response to an essay prompt for Kathryn Kerby-Fulton's undergraduate course on "Chaucer's Biggest Rivals: The Alliterative Poets." It comes from the former "Medieval Undergraduate Research" website.]

The following is taken from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, as Gawain and the Green Knight honor their agreement set a year prior.

Original Text, lines 2309-2329

He lyftes lyȝtly his lome, and let hit doun fayre                                  [2309]
( vs: He gathered the grim axe and guided it well)
With þe barbe of þe bitte bi þe bare nek;
Þaȝ he homered heterly, hurt hym no more
Bot snyrt hym on þat on syde, þat seuered þe hyde.
Þe scharp schrank to þe flesche þurȝ þe schyre grece,                         [2313]
Þat þe schene blod ouer his schulderes schot to þe erþe;
And quen þe burne seȝ þe blode blenk on þe snawe,
He sprit forth spenne-fote more þen a spere lenþe,
Hent heterly his helme, and on his hed cast,                                         [2317]
Schot with his schulderez his fayre schelde vnder,
Braydez out a bryȝt sworde, and bremely he spekez–
Neuer syn þat he watz burne borne of his moder
Watz he neuer in þis worlde wyȝe half so blyþe–                             [2321]
‘Blynne, burne, of þy bur, bede me no mo!
I haf a stroke in þis sted withoute stryf hent,
And if þow rechez me any mo, I redyly schal quyte,
And ȝelde ȝederly aȝayn–and þerto ȝe tryst–                                [2325]
and foo.
Bot on stroke here me fallez–
Þe couenaunt schop ryȝt so,
Fermed in Arþurez hallez–
And þerfore, hende, now hoo!’                                                   [2329]

My Modern Translation

He lifts lightly his axe, and let it down fair
With the barbe of the blade by the bare neck.
Though he hammered heartily, hurt him no more
But save a cut to the side that severed the hide.
The sharp sank into the flesh parting the white flesh,
That the sheen of blood over his shoulders shot to the earth.
And when he saw the blood blank on the snow,
He jumped forth with feet together more than the length of a spear,
Grabbing heartily his helmet and putting it on,
Covering with his shoulders his fair shield behind,
Brandished a bright sword and fiercely he spoke—
Never since he was born of his mother
Was he never in this world half so happy–
‘Happily put away your sword, bid me no more!
I have a stroke in this stead without receiving strife
And if you reach me any more, I readily shall repay
And I say quickly again—and thereto the trust—
and wickedly.
But one strike here falls on me–
The covenant stops correctly so
That was formed in Arthur’s halls–
And therefore, noble, now stop!

British Library MS Cotton Nero A.x; f. 125/129v.

This passage signifies a release from the bounds of duty and agreement. With it comes a physical element—the cutting of Gawain’s neck to bear testament to his encounter and compliance. This sign also marks a transition in the passage, as Gawain understands the significance of the bloody visual. In Marie Borroff’s translation, however, Gawain’s injury is described in more muted language, and as a result, transfers less weight to Sir Gawain’s courageous rebuke.

In its original form, the passage is immediately characterized by the alliteration seen throughout the entirety of the work. While alliteration serves many purposes, its use within this passage is primarily to direct momentum and illustrate power. In the first line, the text reads, “He lyftes lyȝtly his lome, and let hit doun fayre” (2309). Immediately a sense of fluidity and elegance surrounds the Green Knight as he lifts his axe. This is due solely to the softness of the “l” sounds that fill the line, as repetition of these words creates a rolling sensation, providing an audible momentum to match the motion of the axe. The next line serves as stark contrast, since words such as “barbe”, and “bitte” (2310) have closed sounds that oppose the open fluidity of the line before it. As such, the first two lines together bear opposite tonal qualities and hint at broader significance. The parity of openness and closure fit both with the theme of execution—as one’s life is ended, and with the termination of Gawain’s covenant—as his contract is closed. These two possibilities are inherently at odds with each other. This is fitting, as in many ways, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a tale of opposites; chivalry and courtesy, loyalty and preservation, and desire and chastity are but a few pairs of conflicting forces that come to define the work. Within the sonic contrast in the first two lines, the poet embeds the struggle between Gawain and The Green Knight within the thematic structure of direct opposition.

The Green Knight is dominant in the beginning of this passage. However, the distribution of power quickly shifts when Gawain sees his own blood splatter on the snow. To mark this transition, the poet begins the line with “and,” a word that has little sonic magnitude, making the word to a neutral marker. Both lines before this begin with “Þe” and “Þat” (2313,2314), while the two lines following begin with “He” and “Hent” (2315, 2316), respectively, and thus serves to further isolate this transitional line. Upon seeing the blood, Gawain realizes his pact is fulfilled and is thus placed on even ground with the Green Knight. The poet gives him an increasing amount of power as he speaks out against the knight. “Braydez out a bryȝt sworde, and bremely he spekez” (2319), writes the poet, mimicking the “b sound” that defined the action of the axe only moments before. This is further compounded in Gawain’s language, as he commands, “Blynne, burne, of þy bur, bede me no mo!” (2322). In total transition, and demonstrated through alliteration, the power held by the Green Knight now lies in the armored hands of Gawain.

This transition of power and tonal clash, while still present in the Borroff translation, is not as stylistically developed. In place of soft “l” sounds, Marie Borroff opts for a line filled with “g” words that are more reconcilable with the “b” sounds that follow. Furthermore, Gawain’s moment of realization is softened in Borroff’s translation. The vivid—and grotesque—desription of bloodshed is greatly diminished in the translation, and as a result the moment of freedom, and thus the lynchpin on which power swings is transitively cast into shadow. What should be translated as a “stream” of blood “[shooting] to earth,” is written as a “little blood lightly leapt to earth” (2314). Such a softening of language mutes the gravity of the situation, thus undermining the theme of Gawain’s inescapable mortality that runs throughout the work. As such, Gawain’s transition into a bold figure is dramatically lessened in Marie Borroff’s translation and does not allow him to fully embrace the knightly values of courage and bravery.

Michael Duffey
University of Notre Dame

Undergrad Wednesdays – Feeling the “Burne” of Bertilak in “Sir Gawain”

[This post, part of an effort to merge our undergraduate and graduate blogs, was written in response to an essay prompt for Kathryn Kerby-Fulton's undergraduate course on "Chaucer's Biggest Rivals: The Alliterative Poets." It comes from the former "Medieval Undergraduate Research" website.]

In this post, I will translate and explore the description of Gawain’s entrance into Bertilak’s castle in “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” including how descriptions foreshadow future events of the poem and the nuances of the poet’s wordplay. Examples from this same selection will be used to illustrate my critique of three facets of Marie Boroff’s well-known translation of the poem, and further discuss the question of what constitutes a modern translation.

Lines 842-861 of “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”

Gawayn glyȝt on þe gome þat godly hym gret,
And þuȝt hit a bolde burne þat þe burȝ aȝte,
A hoge haþel for þe nonez, and of hyghe eldee;
Brode, bryȝt, watz his berde, and al beuer-hwed,
Sturne, stif on þe stryþþe on stalworth schonkez,
Felle face as þe fyre, and fre of hys speche;
And wel hym semed, for soþe, as þe segge þuȝt,
To lede a lortschyp in lee of leudez ful gode.
Þe lorde hym charred to a chambre, and chefly cumaundez
To delyuer hym a leude, hym loȝly to serue;
And þere were boun at his bode burnez innoȝe,
Þat broȝt hym to a bryȝt boure, þer beddyng watz noble,
Of cortynes of clene sylk wyth cler golde hemmez,
And couertorez ful curious with comlych panez
Of bryȝt blaunner aboue, enbrawded bisydez,
Rudelez rennande on ropez, red golde ryngez,
Tapitez tyȝt to þe woȝe of tuly and tars,
And vnder fete, on þe flet, of folȝande sute.
Þer he watz dispoyled, wyth spechez of myerþe,
Þe burn of his bruny and of his bryȝt wedez.

My Translation

Gawain looked at the man that graciously greeted him,
And it seemed to him that a bold knight owned the castle,
A great knight indeed, and of a prime age;
Wide, beautiful was his beard, and all beaver-colored,
Powerful, firm was his stance on immovable legs,
His face as fierce as fire, and noble in his speech;
And it certainly suited him, indeed, as the knight seemed,
To hold a lordship in a castle full of good knights.
The lord took him to a room, and promptly commences,
To assign him a man to humbly serve him;
And there were ready at his bidding many men
That brought him to a beautiful bedroom, where the bedding was noble,
With bed-curtains of fine silk with lovely gold hems,
And exquisite coverlets with beautiful edging,
Of beautiful fur around it, embroidered at the sides,
Curtains sliding on ropes, guided by gold rings,
Tapestries hung on the wall made of red silk and silk of Tharsia,
And underfoot, on the floor, rugs of a similar kind,
There he was stripped, with conversations of merriment,
The man, of his mail-chain and of his shining armour.

Poetic analysis

To begin, the imagery used to describe Bertilak loosely associates him with the Green Knight and also panders to Gawain’s idealistic notion of knighthood. Firstly, the poet describes Bertilak in terms of features that have been associated with the Green Knight in Fitt I: an impressive, distinctively colored beard (“brode,” and “beuer-hwed,” line 845), and his “stalworth schonkez,” (line 846). By implicitly making these comparisons, the poet is hinting at the revelation that Bertilak is the Green Knight. He is also toying with the theme of deception by magic that weaves in and out of the poem.

Further, the imagery of the castle reflects the poet’s familiarity with courtly life. He goes into detail of what would be at a castle, but the descriptions of the bed-curtains and tapestries are not described in terms of colors or specific designs, but rather as “bryȝt,” or “clene,” (lines 854, 855, 857). “Bryȝt” can mean bright, shining, or beautiful. The one color that is invoked is “golde,” (line 854). Instead of being able to picture exactly what these fabrics look like, the reader is given heavenly or magical imagery of pure light and shininess to imagine. Thus, the effect is again a hint of what the castle will turn out to be: a disguised destination, a place of magic, and ultimately, with the temptation scenes, a distraction for Gawain from his quest for perfect knighthood.

Another crucial poetic element to this selection is its wordplay. In lines 850 and 851, Bertilak leads Gawain to a “chambre” and “cumaundez/To delyuer hym a leude.” In this instance, “cumaundez” means to “commence to assign him a man,” but it also has the connotation of “to command,” suggesting that Bertilak is controlling Gawain without him even realizing it. Another example comes in line 861, when the servants strip Gawain of his “bruny and of his bryȝt wedez.” “Wedez” can mean “clothes” or “armour.” Thus, through the mere act of undressing him, the servants are actually making him vulnerable, removing the veneer of his “knighthood” on which he so heavily relies to reveal who his true, flesh and blood moral character is underneath.

In this selection, the words that are obviously missing from lines imply a deeper level of meaning as well. In line 847, “Felle face as þe fyre,” does not tell the reader to whom the poet is referring. He should be referring to Bertilak’s face, but as he has not yet revealed himself as the Green Knight, that attribution is noticeably absent. Another example of an omission is in line 859. The phrase “on þe flet, of folȝande sute” is missing the word for what is on the floor: tapestries or rugs. I like to think of this as a foreshadowing for the surprises in store for Gawain: having the rug pulled out beneath him, so to speak.

Finally, these elements of imagery, wordplay, and omission, in addition to the actions of Bertilak all support the larger “too good to be true” theme of the poem. All of the games Gawain engages in (the beheading game, the exchange of winnings, etc.) seem to be easy at face value. However, the elements of magic in addition to Gawain’s debilitating perfectionism are always working against him to turn the games on their heads.

Critique of Marie Boroff

I will use Boroff’s translation of the same passage to illustrate her treatment of the original alliteration, use of archaic language, and creative license in terms of word choice, omissions, and additions.

Boroff translation

Gawain gazed on the host that greeted him there,
And a lusty fellow he looked, the lord of that place:
A man of massive mold, and of middle age;
Broad, bright was his beard, of a beaver’s hue,
Strong, steady his stance, upon stalwart shanks,
His face fierce as fire, fair spoken withal,
And well suited he seemed in Sir Gawain’s sight
To be a master of men in a mighty keep.
They pass into a parlor, where promptly the host
Has a servant assigned him to see to his needs,
And there came upon his call many courteous folk
That brought him to a bower where bedding was noble,
With heavy silk hangings hemmed in all gold,
Coverlets and counterpanes curiously wrought,
A canopy over the couch, clad in fur,
Curtains running on cords, caught to gold rings,
Woven rugs on the walls of eastern work,
And the floor, under foot, well furnished with the same.
With light talk and laughter they loosed from him then
His war dress of weight and his worthy clothes.


The most prominent of these qualities in the selection is Boroff’s treatment of alliteration. While it supports the general use of alliteration in the poem, it does not adhere to its specific function within lines. In line 843, Boroff maintains a three-part alliteration in the line, but it is “L” alliteration of “lusty,” “looked,” and “lord” as opposed to “B” alliteration of “bolde,” “burne,” and “burȝ.” This raises the question of whether including any alliteration in a modern translation serves an equivalent meaning to the original alliteration. It will also inform the reader of the broader question of the translator’s definition of and purpose of a modern translation.

In this example, changing the emphasized letter changes the reading of the line and of the selection as a whole. In a phonetic sense, the “B” sound at the beginning of a word is more forceful than “L.” By omitting the “B” sound, Boroff reduces the “force” of the man that is characterized in the poetic device of alliteration.

Furthermore, this “force” of Bertilak is illustrated in the strength of the words selected for the original alliteration. Definitions of the Middle English word “bolde” include “bold,” “daring”, and “valiant.” The next alliterative word is “burne,” which can mean “man” or “knight.” Because the man has not done anything particularly “valiant” yet, the reader can infer that Gawain feels there is something bold or heroic about him because the poet is also associating him with the knight. Finally, “burȝ,” is further associated with the power of owning a castle, being a knight, etc. The words used in the poet’s alliteration build on each other to characterize Bertilak.

Thus, alliteration is stronger when the sound supports the character that the poet is creating throughout the poem. In contrast, Boroff’s line combines the weak “L” sound, the odd characterization of Bertilak as “lusty,” and the passivity of “looked” versus the power associated with “burȝ” in the original text. These words do not support each other; as a result, the translation weakens the device of alliteration.

Bertilak’s manliness should not be overlooked.

Archaic language

Boroff’s use of non-modern language evokes the question of purpose in a modern translation. Is the main purpose to provide the most accurate translation of the original text or to capture the spirit of the text and make it as easy as possible for a modern audience to understand?

In general, Boroff’s translation leans toward the latter. This is not necessarily a wrong interpretation, but it makes occasional archaic phrases stand out all the more. For example, line 846 refers to Bertilak’s “stalwart shanks” in the Boroff translation. This is the closest modern word to word translation of the original, “stalworth schonkez.” The word “shanks” also shows up earlier in Boroff’s translation in line 431 (“stiff shanks”). However, the word “shanks” is more appropriate for a cut of meat than a human set of legs to a modern reader. It is a textbook example of the closest translation to a Middle English word not capturing the spirit of the text in this day.

If Boroff is indeed trying to make Gawain approachable to the modern reader, one more question follows: Is it possible to make a truly modern translation of a story with archaic settings, characters, and plot lines? One choice Boroff made in the selection is the phrase “mighty keep” (line 849). Not only is the phrase archaic, it also deviates from the poet’s original meaning. This phrase means “charge” or “control,” rather than the original text’s “lee” which means “shelter” or “castle.” Castle would have been much easier for a modern reader to understand and closer to the text’s original meaning. In this case, “charge” does have a more universal meaning, but if one undermines the castles in Gawain, what are next? The knights? The poem needs to maintain its identity as an Arthurian tale, so the castles should stay.

Creative license

At times, Boroff’s creative attempts to modernize the piece endanger the continuity of the story. For example, she refers to the “parlor” that Bertilak and Gawain “pass into” (line 850). According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the Anglo-Norman French origins of the word “parlur” meant simply “place for speaking” to Middle English speakers. The original text uses “chambre,” so one commends Boroff for using a French word and maintaining all of those associations. However, parlors have an entirely different connotation to a modern reader, and is not consistent with a tale about knights and castles.

Seeing as the poet did it himself at times, it seems appropriate to analyze where Boroff omits words entirely in her translation. In the selection, she omits “godly,” meaning “courteously” or “graciously” (line 842). This contributes to her deviating characterization of Bertilak, as previously discussed. If Gawain does not see him as a gracious host, he loses the associations of knightliness and goodness, and also loses his personal connection to this “bolde” or “heroic” knight, Bertilak.

Oddly enough, an example of Boroff adding words back in leads the reader to line 852, in which Boroff refers to the “many courteous folk” who do Bertilak’s bidding. The original texts only says there are “burnez innoȝe,” or “many men.” Ironically, she adds back in the very word she omitted ten lines ago! It seems strange that she would attribute courtesy to the servants of Bertilak’s castle, who hold little role in the poem, instead of to Bertilak. In all of these small tweaks, Boroff is essentially recasting Bertilak as the villain to Gawain as the hero, which is inconsistent with Gawain’s true admiration for the man.

In conclusion, Boroff’s treatment of the original alliteration, omissions, and additions re-characterize a main character in Gawain as a “lusty” villain. Her use of archaic language and creative license in terms of more modern word choices make her modern translation less consistent and hard to categorize as a purely text-based, or modern read. Only the nuances of associative imagery, shiny distractions for Gawain and the reader, and the wordplay of the original text can fully capture the “burne” that is Bertilak and his role in Gawain’s journey.

Claire McCarthy
University of Notre Dame

Undergrad Wednesdays – “He get us…”: A Revelatory Instance of Wordplay in “Pearl”

[This post, part of an effort to merge our undergraduate and graduate blogs, was written in response to an essay prompt for Kathryn Kerby-Fulton's undergraduate course on "Chaucer's Biggest Rivals: The Alliterative Poets." It comes from the former "Medieval Undergraduate Research" website.]

My translation of  Pearl (section XX, lines 1201-13):

“To please the Prince and straighten sight,
It is very easy to the good Christian.
For I have found Him, both day and night
A God, a Lord, a friend most fine.
On this hill I felt this rite
For pity of my pearl divine;
And unto God I committed with might
In Christ’s dear blessing and mine,
That in the form of bread and wine
The priest shows us every day.
He grants us to be His homely hine
And precious Pearl to Him as she may.

Original Text:

“To pay þe Prince oþer sete saȝte
Hit is ful eþe to þe god Krystyin;
For I haf founden hym, boþe day and naȝte,
A God, a Lorde, a frende ful fyin.
Ouer þis hyul þis lote I laȝte,
For pyty of my perle enclyin,
And syþen to God I hit bytaȝte
In Krysteȝ dere blessyng and myn,
Þat in þe forme of bred and wyn
Þe preste vus scheweȝ vch a daye.
He gef vus to be his homly hyne
Ande precious perleȝ vnto his pay.

In the final stanza of Pearl, the unknown poet must not only continue to employ all of the restrictions set up by the form he employs throughout the poem, but must also effectively conclude and tie together the poem in its entirety. As such, the overall successfulness of this passage, on its own and in the context of Pearl as a whole, is remarkable. The poet retains the rhyme scheme, stanza structure, and mood, all while injecting some extremely important—and telling—bits of information through wordplay and repetition.

When considering the conclusion to Pearl, the reader will undoubtedly ask a version of this question: “Has the narrator learned and progressed from this experience?” It is easy to respond both “yes” and “no.” Yes, because the narrator, in his own words, has “bytaghte / In Krystes dere blessyng” (XX.1207-8). Altenatively, “no,” because just moments before the conclusion he is “kaste of kythes that lastes aye” (XX.1198). As a result of these conflicting positions occurring only ten lines apart, deeper analysis is required to answer this loaded question.

Luckily, the poet inserts clues into the end of this final stanza to help his audience understand where he might stand on the issue of the narrator’s growth. The first comes in the form of a weighted bit of wordplay in lines 1211 and 1212, “He gef uus to be His homly hyne / And precious perles unto His pay.” Here, “gef” can mean “gives,” “grants,” or “bequeaths.” While all conveying similar ideas, the slight differences showcase the amount of clarity the narrator has to his and Pearl’s existences. In the first sense of “gef,” the narrator expresses the seemingly arbitrary “give and take” nature of the Lord. Much like in the beginning of the poem, this is the narrator’s non-understanding of the situation and his distress over his daughter being taken from him. This would suggest that he has not progressed.

However, the second two of the aforementioned three meanings of “gef” insinuate that the narrator has in fact developed beyond the poem’s onset as a result of his spiritual experience and verbiage. In his understanding that the Lord “grants” the people on earth to serve him, the narrator shows that he realizes the honor and importance of living in God’s grace. It transforms the previous “give and take” nature, first assumed to be the narrator’s outlook, into a nature of allowance. God allows the narrator to make the profound sacrifice of letting go of his daughter, and the narrator, after an understandable period of grieving, ultimately comes away as thankful.

This also plays through the “bequeath” meaning of “gef;” this language connotes a transferal of ownership. As such, a “bequeath” reading illustrates that the narrator has acceptingly given his daughter over to God. With these readings illuminating the levels of understanding the narrator develops over the course of the poem, it is evident that he has learned from the endeavors across Pearl.

The narrator and his dream representation of his daughter Pearl, at the climax of the poem.

Considering the loaded meaning behind this solitary word in the original version, while Marie Borroff’s translation often excels structurally, the demands of alternative Middle English definitions make Pearl difficult to translate completely. Take Borroff’s translation of lines 1211 and 1212: “O may we serve Him well, and shine / As precious pearls to His content.” Though the clear metaphorical use of “pearls” and her adherence to the key phrases of the original come through strongly, gone is the weight of the epiphany-like “He gef us to be His…” However, as the difficulty of the original’s style is so demanding, it is a compromise that, likely, had to be made.

In translating, Borroff could have either tried to mirror the original poem’s style or shoot for exact accuracy in meaning—it probably is impossible to replicate both together, and any attempt would likely come up short on both ends. Therefore, critiquing Borroff’s translations should be done with the guidelines of the original’s form in mind. As the translator lays out in her introduction, “One of the most striking and significant aspects of the poem is its conformity to an all-encompassing and highly elaborate design.” Her adherence to the complete concatenation (“Pearl, that a prince is well content,” “As precious pearls to His content”—the first and final lines of the poem), using alliteration in moments of heightened drama (“His gifts gush forth like a spring in spate” (XI.1)), and unwavering rhyme scheme is remarkable:

Flash in winter form frosty space;
For every one was a gem to praise,
A sapphire or emerald opulent
That seemed to set the pool ablaze,
So brilliant their embellishment. (II.116-120)

This strict design, as Borroff refers to it, is the most important part of the poem; to honor it as closely as possible is necessary in a modern English translation, especially if this might be the only way in which some readers could be exposed to it.

For the most part, by conforming to the original Pearl’s design, Borroff retains much of the experience of reading Pearl in Middle English. The ababababbcbc rhyme scheme and alliterative passages convey the fairytale-like flow. The employment of the linking words and phrases matches the spiritual overtones of not only the poem’s plot, but also its style. The repetition, along with the poem’s ending in “Amen” imply that the poem is meant to be a prayer, read over and over. For example, the concatenation that occurs between the last line and the first line tie the poem together into a potentially never-ending circular narrative. By keeping this in, Borroff portrays much more than she would have if she attempted to only translate for as much accuracy as possible with each individual word. Instead, Borroff’s translation focuses on aesthetic accuracy and presents much more of Pearl’s most significant qualities.

Matthew McMahon
University of Notre Dame