Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Folio Society

Generally considered a masterpiece of medieval literature, probably only surpassed by Chaucer, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is “one of the jewels in the crown of English Literature” (as stated in the introduction).  Written sometime around 1400 or so, the author is unfortunately lost to history. Luckily, the original manuscript was not lost, and was “re-discovered” in the time of Queen Victoria.

It is an Arthurian story, with Sir Gawain being one of the Knights of the Round Table. The story has themes around the traits of courage, chivalry, loyalty and honor.  As described by Folio:

The New Year has just been rung in when a terrifying stranger rides into Camelot: a great green knight who challenges King Arthur’s knights to a wager. One of them may strike him with the Green Knight’s own axe, but in return, the Green Knight must be allowed to strike a return blow in a year and a day. Sir Gawain accepts the challenge, and bravely beheads the stranger, but to the court’s horror, the headless knight rides off, holding Gawain to his promise… A year later, Gawain sets off through the snowy wastes, towards an encounter that will test his courage, his chivalry and his very soul.

The poem is generally considered a romance, though there are many interpretations of the meaning, including many that emphasize the Christian elements of the story.  It makes heavy use of symbolism, which adds significant interest to the modern reader as it gives an excellent window into traditions (especially Celtic and Germanic) that form the basis of the society our medieval fore-bearers lived in.

The original was written in a dialect of Middle English.  For this version, Folio Society used a translation by Simon Armitage, who also provided an introduction.  I like that Armitage set as one of his goals to retain the highly alliterative form of the original (as stated in the wiki entry on this poem, the alliterative form in this period usually relied on the agreement of a pair of stressed syllables at the beginning of the line and another pair at the end).   This edition is illustrated by Diana Sudyka, including a frontispiece and 8 full-page colour illustrations.   The book measures 13″ x 9¼” and comes in at 128 pages.

The Folio edition is very nice, certainly not LE levels, but very nice. In fact, one of the best ‘standard’ edition Folio’s I have.  The cloth has a nice feel to it, and the size of the pages, leaving much white space for the verse, makes it very easy to read.   At 50% off in the current Folio Society Summer Sale, anyone with interest in this book should pull the trigger before the price goes back up.  Here are some photos of the book.

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Sir Gawain, Book in Slipcase
Sir Gawain, Front Cover
Sir Gawain, Front Cover View
Sir Gawain, Copyright Page
Sir Gawain, Title Page
Sir Gawain, Sample Page with Illustration
Sir Gawain, Sample Illustration 2
Sir Gawain, Beginning of Part 2

3 thoughts on “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Folio Society

  1. My favourite edition of this book is the University of Manchester edition – you get to see the original text and the fun in reading it aloud is pure magic. Armitage is engaging and carries forth the genre but in truth, reading the original words (and using a good Middle English dictionary to help you when the going gets tough), lets you impose your own translation. You’d be surprised at what emerges!

    Thinking of the Green Knight, readers should also enjoy “Pearl” by the same (anonymous) author. It’s in many ways more difficult to enjoy but it is an exceptional poem, laced with mystery and exquisite imagery.

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