Having studied English Literature at university, it's surprising I'd not read Sir Gawain until the radio producer Sue Roberts shewed me her husband's new version, which she asked me to read for BBC.
The Armitages and I met up in the BBC studios in Manchester earlier this year and in a morning completed my contribution. I was sorry the other speakers were recorded at another time, because I should like to have worked with Sam West, whose father Tim was with me in Richard 11 and Edward 11, when Sam was a baby.
It might have been unnerving, performing within earshot of the poet, but Simon hadn't heard his lines outloud before I spoke them and was so taken with the experience that the atmosphere was relaxed. His verse has followed the rhythms and rhymes of the original so that, as with his own poetry, Sir Gawain benefits form being heard read rather than read silently from the page Ian McKellen, December 2006
Original Transmission Thursday 21 December 2006 2.15-3.00pm BBC RADIO 4
Rebroadcast Thursday 19 February 2009 2.15-3.00pm BBC RADIO 4
Sir Ian McKellen is the narrator in this new, contemporary translation by poet Simon Armitage of the poem that has become known as Sir Gawain And The Green Knight. Music has been specially composed by Gary Yershon.
Virtually nothing is known about the author of this poem, which was probably written around 1400 and is now considered one of the jewels of English literature. The poem takes listeners into Arthurian Britain at Christmas time, with the knights of the Round Table in good humour and full voice. But the festivities at Camelot are disrupted by the appearance of a green knight, a weird being whose skin, hair and even horse is green. The gatecrasher lays down a seemingly absurd challenge, but a young knight, Gawain, Arthur's nephew, rises from the table. What follows is a test of courage and a test of his heart, and during the ensuing episodes, which span an entire calendar year, Gawain must steel himself against fear and temptation.