Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, by the Pearl Poet, Taller Martin Pescador (2013)

{Ed. Note: This article is provided by Books and Vines contributor dlphcoracl.}

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is one of the earliest and most foundational works in English literature.  It is an alliterative romance, i.e., a poem whose genre involves a hero who goes on a quest or pursues a challenge which ultimately proves his honor, bravery and mettle.  It was likely written in the mid to late fourteenth century, is written in a northwest Midland dialect of Middle English, and is one of four poems found in a manuscript  known as the Cotton Nero A.x., now housed in the British Museum.  Interestingly, the three other poems in this manuscript: Pearl, Patience, and Cleanness (or Purity),  deal with Christian religious matter whereas Sir Gawain is clearly an Arthurian Romance and its inclusion in this manuscript is a bit of an anomaly (or vice versa, regarding the three shorter poems).  The work is contemporary with other well known Middle English works such as the Canterbury Tales, Piers Plowman and the Le Morte d’Arthur. The author is unknown, but is referred to as the ‘Pearl Poet’.

Several of these early medieval works in Middle English are part of what I have previously referred to as “Private Press Royalty”, i.e., works of literature that have been published several times by a string of estimable private presses, almost always to favorable effect.  Strangely, Sir Gawain has been treated by the great private presses of the past 125 years as if it were a red-headed stepchild —- overlooked and somewhat unloved.  The only private press editions of Sir Gawain I am aware of are from the:

– Golden Cockerel Press (1952): This edition is a rather modest affair, certainly not one of GCP’s more memorable efforts.  It is illustrated by Dorothy Braby with six wood engravings that are bright, colorful, flat and two-dimensional, slightly cartoonish in nature and somewhat out of place for an Arthurian tale of chivalry and beheading.

– Lion & Unicorn Press, Royal College of Art, London (1956): The Lion & Unicorn Press edition is an unusual affair.  It consists of large sheets of text on handmade paper folded once (finished size 474 x 316 mm), gathered into 15 loose sections,  all contained within a large linen-backed portfolio folder. The text pages are supplemented with 12 complex colored lithographs whose production involved transfer from linocuts to lithographic plates and subsequent drawing of color separations.  Although this is a beautiful book it is an impractical one for reading purposes due to the extremely large page size and the loose sheets.  It is more a case of a university printing press demonstrating its skill (very successfully I might add) rather than producing a functional private press book.

– Limited Editions Club (1971): The LEC copy is a large folio-sized book (12.5″ H by 9.5″ W) with an oatmeal-colored woven cloth (coarse Irish linen) binding.  The illustrations by Cyril Satorsky are “of the time” and have a primitive look which is appropriate.  The initial letters are calligraphic,  done in color (brown) by Frank J. Lieberman and they work well against the light tan color of the paper.  The major attraction of the LEC edition is having the original Middle English on the verso page with the modern English translation on the facing recto page, always fun to try one’s hand at deciphering Middle English.  It is a nice edition, not spectacular or special, but it is an Affordable Treasure and Pleasure which can almost always be found in fine condition for about $75.

In brief, if you consider Sir Gawain an essential part of a library (as I do) and wanted a unique private press edition one’s choices were somewhat limited and less than optimal.  Until now.

At the beginning of 2013 a new private press edition of Sir Gawain appeared at the 2013 International CODEX Book Fair in the San Francisco Bay Area, creating a minor sensation due to the quality of the book design and execution and its unlikely source.  The book was printed by Juan Pascoe and his private press Taller Martin Pescador (a name given by writer Roberto Bolano meaning Kingfisher Workshop) in Tacambero, Michoacan, Mexico.  Tacambero is a small town located halfway between Guadalajara and Mexico City and Pascoe’s press is located in a former sugar cane hacienda just outside of town. Mexico is not the first country (or second, or third, etc.)  I would expect to be the source of a beautiful new edition of Sir Gawain but Juan Pascoe is a bit of a “ringer”.  Pascoe was born in Chicago in 1946 and educated in the United States, receiving his undergraduate degree in American and English literature from Whitman College in Washington.  After graduation, he studied under and apprenticed himself to Harry Duncan at the Cummington Press at the University of Iowa, learning the art of letterpress printing.  Pascoe moved full-time to Mexico in 1973 and initially set up a print shop with a renovated nineteenth-century R. Hoe Washington hand press and some cases of Garamont and Goudy types.  The Washington hand press dates back to 1838 and it is one of the oldest printing presses still in operation anywhere in the world.

In 1975 Pascoe established his own private press, the “Martin Pescador” in Mexico City and in 1981 moved to his present location, the former sugar cane hacienda near Tacambaro.   Although virtually unknown in the United States because he has rarely printed anything in English, Pascoe has produced nearly three hundred works in Spanish and is widely known throughout Mexico.  Taller Martin Pescador has become the foremost source for traditional Mexican graphic arts as well as a publisher of important Latin American literature and poetry.  He has printed works for major names such as Octavio Paz, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Efrain Huerta, Roberto Bolano, Jose Luis Rivas and Francisco Segovia.  Everything is done in the traditional manner with Pascoe setting all the type by hand, inking and printing each page individually, and then sewing the pages into simple paper covered bindings.  In recognition of his work, Pascoe was awarded the prestigious Premio Erendira for his contributions to the arts and culture of Mexico.

His printing of Sir Gawain grew out of a desire several years ago to finally print something in English with the intent of presenting it at the CODEX 2010 Book Fair in San Francisco.  The project went slower than anticipated and the work was not shown until early 2013 at the CODEX.  The book incorporates John Ridland‘s Modern English translation in an easily accessible adaption of traditional ballad meter rather than the usual alliterative accentual meter and it reads fluidly while remaining poetic in its own way.  The book design and quality of material used are flawless.  The paper is handmade by Pasquale De Ponte in San Lucas Tepetlaco and it is tinted a perfect shade of pale green which the prospectus describes as “neither too dark for legibility nor too coy for seriousness”.  The Bembo Titling and Poliphilus types were cast by Bradley Hutchinson in Austin, Texas then shipped across the Rio Bravo into Mexico, no mean feat in view of tight customs security due to the flourishing cross-border drug trade.  The dampened pages were printed on a Vandercook hand press, then bound by the printers, sewn onto vellum tapes and laced into a dark green stiff paper cover to simulate the limp vellum bindings of yesterday that were a staple of the Kelmscott Press and the Riccardi Press for the Medici Society.  Linocut illustrations were made by Pascoe’s neighbor, renowned illustrator Artemio Rodriguez who, as the colophon states, lives “several kilometers up the hill” from Pascoe’s workshop.  The woodcuts are vigorous, masculine and a bit primitive in feel —- perfect for Sir Gawain.

The regular edition has a limitation of 200, numbered 1-200,  and it sells for $ 450.00.  Frankly, this is a steal for a private press book of this quality and exceptional book design.  An additional twenty-six copies lettered from A to Z were set aside for a deluxe edition, bound in quarter vellum with hard covers, vellum caps at the book corners,  and a custom slipcase by Jace Graf of Cloverleaf Studio in Austin, Texas, at a cost of $1,050.00.  In the deluxe edition the full page illustrations are executed in dark green ink rather than black ink and an additional colophon leaf includes the signatures of all involved in this project: the translator, illustrator, type founder, printer, and binder, along with the handwritten letter designation for each copy.  The book is sold exclusively in the United States by:

Philadelphia Rare Books & Manuscripts Company (Philadelphia, PA)
Phone: 215-744-6734
E-mail: rarebks@prbm.com

Here is a link that takes you directly to their listing for the standard and deluxe editions of the Taller Martin Pescador ‘Sir Gawain‘. If purchasing and choosing the standard edition one must specify whether the book should be issued with either dark green or brown stiff paper binding covers.  This is a no-brainer —- choose the dark green !!

About the Edition

  • Printed by  Juan Pascoe at Taller Martín Pescador
  • Illustrations by Artemio Rodriguez
  • Translation by John Ridland
  • Handmade paper, tinted pale green, by Pasquale De Ponte in San Lucas Tepetlaco
  • Bembo Titling and Poliphilus types, cast by Bradley Hutchinson in Austin, Texas
  • Printed on dampened pages on a Vandercook hand press, then bound by the printers, sewn onto vellum tapes and laced into a dark green stiff paper cover (the lettered version is bound in quarter vellum with hard covers, vellum caps at the book corners,  and a custom slipcase)
  • Folio-sized 13.25″ H x 9″ W
  • Limited to 200, plus an additional 26 lettered copies

Pictures of the Edition

(All pictures on Books and Vines are exclusively provided, under fair use, to highlight and visualize the review/criticism of the work being reviewed. A side benefit, hopefully, is providing education on the historical and cultural benefits of having a healthy fine press industry and in educating people on the richness that this ‘old school approach’ of book publishing brings to the reading process. Books and Vines has no commercial stake or financial interest in any publisher, retailer or work reviewed on this site and receives no commercial interest or compensation for Books and Vines. Please note that works photographed are copyrighted by the publisher, author and/or illustrator as indicated in the articles. Permission to use contents from these works for anything outside of fair use purposes must come directly from the copyright owner and no permission is granted or implied to use photo’s or material found on Books and Vines for any purpose that would infringe on the rights of the copyright owner.)

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Taller Martin Pescador, Prospectus Page 1
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Taller Martin Pescador, Prospectus Page 1
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Taller Martin Pescador, Prospectus Page 2
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Taller Martin Pescador, Prospectus Page 2
Book in Slipcase
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Taller Martin Pescador, Book in Slipcase
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Taller Martin Pescador, Cover and Slipcase
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Taller Martin Pescador, Front cover with vellum tapes and custom slipcase
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Taller Martin Pescador, Front Cover
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Taller Martin Pescador, Front of book with vellum tapes, soft cover, and wood-engraved label
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Taller Martin Pescador, End Papers
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Taller Martin Pescador, Rear free end plate and inside of rear soft cover, demonstrating the green tint of the text pages
Half Title Sample Decoration
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Taller Martin Pescador, Half Title Sample Decoration
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Taller Martin Pescador, Title Page
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Taller Martin Pescador, Title Page
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Taller Martin Pescador, Sample Text with Decoration #1
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Taller Martin Pescador, Sample Text with Decoration #1
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Taller Martin Pescador, Sample Illustration #2
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Taller Martin Pescador, Sample Illustration #2
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Taller Martin Pescador, Sample Text with Decoration #2
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Taller Martin Pescador, Sample Text with Decoration #2
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Taller Martin Pescador, Sample Illustration #3
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Taller Martin Pescador, Sample Illustration #3
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Taller Martin Pescador, Sample Text with Illustration #1
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Taller Martin Pescador, Sample Text with Illustration #4
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Taller Martin Pescador, Final page with decorative wood engraving
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Taller Martin Pescador, Final page with decorative wood engraving
Final page with decorative wood engraving
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Taller Martin Pescador, Sample Illustration #5
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Taller Martin Pescador, Colophon
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Taller Martin Pescador, Colophon

17 thoughts on “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, by the Pearl Poet, Taller Martin Pescador (2013)

  1. Beautiful, spectacular book!

    What an interesting article – this got me searching the net and using your supplied links leading to a voyage of discovery about a press that I was unaware of. Everything about Taller Martin Pescador was fascinating and enlightening. Add this to the interesting and educational comments and discussion following the article and it all adds up to a site that is the most dynamic and stimulating fine press blog around – thank you!!

  2. Robert:

    The necessity of having the original text in Middle English would indeed make this edition of ‘Sir Gawain’ a non-starter for you. Fortunately, more often than not, fine & private press book collectors usually have several choices available and can select the edition appropriate to their wants and tastes. This book would be appropriate for those readers who do not want to wrestle with Middle English and prefer a clearer delineation of the story line that a modern translation provides.

    Your desire to have this and similar works printed in both the original text and modern translation is impractical for the vast majority of private presses operating today, most of which are operated by 1 or 2 individuals. The additional cost and amount of time necessary to publish a bilingual edition using letterpress or hand press can only be handled by private presses with a larger staff and greater resources, e.g., the Arion Press with its own type foundry (Mackenzie & Harris).

    A similar debate can be made with regard to choice of translations. For example, some readers and book collectors cannot imagine reading Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey in anything other than Alexander Pope’s classic poetical translation while others find it renders these works needlessly opaque and convoluted, i.e., the necessity of rhyming results in a translation that obscures the work.

    Simply put: different strokes for different folks, but the edition of Sir Gawain by the Taller Martin Pescador successfully fills a distinct niche —- an edition for readers who prefer a fluid modern translation in an elegant and well designed private press edition.

    1. I think that even the Arion Press with its hundreds of thousands of matrices lined up and awating a snap of the fingers from Andrew Hoyem would not have what it takes to print Middle English. The only printer I know who had some punches specially cut, by the hand of Stan Nelson from the Smithsonian, was Kim Merker at the Windhover Press, and those were for the 16 point Romanée he had bought from Harry Duncan of The Cummington Press, who in the late 50s thought he was finished, resolved to give up printing forever. I have heard through the grape vine that upon Merker’s death that type —foundry type, by the way, presumably sturdy enough to outlive us all— was sold. Who knows if those sorts are there even now.
      / I used as support for the making of “our” Sir Gawain, in addition to a print-out of Ridland’s typescript, the Cambridge University Press edition from 1956 —only in Middle English. / And I would really have liked to have had photographs of the manuscript in order to see the poem’s earliest construction first hand. / Nowadays all the type from those English university presses has been melted down, and so the only option for a modern printer would be to “set” the type digitally and make polymer plates. This might be the way to go if a scholarly edition were in the making, wishing to clarify the original for modern readers. / Ridland and I have been writing back and forth, commenting on the various letters posted on the tail of this review, and in one of them he said: “…thing is, I am not a Middle English scholar; I’m a poet; my “translation” is poetic, not archeological and linguistic…”

  3. To Robert Bailey’s complaint of the lack of a Middle English text, I would reply that with half-a-dozen keystrokes readers can find their way to several such. To his distaste for the green paper, I would point to Mr. Adamson’s original comment that “it is tinted a perfect shade of green which the prospectus describes as ‘neither too dark for legibility nor too coy for seriousness’.” And to his dismissal of the translation as poetry, unlike Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf (which others besides myself have considered an unfortunate addition to the late laureate’s oeuvre), I would again quote Adamson’s affirmation that “it reads fluidly while remaining poetic in its own way.” Its way is that of the traditional ballad stanza, but with two shorter lines extended to one long one of seven beats, unrhymed (essential to avoid the jig-jog of 16th Century Fourteeners) and leaving the alliteration optional rather than required, as Heaney and most other contemporary translators have tried to make it.

    I am, however, in full agreement with Mr. Bailey’s hopes that Juan Pascoe’s edition “is a roaring success” and with Mr. Adamson, again, for declaring “this is a steal for a private press book of this quality and exceptional book design.” Menteith and dlphcoracl (the Delphic Oracle!) are also to be commended. The “standard” edition is “anything but”, but the “deluxe” edition in its slipcase will hold up for three centuries to the other’s two (or however many multiples thereof may follow).

    Juan Pascoe is as extraordinary and intelligent a worker as is the location in rural Mexico of a press bringing out the finest edition to date of a Medieval English masterpiece. Google his name and you will see and hear some of the other strings in his lyre.

    1. ” I would reply that with half-a-dozen keystrokes readers can find their way to several such.” Yes, and what does that have to do with the point I was making that were I going to pay this much for a copy of the finest Middle English romance I would want it to have the original text?

  4. Menteith:

    Because you have impeccable taste !!

    Incidentally, the “standard” edition is anything but. It is certainly deluxe in and of itself. Can’t lose either way.

  5. The packets of type in those first shipments were done up the way is normal in the US: the forme tied, placed between binding board cut to size, and wrapped round in five or six swathes —all taped together—in such a way that the type would be on its feet when unwound. Those are the packets which would come tinkling apart in the hands of the Custom’s agent inspectors. Then Bradley Hutchinson got some transparent shrink-wrap, which indeed worked: they could see the type —English who knows what—, but not have to unwrap a strip of paper. By the next shipment the shrink-wrap was gone, and too expensive anyway; he found another sort of transparent plastic, a case of it Scotch-taped together, and this too worked. Example of how modern typefounders and printers of olden presses must needs keep an eye open in places like Home Depot.

    The list of items printed is about to hit 550 —I know because I have been writing a book about the press, the second half of which is a complete bibliography: as as long as the book takes on the screen of a technician’s Mac —correcting and putting in proper digital order my InDesign archive— I keep adding to the list, and by stretching the very last bit, I am just about there…

    The literary part is right on the nail; not so much that about being a “source for graphic art in Mexico”. The old mill really is “out in the sticks”. Most people think twice about even thinking of coming out.

    ¿”Roaring sucess”? Most printers —i think of Walter Hamady and Richard-Gabriel Rummonds as exceptions— contemplate that state from afar: in rock musicians, baseball players, film stars, certain painters. We continue for other reasons, not for the applause, a review like this one comes once in a lifetime. But because the mixture of mind, of sensibility, and the laying on of hands is richly rewarded. The writing of books —like the composition of music— is one of the best activities of human endeavor; those texts which exhibit singularity —as well as those pieces of music which take on “lives” of their own— are entitled to appear in a form whichis collaborative and brings forth “that which is implied but not yet seen”. The Technological Machine would like us to read —bland, any type, any size, any shape— off electronic devices, the Trade —Stanely Morison’s catch-all— has no time to bother; we keep the art afloat, we are the keepers of the flame, the keepers of the printer’s marks.

    1. Mr. Pascoe, I absolutely love this statement, “The Technological Machine would like us to read —bland, any type, any size, any shape— off electronic devices, the Trade —Stanely Morison’s catch-all— has no time to bother; we keep the art afloat, we are the keepers of the flame, the keepers of the printer’s marks.” What a great statement!” We are so right, and believe me, there are many of us out there that are thankful that people such as yourself do keep that flame going! My wife and I travel to Mexico very frequently, if I am ever anywhere close in the area I would not think twice about making a visit, should that be amenable. Keep up the great work! I hope Mr. Rodriguez knows his work is wonderfully spot on, the best I have seen for this work.

      1. 1. With respect to the dark brown paper copies: that has ceased to be a problem due to the overwhelming cheers for the green. There are only about 5 of those: one person actually wanted to buy one, the rest are spread amonst those of us who worked on the book, who like it’s harmonizing with the green paper just fine. There are no more brown ones, either made or available.

        2. Certainly, with respect to a visit; if you travel about Mx you will know what the situation is: best to first check out the moment.

        3. It has been a stroke of luck for the press to have Artemio Rodríguez in the vicinity. [He might say it the other way around: it was a stroke of luck for him that the Taller Martín Pescador set up in an old mill house—the word “hacienda” probably brings up a grander place— not far from Tacámbaro, the town where he was born and raised.] He made the linoleum cuts for Sir Gawain as we went along: we printing down the hills almost in hot country, and he working on other projects up in the pine and oak forests of San Miguel Tamácuaro. Never with any clear idea of what came next. It was not to be a picture book, that was clear, but one in which the language came first. A book which required being read. But neither was it imperative to forego the opportunity which the vividly descriptive verse afforded. We were aware from the beginning that his vision would stem not from the Anglo Saxon, William Morris and The Hobbit side of things, but from the Castillian novels of chivalry, Don Quixote and before. We thought it would work for the book, and it probably has.

  6. An interesting book. Can’t say I care for the green paper, though. Nor have I not been pleased with any of the illustrations of Gawain I have seen, these included; although I like Dorothy Braby’s illustrations very much as art (in fact I use one for my avatar on LibraryThing), I agree they are not in the spirit of the poem.

    My biggest complaint about this book is the lack of the Middle English text. The translation used here is virtually a transliteration of the original, which would make it an excellent crib, but a crib should have the original for comparison. If you are going to dispense with the original, then I think the translation should have poetic merit in its own right–as does the Beowulf translation of Heaney. Really, the Middle English of Sir Gawain is not so difficult, and this translation, despite of (or perhaps because of) its faithfulness, doesn’t suggest the music of the original.

    Still, I hope this is a roaring success and that success will encourage them to continue.

  7. Jay:

    I do not have the Lion & Unicorn edition of ‘Sir Gawain’ in my collection but here are the basics:

    It was printed in an edition of 200 in 1956 on loose sheets which were then folded and gathered. The folded sheets measure 18.5 x 12.25 inches. It is 80 pp. with a 32 pg. introduction and there are 12 full color illustrations which are quite colorful and elaborate, drawn “to the plate’ by the artist Roy Morgan and then printed by offset lithography. The paper was Precision Offset Cartridge paper, the type was 19-pt. Centaur and printing was done by University Press, Oxford.

    1. Thank you for the information about the paper used in the Lion & Unicorn Press version of Sir Gawain. The reason I asked is that I’m familiar with another Lion & Unicorn Press book published on even larger sheets with very interesting paper from the Crisbrook Mill of J. Barcham Green Ltd. The sheer size and fact that it is identified as handmade made me think that maybe there was a link even if published years apart. In any case I don’t want to go too much further off topic.

  8. Chris,

    It looks like another very nicely done book. Do you happen to have the Lion & Unicorn Press version of Sir Gawain that you mentioned briefly? If so what is the make of the paper?

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