Sunday, August 1, 2010

8. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight } A single line.

line 424:

Þat þe scharp of þe schalk schyndered þe bones [Middle English]

scharp = sharp blade, schalk = man, and schyndered = cleave or burst asunder

So that the sharp blade sheared through, shattering the bones [Brian Stone]

That the shock of the sharp blow shivered the bones [Marie Boroff]

So that the man’s sharp blade cut through the bones [R.A. Waldron, in a footnote]

So that the sharp blade shattered the man’s bones [A.C. Cawley, in a footnote]

Cut through bones and skin and fair [Burton Raffel]

So that the sharp edge sundered the man’s bones [W.S. Merwin]

The cleanness of the strike cleaved the spinal chord [Simon Armitage]

That man’s sharp stroke shattered the bones [Adam Golaski]

Note the location of the word “man.” Cawley and Merwin apply “man” to the Green Knight. Waldron applies “man” to “sharp blade”—which could be read as the sharp blade of the Green Knight, though at this point in the poem that sharp blade—the axe the Green Knight carried into Arthur’s hall—is in Gawain’s possession, and is Gawain's (won by accepting the Green Knight's challenge), so Waldron might be applying “man” to Gawain.

Gawain is a man. The Green Knight is not. That’s why I chose to apply “man” to Gawain.

I wrote “that man” instead of “the man” for the repeated “a” sound.

In my translation, it isn’t the blade that’s sharp, but Gawain’s stroke. Sharp is precise, but sharp is also smart—it at least seems smart to chop of the Green Knight’s head. Too bad about about the irrational supernatural.

Like Stone, I chose to shatter the bones. Shatter maintains my alliteration and is a more violent verb than sunder, sheared, shivered, cut, or cleave. My “shattered” is more aggressive than Stone’s “shattering.”

Raffel took words from surrounding lines, which is why his line is so different. Armitage’s solution was to alliterate with “c” as well as “s”—a big departure from the Gawain poet’s original line. I like Armitage’s line.

My translation of the first fitt of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is featured in this month’s Open Letter’s Monthly. My thanks to editors John Cotter and Steve Donoghue for their hard work in the service of “Green.”


  1. Does a sharp instrument shatter bones? Must a bone be frozen to really shatter? I do not think the Green Knight's bones shatter? They are of a different sort than mine. Are they even bones? If it is a sharp stroke (smart), wouldn't the cut be clean.

    Yes, too bad about the supernatural. But this whole thing is a test! How annoying it must be to be Gawain. The guy is used and abused throughout the legend. The frustration never ends.

    Love this exercise.

    My other comment just got eaten. Hope this does not become a double post.


  2. Gawain deserves all he gets.

    In my translation, it isn't the blade that's sharp but the stroke. But I suppose a dull blade would crush rather than shatter. And it's not a dull blade besides.

    So, we have Merwin's "sundered"--his line makes me sleepy--and we have Armitage's "cleaved," which is the more accurate description of what would have happened in real life, tho not the more accurate translation. His is a bit medical, isn't it?

    I'll keep your note in mind when I do my revision.

    I hope you've taken a look at the whole Fitt over at Open Letters Monthly.

    Lastly: it would only be polite to invite me to submit, perhaps as your featured poet, or at the very least to guest edit your wonderful journal past simple.

    Honi soit que mal y pence!

  3. Hi Adam,

    Me, I feel for Gawain. Guy is supposed to be the Grail Knight and then people keep piling on. Percival gets thrown in to the mix but is also flawed. Galahad: not even a man. Just a fake. And Gawain the whole time being made to dance. Green Knight embodies the whole thing. An impossible quest. A test he is set to fail. Gawain is too human. Yes, I want to live. I like Merwin's note that the mistress (forgot her name)is surprised by Gawain as though she had heard about him from other stories. Gawain has a long history of which he is continually unaware.

    And yes, how rude, I should have invited you to past simple. Please submit to past simple. I'd also like to talk with you about guest editing. That would be great.

    I have read some of GREEN. Will continue to enjoy it.


  4. Your sympathies are shared by the knights of the round table, who clearly recognize that Gawain is bound to the mistakes all humans make, that chivalry is an ideal in place to keep people from total barbarity but an ideal--and so probably unattainable; thus (in part) the warm reception he receives at the end of the poem.

    I, too, have sympathy for Gawain, but he earns all that comes his way.

    Glad my egomaniacal notes on etiquette were so well received. Yes! Let's talk--what's the best way to reach you that's not the comments field of a blog?

  5. Hi Adam,

    Hi Adam

    please do send an e-mail:
    jimgoar AT yahoo dot com

    Or I could send you an e-mail... is one listed?

    Been thinking a lot about the Knights these past few years. Latest manuscript came from a study of the legend with a focus on Spicer's Grail.

    Really enjoying what you are doing.