Film about Sir Gawain Prompts Review of Beloved Arthurian Poem

"sir gawain and the green knight" revisited as tale gets hollywood treatment

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

A new movie about Sir Gawain stands apart from the pack. The Green Knight, written and directed by David Lowery (Pete’s Dragon), puts a new spin on the tale of a strange man with a fatal challenge and the young knight who rises to it. The original poem is a classic of Medieval literature.

 "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight", from the Cotton Nero A.x manuscript
Photo by “Gawayin Poet”, late 14th century / Wikimedia Commons/ Public Domain

David Lowery and production company A24 released The Green Knight on July 30. The film puts a new spin on a 700-year-old poem by an unknown author, in which a man with green hair and matching armor carries an ax into King Arthur’s court and requests that someone chop off his head with his ax, under the condition that if he survives the blow, he returns in one year and repays the favor in kind.

This bizarre and intriguing tale of Arthurian legend originally survived by just one written copy. In her video series King Arthur: History and Legend, Dr. Dorsey Armstrong, Associate Professor of English and Medieval Literature at Purdue University, said the original poem offers several noteworthy features of history and literature.

It’s Just a Flesh Wound

Initially, nobody answered the man’s challenge. King Arthur began to rise from his seat to restore honor to the court, but Sir Gawain stepped in. The bearded man laid his head down and Gawain chopped it clean off, and yet the man’s body picked up the head, reminded him where and when to meet for Gawain’s turn on the chopping block, and rode off.

Almost as fascinating as the nature of the tale is the number of revealing historical nuances throughout the work.

“What this poem makes clear throughout is that Gawain is the most wonderful, amazing knight ever to have been at Arthur’s court,” Dr. Armstrong said. “Usually this honor is reserved for Lancelot, but here what we’re seeing, I think, is definite English pushback against the tradition that made the French Lancelot such a heroic and renowned figure. In fact, around this time in England, there are several Gawain stories that start popping up.”

The pushback against French heroism by an English poet is certainly telling. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight dates back to the 14th century and was likely produced during the Hundred Years’ War, fought between England and France, that dated from 1337 to 1453. Selling a French knight as a greater hero than an English one in England, during a war with France, would clearly be unpopular.

Then Things Get a Little Weird

In the poem, Sir Gawain soon finds himself lodging at a castle in the wilderness while searching for the Green Chapel. The lord of the castle, Lord Bertilak, engages him in a wager. Bertilak says he will give anything he catches on his hunt of three days to Gawain in exchange for anything Gawain obtains while lazing about his lodging. All that Gawain obtains are chaste kisses from Bertilak’s wife, who attempted to seduce him, and her magical green sash that protects the life of any man who wears it. In a jovial way, Gawain repays Bertilak with kisses without revealing the identity of the original kisser. He declines from telling Bertilak about the green sash or giving it to him.

Gawain meets the Green Knight in the forest, who fakes him out several times with an ax, as though ready to cut off Gawain’s head. He then tells Gawain that he is really Lord Bertilak, disguised, and says they should have a laugh about it. Gawain is ashamed of himself for flinching at the Green Knight’s ax swings and returns to Arthur’s court, where he tells the tale, saying he’ll forever wear the green sash as a symbol of his shame. The other knights applaud his honesty and overall courage and pledge to wear similar sashes as a show of camaraderie.

And yet the story isn’t quite over, Dr. Armstrong said.

“But there’s a little footnote—another hand, below the last line of the poem, has written in the manuscript Honi soyt qui mal y pense, which translates roughly from the medieval French as ‘Evil be unto him who thinks evil of this’ or ‘Shame on him,’ which is, in fact, the official motto of the Order of the Garter, a knightly order that exists in England down to the present day.”

According to Dr. Armstrong, this note is a testament to the fact that in the medieval world, noble classes often looked to literature for “a kind of guide or legitimation” for their own systems and codes and to construct their own identities.

The Green Knight is in theaters now.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily