One of the great pleasures of reviewing for Green Man Review is when our erstwhile editor sends an e-mail to reviewers telling us what's out there for review. Getting those e-mails is a little like opening presents at Christmas: the excitement, the expectation, and then the pleasure of getting something really desirable. When I was approached with the offer of reviewing a reading of J.R.R. Tolkien's translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, read by Monty Python's Terry Jones, I jumped and responded so quickly, it was almost like a real-time conversation being conducted via email.
Aside from writing the seminal and most important fantasy work of the twentieth century, J.R.R. Tolkien was also a scholar and philologist. While his actual scholarly work was not too prodigious, much of what he did produce has stood the test of time (which is not too common for literary scholarship: I just have to look at my bookshelves to be reminded that much of what I studied in graduate school is now considered invalid theory).
One of Tolkien's first scholarly works was a modern English translation of the fourteenth century alliterative poem, "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight." Although there have been a handful of translations since, Tolkien's stands out as accomplishing a two-fold mission that few others have achieved: he brings the poem into the modern idiom in a way that is readable, but he also retains the alliterative metric structure that the anonymous Gawain poet was trying to revive. I have read other attempts to bring older literary styles into modern prose (such as Rebsamen's clunky translation of "Beowulf") that end up driving the reader to wonder why the poem is considered so great. Tolkien's translation, however, has that rare quality of making one want to read the original. (OK, confession time: I studied medieval literature in graduate school, and so I may not be considered the most objective critic when it comes to discussions of wanting to study the texts, but still I've known of others who have read Tolkien's translation and wanted to go back to the original.)
"Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" survives in one manuscript, and the manuscript evidence does not indicate whether the poem was written to be read aloud. Regardless, the poem is in a style that was meant to be read aloud, so it only seems natural that a brilliant modern English translation should be made into an audiobook.
The choice of Terry Jones to read the poem, though, is an interesting one. The story is familiar: Arthur's court is celebrating Christmas and the celebrations are interrupted by the entrance of a knight decked all in green. He challenges Arthur's court to a game wherein one of the knights can chop off his head, as long as he can return the favor a year and a day later. Gawain takes up the challenge, does the deed, and is astonished to see the Green Knight pick up his severed head and ride off, reminding Gawain of the agreement. One year later, Gawain heads off to the Green Chapel, but on his way has adventures in the court of a noble who lives near the Green Chapel, before going to what he believes to be his lethal assignation.
The tone of the poem is not one that I had previously considered to be comic. True, there are portions that are funny and there are scenes that could be taken as humorous (such as the response of Arthur's court when the Green Knight picks up his severed head and rides off), but overall it is more easily read as somber in tone. Therefore, I was a bit hesitant about the choice of Terry Jones to read it. After all, Jones made his reputation as part of the Monty Python troupe, and his specialty was obnoxious British ladies. But in spite of that -- or maybe because of that -- Jones does a superb job with "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight." Even more oddly, he manages to make the poem a comedy. Passages I would never have seen as being inherently comical, he manages to make quite humorous. Most important of all, it works as a comedy. It is a testament to Jones's skill that he can take a seven-hundred year-old poem and make it comical to the postmodern mind.
"Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" is about maintaining Christian virtue even when death is imminent and the temptations to sin are great. But, as I've noted above, the overarching plot device is one that lends itself to absurdity, so who better to read the poem than someone who was a part of the premier postmodern comedy troupe? Postmodern readings, however, often collapse in upon themselves and become parodies of themselves rather than parodies of the text. Jones manages to play up the absurd while not destroying the themes of the work. Incredible.
The technical qualities of the reading are varied. Overall, Jones does an excellent job, but there are a few problems. First, though, the accolades. Jones is a master of voices. Too often with books read by men, the female voices are signified by a "turning off" of the vocal chords, making the women all sound like, well, Pythonesque characterizations. Jones does not do this, but merely softens his tone slightly.
Also, Jones handles the alliteration overall well, but there are points where he stresses it too much. Unfortunately, one of those places is the first twenty or so lines of the poem. My advice to listeners is to persevere and realize that it gets better. Part of the brilliance of Tolkien's translation is that he manages to capture the alliteration without making it too much of a distraction. However, Jones almost undoes that at points by stressing the alliteration so much that the other words in a given line are lost. Jones also tends to slip into sing-song at points. There are passages where the translation slides into English's natural tendency of iambic meter. When Jones hits these spots, he falls too quickly into the meter and the listener begins to expect iambic pentameter with rhyming couplets. When the poem then breaks out of the meter, the shock is jarring and it can take a few lines before you're back in the flow of the alliterative meter.
Still, these are minor criticisms. The reading is excellent and captures very much the orality that is inherent in alliterative verse. As Tolkien comments in his introduction (which is included after the reading of the poem), alliterative verse was meant to be read (even if "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" may not have been), and so I tip my hat to HarperCollins for producing this audiobook and giving our generation a chance to enjoy a great poem in a great translation, and relish the lost days of orality.