November 12, 2011

Adventures in My 'Mother Tongue': Middle English

Okay, a question for you.  How many of you, in the course of your reading, enjoy encountering new words, or are curious about the origin of specific words and how they are used?  As many of you may be aware, I am continually fascinated by language, and especially the English language--my 'Mother Tongue'.  Toward this end, I decided to do a posting that looks at an earlier form of English known as Middle English that was generally in use from about the time of the Norman Conquest in 1066 to about the end of the 1400s.  I am currently reading the alliterative poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, that was written by an anonymous poet in the late 14th century, and is just over 2,500 lines written in Middle English.  Actually, I am reading three different translations in a side-by-side fashion.  The first is by J.R.R. Tolkien, and was completed in the early 1950s according to his son.  The second translation is by Marie Borroff, and was published in 1967.  Finally, I am reading Simon Armitage's recent translation completed in 2007 (cover attached at right).  Each of the translated poems preserves the structural organization and alliteration of the original, and yet they are all somewhat different from one another; which is certainly to be expected when dealing with different translators and differing poetic perspectives.

What has really been the fascinating aspect of my reading of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight though has been my careful reading and analysis of the original Middle English text.  I have been slowly, but steadily, poring over it and endeavoring to literally translate it word-by-word.  The Armitage translation presents the original Middle English text on the left-hand page, and his translation on the right-hand page.  Seamus Heaney did this type of presentation with his magnificent translation of Beowulf from the original Anglo-Saxon (Old English) text.  Anyway, by using the three translations that I have, a big fat Webster's dictionary, and several on-line resources, I have gotten through about sixteen pages of the Middle English text.  I'm having a blast too!  This is like a seriously cool puzzle, and is hugely challenging.  I am already getting a decent handle on vocabulary and I'm beginning to figure out the grammatical rules of the road for this beautifully archaic version of English.  I'm not going to belabor the point, but just go ahead and share a bit of the poem and corresponding translation.  So, here is the third stanza from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight--
This kyng lay at Camylot upon Krystmasse
With mony luflych lorde, ledes of the best,
Rekenly of the Rounde Table alle tho rich brether,
With rych revel oryght and rechles merthes.
Ther tournayed tulkes by tymes ful mony,
Justed ful jolile thise gentyle knightes,
Sythen kayred to the court, caroles to make.
For ther the fest was ilyche ful fiften dayes,
With alle the mete and the mirthe that men couthe avyse:
Such glaum ande gle glorious to here,
Dere dyn upon day, daunsyng on nyghtes;
Al was hap upon heghe in halles and chambres
With lordes and ladies, as levest him thoght.
With all the wele of the worlde thay woned ther samen,
The most kyd knyghtes under Krystes selven,
And the lovelokkest ladies that ever lif haden,
And he the comlokest kyng that the court haldes.
For al was this fayre folk in her first age
on sille,
The hapnest under heven,
Kyng hyghest mon of wylle;
Hit were now gret nye to neven
So hardy a here on hille.
Okay, now the Modern English translation by Marie Borroff (1967)--
This king lay at Camelot at Christmastide;
Many good knights and gay his guests were there,
Arrayed of the Round Table rightful brothers,
With feasting and fellowship and carefree mirth.
There true men contended in tournaments many,
Joined there in jousting these gentle knights,
Then came to the court for carol-dancing,
For the feast was in force full fifteen days,
With all the meat and the mirth that men could devise,
Such gaity and glee, glorious to hear,
Brave din by day, dancing by night.
High were their hearts in halls and chambers,
These lords and these ladies, for life was sweet.
In peerless pleasures passed they their days,
The most noble knights known under Christ,
And the loveliest ladies that lived on earth ever,
And he the comeliest king, that that court holds,
For all this fair folk in their first age
were still.
Happiest of mortal kind,
King noblest famed of will;
You would now go far to find
So hardy a host on hill.
I chose Ms. Borroff's translation because it really is, in my opinion, the most literal.  You can get a pretty good sense of the Middle English with a line-by-line comparison with her modern translation.  Tolkien's translation is quite literal too, but is perhaps a bit more poetic and lyrical.  Armitage's translation, while preserving organizational structure and alliterative style, does deviate rather significantly from a literal representation of the poem.  I'm not saying that there's anything wrong with that at all, I'm simply pointing out the differences in the translations that I am studying.  I have translations of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by Burton Raffal and W.S. Merwin coming in the mail too.  So, you can see that I am truly trying to experience the poem from many different poetic perspectives.  Right now, though, I am just concentrating on trying to gain a better understanding and appreciation of the original Middle English text.  After I've 'conquered' Sir Gawain and the Green Knight I plan on tackling Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales in Middle English, and forego reading a modern translation.  Wish me luck!

I hope you have enjoyed this brief visit to an earlier time in the history of our wonderful language--English!


  1. Wow, it's fun to read the original middle English and try to figure out what it's saying ... that first line is pretty easy but wow, that second line doesn't make much sense, haha.

  2. LOL! I know just what you mean. Believe it or not, it does get easier and easier as one reads along. It really is like being a detective. Reading it aloud helps too, as you can sometimes 'hear' what the word might be alluding to. While I am having a lot of success puzzling through Middle English, I had no such success with the Anglo-Saxon text of Beowulf. That was just indecipherable, and I simply relaxed and enjoyed Heaney's gorgeous translation. Thanks for the visit, Ingrid! Cheers! Chris

  3. I was just thinking of picking this one up; my older daughter is supposed to read the Tolkien translation this week. :)

  4. Jean, I think you'll both love this poem! It is a great and grand tale, with a moral message that still speaks to us today. Plus, with the Tolkien translation you'll get his beautiful translations of the Pearl and Sir Orfeo (a retelling of Orpheus and Eurydice). Enjoy!

    By the bye, thanks for the note about the 'Greek Challenge', count me in. I'll come by to sign-up tomorrow. Cheers! Chris

  5. The Middle English is interesting because it's very different from modern English but there are just enough similarities to make it possible to work out meaning. Have fun with the rest of the poem :)

  6. I remember having to read The Canterbury Tales in the original Middle English and it's at once so much more and less difficult than it seems at first. It's so fun that you're taking on the original Middle English as well as looking at the different translations. Good luck with the rest of Sir Gawain and when you tackle Canterbury Tales!

  7. Sam and Red, thanks for your visits! I'm really enjoying my exploration of Middle English. I even bought myself a textbook with a grammar and glossary with loads of examples. I'm sure it will be useful when I tackle The Canterbury Tales in Middle English too. Cheers!