15.05.07, Battles, ed., Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Main Article Content

Jordi Sanchez-Marti

The Medieval Review 15.05.07

Battles, Paul, ed. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Broadview Editions. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press, 2012. pp. 259. ISBN: 9781554810192 (paperback).

Reviewed by:
Jordi Sanchez-Marti
University of Alicante

There is a general consensus among scholars and literary critics that Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (hereafter SGGK) is one of the most ingenious and sophisticated poems written in the European Middle Ages. Using the figure of the "good" Gawain, the poem's anonymous author skillfully explores human passions and weaknesses and, by setting our survival instinct and natural fear of death side by side with our sense of honor and moral duty, invites the reader to reflect on the humanity of literary heroes and on the moral responsibility of human beings. Because of its universal themes and their subtle treatment SGGK deserves to be considered an all-time classic that can appeal to readers from any time period, place, and social background; it thus seems well suited for undergraduate courses. The poem's north-west dialect and alliterative metre, however, are deterrents for our average student unaccustomed to such kind of unfamiliar vocabulary and convoluted syntax. In order to respond to such disparity between the poem's linguistic demands and students' training, a number of editions and/or translations of SGGK have been published in recent years that make the text more accessible to the undergraduate public. In the twenty-first century SGGK has been rendered in modern English by W. S. Merwin (New York: Knopf, 2002), Simon Armitage (London: Faber and Faber, 2007), Marie Borroff (New York: W.W. Norton, 2010), Joseph Glaser (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2011), and Larry D. Benson (Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2012). Facing the translation, the last of these also presents an edition of the poem prepared by Daniel Donoghue. In addition, the magesterial edition of the works of the Gawain poet produced by Ad Putter and Myra Stokes (London: Penguin, 2014) also has in mind a readership inclusive of undergraduates.

The book under review should be placed in this context, as suggests its stated purpose: "This edition was born of a desire to help students read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" (9). The underlying assumption to Battles's statement is that the standard editions of SGGK, such as those by J.R.R. Tolkien and E.V. Gordon (2nd ed. by Norman Davis; Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967) and by Malcolm Andrew and Ronald Waldron (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1987), serve the needs of scholars but discourage our undergraduates. At the same time, Battles tacitly takes a stand against the alternative of students reading SGGK almost exclusively as a translated text, as has happened to a certain extent with Beowulf, while being unconvinced that an edition en face a translation ensures that the poem is read primarily in the original. Instead of all these possibilities, Battles chooses to edit the original Middle English text, adding marginal glosses "intended to create a fluent reading experience" (27), explanatory notes at the bottom of the page, and a comprehensive glossary at the end of the volume, as did George Jack with his edition of Beowulf (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994).

Battles's edition is conservative with regards to the text, which is presented with the spelling partially modernized and regularized. Battles's editorial choices in general tend to agree with those of the Tolkien-Gordon and/or Andrew-Waldron editions. When he departs from the readings in one or both of these editions, Battles is in fact producing a better text, as happens when he reads "lof upon list" (line 1719, fol. 114r; see note 1 on p. 108), instead of "lif upon list"; when he places a comma instead of a period at the end of line 2445 (see p. 139 n. 2); and when he retains the manuscript reading "ladis" in line 2515 without emending it to "ledes" (fol. 124v; see p. 143 n. 3). The edited text is preceded by an introductory essay containing basic information about the author, the historical context, the Arthurian background, as well as an analysis of four literary themes, namely trawthe, chivalry, the role of women, and "green and gold," all of them useful for class discussions and paper topics. The book also includes four appendices which reproduce in extenso relevant passages from the Old French poem Caradoc, the Vulgate cycle The Story of Merlin and Lancelot dealing with "The Story of the False Guenevere and Bertelay," The Knight with the Sword, and the hunting manual known as The Master of Game, all of them rendered in modern English prose. Three well-chosen, black-and-white illustrations taken from French manuscripts depict respectively the three types of quarry that Bertilak hunts during Gawain's sojourn in Hautdesert. The book closes with an extensive and up-to-date bibliography of secondary literature.

The explanatory notes at the bottom of the page do a fine job of enhancing our interpretation of the text while offering suggestions for further reading that students can use to independently pursue their own interests. It is worth noting that Battles uses these notes not to impose his own understanding of the poem, but rather to offer various exegetical possibilities for us to consider; see, for instance, p. 42 n. 1 (referred to line 247) and p. 59 n. 5 (about line 636). Battles gives proof of his nuanced engagement with the text when he feels compelled to correct or qualify previous readings of particular passages. He accurately argues that "holtwodes under" (line 742) should be understood not as forests below, but as underneath the forests, taken "under" as a preposition instead of an adverb (p. 65 n. 2). He also makes a strong case for reading the verb form "lurkkes" (line 1180) as suggesting that Gawain, just like an animal, is lying concealed, not that he lies comfortably as previous editors hold (p. 85 n. 2).

I, however, disagree with the interpretation of a few glosses. "Newe" (line 118) is rendered as thereafter instead of new, novel; "foldes hit to me" (line 359) does not mean it falls to me, since the verb form is an imperative and the clause should be translated as assign or pledge it to me (cf. Middle English Dictionary, s.v. folden, v. [2] 10.a); "mone" (line 737) is not prayer but moaning, lamentation (cf. MED, s.v. mon, n. 1a); "yette" (line 776) is not the adverb once again but a form of the verb "yeten" meaning to grant; "tene" (line 1008) is not an adjective meaning tedious but a noun meaning injury, harm, wrong (cf. MED, s.v. tene, n. [2]1a); "the rychest" (line 1130) does not translate as most nobly but as the noblest, those of highest rank; "innowe" (line 1401) is translated as quite novel, whereas in plenty seems more accurate; "rehayted" (line 1744) is translated as greeted cheerfully, but in contrast the context seems to require reproved, rebuked (cf. MED, s.v. reheten, v. [2]a). Occasionally the gloss seems to suggest a morphologically inexact interpretation: "syye" (line 200) is rendered as see, although the verb is in the past; "wowe" (line 858) is glossed as walls, when it is singular; "baythen" (line 1404) is glossed agreed, but it is actually a present plural.

These are but minor quibbles that do not detract from this edition's merits, especially that it enables students to read this complex Middle English text unaided without being overwhelmed by its obscure vocabulary and morphology and without constantly having to consult the glossary at the back of the book. The accurate and concise marginal glosses, together with the unobtrusive explanatory notes contrive to successfully produce the "fluent reading experience" Battles sought to achieve. If we want our students to engage directly with the poem, savor its medieval feel, and appreciate its literary achievements, than Battles's edition is probably the best choice.

Article Details