What should trouble me? In the face of harsh destiny what can a man do but try?

From Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Gawain’s departure to meet the Green Knight (lines 530-565). I finally watched last year’s film adaptation – The Green Knight. It was beautiful visually but it wasn’t Gawain. But it also didn’t want to be so that’s not a fair statement about the film as executed, only as conceived. Still, what I missed more than anything throughout was the atmosphere and outlook of this passage below, especially its conclusion.

And winter comes back again as the world would have it, in the way of things.

Until the Michaelmas moon
When first the days feel wintry
And Gawain is reminded then
Of his dread journey.


Still he stays until All Saints’ Day with Arthur
And kept that feast with them for the sake of the knights,
With revelry and high spirits at the Round Table.
Noble knights and beautiful ladies
Were all grieving out of love for that knight,
But nevertheless they gave words to nothing but mirth.
Many made jests who were joyless because of that gentle knight.
And after the meal he speaks sadly to his uncle
About his journey, and in plain words he said,
“Now, liege lord of my life, I must ask to take leave of you.
You know the terms of this promise. I do not care
To mention the trouble of it, not a word about that.
But I am bound to set out for that stroke tomorrow without fail,
To search for the Green Knight, as God may guide me.”
Then the best of the knights gathered around:
Ywain and Eric and many others,
Sir Doddinaval de Savage, the Duke of Clarence,
Lancelot and Lionel, and the good Lucan,
Sir Bors and Sir Bedivere, big men both of them,
And many other noble knights, with Mador of the Gate.
All this company of the court crowded close to the King
To counsel the knight, out of the care in their hearts.
There was a great sharp grief passing through the hall
At so noble a one as Gawain going on that errand
To suffer a terrible blow and handle the sword no more.

Still, the knight spoke cheerfully,
Saying, “What should trouble me?
In the face of harsh destiny
What can a man do but try?”


And wynter wyndez aȝayn, as þe worlde askez, no fage,

Til Meȝelmas mone
Watz cumen wyth wynter wage;
Þen þenkkez Gawan ful sone
Of his anious uyage.


Ȝet quyl Al-hal-day with Arþer he lenges;
And he made a fare on þat fest for þe frekez sake,
With much reuel and ryche of þe Rounde Table.
Knyȝtez ful cortays and comlych ladies
Al for luf of þat lede in longynge þay were,
Bot neuer þe lece ne þe later þay neuened bot merþe:
Mony ioylez for þat ientyle iapez þer maden.
For aftter mete with mournyng he melez to his eme,
And spekez of his passage, and pertly he sayde,
‘Now, lege lorde of my lyf, leue I yow ask;
Ȝe knowe þe cost of þis cace, kepe I no more
To telle yow tenez þerof neuer bot trifel;
Bot I am boun to þe bur barely to-morne
To sech þe gome of þe grene, as God wyl me wysse.’
Þenne þe best of þe burȝ boȝed togeder,
Aywan, and Errik, and oþer ful mony,
Sir Doddinaual de Sauage, þe duk of Clarence,
Launcelot, and Lyonel, and Lucan þe gode,
Sir Boos, and Sir Byduer, big men boþe,
And mony oþer menskful, with Mador de la Port.
Alle þis compayny of court com þe kyng nerre
For to counseyl þe knyȝt, with care at her hert.
Þere watz much derue doel driuen in þe sale
Þat so worthé as Wawan schulde wende on þat ernde,
To dryȝe a delful dynt, and dele no more wyth bronde.

Þe knyȝt mad ay god chere,
And sayde, ‘Quat schuld I wonde?
Of destinés derf and dere
What may mon do bot fonde?’

W.S. Merwin’s translation above is my favorite but it of course makes some sacrifices along the way. Here’s a comparison of the final three lines from above:

Original – And sayde, ‘Quat schuld I wonde?
Merwin – Saying, “What should trouble me?
Literal – And said, “for what should I hesitate/hold back in fear? (wonden)

Original – Of destinés derf and dere

Merwin – In the face of harsh destiny
Literal – With fate dread and dear (derf and dere, see note below)

Original – What may mon do bot fonde?’

Merwin – What can a man do but try?”
Literal – What can a man do but put it to the test (fonden, with a possible metaphorical sense of ‘take a taste’)

For derf and dere Tolkien’s edition has a note: ‘dere coudl be either ‘dear, pleasant’, OE. deore, or ‘fierce, cruel’, OE. deor. The latter, as a synonym of derf, is possible; and, though not elsewhere in Gawain, is part of the poet’s vocabulary: it occurs in Purity 214. But the former, making an inclusive phrase of a common type (‘young and old’, etc) is more likely: “What can one do but face whatever Fate may send, whether painful or pleasant?’ Gollancz usefully compares 1507 ‘druryes greme and grace’.

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