For students of the Middle Ages, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight comes as something of a surprise. It's easy to assume that away from the courtly world of Chaucerian London, England was a murky, murderous realm, populated with scuzzy yokels and buck-toothed serfs lobbing rotten turnips at one another. How startling, therefore, to come across this late 14th-century poem by an anonymous northerner from the borders of Staffordshire, Cheshire and Derbyshire. Drawn deeply from the well of Arthurian romance, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is an inimitable marvel of the imagination. J R R Tolkien, its most august editor, called it a "fairy-tale for adults" and argued that it holds its own against Chaucer and Shakespeare.
What is more surprising, though, is the ex-tent to which it chimes with modern tastes. This goes beyond the current vogue for orcs and elves and all things Lord of the Rings. In many respects, Gawain is like a novel, burrowing into the consciousness of its chivalrous central character. The hero is someone we still sympathise with today.
So why is such an exquisite poem, preserved in a single vellum manuscript kept under lock and key in the British Library and first published in 1839, not read more widely? The sticking point is the language: a sinewy, rustic version of Middle English, packed full of dialectical oddities and obscure archaisms that soon faded into extinction. Chaucer can be read in the original without too much difficulty. But great swathes of Gawain cannot.
"To the untrained eye, it is as if the poem is lying beneath a thin coat of ice, tantalisingly near yet frustratingly blurred," writes Simon Armitage in the introduction to his supple new translation. He decided to "blow a little warm breath across that layer of frosting", and the result is irresistible.
Of course, any translator is helped by the plot, which the Australian poet Keith Harrison, who produced an attractive translation for OUP in the early 1980s, called a "rattling good story".
It is New Year at Camelot. Arthur and his knights are getting ready to wassail the night away when a hulking ogre with green hair and green skin, clutching a monstrous axe and a sprig of holly, and dressed in verdant haute couture, rides into the hall on an emerald-green horse. He proposes a bloodthirsty "game": anyone tough enough can hack off his head. But there is a condition. He reserves the right to decapitate his challenger a year down the line.
Step forward Gawain, Arthur's stripling nephew, who makes light work of chopping off the knight's head (which the attendant lords then boot around the hall). Everyone is stunned when the "half-giant" blithely picks up his head and demands that Gawain keep his promise to meet him in 12 months.
A year passes. We then follow Gawain on his quest to find the otherworldly "Grene Chapel" where the knight lives (imagine a sinister version of the Teletubbies' grassy knoll). En route, he stumbles across a fantastical castle where he spends several nights. Each morning, the luscious châtelaine slinks into his chamber to seduce him while her husband is out hunting. Gawain, who has taken a vow of chastity, is tempted but doesn't succumb. He leaves on New Year's morning and heads through the mist to keep his date with the menacing green beefcake, who has been variously interpreted as God, a personification of death and a manifestation of nature.
One of the most ingenious aspects of the poem is the way in which the two narrative strands - the beheading game and the temptation scenes - are inextricably intertwined. Just as ingenious is the poem's highly wrought, highly alliterative form. Gawain was composed to be recited aloud, so that its audience could relish the patterned repetition of sounds. The opening line gives a taster: "Sithen the sege and the assaut watz sesed at Troye". Armitage renders this as "Once the siege and assault of Troy had ceased", preserving the sibilance.
Many translators, such as Bernard O'Dono-ghue in his Penguin Classics version published last year, ditch alliteration on the grounds that it can sound artificial, opting instead for the idiomatic rhythms of modern speech. This is the challenge facing every translator of Gawain: to capture a sense of the poem's formal delicacy without sounding ossified.
Armitage meticulously maintains the singsong alliteration ("To me, alliteration is the warp and weft of the poem, without which it is just so many fine threads," he writes in the introduction), rarely, if ever, hitting a strained or duff note.
To avoid sounding antique, he peppers his poem with colloquialisms. When, for example, the green knight bellows that the coltish Camelot heroes are nothing but "berdlez chylder" (beardless children), Armitage writes "bum-fluffed bairns". It's a brilliant moment, characterising the gruff green gatecrasher as unmistakably northern (which, of course, he is). Harrison goes for "beardless boys", which feels flat in comparison. That Armitage, a celebrated Yorkshire-born poet, has injected a spot of northern dialect back into the poem ("nithering" also gets a look-in) is delicious. Occasionally, he even improves on the original. When the Gawain-poet says that "the mone rysed", Armitage writes that "the moon had silvered the view". "Silvered" is his invention. It is more evocative than the terse Middle English - and more appropriate, too, given the poem's extended descriptions of expensive goods.
It's a shame that there isn't a single explanatory note. I'm not convinced that readers will be familiar with many of the names that crop up. Do you know who Ticius and Langobard are, for instance? It also means that anyone unacquainted with the original will miss many of the juiciest cruces, such as the moment when the lady of the castle croons at Gawain, "Ye ar welcum to my cors" (literally, "You are welcome to my body"). Strangely, Armitage neutralises this to "You're free to have my all".
Still, sack-loads of scholarly editions provide the lowdown on such details. This is a translation to be savoured for its own linguistic merits: Armitage has pored over and polished every word. In the introduction, he writes that his ambition was to produce an independent, living piece of "poetry". He has certainly done that.
Alistair Sooke writes for the Daily Telegraph