The image on the cover of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight—the new translation of it by the poet W. S. Merwin, and just published by Knopf—chillingly captures one of the most striking scenes in all of English literature. A glowing green head looks like a luminescent version of Edvard Munch’s The Scream, and it’s nearly as haunting. The eyes are wrong; in the poem, they’re explicitly described as red, not white. Yet this single flaw is easy to forgive. The picture is unnerving, which is exactly as it should be.

The event it depicts occurs in the first part of the poem. As the knights of the Round Table gather for a Yuletide feast, King Arthur demands a “tale all new of some wonderful event.” As if on command, a hulking figure bursts into the royal hall unannounced. Carrying a huge battle-axe and wearing no armor, he seems a barbaric throwback to a time before there was courtly...


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