Hi folks, once again I am putting off the article I promised (talking about a major character in The Retreat to Avalon), but there’s another timely reason. Jenn and I went to see The Green Knight last night, so this is a good time to talk about the movie, the original legend, and about how I portray this legend in my own novel.
I’ll start with a much abbreviated version of the original story. You skip down to the review, or read it for the background. After the review, I’ll give another spoiler alert before I talk about how I adapted the Green Knight to The Retreat to Avalon.
Gawain and the Green Knight is a poem written around 1350 by an anonymous author in England’s Northwest Midlands. It seems to recall older legends, particularly the beheading game, from Britain’s and Ireland’s Celtic pagan past. However, the story is modeled on the Arthurian stories that came out of the French Romances more than the early Welsh legends. The Romances shape the themes of this story: chivalric ideals, temptation, and testing. The conflict between knightly duties and honor, courtly love and respect to a host. It is my favorite story of the Romance era and one of the most captivating along side the Grail and Lancelot/ Mordred/ Guinevere stories.
If you read the original, translated story (here), you will find many small details that are consistent with the culture of 14th century England. Historical accuracy was not something ancient writers gave much thought to, describing their stories in terms that their contemporaries would recognize. That is why you see medieval illustrations of scenes from the Bible or The Iliad showing warriors in medieval style dress and armor, rather than ancient styles. Some of these cultural details included the expectation of hospitality between nobles, and the idea of “courtly love“.
The Original Green Knight Story, Briefly…
It is the Christmas season in Camelot, at the height of King Arthur’s Golden Age. Arthur and Guinevere are presiding over the celebration, with Arthur’s nephew, Sir Gawain seated beside him. Arthur’s custom was that he would not eat until he had heard some wondrous tale, or his knights had engaged in a joust with a foreign challenger.
Into Arthur’s hall rode a giant of a man, and more strange for his green skin, hair and beard. He was clad all in green and his horse, too, was green, with rich trappings, all in green. He wore no armor, carrying only a huge, cruel axe in one hand, and a bough of holly in the other.
The knights were struck dumb by his appearance, but Arthur greeted the giant and bid him to dismount, join their feast, and explain his desire. The giant refused, saying that he had not come to tarry or to fight, but only to offer a “jest”. He had heard of the fame and bravery Arthur’s knights. If any were bold enough, he would step down, give them his great axe, and kneel. The bold knight would be allowed a single swing of the axe against the giant’s neck. The catch, however, is that a year and a day later, the knight must submit to a return stroke from the giant.
Considering the giant’s strange appearance and the nature of his request, it’s no surprise that Arthur’s men smelled a rat and none stepped up to the challenge. When the giant began mocking Arthur’s warriors for cowardice, Arthur became enraged and leapt up to accept the challenge himself.
Gawain, ashamed that the king had been forced to act for the failure of his knights to do their duty, called out to request the honor of the deed. Arthur gave Gawain his blessing and handed him the axe, saying that a proper stroke should leave the giant incapable of harming Gawain in the future.
Gawain took the axe and made the agreement with the giant, who promptly knelt, moved his hair aside and bared the back of his neck. Gawain swung the axe and severed the giant’s head from his body. The head rolled across the floor to the tables and was kicked by the feasters like a ball. But instead of falling, the giant’s headless torso stood up, retrieved the head and mounted his horse. The giant held his bleeding head up by the hair, the eyes opened and it spoke.
“Seek me, Gawain, as you have sworn in this hall in the hearing of these knights. Find me at the Green Chapel on New Year’s morn, and such a stroke as you have dealt me, you will receive. I am known as the Knight of the Green Chapel, and if you search, you shall not fail to find me. Come, or declare yourself unfaithful and cowardly.”
With that, the Green Knight wheeled his horse about and rode away. Arthur proclaimed it a wonder and tried to set everyone at ease, and had the axe mounted as a trophy. The celebration continued, and Gawain was roundly admired and praised. He acted as if he had no fear, but the future weighed heavily on his mind.
The months passed with the same joy as life in Camelot brought and Gawain kept thoughts of his appointment at bay, until fall showed the approach of winter. Finally, on All Hallows Day, he told the king he must set out to find the Green Chapel and keep his side of the bargain.
Every knight offered his advice and support. All the court was deeply saddened that their finest, most worthy knight should ride off to submit to a deadly blow. Gawain made light of it all, whatever his feelings. He armed himself, said his goodbyes, and rode out, for the last time, all were certain.
Gawain begins his quest…
Gawain travelled far, at least three hundred miles. The hints of geography suggest he passed from southern Wales, through northern Wales, eventually to the Inglewood forest south of present-day Carlisle. The lands were rugged and wild, and Gawain had many adventures, fighting evil knights, wildmen, dragons, giants and beasts. These were less his concern than the sleet and cold, harsh weather that indicated his time was running short, while none said they had ever heard of the Green Knight.
On Christmas Eve, he woke in near despair and prayed that he might find a place to shelter and pass Christmas Day. That morning, he came to a beautiful castle of friendly and generous folk and was invited by the lord and his beautiful lady to spend Christmas with them. Gawain is treated as an honored guest, and receives a great deal of attention from the lady of the castle. Perhaps it was the courtesy that Gawain was famous for that prevented any appearance of impropriety or insult to his host.
When invited to stay the season, Gawain declined, explaining that he must find the Green Chapel and complete his quest. The lord laughed and said that Gawain was a mere two miles from his goal. If he would stay for the next three nights, they would guide him to the chapel before mid-morn of the New Year. Happily, Gawain agreed to stay and they celebrated. The lord noted that Gawain was travelworn and that Gawain should rest and takes his meals with his wife while he went out to hunt each day. He also convinced Gawain to play a game, in which whatever the lord won from each day’s hunt would be Gawain’s, and in return, whatever came to Gawain each day would be given to the lord. Expecting little more than rest, food, and conversation, Gawain agreed.
The next day, the lord and his men went out to hunt. Gawain stayed in bed and was surprised to see the lady enter his room alone and close the door. He pretended to sleep when she sat on the bed beside him, until after a while, he gave up and acted surprised to see her there. She would not let him rise and dress, and playing on his knightly courtesy, they spent the morning in his chambers talking. The lady engaged in what we would recognize as aggressive flirting, but Gawain refused to take the bait. At the end of their session, the lady guilted Gawain into giving her a parting kiss. The context implies Gawain offered nothing more than the sort of platonic embrace and kiss friends exchange at parting, though some modern analysts have tried to read more into it.
At the end of the day, when the lord returned from his hunt, he called on Gawain and displayed the rich results of his hunt and gave them to Gawain. Gawain, in return said that in accordance with their agreement, he would give the lord what he had won that day.
“With that he clasped his hands round the lord’s neck and kissed him as courteously as he might. “Take ye here my spoils, no more have I won; ye should have it freely, though it were greater than this.”
The lord was pleased, and asked how Gawain had come of such a prize. Gawain said that the telling was not a part of their agreement, and to be content with that. The lord agreed and they had another merry night.
The next day was much as the day before, though the lady was more forward in her flirting and obtained a kiss at greeting and another at parting, so that when the lord returned and gave Gawain a great boar he had killed, Gawain repaid his side of the bargain with two more kisses. The text infers that Gawain was greatly charmed by the lord’s wife and struggled to avoid succumbing to temptation.
The third day proceeded much the same as the first. As the lord and his men hunted, Gawain again held off the lady’s advances. Finally frustrated, she begged him to take a ring as a love-token. He refused, saying it was too great a gift and he had nothing to offer in return. Again thwarted, she offered him her green silk girdle (a cloth belt). When he refused, she told him that it may appear of little worth, but it was actually magical and would prevent any harm from coming to it’s wearer. Gawain, thinking of his quest, finally accepted, along with her request to tell no one, including her husband, of her gift. This time, there were three kisses.
When the lord returned that night, Gawain immediately rendered his three kisses to the lord, who gave Gawain the fox he had caught. They all spent another grand evening, and before they went to their beds, the lord assured Gawain that he would set him on the correct path the next day. Gawain slept little that night.
With the morning, Gawain donned his armor, wrapped the lady’s girdle about his waist, mounted his horse, and set out to many well wishes and blessings. The man appointed to lead him brought him to a grim forest, bare of leaves and blanketed in snow. When they came to a certain point, the guide stopped and pleaded for Gawain not to go on, for the terrible giant who lived at the chapel would kill him as he did anyone who passed. Gawain replied that he could not turn aside as a coward and would go on, trusting his fate to God. The guide left, and Gawain continued.
The road went down to an open dell along a brook and surrounded by crags. There was no sign of a chapel, only a mound with a hole at one end and on each side. Gawain assumed it must be the chapel and prepared to enter when he heard a horrible sound like a giant whetstone sharpening a great scythe. Gawain called out for whoever was there to come out, and identified himself. His response was, “Stay, and you shall soon have that which was promised you.” The whetting went on for some time until finally the Green Knight appeared carrying a great, evil-looking axe.
The Green Knight welcomed Gawain, praised him for keeping his oath, and bade him to kneel and receive his blow. Gawain agreed, but when the giant started his stroke, Gawain flinched. The Green Knight aborted his swing and rebuked Gawain for cowardice. Gawain swore that he would not flinch again. The second time, the giant started his swing and aborted it, but Gawain had not flinched. This time Gawain rebuked him for stalling, so the Green Knight raised his great axe and brought it down as swiftly as ever upon Gawain’s neck.
Yet, the blade just nicked the skin, sending a trickle of blood to the snow below. Gawain leapt to his feet and drew his sword. “I have kept my bargain and you have had your stroke. No more must I submit to without honorably defending myself!”
The Green Knight leaned on his axe and laughed merrily, and said, “No man here has done you wrong, nor will. Our agreement is fulfilled. If I had intended, you might have received a harsher blow. The two feints were for keeping your word the first and second night, rendering unto me the kisses my fair wife gave you. But the scratch upon your neck is for the third night, in which you failed to give all, holding back the woven girdle, for it is mine, wrought by my wife, and her testing of your virtue was my doing. I find you the most honest knight that ever walked the earth, even if you did lack a little. For your failure in loyalty was not founded in evil, nor to woo my wife, but for love of your own life, for which you are not to blame.” The giant, revealed as the lord of the castle where Gawain had stayed the three nights, said his name was Bernlak, and begged Gawain to return in honor to his castle.
But Gawain refused, ashamed for his failure, though he laid some of the blame on the ability of women to lead men astray. He tried to return the girdle to Bernlak, but the lord told him to keep it as a memento of their adventure. Gawain said that he would keep it, not for its fineness, nor for friendship,
. . . but in sign of my frailty. I shall look upon it when I ride in renown and remind myself of the fault and faintness of the flesh; and so when pride uplifts me for prowess of arms, the sight of this lace shall humble my heart.
Gawain returned to Arthurs court, where he was received joyously. He told them all, including the shame of his failures. The girdle and the wound to his neck were the bond for, as he described it, his cowardice and covetousness. He swore he would wear it as long as he lived for the acts he committed that he knew were wrong and he could never undo. King Arthur comforted Gawain, and the entire court made an accord that each lord and the lady of the Round Table would wear a baldric of bright green for the sake of Sir Gawain and his example of what was best in a knight.
The Movie Review…
So if you didn’t know the story that the movie is based on, you do now. It had been a year and a day since Jenn and I had last been to the movies. Well, more like a year and a half, and we were really excited to see The Green Knight. We had avoided any trailers and details about the movie, aside from hearing that it was expected to be a better retelling of Arthurian legend than anything made in a long time. Perhaps since Boorman’s Excalibur. So what did we think?
It was a struggle to get through. Afterwards, all I could say was that it was another blow to Arthurian legend. Especially for people not already well acquainted with the stories. That is not an exaggeration. There were a lot of people in the theater. I studied faces as we left. No one looked pleased. Most looked either bewildered or irritated that two hours of their life could never be recovered.
We spoke to a carful of younger folks who came out of the movie with us and asked what they they thought. They said it was awful. None of them had more than a passing knowledge of Arthurian legend and none were familiar with the original Green Knight story.
For me, that was the worst part. Arthurian tales are so rich and beautiful, but so few people today grow up with the stories. Blank canvases, their only cinematic exposure to Arthurian legend is time and again brought to them by movie makers who are more enthralled by their own creative brilliance than any respect for the original art.
I don’t think a movie maker should be completely tied to the original story, but why can’t we have some movies that evoke an Arthurian feel, and are good? Some, like 2017’s Legend of the Sword were like cheap attempts to cash in on King Arthur’s name without telling King Arthur’s story. If they had left Arthurian names out of the movie and made it a simple sword and sorcery fantasy, it wouldn’t have been half bad. People don’t like being cheated. Clive Owen’s 2004 King Arthur was a disappointment for its lack of Arthurian feel and its claim to historicity, then seriously botching the history. You can’t just tack King Arthur’s name onto something and expect people not to have certain expectations. Look at The Lord of the Rings. That movie is loved because Jackson didn’t see the need to “improve” on the original story with his own brilliance.
Granted, The Green Knight is different. It made an attempt to stay to the Arthurian mythos, and I appreciated small details added for that effect. Sure there were some changes to the story. Some parts, like the giants, were just weird and did nothing for the story. Many could be overlooked if the overall story was better. The part with St. Winifred was sorely misplaced, but was one of the better parts of the movie. I could live with Gawain being a spoiled, incompetent, brothel-frequenting brat instead of one of Arthur’s greatest knights.
Well, almost. I’ll get to that later.
Some might quibble with the settings. I still hope for a proper dark ages Arthurian movie, but a high-middle ages setting is consistent with the Romance era that spawned the story. I would say that the settings were inconsistent. Some locations had a more Renaissance than medieval look. The costume designer seemed to want to give a modern flair to medieval clothing. I can overlook this. The musical score was terrible. Screeching and distracting. Again, not a deal breaker.
No, the worst part for me was Gawain. I like Patel. But his Gawain was entirely unlikeable. There was no sense of the honorable, the gallant, or the noble about him. Nothing redeeming, even in the end. Though he made the right decision, it was not for the right reasons. He was a coward, and simply saw the outcome of cheating by using the girdle as no better than just losing his head immediately.
Is too much to ask for a little heroism in a character these days? Can we stop looking at every ancient topic through a modern lens? If modern filmmakers are so brilliant, why can’t they just make their own original work instead of “re-imagining” someone else’s work?
Please, will someone make a good Arthurian movie?
Ok, rant over.
My Adaptation of Gawain and the Green Knight
Gawain is the most interesting of King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table, as most people know them. If you’ve read The Retreat to Avalon, you know that the novel is based entirely from his point of view.
And if you’ve read this article, you know quite a bit about Gawain and his Welsh origins. He is one of the earliest characters associated with King Arthur and, like a very few other characters, may have been based on an actual person. I’m not going to rehash the details about Gawain. You can get those from the earlier article, and if you want to know about his family and close friends, you can read this article.
I wanted to find a way to include an adaptation of The Green Knight story into my novel. Being constrained by the more realistic nature of historical fiction, however, I had to tread carefully around the very magical nature of the original story. My ultimate approach was to consider that, in some ways, the story had elements of a duel between warriors. But this was a competitive rivalry, not born from war or injustice. And that is how the scene took shape. I won’t paste the entire story here. Instead, I am going to list some of the elements that I included. Those who have read chapter five of The Retreat to Avalon may recognize some of them.
- The setting for the initial challenge is a king’s banquet.
- The “giant” is a large man in a green tunic named “Bachlach”. This, an ancient Irish-derived name, is the closest I could authentically come to Bernlak. Later in the story, camp rumors turn him into a green-skinned giant.
- Gawain, angered by the insults against himself and his fellow soldiers by Bachlach, takes the challenge.
- Gawain is counseled by his fellow soldiers.
- The duel with spears was chosen because it was more in keeping with the culture at the time, and hacking with axes would not leave much chance for anyone to come out of it in one piece.
- Bachlach congratulates Gawain for showing up at the appointed time. There is no animus in him.
- Gawain flinches.
- Gawain’s neck is cut.
- Bachlach considers the challenge met, treats him as a friend, and gives Gawain his green baldric.
So that is a synopsis of my approach to the story. I admit that the movie is much closer to the original story, but for a historical novel, I hope the reader finds it satisfying.
Thanks for coming by and I would love to hear what you think about this post, and the movie, if you saw it.