Illustrations: the established visual language
The manuscript of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight has four illustrations which can be viewed at the British Library Archive (online). The manuscript is thought to have been produced by a different hand than that of the Pearl Poet and the images by an additional artist. Furthermore, those images are thought to have been coloured by yet another at a later date (see McGillivray and Duffy, 2017). This makes the original Pearl Poet, the scribe and potentially two illustrators, collaborators (probably unknown to one another) on the object in question, emphasising its evolution and the layers of accumulated meaning even in its original form.
Ideation of the poem itself draws on the established Arthurian tradition and works such as Fled Bricrenn (c. 1106) and Pedair Cainc Y Mabinogi (based on oral traditions of the 11th century) clearly influence the story, making the poem a truly intertextual artwork. Translation of the poem into modern English continues this tendency always requiring interpretation and emphasis from the translator adding something of themselves to the retelling.
The addition of illustrations to the translated versions has worked to compliment these tonally, placing emphasis in different areas, making additions to what is displayed visually in the original codex and thereby making valuable additions to the life of the poem. This echoes Jennifer Lee’s assertion that the images from the codex represent perhaps the first interpretation or ‘critical judgement’ (Lee, 1977:44) of the work. The illustrations displayed here are judged as having made significant addition to that life. In some cases such as the work of Roy Morgan (1928 – 1990) for The Lion and the Unicorn Press’s 1956 translation of the poem by Ormerod Greenwood or Dorothea Braby’s (1909 – 1987) images for a translation by Gwyn Jones (1953) the images have been difficult to view in full for researchers and can be seen here as complete sets. Other images are displayed as single examples (as discussed in the text Representing Sir Gawain and the Green Knight) with links to online sources where more can be seen. This is case with the work of Clive Hicks-Jenkins (1951 – present) who has made many works to accompany Armitage’s 2007 translation (included in an 2018 edition) and Michael Smith (1963 – present) who has both translated and illustrated a 2018 addition published by Unbound, both provide various related content at their artists website.
Armitage, S. (2018) Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Faber and Faber.
Jones, G. (1952) Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Golden Cockerel Press.
Lee, J A. (1977) The Illuminating Critic: The Illustrator of Cotton Nero A.X, Studies in Iconography, 3: 17–46.
McGillivray, M and Duffy, C. (2017) New Light on the Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Manuscript: Multispectral Imaging and the Cotton Nero A.x. Illustrations. Speculum 92:S1:110-144.
Smith, M. (2018) Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Unbound.