Undergrad Wednesdays – War and Tests of Will

[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.]

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Lines 279-300
“Nay, frayst I no fyȝt, in fayth I þe telle;
Hit arn aboute on þis bench bot berdlez chylder.
If I were hasped in armes on a heȝe stede,
Here is no mon me to mach, for myȝtez so wayke.
Forþy I craue in þis court a Crystemas gomen,
For hit is Ȝol and Nwe Ȝer, and here ar ȝep mony.
If any so hardy in þis hous holdez hymseluen,
Be so bolde in his blod, brayn in hys hede,
Þat dar stifly strike a strok for anoþer,
I schal gif hym of my gyft þys giserne ryche,
Þis ax, þat is heué innogh, to hondele as hym lykes,
And I schal bide þe fyrst bur as bare as I sitte.
If any freke be so felle to fonde þat I telle,
Lepe lyȝtly me to, and lach þis weppen–
I quit-clayme hit for euer, kepe hit as his auen–
And I schal stonde hym a strok, stif on þis flet,
Ellez þou wyl diȝt me þe dom to dele hym an oþer
And ȝet gif hym respite,
A twelmonyth and a day.
Now hyȝe, and let se tite
Dar any herinne oȝt say.”

My Translation:
“Nay, I do not seek to fight, in truth I tell you;
There are about on these benches only beardless children.
Were I in full arms on a high steed,
There is nobody here to match me, for their powers are so weak.
Therefore, I ask for a Christmas game in this court,
For it is Yule and New Year, and there are many brisk youths.
If anyone in this house considers himself so bold,
Be so bold in his blood, so mad in his head,
That dares to fearlessly exchange one strike for another,
I shall give him as my gift this battle axe,
This ax, that is heavy enough, to handle as he likes,
And I shall bide the first blow as I sit without armor.
If any man be so bold as to try what I propose,
Leap swiftly to me, and grab hold of this weapon,
I renounce it forever, let him keep it as his own,
And I shall stand and take a stroke from him, unflinching on the floor,
Provided that he will give me the right to deal him another
In my turn,
And yet give him respite,
Twelve months and a day.
Now hasten, and let me quickly see
If anyone dare to take up the game.”

British Library MS Cotton Nero A.x; f.90/94v.

King Arthur’s laughter danced through his great hall, infusing all the knights and ladies with such mirth, before a giant of a green man and his steed burst through the doors. He wore neither a helmet nor hauberk, and his gaze was so lightning sharp it seemed as if no man could survive his glances. This Green Knight then began to speak: “The praise of you, prince, is puffed up so high, / And your court and your company are counted the best” (Borroff 258-9). He proceeds by presenting a challenge to King Arthur’s Round Table, asking not for a fight, but rather for a game in order to test Camelot’s powerful reputation. This passage in which the Green Knight dares any man bold enough to enter his game serves as a prime example of the author’s talented use of consonance and alliteration as well as warlike imagery to sculpt his poem.

Each alliterative line in this passage contains the repetition of a consonant. Prefacing his proposal, the Green Knight says, “frayst I no fyȝt, in fayth I þe telle” (279), which translates to “to fight, in good faith, is far from my thought” (Borroff 279). The combination of consonance and alliteration works not only to highlight the statement but also to give the knight a strong, almost harsh tone with the “f” repetition. His tone is established in other lines as well: “Here is no mon me to mach, for myȝtez so wayke” (282), the Green Knight claims, meaning, “For measured against mine, their might is puny.” Every “m” word, each repetition, gives rise to the opportunity to re-emphasize the power of the Green Knight over the court of Camelot at this moment due to his superior “myȝtez.” When he explains how the game works, how whoever comes forward will strike at him with his axe, the knight again talks of his strength of character: “And I schal stonde hym a strok, stif on þis flet” (294), which translates as, “And I shall stand him a stroke, steady on this floor.” Essentially, by focusing on the lines within this passage that feature alliteration and consonance, a better understanding of the Green Knight as a very strong and very confident character emerges.

In addition, this passage contains engaging warlike imagery that helps to create a picture in the reader’s mind of how sharply the Green Knight’s savage game contrasts with the youthful mirth of King Arthur’s court. Take, for instance, how the knight calls the people of the court “beardless children” (280). These gentlemen and ladies are meant to stand as examples of the true greatness of the realm; yet within moments the Green Knight bluntly dismisses them as frivolous children who do not possess the strength or the boldness to defend Camelot. Another example are the lines: “If any so hardy in þis hous holdez hymseluen, / Be so bolde in his blod, brayn in hys hede, / Þat dar stifly strike a strok for an oþer” (285-7), or, “If any in this house such hardihood claims, / Be so bold in his blood, his brain so wild, / As stoutly to strike one stroke for another.” Here, the knight further describes the sense of daring and courage necessary for a man to enter the game, and he does so in such a way as to inspire an image of a man like himself, an almost-giant who boldly ventures into his enemy’s territory without armor. Readers can then call upon the prolific descriptions of the Green Knight and his horse earlier in the poem to enhance the imagery of both the confrontation between the knight and the court as well as the kind of knight who will step forward to take up the axe. These two examples serve to underscore how the author of the poem skillfully selects words that together paint a visual picture of the court, its people, the Green Knight, and the perfect knight who will accept the challenge.

The above English translations of the poem come from Marie Borroff, a renowned poetic translator. In the introduction to her translation, she writes, “I have done my best during the entire process of translation to attend carefully and respectfully to the exact sense of the poem at every turn, though I have inevitably had at times to decide what was essential in a given line” (Borroff xiii). Despite even Borroff’s best efforts, disagreements over her choices exist. For instance, she translates “myȝtez” (282) as “might” where I chose “powers” in my translation. By using “might,” Borroff maintains the consonant alliteration, but I decided on “powers” because I wanted to refer to the idea of an overarching power game between good and evil throughout the poem. “Might” did not convey that same meaning in my opinion. Another example is the word “hardy” (285), which Borroff and I translate as “bold.” Even though she and I both ultimately chose “bold,” it is important to highlight the other potential translations of the word “hardy”: brave, harsh, stubborn, oppressive, and violent. Each of these describes the Green Knight more than his future opponent, Gawain; yet perhaps these words describe what Gawain might become during and after the challenge. Overall, Borroff provides a solid translation of this passage, though in some cases, the layers of meanings are lost along with the stylistic devices.

The Green Knight fearlessly throws down the gauntlet before King Arthur and his knights of the Round Table. Through the alliteration of consonants, the warlike imagery, and the word choices in the poem and its translation, the knight stands as an indomitable force that tests the seemingly superior reputation of Camelot.

Shannon Bugos
University of Notre Dame

Undergrad Wednesdays – An Ugly, Bad Witch

[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.]

A mensk lady on molde mon may hir calle, for Gode!

Dorothy may well have been familiar with Gawain and the Green Knight. When asked whether she is a good witch or a bad witch, the poor girl responds, “I’m not a witch at all. Witches are old and ugly,” perhaps referring to the foul description of Morgan le Fay found in the fourteenth-century Arthurian poem (quoted in full at the end of this article). Glinda, however, may have read the same passage with a greater level of moral heavy-handedness: “Only bad witches are ugly.”

Dorothy and Gawain both challenge green villains – hers an ugly woman, his a fiercely handsome man. At the end of his adventure, however, Gawain learns that the Green Knight derived both his purpose and his greenness from Morgan; ultimately both heroes come up against someone old, ugly, female, and bad.

Morgan makes her loathsome appearance hand-in-hand with the beautiful wife of Bertilak; the two women are contrasted through Gawain’s judgmental male gaze – he sexualizes their physical differences, just as Glinda moralizes the appearances of the witches of Oz. Marie Borroff’s translation of the passage is generally accurate, but she constantly weakens the all-important comparisons which, in the original, so vividly reveal Gawain’s misogynistic mind.

The passage begins in line 941: “Þenne lyst þe lady to loke on þe knyȝt.” Borroff translates “lyst,” which means only “it pleases [her]” to the melodramatic “longed,” which confuses the wife’s motivations from the very start. The wife’s attitude toward Gawain is meant to be ambivalent throughout; twists and turns in the story make it unclear whether she loves him or is merely playing a trick on him. Perhaps Borroff had already transitioned into Gawain’s perspective; the deluded, conceited Gawain already assumes that the lady “longs” to look at him. If so, she has moved into his head too early; “lyst,” neutral as it is, is one of the few verbs we can ascribe to the wife’s true motivations.

Two lines later, the poet has leapt into Gawain’s judgmental gaze: “Ho watz þe fayrest in felle, of flesche and of lyre / And of compass and color and costs, of alle oþer” (943-4). Borroff, however, has left Gawain’s head: “The fair hues of her flesh, her face and her hair / And her body and bearing were beyond praise.” Gawain, in the original, is already comparing women; female beauty for him is always relative. In translation, praising the lady is “beyond” the talent of the narrator, but she is not compared to anything. Borroff’s translation of each noun, however, is admirable; though “lyre” means “cheek,” Borroff’s “hair” is closer to it in sound, and she excellently exchanges the three c-alliterations for b-alliterations. Her use of “hues,” however, is confusing, since “bearing” cannot show a “hue.”

Perhaps the most unfortunate mistranslation in this passage comes in the next line: while the poet cleverly blends adjective and noun through alliteration and assonance – “And wener þen Wenore, as þe wyse þost” – Borroff writes “And excelled the queen herself, as Sir Gawain thought” (945). Borroff’s line employs no alliteration; while she could not use the poet’s w-alliteration, she could have used g-alliteration: “more gorgeous/gracious than Guinevere,” which would also alliterate with “Gawain.” Even this g-alliteration loses the incredible similarity between “wener” and “Wenore” which makes Gawain’s unforgiving comparison of the two women so powerful that it extends even to the level of spelling.

The next line’s mistranslation is debatably even worse: from “Ho ches þurȝ þe chaunsel to cheryche þat hende,” to “He goes forth to greet her with gracious intent” (946). Again, Borroff robs the wife of one of her few verbs; she is meant to “ches” to him, not the other way around. The Pearl poet’s woman pursues Gawain with ambiguous feelings; Borroff’s woman is pursued by Gawain, a man for whom she apparently “longs.”

Finally, Morgan appears. Borroff excellently translates the next few lines, especially 949, in which Borroff maintains the h-alliteration by stretching out the verb to “held in high honor,” since modern English has no h-word for “haþelez,” “knights.” Borroff’s translation of “ȝep” and “ȝolȝe” to “fresh” and “faded” gets across the meaning and alliteration, but it loses the sexualized connotation of “ȝep” and the yellowness of “ȝolȝe” – an undesirable loss in a poem in which color symbolism is so rich and important (951).

The following lines also loses subtlety in color: in Middle English “red” meant everything from purple to pink, and while Borroff’s translation makes “red” modify the wife’s vivid clothes, the poet probably intended “red” to modify her healthy pink skin, to contrast with Morgan’s “ronkled” skin (952-3). However, Borroff’s use of f-alliteration – “Flesh hung in folds on the face of the other” – captures the unpleasant softness of elderly skin more vividly than the poet’s r-alliteration: “Rugh rankled chekez þat oþer on rolled” (953). In this rare example, the translation exceeds the original.

For the sake of alliteration, Borroff changes “Kerchofes” to “a high headdress,” a confusing shift which moves the reader’s eye from the wife’s breast to her head, again de-sexualizing the imagery and removing readers further from Gawain’s gaze (954). This censorship continues when she changes “bare displayed” to “fair to behold” (955). Her wording does not do justice to the wife’s sexualized clothing – whether she is wearing it of her own choice or on her husband’s orders is not stated – nor to Gawain’s observation of it. Furthermore, for the second time, she refuses to use comparisons: the original wife’s breast is “schyrer” than the snow, while the translated wife’s breast is equal to it (956).

Borroff understandably changes “gorger” and “gered” to “wimple” and “wore,” though “wimple” is technically incorrect since it implies that the cloth wraps around the entire head (957). More oddly, Borroff changes “blake” to “swart,” a word which she annotates as “dark” (958). “Swart” blends excellently with “swaddled” and “swathed,” but it is an archaic word, and it loses the direct colorization of “blake,” which can mean “swarthy” and “black” and also carries connotations of sin. Glinda’s morality and Gawain’s sexuality cannot of course be separated; Gawain is also searching Morgan for signs of evil in her ugliness, and he may find it in her “blake” chin.

It is unfortunate that the English language has lost three beautiful words which describe medieval cloth – “chymbled,” “Toret,” and “treleted” – whatever words Borroff uses can only fall short of the original (958, 960).

Borroff translates the next lines accurately, including the essential color imagery in “blake broȝes” to “black brows” and the disgusting rawness in “naked lyppez” to “naked lips” (961-2). However, in two cases she neglects to describe one half of a sensory image, which makes comparison of the two women impossible. Though she describes Morgan’s modesty, she earlier neglected to emphasize the wife’s bare skin; this visual connection is therefore severed in translation (955, 961). She also translates “soure” as “unsightly,” which not only makes the s-alliteration awkward but loses the connotation of “sour taste,” which, in the original, contrasts starkly with the “lykkerwys on to lyk,” “sweet to taste,” younger woman (963, 968). The imagery of taste is the most sexual comparison, and it appears dramatically at the end of the stanza, so its loss takes much away from the characterization of Gawain as a sexual being.

While the bob and the line above it in the original are rich with sarcasm, Borroff’s translation is simply confusing. The Pearl poet calls Morgan “mensk,” which most directly means “honored,” as an elderly person ought to be honored, but it also has connotations of “beautiful,” “honoring one’s wife or mistress,” and even “virginity” (964). Morgan’s sexual history later becomes a method of identifying and denigrating her, so the use of “mensk” here is rich with irony. The joking tone is enforced by the exclamatory bob: “For Gode!” (965) Borroff, on the other hand, writes, “A beldame, by God, she may well be deemed, / of pride!” (964-5). “Beldame” is archaic; “pride” has no source in the original; and the exclamation is lost by burying it in a longer line rather than making it the bob.

The wheel is the most obscene and saddening portrayal of women in the passage, and Borroff excellently captures its imagery and strict rhyme scheme. Gawain’s role as critical observer becomes most vivid in the last two lines: “More lykkerwys on to lyk / Watz þat scho hade on lode;” “More toothsome, to his taste / Was the beauty by her side” (968-9).

By comparing the two women, the narrator – Gawain’s mind – shows scorn for Morgan, whose blackness is not menacing enough to distract from her elderly yellowness, and desire for the wife, whose pinkness and whiteness attract the young knight. However, just as Dorothy’s initial awe for the Wizard turns out to be unfounded, Gawain’s initial impressions of the two women prove false: Morgan is powerful, and the wife’s temptation is Bertilak’s scheme. Marie Borroff’s translation fails to depict the extent to which comparisons consume both this passage and Gawain’s perspective on women. If Dorothy was familiar with Gawain, it was probably only in translation.

Gawain and the Green Knight, lines 941-969:

Þenne lyst þe lady to loke on þe knyȝt, / Then it pleased the lady to look on the knight,
Þenne com ho of hir closet with mony cler burdez. / Then she came from her closed pew with many fair ladies.
Ho watz þe fayrest in felle, of flesche and of lyre, / She was the fairest in skin, of flesh and of cheek,
And of compas and colour and costes, of alle oþer, / And of proportion and complexion and qualities, of all others.
And wener þen Wenore, as þe wyȝe þoȝt. / And more lovely than Guinevere, as the knight thought.
Ho ches þurȝ þe chaunsel to cheryche þat hende. / She made her way through the chancel to greet that man.
An oþer lady hir lad bi þe lyft honde, / Another lady led her by the left hand,
Þat watz alder þen ho, an auncian hit semed, / Who was older than her, an old lady it seemed,
And heȝly honowred with haþelez aboute. / And was highly honored by the knights around.
Bot vnlyke on to loke þo ladyes were, / But dissimilar to look upon those ladies were,
For if þe ȝonge watz ȝep, ȝolȝe watz þat oþer; / For if the younger was fresh/virile, withered/yellowish was the other;
Riche red on þat on rayled ayquere, / Rich pink was arrayed everywhere [on the skin of] on that one,
Rugh ronkled chekez þat oþer on rolled; / Rough wrinkled cheeks on that other one rolled;
Kerchofes of þat on, wyth mony cler perlez, / Kerchiefs of that one, with many clear pearls,
Hir brest and hir bryȝt þrote bare displayed, / Her breast and her pure white throat bare displayed,
Schon schyrer þen snawe þat schedez on hillez; / Shone brighter that snow that falls on the hills;
Þat oþer wyth a gorger watz gered ouer þe swyre, / That other with a gorget was covered over the neck,
Chymbled ouer hir blake chyn with chalkquyte vayles, / Wrapped up over her black chin with chalk-white veils,
Hir frount folden in sylk, enfoubled ayquere, / Her forehead wimpled in silk, covered everywhere,
Toreted and treleted with tryflez aboute, / Made with embroidered edge and latticed with fine stitching all over,
Þat noȝt watz bare of þat burde bot þe blake broȝes, / That nothing was bare of that lady but the black eyebrows,
Þe tweyne yȝen and þe nase, þe naked lyppez, / The two eyes and the nose, the naked lips,
And þose were soure to se and sellyly blered; / And those were unpleasant/sour to see and exceedingly blurred;
A mensk lady on molde mon may hir calle, / An honored/lovely/virginal lady on earth man may call her,
for Gode! / by God!
Hir body watz schort and þik, / Her body was short and thick,
Hir buttokez balȝ and brode, / Her buttocks swelling and broad,
More lykkerwys on to lyk / Sweeter to taste
Watz þat scho hade on lode. / Was she who she had with her.

Karen Neis
University of Notre Dame

Image from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s 1939 film ‘The Wizard of Oz’.

Undergrad Wednesdays – A Lovely Lady?

[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 a way, any translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a minor miracle. Translating anything is difficult because the translation must attempt to make good logical sense while simultaneously capturing the spirit of the words. This is often difficult because the connotations behind each word are different in the language that the text is being translated into. Translating Middle English is particularly difficult because many of the words that the original texts use have a plethora of possible meanings. Middle English was also written in a time when dictionaries and writing guides were not readily available for all writers; therefore translation is further complicated by inconsistent spelling. On the same page it is not uncommon to find two or three spellings of the exact same word. Without spelling books words were often written phonetically, which led to further variation in writing as individual authors spoke different dialects. The difference in dialects is comparable to the different regional variations of speech in the United States. Imagine if a Bostonian and a Southern Californian were both to write and spell exactly as they spoke: their writing would share common words, but some words would sound and look completely different. It is therefore, difficult to even identify the best rewriting of particular words, let alone capture the connotation of the line or piece as a whole. Poetry presents a challenge in any language. Its special use of word play is often filled with subtleties that even an astute fluent reader can miss. In translating poetry the tools of alliteration, rhyming, as well as word play through the use of homonyms and homographs is often lost. Therefore any translator attempting to relate the epic poem of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight faces many difficulties, and each translator will have their own individual spin.

Marie Borroff’s translation is the one most commonly found in Norton Anthologies and is widely viewed as one of the best translations. However, after reading Sir Gawain, I would like to tease out some difference between her text and the original as I understand it. Below is a side by side comparison of my own translation (on the right) and Borroff’s translation (on the left) of Part I lines 1204-1236.


One of the first things I noticed was that this rather steamy scene was significantly censored and edited so that the lady was portrayed in a more playful rather than sexually aggressive light. For example, instead of translating “I schal happe yow here þat oþer half als” as “I shall imprison you on the other side too” and choosing “I shall hem and hold you on either hand,” Borroff is closer to directly translating the words themselves, but misses the truly sexually explicit imagery that the words imply. Her chosen adjectives go with the less aggressive or unsettling meanings, as well. For instance, she has chosen to take the word “vnslyȝe” in “Ȝe ar a sleper vnslyȝe, þat mon may slyde hider” to mean “slack”. However an alternative meaning of the word is “incautious”, which warns the reader that Sir Gawain must be very cautious in this next encounter. Interestingly, on further examination Sir Gawain is similarly portrayed in a gentler light as he is described as gentle and jesting, “Thus jested in answer that gentle knight,” instead of being characterized as more war-like, “And thus he wittily answered (verbally jousted) against with many a happy laugh”. I have chosen to translate the word “bourded” in this way because of the presence of the word “aȝayn” which means against. Jesting and verbal jousting are often the same thing, however I felt like the word “against” together with “jousting” created a war-like feeling appropriate to a knight being tested.

As the differences in translating the line “And þus he bourded aȝayn with mony a blyþe laȝter” reveals, even some of the best translations cannot capture some of the word play that is occurring. “Bourded” seemed to be a variation of the word “bourden”. “Bourden” could mean exactly what Borroff suggests, according to the Middle English Dictionary, it could very well mean “to joke, jest, mock”. However the MED also gives a second possibility as “to joust,” or even more specifically, “charge (a boar) with a spear”. Clearly the second possibility cleverly links Gawain’s challenge in the bedroom with the lady, to Lord Bertilak’s ongoing hunt in the forest as one of the animals he hunts is a boar.

Another example of when the translation must unfortunately shed itself of the word play occurring is in the line “Al laȝande þe lady lauced þo bourdez”. The word “lauced” according to the glossary in the back of Gillespie, Glasscoe, and Swanton’s The Poems of the Pearl Manuscript could mean to “utter, speak” but it also has the alternate meaning “loosen, break, burst, undo, and open”. The use of this homograph helps create the sexual atmosphere of the scene. Even though the lady does not actually loosen or undo anything, the clever play on words, draws the reader’s eyes to the implicit sexually aggressive nature of the scene as a whole.

Aside from the sexual nature of the scene, which Borroff tries to make family friendly, her usage of punctuation is particularly interesting. In part, I believe that this is due to the fact that Borroff is not directly translating the text, but is attempting to make it flow in modern day English. Despite her careful use of archaic words, Borroff gives a very readable text to the modern reader. However, by slightly changing the punctuation of her text, Borroff is placing emphasis on different ideas within the passage. For example, by placing an exclamation point after “I am well content!” instead of the comma used in the original, Borroff Is stressing the knight’s content. While this may seem like a minor issue, the stress on the knight’s content makes him sound more confident and at ease than in the original. In the original he is obviously uncomfortable as he claims that he needs a certain outcome to occur, “Me schal worþe at your wille, and þat me wel lykez, For I ȝelde me ȝederly, and ȝeȝe after grace, And þat is þe best, be my dome, for me byhouez need!’”.

Therefore, while Borroff provides the world with an introduction to the story of Sir Gawain by translating it and thereby making it more approachable, her translation can be and should be critiqued. First, for some of the choices she herself makes, like the choice to downplay the sexual nature of the scene; and secondly, because of the nature of translation itself. No translation, however masterful, can capture all of the intricacies of the original.

Mercedes de la Rosa
University of Notre Dame