Undergrad Wednesdays – Examining The Violence and Victory in “Sir Gawain and The Green Knight”

[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.]

Original text, lines 1319-1339

And ay þe lorde of þe londe is lent on his gamnez,
To hunt in holtez and heþe at hyndez barayne
Such a sowme he þer slow bi þat þe sunne heldet;
Of does and of oþer dere, to deme were wonder.
Þenne fersly þay flokked in, folk, at þe laste,
And quykly of þe quelled dere a querré þay maked.
Gedered þe grattest of gres þat þer were
And didden hem derely vndo as þe dede askez.
Serched hem at þe assay summe þat þer were;
Two fyngeres þay fonde of þe fowlest of alle.
Syþen þay slyt þe slot, sesed þe erber,
Schaued wyth a scharp knyf, and þe schyre knitten.
Syþen rytte þay þe foure lymmes and rent of þe hyde;
Þen brek þay þe balé,þe bowelez out token,
Lystily for laucyng þe lere of þe knot.
Þay gryped to þe gargulun and graþely departed
Þe wesaunt fro þe wynt-hole and walt out þe guttez.
Þen scher þay out þe schulderez with her scharp knyuez,
Haled hem by a lyttel hole to haue hole sydes;
Siþen britned þay þe brest and brayden hit in twynne.
And eft at þe gargulum bigynez on þenne, […]

My Translation of lines 1319-1339

And always the lord of the land is away at his sport,
Hunting the barren hinds in the woods and heath;
He killed there such a quantity by the time the sun fell,
Of does and of other deer, it was wonderful to assess.
Then spiritedly the people assembled at last,
And quickly made a heap of game from the killed deer.
The nobles went there with many men,
Gathered the fattest that there were,
And had them gracefully cut open in the prescribed manner.
Some who were there examined them at the ‘assay;’
They found two fingers’ breadth of flesh on the poorest of them all.
Then they slit the hollow at the base of the throat,
Took hold of the gullet, scraped it with a sharp knife and tied up the flesh.
Then they slit along the four legs, and stripped off the hide;
They opened up the belly, drew the bowels,
Carefully to avoid undoing the ligature of the knot.
They seized the throat and properly separated
The gullet from the wind-pipe and tossed out the guts.
Then they cut out the shoulder-joints with their sharp knives,
Drawing them through a small hole so as to keep the sides intact.
Then they cut open the breast and divided it in two.

Part III of Sir Gawain and The Green Knight details scenes between Gawain and the Lady of Lord Bertilak alongside scenes of Lord Bertilak and his men hunting in the woods. The Pearl-Poet juxtaposes the slower bedroom scenes, which focus on conversation over action, with the violent, aggressive hunting carried out by the Lord and his men. I chose to focus on the deer hunting passage to examine the intimacy it possesses, question why the poet chose to speak of the hunt with such candor and detail, and determine why his explicit explanations are powerful and necessary in the poem. In lines 1319 to 1339, the lord engages in the hunt itself, returns with several other individuals to the castle, and begins to dismember the multiple carcasses they accumulated on their journey. The blunt, vivid manner in which the poet discusses the deer is unsettling, yet intriguing for readers. Vocabulary such as “slit,” “stripped,” and “seized” is dramatic and gory. The poet does not attempt to soften his speech because it is not his mission to coddle or to comfort readers. These and other uses of this visceral language force readers to visualize the carnage and does not give them an opportunity to look away.

The power and pure, physical strength of the noblemen is evident throughout this passage, as they swiftly kill hundreds of deer, animals that often represent innocence. This sport was not merely a simple pastime, but was a source of pride and prestige for these men. According to the book, hunting skills were praised because individuals viewed them as aristocratic accomplishments. These skills displayed a man’s ability to master that which was below him and to do so with ease. Here, the male dominates the doe. Back in the bedroom, it is the woman who acts as the female aggressor and assumes power over Gawain, the male. Much of the poem discusses who has the power or opportunity to act and how they choose to wield that power. Here is no exception. The stanza’s repetitive structure emphasizes that it is the men that possess control over the animal, as nearly every line begins with “they” and proceeds to detail how they cut or sliced the deer lying before them. The process may seem monotonous, but each individual cut and chop is just as significant and horrific as the first.

In addition to examining my personal translation, I also read Marie Borroff’s translation of the text. While some of her version was true to the original text, parts were problematic, as they eliminated much of the brutality and streamlined the harsher vocabulary to produce a more pleasing end result. From the beginning, her translation fails to include the same information present in the poet’s text. While my translation reads, “And always the lord of the land is away at his sport,” hers reads, “And the lord of the land rides late and long.” Though Borroff succeeds in maintaining the alliteration in her version, she does not indicate that the lord is engaging in his sport, nor does she specify the normalcy of this action. My translation highlights the fact that this behavior is routine for the lord, while Borroff’s gives the lord little ownership of the game. His passion for and time given to this game is significant and explains why the poet chooses to explore the event in detail rather than sum up all that occurs in a few lines. This hunt has meant and continues to mean something to the lord, so therefore it should mean something to us reading, and we should have the opportunity to fully experience his journey alongside him. Simplifying the line and maintaining the original structure should not be done at the expense of the poem’s actual content.

In line 1329, a slight vocabulary change is not only inaccurate in tone, but it is also not faithful to the meaning found in the medieval text. Rather than referring to the deer as the “poorest of them all,” Borroff states that the men began to cut open the “leanest.” If an animal is lean, then it is healthy. Poor does not equal healthy. The “poorest of them all” could indicate that the animal looked sickly, small, or it may address the animal as a victim. The leanest may instead look visually appealing to the hunters. This animal is the poorest, as it is the primary animal to suffer under the knives of the men. Referring to the animal as poor acknowledges its existence, gives it agency, and offers sympathy. Calling it lean merely remarks on its size and stature. These two words are not synonymous, so the intent of the poet is not evident here in Borroff’s work.

A discrepancy in line 1332 is also worth noting. While my translation reads that the number of does and deer “was wonderful to assess,” Borroff states that the amount of animals “would dizzy one’s wits.” The first indicates that the sheer amount of deer that the men collected should inspire awe. It remarks on those given the opportunity and, ultimately, the gift of witnessing this in person. Borroff’s, however, comments on the magnitude of the number, but not on the majestic or inspiring qualities it possesses. Just as Borroff failed to capture the lord’s relationship with the sport, she does not portray the same feeling of merriment my translation does. While this detail may not have severe consequences for the poet’s intent or meaning of the section as a whole, it is important to describe the scene to the best of one’s ability and to attest to the positive energy that clearly filled the room, no matter how violent the acts they soon commit.

Borroff’s oversimplification occurs again several lines later when the men return to the castle to take apart the deer carcasses. Line 1330 in my translation reads: “Then they slit the hollow at the base of the throat,” while Borroff’s line is, “Then they split the slot open and searched out the paunch.” Again, Borroff includes alliteration in the line, but differing from the other line, she decided to keep a Middle English term in her translation rather than adapt the text for a Modern English reader. She keeps “slot” rather than changing to “base at the hollow of the throat.” The term “slot” is vague and offers little description of where the men are now cutting into the deer. The “base at the hollow of the throat” is more explicit and emphasizes the vulnerability of this animal. It conveys the intimacy of this moment between man and beast. The phrase “split the slot” over “slit the hollow” sounds especially safe, as though she is hoping to shield readers from the piercing and stabbing, even though these actions are natural and what must happen to complete the hunting process. Borroff also speaks of an incorrect body part in this particular line by stating they look at the “paunch”, or abdomen, rather than the “gullet,” meaning esophagus. It is confusing why she chose to skip to another body part altogether when the poet purposefully dedicates a generous amount of time to the throat as it is one of the weakest and most exposed parts of any creature. The dominance of the males over the susceptible deer should be blatant and overdrawn, not watered down by a translation that sometimes chooses to merely include the main idea without delving into excessive detail.

Line 1323 contains a seemingly minor vocabulary change, but one that interestingly represents Borroff’s translation as a whole. My translation reads: “Then spiritedly the people assembled at last,” while hers reads, “then they trooped in together in triumph at last.” Borroff retains the alliteration with small articles in between the “t” words, and the line actually resembles the sound it describes: trotting horses. While this is fine work by Borroff, she changes “spiritedly” to “in triumph” in her translation, which I find troublesome because “triumph” emphasizes a definite win over someone or something lesser. While the hunters did triumph over the deer, the poet does not emphasize this point until later when he begins to detail the cutting and slicing of the deer. Before the first deer is selected, the men are spirited and seem celebratory, but their great triumph is not made entirely obvious. Throughout Borroff’s translation, she chooses to compromise some of the vocabulary in order to keep the lines alliterative; however, the hunters’ success should be made evident through the total control they soon demonstrate over the animals, not by the manner in which they return to the castle.

It is a testament to the poet’s superior talent and skill that Sir Gawain and The Green Knight is still read and translated by students and professionals alike. While overall Marie Borroff offers a detailed, authentic translation of the poet’s text, she at times chooses to connect with modern English readers rather than capturing the poem’s true essence that the author so greatly executed. She sometimes chose to focus on rhythm rather than gauging the appropriate tone and opted to soften her language to erase some of the overwhelming violence prevalent in the text. However, modern readers are not or should not be as sensitive as she believes them to be. Rather, she should highlight the terror in the poem because no one can totally escape from or should be ignorant to the unpleasant aspects of life, whether real or imaginary.

Sarah Dieckman
University of Notre Dame

Undergrad Wednesdays – Lost in Translation: The Thrill of the Hunt

[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.]
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The original text of lines 1330-1358 of “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” beside my translation of those lines.

The medieval epic poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Gawain) offers a number of plots and subplots designed to garner the interest of the poet’s 14th century English audience. Yet, while such medieval happenings may have kept Gawain’s original audiences on the edge of their seats, the average 21st century student of literature is likely far less familiar with or interested in the ritual demands of courtly life. One such example of this disconnect can be found in lines 1330-1358 of Gawain, where the poet provides a thoroughly descriptive account of the ritualistic butchering of slaughtered deer, an important symbol of sophistication and skill for a medieval audience. In an attempt to appeal to modern readers, Marie Borroff’s translation of this passage focuses less on its original physicality and detail and fixates more singularly on recreating a medieval poetic style.

The Gawain-poet employs alliteration, an essential element of medieval English poetry, frequently throughout this passage, but Borroff’s attempts to insert it into her translation often sacrifice the detailed imagery of the original poem. The first line of this passage (line 1330), reads “Syþen þay slyt þe slot,” which translates literally to “Then they slit the hollow at the base of the throat.” Borroff translates the line as “Then they slit the slot open.” Borroff’s word choice maintains the “sl” and hard “t” sounds, the slit/slot word play, and the “s” alliteration of the original poem, all important elements of the line. However, her translation also ignores the more accurate details of the poet’s account. “Slot,” unlike “throat,” is ambiguous in this context, giving the reader no real, concrete notion of the first step in the flaying ritual. Borroff makes a similar decision in line 1331, where she translates “Schaued wyth a scharp knife, and þe schyre knitten” (“Scraped with a sharp knife, and tied the white flesh”) as “Trimmed it with trencher-knives and tied it up tight.” Like the original, the translation alliterates in this line. However, Borroff’s alliteration seems forced and makes the line sound more like a nursery rhyme than an exhibition of skilled butchery.

A medieval deer hunt from the 14th century manuscript “Livre de la chasse” by Gaston Phoebus.

Borroff’s translation of line 1331 is significant for another reason as well. She opts not to translate “schyre,” or “white flesh,” so as to allow her to more easily maintain alliteration in the line. This word, however, hearkens back to an important passage earlier in the poem, in which Gawain beheads the Green Knight. In this earlier passage, the word “schyire” (an alternative form of “schyre,” line 425) describes the bare neck of the Green Knight into which Gawain drives the axe. This word repetition draws a key parallel between Bertilak (the lead figure of this hunt) and the Green Knight, important foreshadowing for the later revelation that the two are the same person. “Schyre” appears once more in line 2313 of the poem in order to describe the “white flesh” of Gawain’s neck as it is struck by the Green Knight’s axe. The use of this word in all three of these contexts highlights the gaming nature of the three situations, drawing a near-comedic link between the entertainment purposes of the beheading scenes and the hunt. It also links all three events to the great test of Gawain’s character that frames the poem. By neglecting “schyre” entirely, Borroff excludes these important connections in the poem. However, her translation does faithfully carry over some of the other words shared by the three scenes, such as “sharp” (“scharp”), dividing or cutting (“schyndered,” “sunder,” “seuered”), head (“hede”), neck (“halce”), and others.

A depiction of the ritual flaying of captured deer from the 14th century manuscript “Livre de la chasse” by Gaston Phoebus.

Borroff also attempts to convey the medieval background of the poem by employing intentionally archaic language. In the passage, she translates the word “wesaunt” (which means “gullet”) as “weasand” (1336), “chyne” (“backbone”) as “chine” (1354), and “corbeles fee” (“raven’s fee”) as “Corbie’s bone” (1355). The choice of “chine” is especially questionable, as Borroff could have selected “spine” and both expanded her chosen alliteration and conveyed the line’s meaning more clearly. To Borroff’s credit, however, the poem’s original terminology in these cases may have been rather archaic for medieval audiences as well. Both “chyne” and “corbeles fee” come from Old French, and while “wesaunt” comes from Old English, it exhibits a notable French influence. After the Norman Conquest in 1066, French became the language of the English aristocracy, and the use of archaic French terms in this passage hints at the elite standing and high education of the poet’s intended audience. Thus, this passage raises important questions regarding the role of the translator. Should Borroff have chosen clear, more easily understandable synonyms in her translation? Or was she correct in maintaining the original, elitist vocabulary of the original passage, entirely understandable only to those intimately familiar with hunting culture?

One area in which Borroff’s translation of this passage succeeds is in her treatment of the bob and wheel in lines 1348-1352. In Gawain, the bob and wheel form the final five lines of each stanza, obey a strict ababa rhyme scheme, and often relay the major events of the poem. These lines in the original poem are masterfully lyrical through a successful combination of end rhyme, internal rhyme, alliteration, and rhythm. Although her translation does not fully capture this lyricism, Borroff provides a relatively faithful translation of these lines and captures the rhyme scheme very well. Furthermore, she abandons the strict attention to alliteration that she displays in the rest of the passage, focusing more intently on the imagery and rhyme of the lines. This shift in focus from strictly medieval styles and language to a faithful depiction of minute details allows Borroff to accurately portray the lyrical impact of these lines in the original poem.

Although Borroff’s translation seems to make only minor alterations to the original Gawain poem, her choices reflect a difference in focus between a medieval audience and the modern reader. In particular, her translation of lines 1330-1358 attempts to convey the “feel” of medieval poetry by fixating on alliteration and archaic language. However, this sacrifices the detailed imagery of the flaying scene, an important and entertaining ritual in medieval courts. By excising these details, Borroff’s translation removes some of the thrill of the hunt for modern audiences.

Casey O’Donnell
University of Notre Dame


Borroff, Marie. The Gawain Poet : Complete Works : Patience, Cleanness, Pearl, Saint Erkenwald, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. 1st ed. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2011. Print.

Hunting the Roebuck, Gaston Phoebus, Le Livre de la chasse, in French, France, Paris, ca. 1407, The Morgan Library & Museum; MS M.1044 (fol. 64). Bequest of Clara S. Peck, 1983. Image courtesy of Faksimile Verlag Luzern.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Eds. J.R.R. Tolkien and E.V. Gordon. Oxford University Press, 1968. Print.

The Poems of the Pearl Manuscript. Eds. Malcolm Andrew and Ronald Waldron. Liverpool University Press, 2007. Print.

Undoing and Breaking Up a Hart, Gaston Phoebus, Le Livre de la chasse, in French, France, Paris, ca. 1407, The Morgan Library & Museum; MS M.1044 (fol. 64). Bequest of Clara S. Peck, 1983. Image courtesy of Faksimile Verlag Luzern.

Undergrad Wednesdays – Analysis of original and translated Pearl lines 121-144

[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.]

Marie Borroff is widely considered to be the best American poetic translator of Middle English. I was skeptical of her translation abilities when I first read her modern English versions of Pearl and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight because she did not maintain the rhyme scheme as perfectly as the original, nor the alliteration. However, having attempted my own “modern English” poetic translation of Pearl, I now recognize Borroff’s tremendous skill. I attempted to translate the first two stanzas of section III (lines 121-144) of Pearl. I began by reading over the original text, provided on pages 60-61 of The Poems of the Pearl Manuscript, and translated word by word – with help from the glossary in the back of the book. When the glossary failed to illuminate the meaning of the verses, I consulted Andrew and Waldron’s prose translation. I chose to keep the twelve line stanzas and the grammar of the original, but lost the rhyme, alliteration and rhythm. Here is my translation:

In the beloved splendor of hill and valleys,
Of wood and water and fine plains,
Where I dwelled in bliss, my sorrow abated,
My stress quelled, my pains destroyed.
Down along a stream that continually flows
I went blissfully, my heart brimming with joy*;
The farther I followed those stream-filled valleys,
The greater my joy strained my heart.
As Fortune goes where she tests a person,
Whether she sends someone solace or sorrow,
The person who receives Fortune’s will
Always seeks to have more and more of the same.

There was more of prosperity in that scene
Than I could describe even if I had the time,
For a mortal’s heart could not handle
Rejoicing in just one-tenth of such joys.
Therefore I thought that paradise
Was there over the wide bank nearby;
I believed the water was a divide
Between the joy beyond the boundary and myself;
Beyond the brook, somewhere or other,
I believed that paradise was situated.
But the water was deep, I dared not wade across it,
And I longed more and more than ever.

*The Andrew and Waldron prose translation writes this as “my brains brimful [with joy]” (3), but I feel the sentiment is better demonstrated by the narrator’s “heart brimming,” rather than his brain.

The Andrew and Waldron prose translation writes this as “I supposed that the water was a division between pleasure-gardens laid out beside pools” (4), but I simply cannot find evidence for the word “pleasure-gardens” and therefore stick to my own version.

Here is the original version of the poem, edited by Andrew and Waldron:

The dubbement dere of doun and dalez,
Of wod and water and wlonk playnez,
Bylde in me blys, abated my balez,
Fordidden my stresse, dystryed my paynez.
Doun after a strem that dryʒly halez
I bowed in blys, bredful my braynez;
þe fyrre I folʒed þose floty valez,
þhe more strenghþe of joye myn herte straynez.
As fortune fares þeras ho fraynes,
Wheþer solace ho sende oþer ellez sore,
þe wyʒ to wham her wylle ho waynez
Hyttez to haue ay more and more.

More of wele watz in þat wyse
þen I cowþe telle þaʒ I tom hade,
For vrþely herte myʒt not suffyse
To þe tenthe dole of þo gladnez glade.
Forþy I þoʒt þat paradyse
Was þer over gayn þo bonkez brade;
I hoped þe water were a deuyse
Bytwene myrþez by merez made;
Byʒonde þe broke, by slente oþer slade,
I hoped þat mote merked wore.
Bot þe water watz depe, I dorst not wade,
And euer me longed ay more and more.

British Library MS Cotton Nero A.x; f. 38v. The dreamer admiring the maiden in paradise.

I chose to study these two stanzas largely because of the beauty of line 128: “Þe more strenghþe of joye muyn herte straynez.” The dreamer, in these stanzas, experiences his first sense of relief from the overwhelming grief following his daughter’s passing. He writes of the splendid hills and valleys that “bylde in me blys, abated my balez” (line 123), yet the reader never forgets the underlying tragedy of the loss of the dreamer’s daughter. The paradoxical statement that his heart strains with joy captures the narrator’s conflicting emotions – how his heart is torn between joy at the sight of paradise and sadness for his daughter’s death. Describing his heart as “straining” rather than “full” or even “bursting” adds an element of distress to the stanza, and reveals the depth of emotions portrayed. Marie Borroff, however, does not preserve the imagery of the strained heart in her translation. Instead, she writes: “The greater strength did gladness gain” (128). Her version lacks the distress of the original, and fails to present the dreamer’s mixed emotions. Borroff’s diction otherwise maintains the richness and sentiment of the original manuscript – though she translates “bredful my braynez” (line 126) to “with busy brain” for the sake of continuing the rhyme scheme, whereas I think “heart brimming with joy” better captures the essence of the verse. Other than these two instances, however, I believe that Borroff translates the Middle English to modern English quite well in these two stanzas.

Borroff preserves the linking words as well as the layout of the original poem, with twelve verse stanzas. She mostly maintains the same rhyme scheme as well. Every stanza in the original Pearl rhymes according to the pattern ababababbcbc; Borroff’s translation of the first stanza of part III maintains this pattern brilliantly. Her translation of the second stanza, however, breaks with the rhyme scheme twice, on lines 133 “prize” and 136 “joy”. The rupture of the rhyme scheme is somewhat disorienting, but given the difficulty of updating the language and keeping the rhyme, I understand that Borroff could not make it impeccable. Many scholars argue that the original poem maintains such a tight rhyme scheme because the author used this meticulousness to cope with his grief; perhaps Borroff could not achieve the same level of perfection because of a lack of drama in her personal life.

I argue, however, that Borroff’s sudden break from the rhyme scheme actually preserves the tone of the original poem. Though the poet of the original Pearl keeps the rhyme scheme throughout, there is a dramatic shift in alliteration between the first and second stanzas of part III: the first stanza contains several instances of three and even four alliterative stresses within a verse, whereas the second stanza contains only four verses with three alliterative stresses. This establishes a disconcerting effect to the rhythm: the first stanza skips along pleasantly, with verses like “The dubbement dere of doun and dalez” (121) and “I bowed in blys, bredful my braynez” (126). In the second stanza this quick, lighthearted rhythm halts, becomes disjointed, with lines like “þen I cowþe telle þaz I tom hade” (134) and “I hoped þe water were a deuyse” (139). Though I found four verses with three alliterative stresses (133, 137, 140, and 143), these serve as a reminder of the poet’s ability to alliterate, and reinforce the lack of alliteration within the other lines of the stanza. The alliteration – or lack thereof – reflects the tone of the stanzas. In the first stanza of part III, the poet describes the alleviation of his grief, and hence the alliteration mirrors the joyful scene. In the second stanza, the alliteration reduces significantly, in correspondence with the change in tone: the narrator realizes that he cannot explain paradise, because the mortal heart cannot handle the joy he saw. Furthermore, the narrator wants desperately – “more and more” (144) – to cross the brook and enter paradise, but he cannot. The second stanza, therefore, discusses the narrator’s dashed dreams and awareness of his incapacities – to enter paradise or even describe it – and the reduction of alliteration reflects this gloomy turn. Therefore, when Borroff misses two rhymes in her translation of the second stanza of part III, the rupture coincides with the tone of the original poem: it expresses the idea that something has gone wrong for the narrator, that he is no longer skipping along full of hope and optimism.

Since the original Pearl contains such dramatic four-stress lines, with three or four alliterative stressed syllables, I also decided to analyze Borroff’s treatment of these alliterations in her translation. Like the original version, Borroff provides more alliteration in the first stanza than in the second. Sometimes Borroff maintains the same alliterative sound as the original – such as updating “Of wod and water and wlonk playnez” (122) to “Were wood and water and shining plain” – therefore preserving the alliterative “w” stress. In other instances, she changes the sound but maintains the strong alliteration – for instance, she takes “Bylde in me blys, abated my balez” (123) and transforms it into “My pleasures multiplied apace” with the alliterative “p” stress instead of “b”. Though Borroff provides a decent amount of alliterative stresses, she does not achieve the same amount of skillful alliteration as does the original poet. I’m forced to conclude that, although Borroff’s translation is indeed an accomplishment, her work still falls short of the original version; not because of Marie Borroff’s own shortcomings, but rather because of the mastery exemplified by the original poet in Middle English. The original version of Pearl simply cannot be beat.

Elizabeth Orem
University of Notre Dame