The Medieval Review 11.03.11

Borroff, Marie and Laura L. Howes. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: . Norton Critical Editions. New York: W.W. Norton, 2010. Pp. 237. . $16.25 ISBN 978-0-393-93025-2.

Reviewed by:

Lisa M. Ruch
Bay Path College

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (henceforth SGGK) is a perennially popular text for a range of classes, including those on British literature, medieval literature, and Arthurian studies, and it appears in numerous anthologies. In this new publication, it stands alone in translation, in an attractive and affordable format, accompanied by ancillary materials that can be put to a variety of uses by both instructors and students. The stated goal of the Norton Critical Editions series is to publish important pieces of literature "with contextual and critical materials that bring the work to life for students" (; this text meets that goal admirably.

The brief introduction (seven pages) provides an overview of the poem's storyline, sources and influences, sole manuscript, and anonymous author, concluding with a series of questions that the work raises. These questions are addressed by the essays that end the volume, displaying, as Howes observes, "just how potent [SGGK's] poetic power remains" (xiii). The next two sections of the volume, contributed by Borroff, address the poem's metrical forms--describing the structure of alliterative verse and offering examples with scansion markings--and Borroff's explanation of her approach to the text as translator.

The translation that follows is an update and revision by Borroff of her 1967 verse translation. In some cases, single words have been replaced; for example, "dints" becomes "blows" in line 202; and "amain" becomes "betimes" in line 1136. In other instances, word order is reversed for a more modern feel: "Then ladies lovely and lords debonair" is revised to "Then lovely ladies and lords debonair" (line 539), while "Both in nourishment needful and nightly rest" becomes "Both in needful nourishment and nightly rest" (line 1095). In some places, entire lines have been reworked. For instance, "With brace burnished bright upon both his arms, / Good couters and gay, and gloves of plate" is revised to "On his arms, at his elbows, armor well wrought / Protected that prince, with plated gloves" (lines 582-3). "High horns and shrill sent hounds a-baying" becomes "With sound of shrill horns they signal their prize" (line 1362). In line 390, Borroff revises her original translation of the Green Knight's exclamation "By God, I rejoice" to "By Gog, I rejoice," aligning with the Middle English "bigog" and adding an explanatory footnote that situates the expression in the Old Testament and suggests a reading that is more nuanced than one using the more modern-sounding reference to God.

Borroff has also revised the footnotes from the 1967 translation for this version, providing detailed glosses of certain lines, explaining their meaning and situating them within the context of the poem and medieval thought. In some cases, however, notes that accompanied the older translation have been omitted; the lack of a list of the five Joys of Mary alluded to in line 647 might lead to confusion for some readers. Added to the new translation, however, are marginal synonyms for words that might be unfamiliar to students. Some of these had been provided as footnotes in the 1967 translation, but as marginal additions, they are much easier to read without the reader's getting lost from skipping to the bottom of the page. The manuscript's own gloss of "Hony soit qui mal pence," which is included in some, but not all, Norton anthology printings of Borroff's original translation, is included in this new version, commented on with a footnote and referred to later on in the volume in one of the critical essays.

The translation is followed by a section called "Contexts." The first is "Sir Gawain in Middle English," featuring three stanzas from the poem in Middle English: the Green Knight's entry into the hall at Camelot, the description of Gawain's shield and the "endeles knot," and the lady's gift of the green girdle to Gawain. Thorns and yoghs are used in the transliteration, and an introductory paragraph explains their use and pronunciation. The second context is provided by selections from three related medieval texts: the Old French The Knight of the Sword and The Mule without a Bridle and the Middle English The Alliterative Morte Arthure. The Old French texts are presented as prose synopses with sections most closely comparable to SGGK in quotes, while the Middle English text is given in verse translation, again with some sections in prose synopsis, and accompanied by marginal synonyms for certain specialized vocabulary. These three translated selections are introduced with a discussion of their relation as analogues to portions of SGGK.

Following this section is a series of critical responses to the poem, some of which first appeared as journal articles, and some of which are selections from book-length studies. They are presented chronologically, and provide an array of viewpoints: Alain Renoir, "Descriptive Technique in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" (1958), Marie Borroff, "The Challenge Episode: A Stylistic Interpretation" (1962), J. A. Burrow, "Recognition and Confession at the Green Chapel" (1965), A. Kent Hieatt, "Sir Gawain: Pentangle, Luf-Lace, and Numerical Structure" (1970), W. A. Davenport, "The Hero and His Adventure" (1978), Ralph Hanna III, "Unlocking What's Locked: Gawain's Green Girdle" (1983), Lynn Staley Johnson, "Regenerative Time in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" (1984), Jonathan Nicholls, "The Testing of Courtesy at Camelot and Hautdesert" (1985), Geraldine Heng, "Feminine Knots and the Other Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" (1991), and Leo Carruthers, "The Duke of Clarence and the Earls of March: Garter Knights and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" (2001). Read in succession, these critical responses provide an interesting snapshot of the scholarly conversation and its development over time. They also serve individually as resources for readers who wish to focus on specific portions of the poem or on certain critical approaches.

The volume concludes with a brief chronology, beginning ca. 1125 with William of Malmesbury's inclusion of Arthur in the Gesta Regum Anglorum, and ending with the murder of Richard II in 1400; and a selected bibliography. This attractively presented Norton Critical Edition features both a range of tools and an accessible and very readable translation of SGGK, all for a remarkably low price. It will be of use to both students and instructors, and is a welcome addition to the classroom resources for Middle English literature, romance, and Arthurian studies.