Readers interested in the themes of this newsletter—imagination, literature, and mythology—will be interested in a new film that has been garnering a fair amount of critical acclaim: The Green Knight, directed by David Lowery and starring Dev Patel as Sir Gawain, who aspires to be a knight of King Arthur’s court. What is remarkable is that the film is an adaptation of a famous 14th century Middle English poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. I warmly recommend the film, with two caveats. First, this is anything but a Hollywood-style King Arthur film. It is slow-moving, enigmatic, moody, deliberately frustrating all expectations of action and spectacle. In short, it is an art film, more akin to Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal than to Camelot. Second, it is deeply revisionist, ironic and anti-idealistic. That said, I recommend you go see it: it is a fine and thoughtful film.
Why should one go to see a movie based on a 14th-century poem? What relevance could there be to the concerns of our time and our lives? To foreshadow, I want to compare poem and film to show that both lay out two possible paths in any human life. I should say immediately that readers should view the film first and then continue through this newsletter, as I can’t talk about it without numerous spoilers. For that matter, it is also well worth reading the poem in modern translation—translation because the Gawain poet wrote in a provincial dialect of Middle English far harder to understand than the London dialect of his contemporary Chaucer. There are several good translations available. One is by J.R.R. Tolkien; the other is by the novelist John Gardner, who was, like Tolkien, also a medievalist.
Gawain represents one way to live your life. He aspires to heroic achievement—not the empty heroics of fame and fortune but the real heroism of service to an ideal. In his case, the ideal has two aspects, this-worldly and otherworldly. In this world, to be a knight of Arthur’s court is to work towards making society a better place: the round table is a utopian conception. But Gawain is also a Christian, as was his unknown, anonymous poet, who wrote three other poems on Christian themes. On the inside of Gawain’s shield, facing inward for protection, is an image of the Blessed Virgin. On the outside is the remarkable symbol of a pentangle, a five-pointed star, an “endless knot.” Each of the pentangle’s five points is a virtue: generosity, friendliness, chastity, courtesy, and charity or selfless love, the greatest of all virtues. The film does not quite know what to do with this symbol other than make it ambiguous. That is because in the film Gawain’s real achievement is an open-eyed disillusionment about all ideals, whether mundane or transcendent. Such courageous, clear-eyed disenchantment (and I use the word advisedly, since the story is full of enchantment) is the one heroic virtue left in our time. All other ideals are what Nietzsche called life-giving lies, and we should learn to live without lies. That is the other way to live your life.
The poem is in four parts. Part 1 begins on New Year’s Day when King Arthur expresses the desire for some remarkable exploit and learns to be careful what he wishes for, because, on cue, a Knight dressed entirely in green rides his horse right into the room and declares a contest. Anyone who dares may have one shot at cutting off his head with the great axe he has brought with him. But if he fails, that knight must show up next New Year’s at the knight’s Green Chapel, where the Knight will have his turn with the axe. Arthur volunteers, but Gawain begs precedence, and chops off the Knight’s head—whereupon the Knight picks up his head and walks out, the head wishing everyone a happy new year.
Part 2 is Gawain’s journey through a harsh and bleak winter landscape vividly represented in the film, including marvels and monstrosities such as the giants, who have a one-line cameo in the poem. But the film adds two episodes, one of a band of brigands who rob Gawain, the other of St. Winifred, whose legend originated in Wales close to the West Midlands, the locale of the Gawain story. Winifred was beheaded while resisting the advances of an aristocratic Welsh rapist named Caradoc. A spring with healing powers, becoming a well, appeared where her head came to rest. But Saint Bueno revived her by returning her head to its body, so that she lived many more years and became a saint herself. In the film, it is Gawain who dives into the well, retrieves the head, and restores Winifred, minus the sainthood. I am not sure what this adds except that it seems difficult to keep hold of both your head and your maidenhead in certain neighborhoods.
In part 3, a battered and exhausted Gawain is granted refuge and hospitality in the home of a provincial lord named Bertilak and his Lady. The film condenses this episode, but in the poem Gawain is subjected to temptation by the Lady over three days while her husband is away hunting, mirroring the three withheld strokes of the Green Knight’s axe later. Bertilak proposes a game: he will give Gawain anything he wins at hunting, and Gawain must give him anything he has won at home. By the rules of hospitality, which were taken very seriously, Gawain has little choice but to gratify his host and play the game. The Green Knight, Bertilak, the Lady: people are always proposing games in this story, and they are always at Gawain’s expense. Each of three mornings, Gawain awakes to find the Lady at his bedside, refusing to let him dress and doing her best to seduce him. Gawain is obliged to play this game as well, this time by the rules of what was called Courtly Love, in which the man was bound to serve the lady no matter what she might command.
The Lady’s temptations cannot be interpreted according to a modern standard of “just say no” and refuse to commit adultery with your host’s wife. To refuse a lady directly was to insult her and prove oneself a churl. Nor would this exactly be adultery in the modern sense. Courtly Love was typically outside of marriage, marriage among the aristocracy being an arranged alliance for purposes of economic and political alliance. The chaplain of Eleanor of Aquitaine wrote a handbook, The Art of Courtly Love, usefully codifying the rules of the game as a numbered list, (a modern translation is available), and rule number one is that “Marriage is no excuse for not loving.”
So Gawain has to use “courteous” language: the witty, elegant language of the court, engaging in sophisticated banter that keeps the Lady at a distance without actually refusing her. It is, in effect, what women often have to do today. The humor of this comic interlude is in fact that of gender role reversal, with the woman taking the role of aggressor. In the poem, Gawain, with the help of the Blessed Virgin, maintains the chastity that is one of his fivefold virtues. The Lady kisses him once on the first day, twice on the second, and thrice on the third, but such kisses were allowed as elegant compliments under Courtly Love rules. It means, though, that when Bertilak bestows upon Gawain the animals he has killed, Gawain has to kiss Bertilak once, twice, and thrice, and the queer studies critics have understandably made of that exactly what you would expect. In the film, Gawain maintains his chastity in a more flexibly modern sense, employing the expedient that it doesn’t count as sex if it isn’t full intercourse, the viewers thereby learning that the venerable art of the handjob had been perfected by the 14th century.
What to make of all this? Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a complex and enigmatic poem that has been variously interpreted. My own view is that the tale is Gawain’s coming-of-age story told as a growth from naïve idealism to a mature idealism chastened by experience. In the opening scene, the youthfulness of the entire court, including Arthur, is repeatedly stressed. The impetuous clamor for adventurous masculine self-proving leads to the rash acceptance of the Green Knight’s wager. What Gawain comes to learn is that heroic idealism, though real and admirable, operates in a fallen and corrupt world, and is itself imperfect and vulnerable to corruption.
The poem begins and ends with a reference to the fall of Troy. On one level this is a recounting of legendary history: a Trojan diaspora after the city fell led to the founding of new societies in all directions, one of them being Britain, supposedly founded by a Trojan named Brutus. But the Trojan war began with a fight among three goddesses over a golden apple, and the fall of Troy was regarded as a pagan analogue of the Biblical story of the fall of man through the agency of a woman tempted by an apple. A catalogue late in the poem of other men undone by the wiles of a woman—Samson, David, Solomon—repeats a medieval and Renaissance commonplace. To which the following stanza adds Merlin himself, from whom Morgan le Fay learned the arts of magic. And we learn that Morgan le Fay has been behind all the games in which Gawain has been caught up. The film makes her Gawain’s mother, but in the poem she is his aunt, appearing in Bertilak’s castle as an ugly woman who is the foil to Bertilak’s beautiful wife. (The film retains this, but inexplicably). Yet it is Morgan who sent the Green Knight—who is in fact no other than Bertilak enhanced by her magic—and for what reason? “In the hope that Queen Guinevere might be shocked to her grave.” Gawain has been a pawn in a game played by two women of power.
The round table was instituted to defend civilization against external threats, human and otherwise. Arthur’s knights battle evil kings and magicians, and also the various dragons and other monsters that represent the forces of a fallen and partly corrupted nature. But Troy fell from within, not only through the adultery of Paris and Helen but by the agency of a “traitor” obscurely referred to in Sir Gawain’s opening lines, possibly a man named Antenor who unlocked the gates and let in the Greeks. And Arthur’s idealistic vision will be undone by the adultery of his queen and the machinations of his half-sister. Nor is civilization better maintained in the provinces. Female manipulation within Bertilak’s castle is matched by male violence outside it: Bertilak’s hunting is described as a horrible slaughter whose gruesome details go on for pages. But, as Yeats says in a poem rather stupidly praising the aristocracy, “All’s accustomed, ceremonious”: if it’s done with exquisite taste and good manners, it can’t be evil. It’s all just a game: the excuse of the elite everywhere in all times. All told, human history is a cyclical repetition of the Fall symbolized by the medieval image of the Wheel of Fortune, cleverly incorporated into the film as a revolving backdrop of a puppet theatre telling the story of Gawain. Fallen nature is also a cycle: the Green Knight is clearly meant to evoke a Celtic dying-and-reviving nature spirit—hence his Swamp Thing appearance in the film—even if he is really just a human being magicked up by Morgan le Fay.
In part 4 of the poem, Gawain leaves Bertilak and his Lady to arrive on New Year’s Day at the Green Chapel. There, the Green Knight tests him three times, withholding the blow of the axe each time, but giving him a flesh wound the third time. This, he explains, is because Gawain has cheated. He has withstood the temptations of sex and power, but succumbed to the greatest temptation of all, the fear of death. The Lady had given him a green sash that she said would render him invulnerable if he wore it, and out of a desire to live he had not surrendered it to Bertilak according to the rules. The poem ends as a kind of comedy, for everyone cheerfully forgives this natural weakness except Gawain himself, who is determined to wear the sash, as well as the scar from his cut, as penance, a sign of his “faithlessness” and shame. But all he does is start a new fashion trend, as the members of Arthur’s court say that, well then, they are all going to wear green sashes in his honor as a way of showing how silly they think he’s being. In a year’s turning, Gawain has learned a great deal about the temptations of a fallen and corrupt world, and about his own limits, yet for all that has held true in an exemplary way to both his Arthurian and his Christian values.
The film’s ending is no comedy. Before the third blow, Gawain has an extended vision of how his life would go if he gave up the contest and ran. Some of the details are murky, like those of a bad dream, but the overall meaning is clear enough. He would go back, marry his girlfriend, betray her by taking away their child for political reasons, eventually replace her with Winifred, also for reasons of dynastic politics, and ultimately become the same kind of world-weary king that we see in Arthur himself. In short, he would become simply another player in the cyclical game of history, another rider of the Wheel of Fortune, up, then down. So he does not run, and he rips off the green sash (given to him in the film version by his mother, not by the Lady), and asks the Green Knight one final question: “Is this all there is?” The Knight responds: “What else would there be?” And the film ends as the Knight prepares to strike the final, mortal blow.
The movie repeatedly shows Gawain as a humiliated victim, more like a Kafka character than an Arthurian hero. He is not “manly”: the choice of Dev Patel, with his sensitive face and willowy frame, was clearly deliberate, and the only reason for the brigands episode, so far as I can see, is to show Gawain treated ignominiously by some of the crudest and nastiest members of the social order. His death is his final humiliation. Good guys finish last—and are finished. Something of the same is true of Troilus, the betrayed lover of Chaucer’s Trojan War poem Troilus and Criseyde. But in a famous epilogue, Troilus looks down from heaven and laughs to think he ever cared for all those meaningless worldly vanities. There is no worldly nor otherworldly reward for Gawain’s long-suffering idealism. He is a better person than anyone else in the film, but his only reward is the gift of clear-sighted, disillusioned knowledge that in fact there are no other rewards. To dream the impossible dream? But that is another movie—and the hero of that story is quite mad.