Posted by: Brad Nixon | December 30, 2021

Sir Gawain on the Big Screen, Part One

Each year as New Year approaches, I celebrate by re-reading the Middle English poem, “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” (SG&tGK), composed in about 1400.

Over the years, I’ve written about numerous aspects of this old poem, from the language, the characters, to problems of translation into modern English, and just what it is about a 14th century poem that still might speak to us 700 years after its composition.

This year, I have a new way to examine this favorite story of mine: a review of a 2021 motion picture, “The Green Knight,” based on the poem.

One of my personal interests is how filmmakers adapt works of literature. Movies, obviously, are inherently different than words on a page. 

While it follows the narrative framework of the poem, this new screen version of “Gawain” is notable for the way in which it’s not a mere representation, but what I’d call an imaginative retelling — or interpretation — of SG&tGK. It’s interesting.

I’ll do this in two parts.

First, for the benefit of film viewers who may not know the poem, I’ll outline in this post the primary events of the poem that the movie incorporates.

In a following post, I’ll discuss how the film treats this core narrative, how it extemporizes on it, and provide my opinion on how well the movie “works.”

Your “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” Outline

It’s Christmastide, and King Arthur presides over 15 days of merriment, jousts and feasting at Camelot. Present are all the noble knights of the Round Table, ladies of the court, and an army of servers, courtiers, musicians, etc.

At the feast on New Year’s Day, Arthur keeps to his personal code, declining to eat not only until all are served, but until he’s heard some marvelous tale, or witnessed some joust, game or entertaining diversion.

At that moment, a thing beyond the experience of any of those battle-hardened, far-traveled knights occurs. In through the hall door rides a man on a horse. Not just any man. He’s eight feet tall, on a horse of equal scale. The man, the horse, and all their apparel and gear are green. In his hand, this uncanny figure holds a bough of holly, a sign of peaceful intent.

The apparition rides into the midst of the throng and issues a challenge. In his hand is an ax of inordinate measure. Whosoever of those present is willing will exchange blows with that weapon. Any challenger gets one swing at the Green Knight with the ax. One year thence, the Green Knight will return the blow to the challenger.

Silence falls in the hall. Ultimately, Arthur’s nephew, Gawain, accepts. The Green Knight dismounts, bares his neck and placidly awaits the blow. Gawain beheads him with one swing.

Miraculously, the headless body of the Knight rises, picks up its severed head by the hair, and the head instructs Gawain to be at the Green Chapel on the next New Year’s day to have his turn. The Knight remounts, carrying his head, and rides away.

One year later, Gawain girds himself with armor, sword, shield, plus the Green Knight’s ax. Astride his trusty horse, Gringolet, he rides north out of Wales into the wilderness of Wirral in search of The Green Chapel, although he has no idea where it may be.

On the way — according to the poem — Gawain encounters innumerable challenges and hardships: there’s a fierce foe at every bridge or ford; he fights with dragons, wolves, wild men, bulls, bears, boars and giants.

Worse, though, is the icy, rainy winter that freezes him in his armor in that hostile land.

By chance, on Christmas Eve, he encounters a marvelously large castle, where he’s welcomed by the lord, who knows Gawain by reputation as one of Arthur’s knights. As an honored guest, Gawain is given the run of the castle, warm clothes, sumptuous meals, accompanied not only by the lord of the castle, but also by his beautiful lady, as well as an aged, wrinkled woman who never speaks and is never introduced by name.

Better still, the lord informs Gawain that the object of his quest, the Chapel, is but a few hours’ ride from the castle. Gawain can take his ease until New Year’s Day and still keep his fateful appointment with the Green Knight.

In the ensuing days, the lord engages Gawain in a game. Each day, the host will ride out hunting, and whatever his hunt produces he will give to his guest. In turn, Gawain will give his host whatever his day in the castle yields him.

This becomes problematic.

Each morning, once the lord has gone hunting on horseback with a host of retainers, the lady invades Gawain’s bedroom and engages in some erotic teasing of this worthy knight, tempting him toward something a dedicated knight’s code of conduct strictly forbids with a married woman.

Suffice it to say that Gawain manages, barely, to adhere to his knightly standards, returning to the lord the kisses he’s received from the lady, but he does get something else from his hostess which he should then — according to the game — give in turn to the lord, but does not. (It’s something magical that will, ostensibly, protect Gawain from any harm — for example the edge of an enormous ax — and Gawain keeps it for himself.)

On New Year’s Day, the host sends one of his retainers to guide Gawain, and they set off for The Green Chapel. The guide takes Gawain far enough to point the way, but indicates he has no intention of going further because the Chapel is a perilous place, inhabited by a fearsome man of indomitable strength who shows no mercy to any intruder. He advises Gawain to go home, and promises he’ll never say a word if Gawain simply turns away.

Gawain chooses to fulfill his vow, continues, and reaches the forbidding gloom of the Green Chapel. There, he kneels and bares his neck for the ax-blow from the fearsome Green Knight.

In the poem, the Knight brings down his ax, but only grazes Gawain’s neck. It’s a lesson in ethics: By relying on the magic of the Lady’s gift, not keeping to the rules of the lord’s game, Gawain has failed as an exemplar of knightly honor. 

How does the film version end? That’s what we’ll learn in the next post at this link.

Copyright 2021 Brad Nixon


Responses

  1. As many times as I’ve heard of this epic, I never knew the plot. I just took a look at the beginning of the Middle English version and found I’d still need a lot of explanatory notes to understand it. On the other hand, a line like “Watz tried for his tricherie, þe trewest on erthe” is completely understandable.

    Liked by 1 person

    • There are plenty (scads!) of translations, but one way to get at this is the translation by the British poet, Simon Armitage, available in a side-by-side edition, Middle/Modern English, from W.W. Norton. You get to see lines in the original and will find that you CAN read many of ’em, as well as an excellent translation, which — every once in a while — is also hilariously funny.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. So, how did this happen to become a New Year’s tradition of yours, and when did it begin? Do you know if this is a common tradition in the UK?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think at some point after graduate school, I simply got into the habit of reading it as a way to keep in touch with a small slice of reading the language. I can’t name a date, but 4 or 5 decades ago. To my knowledge, it’s not a “tradition” anywhere, but there may be some other fans who occasionally pick it up for the holidays.

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      • Well, that is a very well established tradition! Good exercise for the brain, too.

        Like

  3. […] Welcome to part two of my annual revisit of the Middle English verse romance, “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” (SG&tGK). For a summary of the primary plot points of the story, read Part One here. […]

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