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In explanation of Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse, J.R.R. Tolkien said “They depend on a balance and a weight and emotional content. They are more like masonry than music” (59). The original manuscript of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is written in alliterative verse and follows the use of strict and near-constant alliteration throughout the entirety of the poem. Upon examination of the Middle English text, it is definite that the poet places as much importance on the alliterative structure of the poem as he does the development of characters or plot. When examining the form of alliterative verse in various translations of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, however, it becomes apparent that the more modern the translation is, the more lenient the translator acts when adhering to the strict use of alliteration established in the original Middle English text. Why did the unknown author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight focus so profoundly on the use of alliteration? Why are modern translations deteriorating the necessity of alliteration within the poem if it is vital for the sake of the work as a whole?
The drastic difference in the medieval and modern audiences likely facilitates the decline of the alliterative stronghold within the texts. The Middle English text relies on the act of oral presentation so that it may fill the gap between an illiterate medieval audience and the written text. The medieval audience must be read to rather than possessing the ability to directly read the work, and the poet focuses on the function of a word phonetically in order to reach his audience indirectly with the use of alliteration. Modern English translations are far less distinct in their focus on alliteration. While more modern translators still deploy the use of alliteration within the poem, the translations often lack the same dedication that the Middle English poet endorsed in the use of alliteration. In contrast to medieval audiences, modern audiences are literate and there is no longer such value placed in the cadence of the language in the name of creating an understanding within the audience. In spite of the decline in use of strict alliteration within modern translations, it is critical to note how the creation of sound at the hand of alliteration is still influential concerning the audiences’ perception of the poem. Some sound is universally understood. A sudden thunder clap is an unnerving or shocking sound no matter what language a person speaks; Music will often swell in order to cue suspense. In this way, the forceful creation of intense sound within the alliteration cannot be overlooked. To fully recognize the development of sound and examine its effect on audiences, studying lines 2199-2207 of the poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight helps confirm the manner in which the Middle English poet exercises alliteration to parallel the intertwining action and emotion of language.
The existing Middle English manuscript of the poem, as transcribed by Ross G. Arthur of York University, reads: Þene herde he of þat hy?e hil i a harde roche bi?onde þe broke i a bonk a wonder breme noy?e quat hit clated i þe cliff as hit cleue ?chulde as one vpon a gyrndel?ton hade grouden a ?yþe what hit wharred & whette as wat at a mulne what hit ru?ched & ronge rawþe to here Þene bi godde [quote] gawayn þat gere at I trowe Bi rote is ryched at þe reuence me renk to mete (2199-2206) The repetition of harsh consonants imitates the sound that the lines are describing through an elongated “R” sound. The rough sound of the language imitates the grainy noise of a blade being sharpened, but this same noise simultaneously rings as clear as rushing water; a terrifying balance of a sense of both control and unpredictability. This moment in the poem articulates the fear that Sir Gawain feels when he hears a sudden and startling noise, and, through the use of alliteration, the poem is able to relay unto its audience both an imitation of the shrill noise that Gawain hears and the same sudden terror felt by Gawain as his heart sinks into his stomach. The creation of a resonating, dark tone in the language used by the medieval poet conveys the fearful emotion of this moment of Gawain’s journey, and develops a rooted impression of Gawain’s disturbance.
Sticking closely to the Middle English manuscript of the poem, the translation written by E.V. Gordon and J.R.R. Tolkien recognizes the importance of maintaining alliterative structure in the poem. One of the true separating qualities between Gordon and Tolkien’s translation and the original manuscript is the removal of some of the archaic Middle English characters. Even with this small change, the poem becomes much more comprehensible to the modern eye. Gordon and Tolkien’s translation reads: Þene herde he of þat hy?e hil, in a harde roche Bi?onde þe broke, in a bonk, a wonder breme noyse, Quat! hit clatered in þe clyff, as hit cleue schulde, As one vpon a gryndelston hade grounden a syþe. What! hit wharred and whette, as water at a mulne; What! hit rusched and ronge, rawþe to here. Þenne ‘Bi Godde,’ quoþ Gawayn, ‘þat gere, as I trowe, Is ryched at þe reuerence me, renk, to mete bi rote.’ (2199-2207) Another helpful addition is the inclusion of punctuation. The original poem carries a heavy rhythm, and the two poets attempt to force the rhythm of the poem onto their audience with the addition of punctuation. The exclamation and forced pauses assist in the modern audience’s formation of the understanding that the language in the poem mimics the emotion meant for them to feel while reading or listening. The use of punctuation also allows the modern audience to immediately feel slightly more familiar with a text which utilizes language that may seem a bit foreign in comparison to translations that use more the modern and commonplace English language.
Still, Gordon and Tolkien’s translation uses primarily the same words as the original manuscript, and the two translators maintain the same strict use of alliteration as the original. The intent of this translation is to keep the rough edges of the Middle English poem while polishing its form. Tolkien, perhaps feeling that shifts in language had necessitated a new translation which could be both more readily understood by modern audiences and appreciated by those familiar with the original text, wrote another translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight that maintains a focus on alliteration and the quality thereof while transforming the original language of the poem into words with more modern groundings.
Published posthumously by his son, Christopher Tolkien, modern audiences may find themselves drawn to Tolkien’s later translation because it is intentionally translated for the modern audiences’ eyes and ears. Christopher Tolkien notes that the translation his father published with Gordon was mostly Gordon’s work, and it was his father’s wish to publish a translation which served as a stepping stone for those want to learn about medieval literature. J.R.R. Tolkien writes that the poetry “deserves to be heard by lovers of English poetry who have not the opportunity or the desire to master its difficult idiom” (viii). He also notes that “a translation may be a useful form of commentary; and this version may possibly be acceptable even to those who already know the original, and possess editions with all their apparatus” (viii). Tolkien’s ability to translate the poem into a more understandable, modern language while maintaining focus on the importance of alliteration within the text makes this translation a fine representation of the meshing of the medieval and modern worlds. Tolkien’s translates lines 2199-2207 of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Then he heard from the high hill, in a hard rock-wall beyond the stream on a steep, a sudden startling noise. How it clattered in the cliff, as if to cleave it asunder, as if one upon a grindstone were grinding a scythe! How it whirred and it rasped as water in a mill-race! How it rushed and it rang, rueful to harken! Then, ‘By God,’ quoth Gawain, ‘I guess this ado is meant for my honour, meetly to hail me as knight!’ (2199-2207) Tolkien changes the original words “quat” and “what” to “how” in his translation, begging for a sense of yearning within the lines that goes unnoticed in other translations. Tolkien creates a greater sense of suspense in the lines which enriches the description of a grand moment in the poem. Tolkien’s translation is likely more suspenseful because he wants to engage his audience both scholarly and not. This translation is effective in maintaining the original meaning of the poem while lending itself to a modern audience due to Tolkien’s revision of language. Tolkien removed all Middle English characters and replaced them with letters from the modern English alphabet. He replaced outdated and foreign words with ones which are more modern and customary. Tolkien preserves the core of alliteration within the lines while maintaining the same insistent “R” sound which the original Middle English text creates.
In addition to this, Tolkien places additional stress on the creation of the “S” sound in his translation and further spotlights how the alliteration parallels and represents the emotion and action presented in the text. When comparing Tolkien’s modern English translation to other modern translations, it becomes apparent that Tolkien wishes to maintain the same emotional balance within the text that the original poet creates through the use of alliteration. Keith Harrison’s translation, however, does not abide by the same principle. His translation only develops the surface story; it does not delve into the emotional connectivity between the creation of sound and the audience that underlies the alliteration. Harrison’s translates: At that height, from behind a boulder, he heard Way off, beyond the brook, a weird sound. Listen to that! It clattered against cliffs, as if to shatter them: A sound like a scythe being ground against a stone. Listen! It sang, and whirred, like wild mill-water In a race. It clanged and rang out, rushing Towards him. ‘By God, this instrument is meant To honour me alone; it is for me he hones his blade!’ (2199-2207) Harrison’s translation does communicate the same underlying message that the original manuscript and other translations carry; however, it does not transmit the same recognition of balance between sound and meaning. The use of alliteration is minimal in Harrison’s translation, and this diminishes the emotional connection between the audience and the lines.
In conclusion, the use of alliteration in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is of equal importance regarding both medieval and modern audiences. The medieval audience relied heavily on the function of sound in order to connect to a work of literature because of the low literacy rates, so alliteration impacted their ability to comprehend the poem. Modern audiences no longer face such struggles, but the importance of alliteration in the interest of the poem still stands. The use of alliteration allows the medieval poet to intertwine the emotional gravity of the text with the creation of sound in the interest of creating an onomatopoeic quality toward the language used within lines 2199-2207. Some modern translations ignore the consequence of alliteration and choose to dismiss it from the poem, but this is a grave mistake, as the creation of sound through the use of alliteration is as important to the poem as the literal meanings of the words themselves. Alliteration is acts as a symbol in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and it should remain prevalent in all translations in the pursuance of preserving the original poet’s intentions of balance between sound, emotion, and action.
Andrew, Malcolm, and Ronald Waldron. The Poems of the Pearl Manuscript: Pearl, Cleanness, Patience, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Berkeley: U of California, 1979. Print.
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Tolkien, J. R. R., E. V. Gordon, and Norman Davis. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Oxford: Clarendon P., 1967. Print. Tolkien, J.R.R. Sir Gawain and The Green Knight, Pearl, and Sir Orfeo. New York: Random House, 1980. Print.
Trapp, J.B., Douglas Gray, and Julia Boffey. Sir Gawain and The Green Knight. Trans. Keith Harrison. The Oxford Anthology of English Literature: Medieval English Literature. 2nd ed. N.p.: Oxford UP, 2002. 356-416. Print.
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