Emily’s Modes of Expression in the “Knight’s Tale” – A Precursor to the #MeToo Movement

by Ashtin Ballard

The “Knight’s Tale” is the first tale to appear in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, just after the General Prologue. In it, two imprisoned knights, Palamon and Arcite, vie for the affections of Emily, an Amazonian woman brought back to Athens by King Theseus as a spoil of war.  After seeing her in the garden on a May morning, Palamon and Arcite fall madly in love with Emily, and they eventually duel to the death for her hand in marriage. Emily and her modes of expression (or lack thereof) are interesting, particularly because this tale, in more ways than one, sets the tone for the rest of the Tales. Emily is primarily relegated to a realm of silence in this text; however, she expresses herself intermittently through weeping and a singular, emotional prayer. This blog post will examine Emily’s treatment and expression in the “Knight’s Tale” in order to analyze the plight of women in the Middle Ages as presented through Chaucer’s poetry. Ultimately, it will reveal the disappointingly small distance we have traveled in terms of gender parity in the decades since Chaucer was writing. Indeed, it posits that Emily is one of the early victims whose voice deserves to be read in the context of the modern justice movement, #MeToo.

Arguably, in close contest with her beauty, the most striking characteristic of Emily in this tale is her silence. Throughout this tale, the knights speak amply of her beauty, “that fairer was to sene / Than is the lylie upon his stalke grene / And fresher than the May with floures newe, / For with the rose colour stroof hire hewe,” and of their desire to wed her. However, she is stunningly quiet on this subject, with one private exception of prayer, which will be examined later (Chaucer 65; lines 1035-38). Indeed, Theseus states, “I speke as for my suster Emelye,” when he announces the prospect of a duel to Palamon and Arcite (Chaucer 76; line 1833). Emily is always in the background, being talked about, but never talked to. Her silence can be interpreted, especially for modern readers, as a symbol of women’s oppression in the Middle Ages. Although, ironically, Emily is the driver for the entire tale, it is only as a tool for the knights to manipulate and fight over in order to prove the supremacy of their masculinity and honor. She has no agency, and this is mirrored in the silencing of her voice.

Although Emily’s silence is the most symbolic indicator of her lack of agency in the text, her powerful appeal to Diana before the battle also illustrates her and other women’s powerlessness. She laments, “I / Desire to ben a mayden al my lyf. / … And noght to ben a wyf and be with / childe” (Chaucer 84; lines 2305-10). Further, she pleads with Diana, “Bihoold, goddesse of clene chastitee, / The bitter teeris that on my chekes falle! / Syn thou art mayde and kepere of us alle, / My maydenhede thou kepe and wel conserve. / And whil I lyve, a mayde I wol thee serve” (Chaucer 84; lines 2326-30). Emily’s true feelings are only revealed in the sanctity and privacy of prayer, and even when she is her most vulnerable self, her desires and needs are cast in the wind in favor of what the knights of the tale desire (and, it would seem, what the gods command). Shortly after she cries in anguish, begging Diana to spare her from marriage, Diana appears unto her and tells her that she must be wed. This interaction begs the question, to what extent does Fortune play a role in this text, and to what extent are the outcomes predetermined? Both gods and Fortune appear in this text and affect the events that unfold, introducing questions of the role of agency in the lives of mankind, and especially women in the Middle Ages. Do women have any agency, or are they doomed to live as slaves to men and their desires? Emily’s prayer is a powerful glimpse into the emotional underpinnings of marriage and agency for women during this time period.

A third and final mode of expression illustrated in this text is weeping, which Emily does periodically throughout the text. There are two categories of weeping that take place in the “Knight’s Tale”: weeping over a man or men, and weeping in prayer. At the start of the tale, upon Theseus’ return, a “compaignye of ladyes” (Chaucer 63; line 898) weeps: “swich a cry and swich a wo they make, / That in this world nys creature lyvynge / That herde swich another waymentynge” (Chaucer 63; lines 900-03). Similarly, when Arcite dies, Emily “weepe bothe eve and morwe” (Chaucer 91; line 2821). In juxtaposition with the silence that dominates the majority of this tale, the weeping that punctuates the remaining spaces paints Emily as an emotional, rather than stoic, figure. Her emotions are compartmentalized – either she is entirely silent or highly emotional. In this way, Chaucer oversimplifies Emily, and, arguably, all women, through these extremes. Perhaps the only time Emily weeps and talks, thus complicating this binary, is when she is praying to Diana. In her uncertainty, she “for the feere thus hast she cried / And weepe that it was pitee for to heere” (Chaucer 84; lines 2344-45). The weeping that is peppered throughout this text speaks, in conjunction with the overwhelming silence, to the plight of women in the Middle Ages. Their lives are almost entirely controlled by men, particularly in Emily’s case. And so, she weeps, remains silent, and passionately pleas with Diana, only to be denied both understanding and her desires. Emily’s rather binary expression of emotion indicates that women have little choice, if any, over their lives, and emphasizes the roles of Fate and Fortune in place of the agency of women.

In sum, Emily’s modes of expression – silence, weeping, and prayer – offer a glimpse of the struggle of a medieval woman; however, this tale is entirely relevant to modern women, too. Even still, over six hundred years later, women experience misogynistic attempts to control their bodies and fates. One need not look far to discover this truth – no farther than Twitter, in fact, where the hashtag #MeToo has documented thousands of instances of abuse and entitlement on the part of men seeking control over women. In popular culture, too, there are examples of men dueling over a woman everywhere – The Bachelorette, as one example, not to mention the plethora of young adult fiction that employs a similar structure. Chaucer’s depiction of women in the Middle Ages is concerning and, of course, a more literal illustration of silencing women; however, the underlying implications of male control and domination plague our society to this very day.

Works Cited

Chaucer, Geoffrey. “The Knight’s Tale.” The Canterbury Tales, ed. Robert Boenig and Andrew Taylor, 2nd ed., Broadview Press, 2012.

Featured Image: Emily Gathering Flowers, 1882, by Mary Eliza Haweis, Chaucer for Children

Transcribing Medieval Art: A Collaboration by Dalanie Beach and Abbie Spica

When my classmate Abbie Spica and I were told we would be transcribing two pages of a medieval manuscript for an assignment in our History of the Book class, the task seemed almost comical in its impossibility. When Professor Noonan brought in a full goatskin, bottles of oak gall ink, and goose feather quills to class, however, we knew she was serious.

Crowded around a table in the Rare Book Room of the Cushwa-Leighton Library at Saint Mary’s College, our class was presented with three medieval manuscripts. In turn, we stepped up to the relics so that we might briefly explore their pages. A quiver of anticipation ran through me as I leafed carefully through the quires of ancient skin. They felt rough and smelled vaguely of dust and decay; against my fingertips they were frighteningly delicate, yet durable. I marveled at the patterns, insensible to my untrained eye, written across the pages in handmade ink, pausing to wonder at the tiny holes, eaten through by bookworms (which I didn’t know actually existed before this class), and felt a sense of profound privilege to be handling something so old.

Abbie and I partnered up for this assignment. We chose St. Mary’s College MS 3, a Book of Hours created around Amiens, France between 1450- 1478. The Féron family of Haut Picardie owned it initially. Later, it ended up with the Grisel family, who owned it until 1586. A Book of Hours is something that would have been precious to a household or institution, and handled daily by laypeople. I was drawn to a beautifully illustrated and illuminated page, the beginning of a chapter, judging by the large initial, complete with rubrication and tiny, nearly microscopic detail. I looked up at Abbie, an expression of wide-eyed admiration still lingering, and murmured, “I want to be a crazy person and do this page.” Despite the intricacy of the folio, the blankness of its corresponding page, and the time commitment neither of us felt we had room for, Abbie agreed to the challenge.

A close up the verso and recto sides of the folios reproduced for this project. St. Mary’s College MS 3, fols. 70v-71r. Published with permissions from St. Mary’s College’s Cushwa-Leighton Library.

We split up the work according to our talents. Having some training in art, I took up the task of illustrating. Being analytical in mind and capable of producing impeccable handwriting, Abbie chose to line and rule the pages and work with the calligraphy. Abbie knew a small amount of Latin, but not enough to make sense of the words written down; I could not even decipher the handwriting, let alone the language. Devoid of meaning, the words were reduced to lines and strokes and flourishes. Abbie did not try to piece letters together into a sensible word; she just followed the information her eye gathered about the lines, and worked from there. It is difficult to say, in the end, whether the absence of meaning made her challenge more difficult or not.

The task of illustrating seemed enormously risky. I stared down at the blank piece of animal skin, shot through with blue veins (meaning the animal wasn’t bled properly, a phrase that makes me cringe) and felt my anxiety mounting. I didn’t want to waste this material; it felt too precious. “I’m sorry, Mr. Sheep,” I said as I dipped my goose feather in the ink, reflecting on how often scribes had to rely on the bodies of animals. I guess the best thing I can do is make something from your sacrifice, I thought. My vegetarian sentiments aside, I finally worked up the nerve to press the tip of my quill to the parchment. Once I made that first line, things became easier— therapeutic even, as I let myself sink into the work.

Reproduction of St. Mary’s College MS 3 completed by Dalanie Beach and Abbie Spica.

We made plenty of mistakes. Because I had, in my eagerness to begin the project, illustrated the background before Abbie added text, she was forced to work around the images in a way that limited her ability to correct errors. This caused some of our text to appear crowded. We also erred in making the first line of script black rather than rubricated, and thus had to go in later with red acrylic and paint over the letters. This was, Professor Noonan informed us, accurate to how a true scribe might have corrected such an error. Other mistakes occurred along the way, including smudged red ink, failed erasures using sandpaper, and slightly off-kilter illustrations. Minim confusion, Abbie confessed, was also something she struggled with. Nevertheless, we pulled through and found that, as a whole, the process was enjoyable for both of us.

When we had finished with the essential lettering and illustrations, we decided to add a few flourishes. Abbie re-created a hole on the blank left page using an X-acto knife and sandpaper, smoothing it down to make it as realistic as possible. I added color to the edges of the folios, to give our fresh parchment a more “aged” look, and imitated ink stains and blemishes on the surface of the original. These were added mostly for aesthetic purposes, rather than accuracy— so that our finished product was more of an adaptation of our chosen folios rather than a true reproduction.

We had created a work of art.

Written by Dalanie Beach
Edited by Abbie Spica
St. Mary’s College

Poetic Nuance in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by Margaret Quinn

http://33.media.tumblr.com/a70e4eb97756c33a9eefd3b20f163dbb/tumblr_nkc9y9xiOP1u0k6deo2_500.gif
source: http://33.media.tumblr.com

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (1.250-278):

Þenn Arþour bifore þe hiȝ dece þat auenture byholdez,
And rekenly hym reuerenced, for rad was he neuer,
And sayde, ‘Wyȝe, welcum iwys to þis place, [folio 94v]
Þe hede of þis ostel Arthour I hat;
Liȝt luflych adoun and lenge, I þe praye,
And quat-so þy wylle is we schal wyt after.’
‘Nay, as help me,’ quoþ þe haþel, ‘he þat on hyȝe syttes,
To wone any quyle in þis won, hit watz not myn ernde;
Bot for þe los of þe, lede, is lyft vp so hyȝe,
And þy burȝ and þy burnes best ar holden,
Stifest vnder stel-gere on stedes to ryde,
Þe wyȝtest and þe worþyest of þe worldes kynde,
Preue for to play wyth in oþer pure laykez,
And here is kydde cortaysye, as I haf herd carp,
And þat hatz wayned me hider, iwyis, at þis tyme.
Ȝe may be seker bi þis braunch þat I bere here
Þat I passe as in pes, and no plyȝt seche;
For had I founded in fere in feȝtyng wyse,
I haue a hauberghe at home and a helme boþe,
A schelde and a scharp spere, schinande bryȝt,
Ande oþer weppenes to welde, I wene wel, als;
Bot for I wolde no were, my wedez ar softer.
Bot if þou be so bold as alle burnez tellen,
Þou wyl grant me godly þe gomen þat I ask
bi ryȝt.’
Arthour con onsware,
And sayd, ‘Sir cortays knyȝt,
If þou craue batayl bare,
Here faylez þou not to fyȝt.’
Source: http://quod.lib.umich.edu

My Translation:

Then Arthur, before the high dais, that adventure/strange happening beheld
And courteously greeted him, for afraid was he never,
And said: “Knight, welcome indeed to this place.
The head of this hostel, Arthur I am called.
Dismount graciously down and stay, I pray thee,
And what your will is, we shall learn after.”
“Nay, so help me,” said the knight, “He that on high sits,
To dwell any while in this abode was not my errand;
But for the renown of thee, Prince, is lifted up so high
And your castle and your knights are held [to be] best,
Stiffest/Strongest under steel-gear on steeds to ride,
The strongest and the worthiest of the world’s offspring,
Valiant to play with in other noble games,
And here is shown that courtesy, as I have heard mention of–
And that has brought me here, certainly, at this time
You may be safe by this branch that I bear here
That I pass as in peace and seek no plight;
For had I set out in company in a fighting fashion,
I have a hauberk [plate of armor] at home and a helmet both,
A shield and a sharp spear, shining bright,
And other weapons to wield, I know [they are] good, also;
But for I don’t want there to be, my clothing is gentler.
But if thou would be so bold as all men say [you are],
Thou will grant me goodly the game that I ask
By right.”
Arthur did answer
And said: “Sir courteous knight,
If thou crave bare battle,
Here you will not fail to fight.”

My Analysis:

The Gawain-poet takes on the Arthurian and the alliterative traditions in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, as is aptly demonstrated in this passage from lines 250-278. In this scene, Arthur addresses the mysterious Green Knight who appears at the entrance to his hall. The poet begins the passage, noting “þat auenture” standing before Arthur’s court (1.250). This adventure, or marvel, alludes to the same “meruayle þat he he myȝt trawe, / Of alderes, of armes, of oþer auenturus” that Arthur seeks earlier before being seated for dinner (1.94-95). Arthur’s request for a tale of adventure is a traditional aspect of Arthurian literature. In this poem, however, it is revealed as a potentially childish request, as the poet takes on the tradition, exaggerating the adventure to one more dangerous and real than Arthur would perhaps have originally desired.

The poet is also successful in portraying the noble courtesy that was traditional behavior for knights. Line 251 emphasizes this type of courtly behavior, utilizing alliteration of three words, as was custom in the alliterative tradition of the time: “And rekenly hym reuerenced, for rad was he neuer.” Arthur applies this same type of courtesy to the green guest, welcoming him, “Wyȝe, welcum iwys to þis place. /…/ Liȝt luflych adoun and lenge, I þe praye” (1.252-254). The alliterated words (wyȝe, welcum, iwys, and liȝt, luflych, lenge) emphasize the chivalric greeting given to the Green Knight, likely because of the high quality materials he wears, described in an earlier passage.

It is important to note that by addressing the Green Knight in a chivalric manner, Arthur employs the formal and respectful “þe” (1.253), in comparison to the Green Knight’s disrespectful use of “þou” (1.272). This foreshadows the sinister intentions of the Green Knight, corresponding with the likewise dual-natured description of his appearance in previous passages: the knight is ominously giant and green, but outfitted like a noble knight and is therefore difficult to define as specifically “good” or “bad.” The Gawain-poet hints at the Green Knight’s deceptive character a second time in this same passage, when the knight says Arthur’s court is “Preue for to play wyth in oþer pure laykez,” alluding to the subsequent beheading game, as “oþer pure laykez” indicates games rather than jousting (1.262). The Green Knight’s cunning deception can be seen as the Green Knight’s “oþer weppenes to welde” (1.270). The poet draws attention to these lines in the notable occurrence of translinear alliteration. Lines 270 and 271 both alliterate on long vowel sounds that begin with “w”: “Ande oþer weppenes to welde, I wene wel, als; / Bot for I wolde no were, my wedez ar softer.” The poet’s emphasis on these lines indicate to the reader that the Green Knight’s focus on appearance of clothing as indicative of his nature is important—should the knights trust that the Green Knight’s clothing and appearance can guarantee his real intent? Yet again, the poet serves at a critic of the court, suggesting a childish gullibility within it.

Marie Borroff handles this passage well in her translation, maintaining most key aspects of the passage’s stylistic nuances. There are, however, significant alterations that sacrifice some of the poem’s integrity. Perhaps most significantly, her translation foregoes much of the allusions to the malevolent character of the Green Knight. Most obviously, this is lost where Borroff replaces both the words “þe” and “þou” with the umbrella-word, “you.” Any nuance in tone is erased with this replacement, resulting in a much more deferential Green Knight. The Green Knight’s previously discussed use of “ȝou” to address Arthur reveals the costume nature of his attire, as his language here disagrees with the noble appearance of his attire. A true knight would be required to behave and speak in the same chivalric fashion Arthur displays.

Her choice of “you” is problematic in another instance in the passage, when Arthur returns the favor to the Green Knight, addressing him, “If þou craue batayl bare, / Here faylez þou not to fyȝt” (277-278). Arthur addresses the Green Knight with a reciprocating “þou” twice within the wheel structure; evidently the poet wants to draw attention to this change in language coming from Arthur. Borroff misses this emphasis on his change in tone when she uses the less nuanced “you,” writing “If contest here you crave, / You shall not fail to fight.” It is, however, important to note that there aren’t many modern equivalents for Borroff to choose from in terms of polite and impolite forms of “you,” so her loss can easily be attributed not to any oversight on her part, but to a true lack of modern equivalent English to select from.

Borroff further fails in her portrayal of the Green Knight when she substitutes words and phrases so as to maintain the alliterative pattern of her translation. She translates “Preue for to play wyth in oþer pure laykez” (1.262) to “And peerless to prove in passages of arms.” While her translation succeeds in maintaining the rhythmic and alliterative integrity of the original, the meaning is twisted in such a way that it loses its original allusion to the beheading game (oþer pure laykez). Yet again, the Green Knight is portrayed without key allusions to his deception, losing the poetic nuance of foreshadowing.

This occurs again in line 266: “Þat I passe as in pes and no plyȝt seche.” Borroff’s translation, “That I pass here in peace, and would part friends,” again prioritizes the alliterative style over meaning, and the Green Knight becomes the friendly giant, wishing to befriend the court before him. He assures them that his bearing of a traditional Christmas branch indicates his desire for peace, as was custom at the time. This is certainly not the case, as he, in reality, wishes to deceive and test them. The original verse is much more ambiguous, for it is unclear as to whose plight he does not seek—probably, he seeks no plight for himself and merely allows the possibility that there be none for the other knights, should they, of course, pass his test. This is yet another key example of the Green Knight waving the falsity of his appearance in the naïve court’s faces; he almost mocks the act of bearing a branch to represent peace and toying with the youthful naïveté of Arthur’s court. These nuances are all sacrificed in Borroff’s representation of the Green Knight, yielding the loss of poetic foreshadowing and poetic critique within the poem.

The poet’s role as a potential critic of the court is made less pronounced in line 250 of Borroff’s translation, where she omits the word “auenture,” choosing “entrance” instead. This decision erases the implication that Arthur’s previously desired tale of marvel and adventure has been presented through the arrival of the Green Knight. The irony of the entire matter is lost and the poet loses one of his key criticisms. It is perhaps fitting, given her failure to portray the Green Knight’s allusions to his dangerous intentions, that she fail to present him as Arthur’s “auenture” to begin with. This alteration, along with many others, is very slight but also very pronounced when closer readings of the original text lend to truly wonderful poetic devices and subtleties that the translation simply lacks. The greatest attributes of the Gawain-poet are his nuanced and intricate style, playing performer, insider, and critic for and of the court, all at once. Borrof’s choices may have reflected ones necessary to best reproduce the poem in its stylistic character with a meaning as close to the original as possible, but her selections reveal the impossibility of doing so while maintaining the original’s subtle and well-crafted overtones.

https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/028edb54fb55e2450bd8f6277cc7b8bd622445865aa988f9e3bfcc38d092bfc1.gif
The knights’ likely attitude upon seeing the Green Knight enter their hall. Source: https://uploads.disquscdn.com.
http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/.a/6a00d8341c464853ef0167694970d9970b-pi
Original illustration in the Pearl-manuscript. Source: http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/.

 

 

Visceral Moments in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, by Elizabeth Kennedy

My translation of lines 1581-1600:

Til the knight came himself, urging on his horse,
Saw him wait at bay, beside his men.
He dismounts beautifully, leaves his horse,
Draws out a bright sword and strides forth powerfully.
Goes swiftly through the ford where the fierce one waits.
The wild animal was aware of the man with the weapon in hand,
The hair raised up on end; he snorted so fiercely
That the many feared for the knight, lest the worst befall him.
The boar charges straight at the man,
That the man and the boar were both in a heap
In the strongest current of the water. The other had the worst,
For the man marks him well, as they first met,
Firmly sets the blade exactly in the hollow at the base of the throat,
Struck him up to the hilt, that the heart breaks apart
And snarling he yielded to him and was carried downstream
Quite quickly.
A hundred hounds seized him,
That fiercely biting him;
The men brought him to the bank
And the dogs condemn him to death.

Original Text:

Til the knyȜt com hymself, kachande his blonk,
SyȜ hym byde at þe bay, his burnez bysyde.
He lyȜtes luflych adoun, leuez his corsour,
Braydez out a bryȜt bront and brigly forth strydez.
Foundez fast þurȜ þe forth þer þe felle bydez..
þe wylde watz war of þe wyȜe with weppen in honde,
Hef hyȜly þe here; so hetterly he fnast
þat fele ferde for þe freke, lest felle hym þe worre.
þe swyn settez hym out on þe segge euen,
þat þe burne and þe bor were boþe vpon hepez
In þe wyȜtest of þe water. Þe worre hade þat oþer,
For þe mon merkkez hym wel, as þay mette fyrst,
Set sadly þe scharp in þe slot euen,
Hit hym vp to þe hult. Þat þe hert schyndered
And he Ȝarrande hym Ȝelde and Ȝedoun þe water
Ful tyt.
A hundreth houndez hym hent,
þat bremely con hym bite;
Burnez him broȜt to bent
And doggez to dethe endite.

Analysis:

This section of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is from the second hunting scene. These action packed scenes of the men hunting various animals are interjected by scenes of Bertilak’s wife trying to seduce Sir Gawain in his bed each morning. Here we have interesting interplay between two different kinds of aggressors. It presents two manifestations of the passions of raw human nature, the sexual and the violent, while showing their overlap. On the one hand, we have the male aggressors hunting deer and boars for sport, and then we have the female sexual aggressor who is performing her husband’s wishes as she tries to seduce Gawain. The fast-paced violent action of the hunting scenes makes the scenes with Bertilak’s wife all the more intense and intimate. Bertilak also seems to be channeling his sexual energy and frustrations about his quest into the hunt. In the original text, through the vivid imagery and the fact that Bertilak has an audience of men who are holding their breath as he attacks the boar, the reader gets a real sense of the drama of  the scene.

Formally, there is a lot going on in this section of the poem which is true of Gawain as a whole; some elements include effective imagery, intentional alliteration, and allusions to elsewhere in the text. The most important part of this passage for me is how the Gawain-poet elicits visceral reactions through vivid sensual imagery. The reader can see the violent battle between the knight and the boar, experience the fear of both opponents, feel the anxiety rolling off the watching men, and, in the last line, the reader is repulsed and oddly satisfied by the final depiction of the dogs ending the boar. I will look into a few of these images in greater detail in comparison with Marie Borroff’s translation later in this blog post. As is the case throughout the entire poem, alliteration plays a huge part in conveying tone and meaning—and this section is no exception. One of my favorite instances of this occurs at line 1594, which reads, “Hit hym vp to þe hult. Þat þe hert schyndered.” With this forceful repetition of the “h” sound, the reader can almost hear the exhalation or gasp of the boar as Gawain strikes him. This also shows how reading the poem aloud can emphasize this effect of the words. Another interesting aspect to the Gawain-poet is that he cleverly foreshadows and references other moments in the story throughout the entire poem. In line 1593, the Gawain poet writes “Set sadly þe scharp in þe slot euen.” The careful aim and powerful movement of Bertilak in this line recalls the how Gawain beheads the Green Knight at the beginning of the poem.

Overall, in comparing my translation with Marie Borroff’s, I noticed that there are fewer words in her modernized text. In this way, she still makes the encounter seem dramatic, but it is more about the conflict of the generic “Man versus Beast,” rather than the specific knight and boar. If we directly translate the passage, we get Bertilak’s own sense of urgency and the more visceral descriptions of the boar’s death. In this way, the Gawain-poet’s text is more immediate, intense, and personal. By looking at some of the problematic passages I found in the Borroff translation, I will show how her attempt for lyrical and relatable poetic language precludes the reader from gaining a true sense of the poem.

For example, in line 1593, Borroff translates the phrase “Slips in the blade,” while I translated “Firmly sets the blade.” The effect of Borroff’s is to make it sound like Bertilak slipped the blade easily and even gently into the boar’s neck, like sticking a knife in pudding. In my translation, you see how Bertilak has to use force and precision as he makes the killing blow. It gives him greater agency and power, and seems like a more triumphant moment.

Then in line 1595, we see the aftermath of the boar’s shattered heart. Borroff translates the phrase, “he falls in his fury,” while I said “and snarling he yielded.” Borroff’s phrasing recalls the language of epic poetry, with heaven and hell imagery as he falls dramatically. In my more direct translation, the boar’s death is much more rooted in reality. You understand the feeling that the boar is unwillingly yielding to the knight’s wishes. The knight is, once again, more of an active agent inflicting powerful force on the boar, forcing the boar to give in. This boar is violently aggressive and protests vocally until the end.

Another problem for Borroff is her attempt to recreate an alliterative structure. Sometimes she does a nice job with either repeating the same consonant from the original text or choosing a sound with a similar effect, but she is not always that successful. In line 1583, the Middle English reads “He lyȜtes luflych adoun, leuez his corsour.” Instead of writing alliteratively, Borroff tries to retain the language of the Gawain poet by translating, “Lightly he leaps down, leaves his courser.” Because of this, Borroff alienates the modern reader by using an unfamiliar word for horse without even using it for her own alliterative purposes. Then, in line 1596 the Gawain-poet writes, “A hundreth houndez hym hent.” Borroff translates the line, “Hounds hasten by the score.” She has the repetition of the “h” in the two first words, but the latter half of the line completely lacks any alliteration. To her credit, Borroff keeps relatively the same number of syllables and captures the fast pace of the moment in the story. She does not, however, maintain the original effect of the alliteration. In the original, there is a gasping quality of the “h” which makes you hear the hounds pant as they sprint to the kill.

Lastly, in line 1600, Borroff  says, “And dogs pronounce him dead.” The verb choice makes it seem like the dogs ran over to the boar and listened for his failed heartbeat. It completely removes any sense of aggression and action. I, however, chose to phrase it with “and the dogs condemn him to death.” This infuses power in the dog’s instinctual action as well as a sort of dark primal form of justice to the text.

In general, the Borroff translation is softened, with language that is trying to be poetic and flow smoothly, but unfortunately it simply softens the visceral effect of the poem. As is so often the trouble with translation, we have to make choices for what we can keep from an original text. We have to pick and choose certain elements: the original meaning of the words, the formal structure, or the tone- to name a few. Unfortunately, as Billy Murray demonstrates while gallivanting around Toyko with a young Scarlett Johansson, some things are just Lost in Translation.

Momentum and Power Swing in the Confrontation, by Michael Duffey

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.