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Ellen Meets Simon Armitage at Lincoln Cathedral

On the 8th May 2012, the Wren Library, hidden away in the ancient rafters of the Lincoln Cathedral, was visited by poet, novelist and playwright, Simon Armitage. Having used the library to aid his translation of ‘The Death of King Arthur’, one of the many fourteenth-century manuscripts displayed there, Armitage had returned to give a talk on his now finished book.

The fragile pages of the original manuscript, seemingly held together only by a few tiny strands of fibre and an enormous dosage of willpower, are covered with doodles and illogical line breaks - a reminder that, years ago, someone actually sat down to write this book by hand.

“I’ve no idea why there’s a line break there,” Armitage says, pointing at the beautiful, illuminated text. “Perhaps they’d just had enough for the day.”

Works of a well-respected poet and novelist, Armitage’s poems are currently on the syllabus for GCSE students, and yet he describes his path into literature as ‘a series of accidents’. When pressed, he explains that he never thought himself intended for a life in literature. In fact, he seems to have experienced a wide range of careers, having studied for a degree in Geography at the University of Portsmouth and an MA in Psychology at Manchester University. He worked as a probation worker in Manchester for ten years until 1994, after his first anthology, ‘Book of Matches’ was published in 1993.

“I was guided by teachers, friends and books that happened to be in bookshops in Huddersfield or in the public library,” he says. “It’s serendipity that has pin-balled me from one project to another.”

His latest ‘project’ has been a fairly major one. Translating a manuscript as old and as long as ‘The Death of King Arthur’ has been no mean feat and was only made possible with the work of previous scholars, whose literal translations, focusing on etymology and the historical implications of the text, made Armitage’s translation possible. However, what is often lost in these translations is the poetry and storytelling, the techniques that make the story interesting, rather than a scientific, literal translation of one group of words into another.

“We really are in Simon’s debt,” says Dr Nicholas Bennett, Librarian of Lincoln Cathedral. “He’s saved this manuscript by turning it into a good story again and making it interesting and accessible. He’s saved it from scholars like myself!”

The actual process of translating the manuscripts sounds like a good story in itself. These old books are absolutely covered in doodles and crossings-out and, in the case of Armitage’s previous translated work, ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’, even blood splatters and bite marks. It appears as though writing in the fourteenth century was a messy business.

After being written by Robert Thornton, a Yorkshireman, all those years ago, the manuscript is still happily sitting in the Wren Library of the Lincoln Cathedral, a fitting historical setting for an incredible piece of literary history.

Ellen, Year 12

    The Priory Federation of Academies, Lincoln