Sir Gawain and the Green Knight BOOK REVIEW

Cover Illustration by John Howe

One of the many works of J.R.R. Tolkien published posthumously, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a necessary addition to the libraries of readers of Tolkien and of medieval English literature. It falls within the scope of the Arthurian legends, following the journey of the virtuous Sir Gawain as he embarks on a quest taking him far from Camelot. I originally acquired this book following my reading of Tolkien’s translation of Beowulf (which is the best translation of the epic poem I have ever read). I looked for other work and translations done by Tolkien, and to my joy found several within the Arthurian literary cycle. 

Before addressing Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, you must understand the impact of the Arthurian legends, also known as the Arthurian literary cycle. The greater body, known as the Matter of Britain, is the medieval literature and legendary material regarding the great kings and heroes of Britain, of which King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table are prominent. They are an important part of Britain’s national mythology, and their impact can be seen in text, legends, and mythology across Europe. The Arthurian literary cycle is the collection of stories, legends, and poems about King Arthur and his knights, focused on the interwoven telling of two stories: those of Camelot, the doomed utopia of chivalric values, ultimately brought down by the fatal flaws of its heroic characters, such as Arthur, Lancelot, and Gawain; and secondly, the quests for the Holy Grail by the Knights of the Round Table. They combine literature, storytelling, and prose with religion and spiritually, along with humor, romance, tragedy, and triumph. 

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a 14th century chivalric romance written by an unknown author, and one of the best known Arthurian stories. Within his translation of the poem, Tolkien’s goal was to interpret the poem for the general reader without losing the narrative skill or the poetic style of the original. Early translations of the text relied heavily on the original form of being written in alliterative verse, as well as the unfamiliar vocabulary and grammar of the author’s English dialect, both of which are difficult to engage with for those unaccustomed to it. It was Tolkien’s expertise in the poetic style, translation from and within Old English, and writing that allowed him to translate a “difficult” poem so that it could be enjoyed by many, not just experts on the subject. 

Sir Gawain is a joy to read, though not written to be as easy to consume as contemporary storytelling. As someone who has engaged with only limited work (academic transitions, not retellings) from the medieval period, this book was an enjoyable read, though not a casual one. Written in the style of medieval literature, the reader must be attentive to fully engage with the text, but I imagine anyone reading translations of Tolkien’s will be more than mindful. It is “…a romance, a fairy-tale for adults, full of life and colour.” In the poem, we follow Sir Gawain and are shown the ideals of medieval chivalry that were highly esteemed by the author, as well as across much of the Arthurian legends. In Gawain, we see an idealized knight, vibrant, chivalrous, and nearly virtuous nearly to a fault. His journey across the land to reach the Green Knight is a quest worthy of a knight, and we watch as his quest to prove his worth puts his honor and knightly values to the test. 

In addition to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the book also contains Tolkien’s translations of Pearl and Sir Orfeo. The first is a poem written by the same unknown author of Sir Gawain, found in the same original manuscript. It has a much different feel to the Arthurian tale, as it is an elegy, or lament, on the death of a child. The commentary on Pearl provided within the Introduction was quite compelling, and I imagine the poem would be a topic of interesting discussion amongst experts. I found it profound, and a worthwhile read and addition to the book. 

Sir Orfeo is included as a personal favorite of Tolkien’s, though no writings regarding it were ever found, and thus the translation has little commentary on it. Christopher Tolkien’s intent was to publish his father’s work with as little external additions, modifications, or commentary, instead relying on what his father left behind. As such, some of his work is unfinished, and some, such as Sir Orfeo, have no commentary. As I read through Sir Orfeo, I found myself following the poetry, in rhyme and meter, where I often have little knack for it. It was surprisingly enjoyable, and several times nearly found myself reading aloud in some subconscious impulse to experience the full effect of the poem. I imagine a proper oratory presentation of Sir Orfeo would be something to behold. 

I picked up Sir Gawain and the Green Knight for one reason, and walked away thankful for many more. My suggestions for prospective readers would be to approach it one of two ways. The first would be to read the text, then read the Preface and Introduction for commentary, and finally reread the text and translation with the commentary in mind. This method gives the reader the opportunity to enter without expectations, and allows them to be purely influenced by the text and Tolkien’s translation. The other method for reading this book would be to read the Preface and Introduction first, then reading the poems. This gives the reader the intent of the translations going in, as well as context within the light of the history of the text. I thoroughly enjoyed the three poems in this book, each for their own reasons. They are worth reading as an appreciator of the Arthurian literary cycle and British mythology, or as students of the larger body of Tolkien’s work. It is likewise worth reading as a student of English literature and poetry, as the craft displayed by Tolkien’s translations are masterful, and able to be appreciated by the general reader as well as the studied reader. It is an enriching read that requires thought and focus, and rewards it with a beautiful and timeless work of literature. 

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is written by J.R.R. Tolkien and edited by Christopher Tolkien, and is published by Harper Collins. 

Want to pick up a copy of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, and Sir Orfeo for yourself or someone you know? Purchase a copy through the link below, and you will help support the Writer in White with your purchase.

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