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Two Really Old, Really Awesome Classics: Arabian Nights and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

December 4, 2009

As part of Rebecca and Heather’s Really Old Classics Challenge, I recently finished up two books published pre-1600. They were both fabulous, and they made me want to read a lot more books from medieval and ancient times.

Arabian Nights trans by Hussein Haddawy
I started reading Arabian Nights back in the summer. I wrote a nerdtastically long and detailed post about the edition I read, which I can’t recommend highly enough. I read the first 350 pages in the next couple weeks and then managed to lose my book. I finally found it last month but shiny library books kept distracting me. So I finally picked it up again a few days ago and finished up those last 150 pages. So I feel a bit bad counting this towards the Really Old Classics ‘extra credit’ level, the Classicist Certification. But for now at least, I’m going to. ;) But y’all want to know about the book itself, not me! Let me tell you, it is a wonderful ride, all about the plot and the stories. There are djinns and princesses from the sea and lots of royalty and slave girls amd merchants. There’s love and sex and betrayal and thievery and evilness and revenge and rewards for the just. Some of the stories are nested together, which is great fun, and it’s not that difficult to follow the structure (especially since my edition had the current story’s title printed up top on the righthand side pages). I seriously loved this book: I loved being transported to the streets of old Baghdad or Cairo or to somewhere in the desert. Almost all of the stories had my attention, and while the characters have that stock feel of all fairy tales, I still enjoyed them. This edition only has three hundred something of the nights; I hope that Haddawy decides to translate the rest eventually. I’d highly recommend this to anyone who loves fairy tales or is curious about ancient Middle East culture. And definitely, definitely choose the Haddawy translation.

“Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” trans. by Simon Armitage
I read “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” for the first time when I was ten. My mom was in a lit class, and she came into my room all excited one night about a wonderful story that I had to read. So we curled up with her Norton Anthology, and I was immediately enthralled. It’s a wonderful story, with ghosts and chivalric knights and a test of true courage. I reread it from that same anthology in high school and it still had that old magic. I’ve never forgotten all of the details, and I knew that I had to put it on my Really Old Classics list for a good reread. This time around, I decided to try out a new translation, by Simon Armitage. Isn’t that cover marvelous? Yeah, that’s what I thought. Armitage is a poet, and as he explained in the introduction, in the original the poem is all about alliteration. Alliteration was to the Germanic languages what end-rhyme was to the Romantic ones, so it’s pretty essential to the poem itself. Armitage decided to prioritise that alliteration: the result is a delicious rendition that just begs the reader to read aloud. I read the whole thing to myself (the edition I read was 150 pages long, but it’s got the original on the left pages and Armitage’s translation on the right, so it’s not as long as it seems)! It’s got a little bit of a Dr. Seuss for grown-ups feel to it, with the word play, but of course the story itself has an actual plot. Anyway, here’s a passage that ends with one of my favourite lines from the whole poem, when we meet the Green Knight:

Amazement seized their minds,
no soul had ever seen
a knight of such a kind-
entirely emerald green.

And his gear and garments were green as well:
a tight fitting tunic, tailored to his torso,
and a cloak to cover him, the cloth fully lined
with smoothly shorn fur clearly showing, and faced
with all-white ermine, as was the hood,
worn shawled on his shoulders, shucked from his head.
On his lower limbs his leggings were also green,
wrapped closely round his calves and his sparkling spurs
were green-gold, strapped with stripy silk,
and were set on his stockings, for this stranger was shoeless.
In all vestments he revealed himself veritably verdant!

For those who want to know about the actual story, Arthur and his knights are feasting in Camelot, celebrating Christmas and New Year’s, when this giant green (i.e.: his skin and hair too) knight appears. He challenges one of Arthur’s circle to take one swing at his neck with a huge axe and then appear in a year for the Green Knight to return the favour. Sir Gawain accepts the challenge, needless to say the Green Knight doesn’t die, and most of the book is devoted to Gawain’s quest to find the Green Knight. But that makes it sound so much more static than it is! It’s a total adventure story, but at the same time it has a sophistication to it, with its examination of true courage. I promise that once you’ve read the story, you’ll never forget the characters. And with Armitage’s translation, you’ll never forget the words either. I really want a copy of this for myself and my mom; it’s a translation to savour. I highly recommend this to everyone, especially anyone who loves knights or ghost stories or enjoying a different style Arthur story! And since it takes place around Christmas, it would be a wonderful new holiday tradition. :D

58 Comments leave one →
  1. December 4, 2009 9:43 am

    The Haddawy Arabian Nights is such a great book. You’re right – this is the translation to read. There actually is a second volume, which has the Aladdin and Sinbad and Ali Baba stories, along with a few others.

    But the book you read includes all of the original Arabian Nights, the oldest version. The idea that there were supposed to actually be 1,001 stories came much later. As far as anyone can tell, “Aladdin,” for example, is actually a French story!

    • December 13, 2009 3:36 pm

      Really?! That seems odd; I thought I remember Haddawy’s intro saying that it didn’t include all the original stories. I knew about Aladdin and the more famous ones…that’s why I hesitate to read Haddawy’s next volume.

      • December 13, 2009 4:40 pm

        Maybe we’re having a semantic difference about “original”. Haddawy translated the oldest extant manuscript, all of it, except for a story of which the manuscript has only a fragment. (This is from p. xii of my edition).

        Earlier, lost, manuscripts may very well have had other stories which we possess in later manuscripts. So, yes, Haddawy may very well be excluding some stories of similar vintage.

  2. December 4, 2009 9:54 am

    I love the Arabian Nights, but I doubt I would like Sir Gawain after hearing Jason talk about it when he read it earlier this year.

    • December 13, 2009 3:36 pm

      Well, I loved it, but we do tend to have different reading tastes! :)

  3. December 4, 2009 10:07 am

    I read a different translation of Sir Gawaine once- it was pretty good. I tried the Arabian Nights but the first page was so much debauchery between young women that it turned me off to the entire thing. It might just have been that version, though. I wonder if a different translation would be not so- risque.

    • December 13, 2009 3:37 pm

      lol; some of the stories were risque. I don’t think it opened that way though! :)

  4. Sasha permalink
    December 4, 2009 10:20 am

    I had to read Sir Gawain for a Western Lit class, and I remember, one of my first questions to the professor was, “Okay, so–is the knight really green?”

    He stared at me for a really long time.

    Hey–it didn’t seem like a stupid question in my head! :D

  5. December 4, 2009 10:22 am

    I need to get back to my Haddaway translation of the Arabian Nights! I was loving it but then got sidetracked with other books.

    “Sir Gawain” looks good, too — I’ll have to look for it! How much of Christmas is in the book? Just curious.

    • December 13, 2009 3:39 pm

      I’m glad I”m not the only one that got sidetracked. :) Well, the book opens with a Christmas feast. And then Sir Gawain’s quest begins the next year. So it’s more ‘set during Christmas’ than about Christmas, I would say!

  6. December 4, 2009 10:39 am

    Okay, I have to get this version of the Green Knight. It’s been years since I read it. Isn’t the story basically the same one the Wife of Bath tells in Canterbury Tales? I can’t remember.

    Have you read Seamus Heany’s (Spelling?) translation of Beowulf? It’s marvelous. I read it out loud to my spouse and he loved it as well.

    • December 13, 2009 3:39 pm

      I haven’t read Canterbury Tales, so I don’t know! Well, I read excerpts in high school, but I don’t remember them. I really want to read that Beowulf translation after reading this version of Sir Gawain, since the translators are friends!

  7. December 4, 2009 10:41 am

    I remember reading a part of this particular edition of Arabian Nights. As I have a obsession for all fairy tales and magic and stuff I loved every little thing I read in it. I need to read the rest of it that is if I am able to locate the book :) I also have a children’s version which I go back to so many times to read the tales :)

    Thanks for the reminder

  8. December 4, 2009 11:59 am

    I haven’t read any of this stuff but I wanted to comment that my 10 year old and I just read The Fire Within and one of the dragons in the book was named Gawain. I thought it was a made-up name but now I wonder if the author didn’t take it from this old classic! I bet he did. I love that!!

    • December 13, 2009 3:40 pm

      Cool-I bet he did! I’ve always loved the names of the old knights; if I could get away with it, I’d name a son after one of them. :)

  9. December 4, 2009 2:15 pm

    Ooh, I love anything Arthurian. I’ve opened this one from time to time but haven’t read it through. Might have to do that!

  10. December 4, 2009 3:18 pm

    I’d love to read a few really old classics this year. Since I read so much non-fiction on all things Middle East, I really should start with Arabian Nights!

    • December 13, 2009 3:41 pm

      Definitely! The challenge blog is a good resource too. :)

  11. December 4, 2009 3:24 pm

    Nice musings! You brought back memories of when I had to tutor a student reading Sir Gawain. I must admit that she and I didn’t share your enthusiasm, but it was great to see the story through your eyes!

    • December 13, 2009 3:41 pm

      Aww-well, I’m sorry you and the student didn’t enjoy it as much. I think it’s so fun! :)

  12. December 4, 2009 3:40 pm

    I like Sir Gawain as well, although I kept picturing the Green Knight as the Green Giant mascot, which was distracting and amusing at the same time. And you made me want to finally read the copy of the Arabian Nights that’s been sitting on my shelf for a long time now. Your comments on the translator made me wonder who translated my copy, and it was Sir Richard Burton! I loved his essays from the Norton anthology, so that made me doubly excited to add it to my Christmas vacation book binge pile!

    • December 13, 2009 3:42 pm

      LOL-I can imagine that would be rather distracting! Just fyi, Burton pretty much rewrote the stories vs. just translating them, since translators used to think it their job to improve the text. :)

  13. December 4, 2009 4:24 pm

    Gosh, I never expected that someone would make me feel like I had to run out and get Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, but I believe you accomplished just that!!!

  14. December 4, 2009 9:49 pm

    I totally agree with rhapsody in books! I am going to check my library out for Sir Gawain AND Arabian nights! What a cool challenge!!

    • December 13, 2009 3:42 pm

      Yay! You should join the challenge-it runs until February and you only have to read one book. :)

  15. December 4, 2009 11:01 pm

    I totally heart Sir Gawain and the Green Knight!

  16. December 5, 2009 1:10 am

    Wow, you seriously should get an award Eva…you somehow just made me totally want to go out and buy Arabian Nights right now and I’ve never in my life had an urge to read that :p go you!!

  17. December 5, 2009 6:28 am

    I love this translation of Sir Gawain, you are so right about needing to read it aloud, savouring every word. Beautiful writing and a really great translation. But then Simon Armitage is a master of the english language himself. Great review, thanks!

    • December 13, 2009 3:43 pm

      This was my first time reading a poet’s translation, and I want to seek out more in the future! :)

  18. December 5, 2009 7:35 am

    I love Sir Gawain – I think it’s great that he’s not a perfect knight, and everyone acknowledges he’s not a perfect knight, and he’s still a fantastic hero. An author called Gerald Morris wrote a number of books for kids about Sir Gawain, which are rather charming, starting with The Squire’s Tale. If you’re ever in the mood for something young and fun and Arthurian, I always enjoy Gerald Morris. :)

    • December 13, 2009 3:43 pm

      Thanks for the rec! I love Sir Gawain too. :D

  19. December 5, 2009 12:05 pm

    I listened to the audio version of this Simon Armitage translation several months ago, and Oh My! It was an absolutely wonderful experience. The reader was so well versed in the story and read it with such skill that it just flowed. Dr. Seuss for adults is a perfect description of how the words just tumbled out one over the other and yet flowed so well. Very engaging to listen to.

    • December 13, 2009 3:44 pm

      I bet the audio version would be marvelous! I’ll check and see if my library has it. :D

  20. December 5, 2009 1:08 pm

    I’m so glad to read a positive review of the Haddawy translation of The Arabian Nights! I picked it up a bit ago impulsively, without doing any looking into what translations are good or bad, and afterwards thought i had probably made a foolish decision (I’m always so lazy about finding out what translations are the best, it’s something I really need to work on).

    • December 13, 2009 3:44 pm

      I’m rather *intent* about translations, lol. But you picked the best one! :)

  21. December 5, 2009 6:46 pm

    I read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight a few years ago. I wouldn’t mind rereading it, though!

  22. December 7, 2009 12:29 pm

    I love Simon Armitage’s translation of SG and the GK – great review. I have to say I prefer the UK cover though. I have just recommended this book in my “Christmas Presents” post.

    • December 13, 2009 3:45 pm

      I don’t think I’ve seen the UK cover. I love the armour on this one though!

  23. December 8, 2009 8:56 am

    Ahhh S.G.G.K ! What a classic. He was always one of my favorites mainly because he put his own ego above the idea of courtly love which was basically a sin back then. Glad to see someone out there reading and reviewing books like this!

    • December 13, 2009 3:46 pm

      It’s always been one of my faves. :)

  24. December 8, 2009 1:43 pm

    I’m so glad to hear that Gawain is a holiday-ish book, maybe I’ll go find it! I think I need this translation though. The one in my anthology is prose ;(.

    After I finished Arabian Nights, I went and found the second volume Haddawy translated. It was taken from a much later manuscript but it had the “familiar” stories and they were not nearly as convoluted and fascinating. In short, although it told the stories I wanted to be familiar with, it was not nearly as good.

    • December 13, 2009 3:46 pm

      I remember you telling me the second volume wasn’t as good. It doesn’t surprise me if the stories are actually later European editions! And this translation is pretty awesome. :D

  25. justabookreader permalink
    December 9, 2009 9:33 am

    I love Arthurian tales but I somehow managed to pass over Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. I think I’ll be adding it to the list.

  26. March 12, 2010 6:58 pm

    I enjoy Tolkien’s translation of “SGGK” and read one version or another every Christmastime. I’ll have to add this one to my collection!


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