A seat at the Round Table
It’s not easy bein' green, a famous frog once said.
In the case of a certain legendary knight, it’s not a spoiler to say that sometimes being green will cost you your head.
“The Green Knight,” a new film from A24 starring Dev Patel, Alicia Vikander, Joel Edgerton and Sarita Choudhury, premieres Friday, July 30 — only in theaters. It’s based on a medieval Arthurian legend, “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” that’s written in alliterative verse and details a “beheading game.”
Scholars debate the identity of the story’s author, who they simply refer to as “The Gawain-Poet” or “The Pearl-Poet.” The person likely also penned several other Middle English religious poems contained in the same manuscript as “Gawain.”
Curiously missing from the new film’s title is the name of the main character, played by Patel. Sir Gawain is a knight of King Arthur’s Round Table — and also Arthur’s nephew — which may make him feel he has something to prove. We’ll avoid spoilers here, but suffice to say that Gawain has a strange, dangerous and fantastical journey ahead of him.
Professor of English Richard Newhauser, a specialist in medieval literature and the author/editor of 18 books and around 100 articles on various aspects of the moral tradition in the Middle Ages and the field of sensory studies, has taught courses on works of The Gawain-Poet. He has also written on cultural and symbolic aspects of the Gawain story and has an interest in how medieval narratives are depicted on film.
Newhauser attended a screening of the film in advance of its release, and we sat down with him to try and divine the true meaning of Gawain’s quest and whether it’s possible to successfully adapt a medieval legend for contemporary audiences.
Question: First, what did you think of the film?
Answer: It was marvelous, and I say that especially because it is not a “faithful” rendering of the medieval romance. David Lowery’s film doesn’t try to reproduce the text exactly, as if it were a film script for a 14th-century film crew, but rather it adds to “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” (SGGK), adapting it in surprising and new ways. And adaptations, or “continuations,” were a typical method used frequently by medieval authors to create new texts from old ones. Lowery follows a long line of medieval authors in this way.
Q: What can you tell us about the original story, “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”?
A: As the film defines its predecessor, the text is a chivalric romance. We can be more precise and say that it is a chivalric Arthurian romance — that is, a narrative in which knights connected with the court of King Arthur leave the court to seek adventure, or respond to various provocations, and then return to the court at the close of the narrative. SGGK complicates that pattern in many ways. In the common Arthurian romance, Arthur’s court is the paragon of chivalry, the Round Table is the model of courtliness and the knight who goes out on adventure represents the values of the court, but in SGGK, Gawain’s interior conflicts and minor faults cast doubt on the code the Arthurian court is based on.
Q: Why a “green” knight? What is the symbolism of the color green here? Who or what does the knight himself symbolize?
A: Green is the color of nature, generally seen as the promise of growth and rebirth: The Green Knight rides into Arthur’s court at Christmas carrying a holly branch in one hand, an evergreen. The wife of the lord Gawain meets on his travels, played by Alicia Vikander, actually addresses the question of the Green Knight’s greenness, but her take on it is that the green in nature creeps over everything, swallowing up everything else in life — the color red, in particular. Lowery’s film offers a different perspective on the naturalness of green.
Q: Besides being adapted for film, the story has essentially been “translated” from Middle into modern English. It also seems to have lost its alliterative verse format. Do you think this affected the meaning or the audience’s reception of it? Was there any humor or subtlety in the original that this adaptation missed?
A: The film is generally very somber, filmed in shaded tones indoors, with Gawain riding through a dead or dying landscape on his way to meet the Green Knight after a year. The poem, on the other hand, describes Christmas games being played at the opening and at the end. There are festivities at Arthur’s court in the film, but they are decidedly subdued.
Q: The unknown author of the story is believed to have penned several other poems, most of them with religious themes. Is there any religious symbolism woven into the Sir Gawain story, overt or subtle?
A: The story unfolds as a Christmas entertainment, which becomes the beheading of an enchanted Green Knight. The game is to continue in a year, on the next Christmas, so consciousness of religion and the role it plays in creating liturgical time is very much present in the poem: Gawain carries the image of the Virgin Mary on his shield, and he gives confession to a priest before setting out on the last day to meet the Green Knight. The Christmas time frame is present in the film, but most other religious references have been deleted: At one point, Gawain tells his mother he has been to Mass, when in fact he is returning home from visiting his favorite prostitute, Essel, also played by Vikander, in her brothel.
Q: Why did The Gawain-Poet write in verse?
A: Verse was the most common mode for literature at the time, and alliterative verse was the most English form of poetry, by which I mean it was the form of verse used commonly in Old English and also in the “Alliterative Revival” of the mid-14th century. But SGGK’s author also includes a bob and wheel at the end of his stanzas. He was a very sophisticated craftsman.
Q: How closely did the film adhere to the medieval story in general? Did you hear anything that could have been a “quote” from the poem?
A: There are touchstones of the poem’s plot which remain in the film: Arthur asks for a story of marvel at a Christmas feast; the Green Knight appears with his challenge to exchange blows with one of the knights. Gawain takes the challenge and beheads the Green Knight. Gawain sets off after a year to meet the Green Knight and receive a blow in return; eventually he comes across the castle of another lord and agrees to an exchange of winnings game with him — whereby the lord hunts and gives his winnings to Gawain and Gawain will give to the lord what he has gained during the day. The lord’s wife tempts Gawain sexually and offers him a magic sash that is supposed to keep him unharmed, and Gawain eventually shows up to fulfill his vow to meet the Green Knight and receive a return-blow from his axe. But interwoven throughout these plot points are many new episodes: In the film, Gawain is given a mother who seems to set all the action in motion; he is robbed of all his knightly equipment, including his horse; he meets Saint Winifred and helps her find her head — beheadings happen throughout the film; a talking fox accompanies Gawain and tries to dissuade him from completing the mission. There are also variations on scenes the poem contains: The temptation of Gawain in his bed ends decidedly differently in the film than in the poem. And I will not go into detail about the ending of the film other than to say that it too, is decidedly different than what the 14th-century poet wrote.
Q: I’ve seen the story of “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” referred to in the media as “timeless.” This is at least the third feature-length film adaptation of the poem. What do you think has given the story its staying power? What makes it “timeless”?
A: Living up to a code of honor, in particular in the extreme conditions of life-threatening combat, has remained part of the definition of a muscular masculinity in the West — and not just in the West — for millennia. And as we can see from SGGK, questioning the power of such a code and its ethical validity has accompanied the idea of honor for almost as long. So those elements are part of the timeless appeal of SGGK, but medieval romance altogether often presents us with an alluring mix of the real and the fantastical that can draw us in. Romances may contain landscapes with giants or friendly lions, but they also have castles with the latest in 12th-century plumbing. The form is, in some ways, the essence of poetry as Marianne Moore defined it: “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.” Romances like SGGK present us with problems that confront us still, but they also do so in a setting that makes our imagination come alive.
Q: The trailer for the film certainly focused on the fantastical and supernatural elements of Gawain’s journey, and it seemed very stylized — gritty and decaying while also somehow luminous. Did the style overshadow the substance? Or do you think the director intended the style itself to be part of the message?
A: I would have asked for a bit less wailing in the soundtrack, but otherwise the consciousness of death is carried by the action and the style. From the moment the Green Knight picks up his severed head and the reader/audience knows what Gawain has to face now, death is never far from the narrative or from the film.
Q: Have you seen other adaptations of the Sir Gawain story? If so, how does this one compare?
A: I have seen “Sword of the Valiant” with Sean Connery as the Green Knight. Lowery’s film is far and away a more substantial adaptation of SGGK.
Q: “The Green Knight’s” initial release, planned for 2020, was delayed due to the pandemic. The director David Lowery says he took that time to re-edit the film, “with love in my heart.” It will premiere only in theaters, not simultaneously online, and has been delayed again in the U.K. due to rising coronavirus cases there. After seeing the film, do you think this emphasis on a theater opening is because it is best experienced in the immersive large screen format?
A: I suspect there are commercial pressures in wanting to see people back in theaters that Lowery could not escape. I’m certainly happy I saw it in the immersive environment of a nearly empty theater screening, where no one was sitting within 10 feet of me, an experience I would recommend to everyone. I wouldn’t have gone to the screening under other circumstances.
Q: Considering the events of the past year — which brought so many issues to light with regard to health, social justice and racial reckoning — why do you think it’s still important to study medieval literature? Why continue to tell these particular stories?
A: Medieval literature is worth reading regardless of issues of social justice, the spread of a viral plague and racial reckoning. But certainly those factors are very much part of “The Green Knight.” We’ve all faced death in this past year, and far too many have succumbed to the virus. We’ve also seen up close the callousness of many of our institutions, reckoning in terms of dollars instead of the value of human life. Death stalks Gawain everywhere in the poem and its film adaptation. Class differences and the unjust suffering visited on less advantaged in our society has also been exacerbated by the pandemic; in “The Green Knight,” Essel’s love for Gawain crosses the boundaries of class — she’s a prostitute; he’s the king’s nephew — in a way the chivalric romance does not thematize. Without the consciousness of the need for racial justice that movements like Black Lives Matter have made urgent, the understanding of the global Middle Ages and the premodern world as far more cosmopolitan than previously imagined might not have developed so far that the presence of Dev Patel and Sarita Choudhury in the film seems historically unremarkable.
But medieval literature also offers us the chance to both travel far away — in time — and also see ourselves inchoately. Many of our attitudes and institutions develop in the Middle Ages; opening a romance or Geoffrey Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” is to feel the shock of alterity and familiarity all at once. That’s us, or some part of us, seeking a key to unlock the door of spirituality; that’s us, laughing with the rest of the Canterbury pilgrims at the sexual hijinks and poetic justice of “The Miller’s Tale”; that’s us, having to deal with our failures and shame along with Gawain — and in none of these cases are the circumstances in any way similar to what we face in our contemporary lives. That ability to be us and not-us simultaneously is something medieval literature offers us supremely, alluringly well.
Newhauser, who is the editor-in-chief of the forthcoming “The Chaucer Encyclopedia” (Wiley), directs the biennial ASU Chaucer Celebration, which is set for April 7, 2022. A film contest for ASU and local high school students is also planned as part of the festivities. Find out more at the Chaucer Celebration website.
Top photo: Dev Patel stars in "The Green Knight." Eric Zachanowich/A24 Films