The Medieval Review 12.06.28

Glaser, Joseph. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2011. Pp. 144. $32.95. 978-1-60384-619-6. $10.95. 978-1-60384-618-9.

Reviewed by:

Ryan Naughton
Ohio University

Joseph Glaser's new translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight nicely fills the gap between overly technical scholarly editions and too-simplified student editions. His often erudite explanatory notes, in addition to his fresh translation, provide a good introduction to the concepts, motifs, and rhythms found in the Middle English masterpiece. What will be particularly useful for students is the attention that Glaser pays to the form of the original--the fitts, stanzas, bob and wheel, and alliteration--that so characterize the Gawain-poet's original style. While some other student editions translate the stanzas into prose paragraphs, Glaser does not shy away from the seemingly daunting task of recreating the original in the best ways he can. For instance, in his "Translator's Preface," Glaser argues that "the Gawain-poet is unabashedly northern, and a translation ought to take this into account. Many do not. It is not enough to give the literal sense of his lines. If they are to sound like him, they must contain a relatively high portion of chewy Old English and Norse terms" (xliv). Similarly, Glaser pays attention to other loan words: "I tried to deal with the challenge of the poem's original language by including French and Latinate words (as the poet did even in vivid action scenes like the beheadings) but playing these off against native and Norse-flavored words" (xlv). Glaser is largely successful in his endeavors--a praiseworthy feat in its own right.

Another noteworthy point is Glaser's faithful commitment to making an accessible student edition: "From my first encounter with it in graduate school, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight has held a special place in my affections. Even then, struggling with the poem's unfamiliar language and verse forms, I was sure that here was a masterpiece if ever there was one--a performance not just to be revered, but relished" (xxxix). That he still feels the same way about the poem is evident. For instance, Glaser takes the time in his preface to demonstrate the alliterative and linguistic qualities of the original, often pairing these representative passages with his own translations. The effect on student readers can hardly be understated. Here, they have a very visual example of translation theory at work, as well as strong examples of Glaser's attempts to connect his modern language with that of the original text. Moreover, Glaser includes the entire first two stanzas of the poem in the original Middle English for readers to work through themselves (complete with helpful hints). To reinforce the connection between his translation and the original, Glaser also includes a facsimile of the first page of the poem from Cotton Nero A.x. Though it is not as clear as it could be (it is printed in grainy black and white), it still provides student readers with an idea about the way in which the text was initially produced and presented to its contemporary audience.

I only have a couple quibbles with Glaser's translation: inconsistency and word choice. To start, Glaser does not consistently provide helpful footnotes regarding distinctly medieval terminology. For example, he does not gloss "lightly" meaning "quickly" or "easily" (l. 254); chivalric terms like "hauberk" (l. 268), "crupper" (l. 602), and "caparison" (l. 602); architectural terms like "finials" (l. 797), "pinnacles" (l. 800), and "embrasures" (l. 801); or the hunting terms "offal" (l. 1345) and "numbles" (l. 1347). All of these terms are likely to be unfamiliar to student readers and thus require footnote definitions. On the other hand, Glaser does gloss other unfamiliar terms like "cuisses" (l. 578) as "thigh armor," "barbican" (l. 793) as "defensive work, especially the gatehouse," and "lights" (l. 1341) as a deer's lungs--all in the same passages (and often the same stanzas) that contain the unglossed words noted above. More often than not, however, Glaser does provide the glosses/explanations necessary to follow the storyline and identify many of the unfamiliar words and elements found in the poem.

Another obvious omission from the footnotes is an explanation about the missing day between St. John's Day (December 27) and New Year's Day. Glaser goes to great lengths to explicate the meanings of the pentangle and even the complexity of the stanza containing its description (footnotes 48-50), trace the path Gawain takes from Arthur's court to Bertilak's castle (footnotes 54-56), elaborate on the realism of the deer hunting scenes (footnotes 67-76), and even note other feast days referenced in the text (footnotes 39-40), yet he does not mention the probability that a line is missing between lines 1022 and 1023, as do most other editors/translators--including J.R.R. Tolkien and E.V. Gordon, upon whose edition Glaser's translation is based. Perhaps this is the reason why Glaser does not add a footnote about St. John's Day in the first place: student readers will simply assume that the feast day is December 28, counting four--not three-- days from Christmas Eve, the day Gawain arrives at Bertilak's castle, and thus not even notice the missing day. Glaser's period at the end of line 1021, which is a change from Tolkien and Gordon's semicolon, bears out this hypothesis. While the punctuation may be modern, the semicolon in Tolkien and Gordon's Middle English version (and several other modern editions and translations) is enough to suggest that the third day mentioned in that line is actually St. John's Day, which is referred to specifically in the subsequent line. On one hand, Glaser's omission does simplify the storyline for student readers who are encountering the text for the first time. On the other hand, however, he deceptively omits a lacuna in the text--one that might provide an important teaching moment, even in a general education class.

Similarly, Glaser includes a few footnotes that are superfluous, like note 13 to the name Guenevere (stating simply--and rather obviously-- that she is Arthur's queen). The most glaring example, however, is his footnote to line 734: "December 24, that is, the day of Christmas Eve." The line itself, in both the original and Glaser's translation, clearly states that Gawain has been traveling until Christmas Eve: "Bi contray caryez _is kny_t, tyl Krystmasse euen" and "The knight crosses the country until Christmas Eve," respectively. It is a mystery why Glaser would feel the need to add an explanatory--and redundant-- footnote to this line.

The second quibble relates to Glaser's word choices as he attempts to maintain the alliterative pattern of the original. In his preface, he asserts that he "tried to put the poetry ahead of hidebound adherence to the alliterative ideal" (xliii). Nevertheless, alliteration is sometimes privileged over sense or suitability, as is the case when he uses silly-sounding words like "bumper" (l. 337) meaning a drinking glass and "waddle" as a noun (l. 957); direct Middle English borrowings without Modern English equivalents like "wrack" (l. 16), "hasped" (ll. 590, 607), and "settle" meaning "chair" (l. 882); archaic and even anachronistic terms like "chaffered" (l. 68), "skylarking" (l. 472), "prinked" (l. 800), "link boys" (l. 1119), "cosset" (l. 2055), and "screaked" (l. 2201). While some of these terms (particularly the direct borrowings) may give student readers a sense of authenticity and thus connect them to the medieval world portrayed in the text, they equally as often pull the readers directly out of the text and plant them squarely in the modern world. The most obtrusive example is the word "fribbles" (meaning "trifles") in line 683: "From knights' feast-day fribbles and such foolish games." Readers are at once taken aback by the odd-sounding and unfamiliar word and drawn out of the textual moment. From this line on, I myself was consistently aware of Glaser's sometimes labored word choices in order to keep up the alliterative pattern--word choices that inadvertently affect the overall sense and tone of the poem.

Christine Chism's lucid--if somewhat long and occasionally dramatically phrased--introduction gives student readers a strong overview of the poem's layered structure, the medieval romance genre and its conventions, the limited information on the Gawain-poet in comparison with his contemporaries, and some recent interpretations that represent an array of scholarly approaches to the poem. The introduction's strongest point, however, is Chism's ability to raise intriguing questions throughout--questions that she does not answer. Instead, student readers are afforded the opportunity to interpret the text on their own terms, regardless of their background or scholarly interests. The few missteps in Chism's introduction range from a rather lengthy discussion of the Matter of Britain (which could easily be trimmed and blended with the section on the medieval romance genre), to her overly detailed survey of the historical context (some of which is irrelevant, particularly for an introductory reading of Gawain and the Green Knight), to her rather dramatic word choices (e.g., "hops," "whiplash-inducing," and "interpretive vertigo," all on p. xxxii) and summaries/readings (especially her treatment of the passage of time on p. xxxi). Nevertheless, the positives far outweigh the negatives and provide a solid grounding for student readers.

Glaser's edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, coupled with Chism's introduction, is a worthy effort to bring the complex poem to modern students. The translation and overview provide a solid introduction to the Middle English masterpiece and assures that future readers will be as willing as Glaser has been to devote the time and energy necessary to explore the poem's many facets.