I first came across Simon Armitage on Radio 4 discussing his translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a medieval epic poem written by an unknown poet possibly from Derbyshire. Armitage allows me to boast about one of my two claims to fame: In the 1980s I worked with Norbert Hannett, father of Factory record producer Martin; and in the 1990s and 2000s I worked for Tom Lonsdale who worked with Armitage on the Stanza Stones, a trail stretching from Marsden to Ilkley which includes seven poems by Armitage carved into rocks. Tenuous claims to fame, I admit, but you have to make the most of what you’ve got.
In this BBC 4 documentary Armitage looks for the locations in Gawain and the Green Knight, in the hope that the poet’s identity might be found. In case you’re only familiar with Sir Gawain from Michael Palin’s portrayal in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Gawain was given a challenge by the Green Knight during a meeting of the Knights of the Round Table. Fight me and cut my head off, but if you succeed allow me to come back in twelve month’s time to cut your head off. Gawain is the only knight in the room to 1: take him seriously and 2: take him on. He then proceeds to cut the Green Knight’s head off, but men being harder in those days, simply picks it up and puts it back on his shoulders. Gawain’s fate is sealed; he knows in twelve month’s time he won’t able to pull a stunt quite like that.
The poem is not only epic, but alliterative. Every line plays around with the initial letters of each word. To quote a couple of lines from Armitage’s translation:
Once the siege and assault of Troy had ceased
with the city a smoke-heap of cinders and ash
the turncoat whose tongue had tricked his own men
was tried for his treason – the truest crime on earth
The conclusion to the story, and I won’t give away the ending, is in Derbyshire in filthy weather, with Armitage soaked to the bone. He’s already found the home of the hunter whose wife gives Gawain a magical sash and finds two not very forthcoming farmers who identify some of the poem’s original dialect. Armitage has a dry delivery, almost mesmerising with his South Yorkshire accent and Madchester haircut. But like Ray Gosling and Fife Robertson before him, brings an authentic colloquial approach to his work, his interests and the people around him, without coming across as someone trying too hard to be down to earth. But then, if you tried to put on airs and graces in Marsden you’d probably get your head cut off and handed back to you with a slice of bread. Perhaps the Green Knight was a Yorkshireman after all.