Tag Archives: Gawain

What I Thought Of……….The Death Of King Arthur by Simon Armitage

The Arthurian stories have always been a source of enjoyment for me. In fact when I was a child and even as a young teenager, the abridged versions of these legends were fascinating to me. I voraciously devoured anything I could get my hands on about Arthur, or Lancelot, or Gawain. (Sir Gawain was my favourite and, if I’m honest, the more romantic and fanciful part of my childhood imaginings always wanted to be like Gawain – but chivalry, a decent steed and a Green Knight against whom I could pit my wits and courage were in pretty short supply on the streets of Glasgow in the 60′s!)

Until the last couple of years though I’d read nothing of Arthur as an adult, though I’ve watched and enjoyed the BBC series “Merlin”! That changed when Simon Armitage’s version of ‘Gawain and The Green Knight’ was published. The tale of the Green Knight had always been one of my favourite stories but reading it in poetic form was a revelation for me. I raved about it for weeks afterwards and for my poor family and for my colleagues at work I became a bit of a Gawain-bore! I even managed to persuade the staff book club at work to have it as the chosen title one month. (Everybody hated it – the Philistines – but I soldiered on Gawain-like, upholding the honour of Arthur and his knights through the darkest corridors of the un chivalrous nest of vipers and heathens that was the Local Government Civil Service where I worked at that time!!)

So having loved Simon Armitage’s version of Gawain, I was really looking to reading his version of the Morte D’Arthur. However it never quite hit the heights I’d expected and I actually found it a little flat in places to read. I think part of the reason was that the alliterative style that I’d loved on every single line in the Gawain book didn’t have that same effect as consistently in this book. I’ve thought about it since I’ve finished reading it and can only put it down to the sheer length of the Morte D’Arthur poem. I think it weighs in at more than 4000 lines – and essentially I found 4000 odd lines of alliterative verse a bit wearying in places. Having said that some of it was superb – especially the descriptions of the blood and gore and horror of the battles for places like Metz and Lorraine. Among the parts I especially loved were these:-

‘Then chieftains could be witnessed on chalk-white chargers
chasing and chopping down chivalrous chevaliers,
regal Romans and royal kings,
their ribs ripped apart by ripe steel.
Brains burst through their burnished helmets,
battered by blade on those broad fields,
They hewed down heathens with hilted swords,
with a host of hundreds by the edge of the holt,
No silver could save them or secure their souls,
not Sultan, nor Saracen nor senator of Rome.’

 

‘ Then our chivalrous men charged their chargers
and chased and chopped down many noble chieftains,
hitting out heartily at helmets and shields, hurting and hewing through those heathen knights.
Through kettle-hats they cleaved, cutting to the shoulder - 
such a clamour of captains was never heard on earth!’

 

Great, gratuitous, gruesome gory alliterative stuff!

The poem is a huge sweeping panorama of the final battles of Arthur leading to his death at the hands of the traitor Mordred. I enjoyed this overall sweep of the story, though in places I found the poem’s tendency to go off into tangents and then come back again broke up the flow of it a little for me. As befits the legend that is Arthur, and as befits a 4000 line poem, there’s a vast range of characters but they all have a bit of a ‘walk-on part’ feel with the exception of Arthur himself. And perhaps that was also an issue for me in being slightly underwhelmed on reading it – while I always fancied myself becoming Gawain or Lancelot I never really fancied myself as Arthur!

While parts of the book didn’t quite hit the mark for me in some ways, what I did enjoy, and hadn’t expected, was the pleasure I got from reading something with such fantastic origins and with such a wonderful history. All the time I read it and even now writing about it, I’m conscious that this is a poem that’s hundreds of years old and is part of a tradition of story-telling which has been passed from generation to generation over centuries.

I believe there are only two surviving copies of the original Morte D’Arthur in existence and one of these is in the wonderful library at Lincoln Cathedral. Simon Armitage is due to appear there in May to talk about the Morte D’Arthur. If you’d like to know more about it you can get details from Lincoln Cathedral.

Even though I couldn’t praise this in the way I could Gawain and the Green Knight, I’m still in love with the wonderful world of Arthur and the Round Table and I think the chance to hear Simon Armitage speak on it is something I wouldn’t want to miss! And when I’m there listening, in my head I’m sure there will be a part of me that fantasising about being the wonderous Sir Gawain!

Love At First Sight In A Greenock Library

“I claim there ain’t / Another Saint / As great as Valentine!” wrote Ogden Nash. These days I think Valentine might be less than keen on the rampant commercialism of this celebration and demonstration of love in his name – I saw cards yesterday inscribed “Happy Valentines Day to Our Son”!!! What’s that about?

I started my Valentines Day early this morning reading Seamus Heaney’s wonderful poetry in Human Chain and went back again to my favourite poem in the collection, Route 101, in which Heaney traces his journey through life in a series of moments laid over Virgil’s Aeneid and the move to the underworld. But it was the fantastic beginning which brought me to remember my first love – books!

Heaney’s poem begins with this scene of him buying a book as an adolescent “In a stained front-buttoned shopcoat / Sere brown piped with crimson / Out of the Classics bay into an aisle /  Smelling of dry rot and disinfectant / She emerges, absorbed in her coin count / Eyes front, right hand at work / In the slack marsupial vent / Of her change – pocket, thinking what to charge / For a used copy of Aeneid VI. / Dustbreath bestirred in the cubicle mouth / I inhaled as she slid my purchase / Into a deckle edged brown paper bag”. If anything captures the beauty and the preciousness in the hum-drum, everyday, ordinariness of buying a book, then this is it for me.

Book love began at first sight in Bawhirely Road library in Greenock where I grew up. In my memories it is the most beautiful, the most grand and the most imposing of buildings! In reality it’s not any of those things as you can see!!

But to my seven-year-old eyes it was a rite of passage becoming a member – but nothing on the exterior prepared me for falling instantly in love with row upon row of books, most spine out but some with that tantalising “come and try me” look as they were displayed front on. The counter was solid and smelt of varnish, but it had a crenellated section for kids – it was hewn I think rather than cut – a bit more heavy axe than refined jigsaw had created I’d guess! I’d linger and dally over choosing so long I’d frequently be “encouraged” to choose and get out with the words “If you don’t get a move on you’ll be sleeping here!”. And I’d have loved to! And years later I did finally sleep with books – I was the Headteacher of a school in Essex when the local library tried to promote books by running  a sleepover in the library – I immediately signed up and it was great – I still feel warmed by the memory of sliding into my sleeping bag surrounded by words!

And in the same way that I can reflect back over the years of being in love with my beautiful partner, I can also reflect on moments in my love affair with books, reading and stories. I remember the joy of getting a multiple book library ticket, staying up all night for the first time to finish “The Count of Monte Cristo”, being asked to leave a bookshop after collapsing into an uncontrollable fit of giggling on reading the blurb on the back of Spike Milligan’s “Adolf Hitler, My Part In His Downfall!”, discovering the world of Arthur and the Round Table emerging with my favourite hero of all time Sir Gawain, (even more than Eric Cantona and Guy Garvey from Elbow), waiting with endless plays of Genesis “Wind and Wuthering” in the background on my O Level /  GCSE results and yet being more worried about Prince Andrei and Natasha in War and Peace than the results, sitting as a hitch-hiking student by a flea-ridden hotel pool in Greece crying with laughter at the antics of Sancho Panza and Don Quixote and then 25 years later crying by the edge of a stunningly beautiful hotel pool in Greece at the end of Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s “The Angel Game” (I’d come a long way in hotel quality but the story quality had been constant throughout!) and re-discovering the majestic Simon Armitage version of Gawain and The Green Knight! These and many more have filled so many minutes, hours and days for me over the years – but today I was grateful to Seamus Heaney for reminding me that my book journey began in that library 43 years ago!

If you’d like to share the moments that mark your book journey I’d love to hear what they are!