The poem behind the Green Knight
The medieval romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is now a movie, but the poem itself already has a surprisingly contemporary message about tradition, modernity and our sense of self
Lovers of medieval literature in Australia are eagerly awaiting the arrival of David Lowery’s film, The Green Knight, starring Dev Patel and Alicia Vikander. My colleagues in North America are filing their reviews and responses online, but the film is not yet available here.
It seems timely then to revisit the fourteenth-century poem on which it is based, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
This anonymous romance dates from the second half of the fourteenth century. It is one of the most cherished texts of Middle English literature. It is praised for its lively language, its intricate plot development, its dramatic landscapes and intense personal and social encounters, and the testing of its main hero, King Arthur’s young nephew Gawain.
Miraculously, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight survives in only one manuscript, one of the “treasures” of the British Library. This manuscript is small (90 pages of parchment each just 180mm by 155mm) and is not lavishly illustrated, but it also contains the unique copy of three other poems almost certainly written by the same author.
This is in stark contrast with the more than 50 surviving manuscripts of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, written in the same period.
In the first scene of the poem, Sir Gawain takes on a bizarre challenge during King Arthur’s New Year’s feast.
A gigantic, handsome, well-dressed knight — who is entirely green — enters the hall at Camelot and asks that one of Arthur’s knights might cut off his head with his magnificent green and gold axe, on condition that he might be permitted to return the blow a year later.
Gawain modestly accepts the dare and cuts off the Green Knight’s head.
Disconcertingly, the giant picks up his own head, and holds it up as it speaks to remind Gawain of his promise to seek him out in a year’s time and have his own head cut off.
The Green Knight has interrupted Arthur’s joyful New Year’s celebrations, and questioned the bravery and renown of the Round Table. Like many romances, this poem is structured as a series of challenges; and Gawain’s courage, his truthfulness, his faith and his courtesy are all put to the test in different ways.
A year after his first encounter with the Green Knight, Gawain’s bitter winter journey north leads him into some rugged and frightening landscapes — through North Wales, and the “wilderness” of the Wirral, in the North-West Midlands — before he finds safe harbour in an elegant castle, with its jovial host Lord Bertilak and his charming young wife.
Gawain is welcomed warmly, and this provincial court flatters him for his reputation for courtesy, but he soon finds himself entangled in a series of bargains and exchanges with the host and his beautiful wife that push his mastery of courtly behaviour to the extreme.
At one point, the lady enters the knight’s bedroom, dressed in a low-cut gown, and saying he can’t really be Gawain if he doesn’t ask her for a kiss. She says to him:
Ye are welcum to my cors,
Yowre awn won to wale
(You are welcome to my body, to choose your own way)
This is a beautiful example of medieval daliaunce, or flirtatious speech. It could be read as an overt sexual invitation; but it might equally be a more neutral form of polite greeting. Bedroom conversations in this poem are risky business.
This poem delights in ambiguities and mixed messages of every kind. It contrasts the close observation of medieval court life against the supernatural and magical world, while it puts medieval Christian values into dialogue with older pagan traditions.
It draws stark contrasts between the dangerous life outside the castle walls, and the more subtle, but equally dangerous social encounters within. Over three days, the poem shows us Lord Bertilak out hunting in the forest while his wife flirts with their embarrassed guest.
The poem also works through a curious opposition between Arthur’s court, set in its traditional ways, as if suspended in mythical, cyclic time; and the bolder, more dynamic court of Lord Bertilak, where Gawain’s identity, his sense of self, and his sense of what might be fair and reasonable are tested and pushed to breaking-point.
Famously, when Gawain returns to Camelot at the end of his quest, he does so covered in shame at his apparent failure in the quest – the plot turns on an elaborate and startling “reveal” that I won’t spoil here.
But Arthur, Guenevere and the others gaily laugh at him, seeking to diminish his shame and wanting to integrate him back into Camelot. That is normally what happens when a knight returns to the Round Table.
But in this poem, there seems to be a disjuncture. Gawain seems somehow to have outgrown Arthur’s world, returning with a deeper ethical understanding that sits in awkward contrast to the happy and childlike laughter of the court.
Early reviews make it clear that Lowery takes quite a few liberties with the plot of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and the character of Gawain himself. Medievalists are used to that. Medieval literature, after all, specialises in the art of adaptation, and medieval poets borrowed wildly and freely from their sources.
The earlier Middle English poem Sir Orfeo is a re-telling of the Greek myth about Orpheus’ poignant failure to rescue Eurydice from the underworld, but in this instance the medieval poet gives the story a happy ending, as Sir Orfeo successfully rescues Dame Heurodis from the menacing world of the faery kingdom.
In the long history of medievalist adaptation, the Arthurian tradition is famously malleable and flexible. For centuries, poets, painters and novelists, and more recently, filmmakers, have re-invented Arthurian mythology in the service of contemporary pre-occupations.
And in this way, what we understand as “medieval” and its relationship with modernity changes, too.
Sometimes the medieval world is presented as a nostalgic alternative to industrial and post-industrial capitalism. In other interpretations it is a “dark age” of superstition, poor health and economic injustice.
Whatever the reading, be it George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones franchise, or modern re-tellings of the Canterbury Tales, contemporary writers delight in showing us a new “truth” about the medieval past.
Brian Helgeland’s A Knight’s Tale (2001), for instance, presents a familiar cinematic trajectory that celebrates signs of heroic modernity in the Middle Ages: a young man single-handedly breaks down the medieval class system through his “natural” nobility, forging a “new world.”
In my reading, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight – the poem – is already exploring the ways a person might feel disconnected from their own society; and the uncomfortable clash between the things people might expect of us, and the realities of our own imperfect and human frailty.
The trailer to Lowery’s film promises a feast of supernatural and gothic effects, but the final message is clear. A sonorous voice asks Gawain, “And what do you hope to gain from facing all of this?” And he replies, “Honour. That is why a knight does what he does.”
Medieval chivalric literature certainly celebrates this pursuit of knightly honour, but as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight makes abundantly clear, the threat of shame is ever-present.
Stephanie Trigg is the author of many studies of medieval and medievalist literature, including Congenial Souls: Reading Chaucer from Medieval to Postmodern (Minnesota University Press, 2002), Shame and Honour: A Vulgar History of the Order of the Garter (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012) and Affective Medievalism: Love, Abjection and Discontent (Wiley-Blackwell, 2020), with Thomas A. Prendergast.
Banner: An illumination from the original manuscript of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight/British Library