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Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in the Movies

By Murray Dahm

2021 will see a new movie adaption of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. This, and the recent death of Sean Connery, allows us to explore several aspects of this most intriguing figure of Arthurian legend and how he has been explored in the movies.

King Arthur films continue to be made and several remain the access points for new audiences to the medieval world and offer interesting takes on a familiar story – I’m thinking especially of The Kid Who Would Be King (2019) where the gestural magic of Merlin was a delightful touch. Several generations have begun the Arthurian journey with Disney or Monty Python. The upcoming The Green Knight, written and directed by David Lowery, aims to be a similar new take and an access point for a new audience.

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Principal photography began for Lowery’s movie in March 2019 and it was to have been released at the South by Southwest film festival (SXSW) in March 2020, followed by a theatrical release in May. The COVID-19 pandemic put paid to those plans. although several trailers have been released. According to the film’s official website, its release was still ‘coming soon’ until December 2020 when it was updated to give a release date of July 31st, 2021 – too far away for some. The delay allows us to explore the film in new ways, however. The Green Knight has been the subject of surprisingly few films, but he has spurred other creations – several operas, art works, other legends, and more.

The medieval story of the Green Knight

The Green Knight is a figure and an idea familiar to those who know Arthurian myth or medieval literature. He is one of the most difficult figures to decipher and interpret in the Arthurian tradition since he might be a figure who represents loyalty or the devil himself. For our purposes, across the three poems where he originally appears: the chivalric romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight from the 14th century which survives in a single manuscript (Cotton Nero A.x), The Greene Knight from around the year 1500, and King Arthur and King Cornwall from slightly later.

In the Sir Gawain poem, he wears no armour but is all green, including his hair and skin (and is protected from harm). In The Greene Knight, however, from approximately a century later, he has magical green armour (not green skin). The reason for the knight’s greenness has puzzled scholars for centuries ranging from the devil himself (also associated with the colour green in art from the same period as the poems) to nature and life itself, as well as the medieval Green Man motif which can be found in all manner of places and manifestations.

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In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the knight is actually Sir Bertilak de Hautdesert, while in The Greene Knight (and the later King Arthur poem) he is named as Bredbeddle (and he is one of the most powerful knights at Arthur’s court). He might even be a model for the figure of Merlin since Bertilak is possibly a translation of the Old French for Merlin (‘Bertolais’) and this may connect to the magical powers shown by the Green Knight. In the earlier poem, Bertilak is transformed by Morgan le Fay (Arthur’s sister) into the Green Knight and sent to test Arthur’s court. In both versions Bertilak sends his wife to seduce Gawain.

In the earliest version of the story, the Green Knight appears (gigantic, all green and riding a green horse) on New Year’s Day at Arthur’s Christmas feast at Camelot. He issues a challenge (he calls it a ‘Christmas game’) that he will allow a knight to strike him one blow with his axe if he is allowed to return the blow a year and a day later. The knight who accepts may keep the axe. When no other knight accepts, Arthur does but his place is taken by the youngest knight and Arthur’s nephew, Gawain. Gawain steps forward and decapitates the knight with a single blow with the axe. This so-called ‘beheading game’ features in several medieval tales and shares features from Celtic and Old Irish culture too (such as Cuchulain and the Beheading Game). The Green Knight however, retrieves his head, shows it to Guinevere to frighten her, and remounts his horse. The head speaks to Gawain, telling Gawain to meet him at the Green Chapel in a year and a day’s time.

As the year’s end approaches, Gawain departs for the Green Chapel, having adventures and battles along the way, which are not described but are alluded to in the poem. He eventually comes to the magnificent castle of Sir Bertilak where he learns that the Green Chapel is close by and he can rest at the castle until the appointed day. The next day Sir Bertilak goes hunting (he has promised to exchange what he catches with whatever Gawain finds that day) and his wife unsuccessfully attempts to seduce Gawain (gaining a single kiss – this is given to Bertilak in exchange for a deer). The day following that, another seduction is attempted and refused (two kisses for a boar). On the third day, Sir Bertilak’s wife insists that Gawain accept her girdle of green and gold silk – it is charmed and will keep him from physical harm. Gawain keeps the gift of the girdle a secret from Sir Bertilak only exchanging the three kisses he has received for the fox Bertilak has caught. When he goes to the Green Chapel on New Year’s Day, Gawain wears the girdle and finds the Green Knight sharpening his axe. Gawain kneels to accept his blow and the Green Knight feints twice before merely nicking Gawain on the third blow. He then reveals his true identity as Sir Bertilak, sent to test Arthur’s court by Morgan le Fay, Arthur’s sister. Gawain returns to Camelot wearing the green sash gifted to him by Lady Bertilak as a reminder to always be honest, a practice the other knights take up.

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The later poems have some differences – The Greene Knight contains no Morgan le Fay but in King Arthur and King Cornwall, the Green Knight offers to help Arthur fight a mysterious sprite – controlled by the magician, King Cornwall. The Green Knight gains control of the sprite with a religious text and convinces it to go and decapitate its master (a different take on decapitation).

There are several figures upon whom the Green Knight could have been based but, importantly for us, there seem to be several historical figures who may have inspired or emulated him or the idea of him. The Continuation of William of Tyre has a Green Knight, the Spaniard Sancho Martin, who led sorties from Tyre in 1197, and there are other green-clad knights in stories of Saladin. All of these pre-date the Green Knight poems perhaps revealing that the idea behind the Green Knight had existed much longer. The figure in the stories of Saladin may have connections with the immortal Green Man/al-Khidr figure from the Quran (Sura 18.60-82 – Khidr literally means ‘green one’ – sent to test and guide Moses and Alexander the Great. And so, perhaps, the figure was also sent to test Saladin, not to mention Arthur.

Another possible source for the Green Knight is the motif of the Green Man, a motif popular in medieval art. Even more recent examples may have inspired the Green Knight poems. In 1382 Amadeus of Savoy met Louis of Anjou on their way to contest the throne of Naples dressed in green from head to toe (the colour of Savoy). This included green saddles, bridles, breastplate and crupper, and surcoat. Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur has a Grene Knyght, one of four brothers who Gareth (Gawain’s brother), and not Gawain fights – the brother clad all in green is Sir Partolope.

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The Green Knight on film

Remarkably, the Green Knight has been dealt with relatively rarely in movies despite the cinematic moments of the story, even in Arthurian films which are legion. What is more, when the Green Knight has been put on film, several aspects of the story have been omitted (even an Arthurian setting) and this seems a peculiar choice. The idea of chivalry (and resisting seduction) have also been skewed, and the movies have instead become ‘coming of age’ stories for Gawain.

The two previous attempts before 2019 at putting the story on film both involve the same director, Stephen Weeks. He tackled the story twice – in Gawain and the Green Knight (1973) with Murray Head (as Gawain) and Nigel Green as the knight. The Green Knight was Green’s final role; he had completed filming but not work on the film. Green overdosed on sleeping pills in May 1972 – some of his lines were therefore later dubbed by Robert Rietty. Green’s performance is a bit flat, with his friend Peter O’Toole claiming he was very depressed at the time of his death. Described as ‘adequate’ and, of a kind with other medieval movies of the early 1970s, these opinions do not do the film justice. It is eminently watchable and, although some of the effects and fight choreography do not reach the highest levels, they are as good as anything else at the time, particularly on the limited budget the movie had. The performances are earnest although the 1973 soundtrack is intrusive and heavy-handed. The plot avoids nearly all the dramatic, religious/symbolic and political elements of the poems (the character of Linet does give Gawain a magic sash which will protect him from the Green Knight’s axe). The complex original is turned into a medieval coming of age film.

In 1984, Weeks remade his 1973 movie, this time as Sword of the Valiant: The Legend of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight starring Sean Connery as the knight and with Miles O’Keefe as Sir Gawain (Weeks had hoped to get Mark Hamill to play the role – an actor associated with the heroic through the first two Star Wars films – a similar pathway as Orlando Bloom in Kingdom of Heaven after the Lord of the Rings films). Hamill was, unfortunately, not available. The film also starred Trevor Howard and Peter Cushing. Unfortunately, one review claimed that Sword of the Valiant made Monty Python and the Holy Grail look lavish. Given this film was a second attempt at the same story, it is remarkable that Weeks seems to have gotten the film more wrong the second time around. Again, most elements of the poem are missing, O’Keefe is execrable, and the narrated riddles (to guide Gawain) are an impenetrable disaster. Connery as the Green Knight is, however, the best thing about the movie, although some say the film is a blot on his career – how they can make that claim when Zardoz (1974) exists, is beyond me. Of course, Zardoz was made by John Boorman, director of Excalibur in 1981, perhaps the best Arthurian film to date.

In 1991, Thames Television released their version of The Green Knight, directed by John Michael Phillips, starring Jason Durr as Gawain, Marc Warren as Arthur and Malcolm Storry as the Green Knight. This is probably the most faithful adaptation of the story on film despite being only 75 minutes long and was first aired, appropriately enough, on Christmas Eve. The director had several television soaps to his credit and the motionless meaningful stare of that genre is in evidence here.

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An animated television adaptation appeared on the BBC in 2002 and the cartoon Adventure Time featured the story in an episode, “Seventeen” in its tenth season. Here the Green Knight is indeed all Green (consisting of armour) and armed with an axe. Martin Beilby directed a short, 30-minute, French film of the story, Sire Gauvain et le Chevalier Vert, which was crowdfunded in 2014.

Other adaptations

The various themes of the Green Knight story have inspired several different artistic endeavours. Most common are translations of the poems, which are legion. The story was a common feature in art and other mediums from the illustrations of the poetic manuscripts onwards. In 1991, Harrison Birtwistle’s opera Gawain premiered at the Royal Opera House, London, where it was commissioned. It was later revised in 1994. It actually uses more of the poetic material than the movies do (with three hunts and three seductions – such repetition in a film would be problematic but in music, and especially the musical style of Birtwistle). Here the emphasis is on the flawed hero. An earlier Green Knight opera was by Richard Blackford, commissioned by the village of Blewbury in Oxfordshire, performed in 1978. Lynne Plowman wrote a “family friendly” opera, Gwyneth and the Green Knight in 2000, focussing on Gawain’s female squire. The poem has been the subject of various documentaries (of varying quality) and a stage play version was made by the Tyneside Theatre Company at the University of Newcastle for Christmas 1971, directed by Michael Bogdanov. Another stage adaptation was made in 1992, directed by Simon Corble, for the Midsommer Actors’ Company and performed outdoors in North Yorkshire. This was revised for an indoor setting in Oxford in 2014.

2021’s Green Knight

The Lowery film was described as an “epic fantasy adventure based on the timeless Arthurian legend.” Gawain, played by Dev Patel, is the reckless and headstrong nephew of Arthur who embarks on a quest to confront the eponymous Green Knight: gigantic, emerald-skinned, and a “tester of men”. On the way, Gawain contends with ghosts, giants, thieves, and schemers, and his quest becomes a journey to prove himself worthy in the eyes of his family. Only having a one-and-a-half minute trailer to go on, we can tell that the film is visually stunning and has been well crafted. Use of ‘authentic’ touches of medieval puppet plays combine with stylized crowns and dress. The trailer tells us that “honor was everything” and the film certainly seems as if it will put a new twist on the story.

As far as we can tell from the trailer, this film also does not follow the plot or other aspects of the poems particularly closely. The latest update also informed viewers that the film had garnered an R-Rating for “violence, some sexuality, and graphic nudity” from the MPA (Motion Picture Association). This led to speculation that the “graphic” was usually reserved by the MPA for full-frontal male nudity which might suggest that the Green Knight is depicted as in the Sir Gawain poem with no armour but green-skinned. Such a rating for a medieval (or Arthurian) film is unusual, but we will have to wait until July to find out exactly what it means.

In a highly peculiar twist, when the delay in the film’s release was announced, the production company, A24, chose an unusual way of marketing the film and keeping it in people’s minds during the delay – with the release of a roleplaying game based on the movie. Given that many film and television properties end up with a roleplaying game associated with them today (Serenity/Firefly, Star Trek, the Marvel universe, Star Wars, 007, Doctor Who) this is not so unusual, although it is in medieval/fantasy films. Now, in a rare crossover of my worlds, I bought the game and have played it with my gaming group on Youtube (the dicestormers). In the game – unsurprisingly called The Green Knight: A Fantasy Roleplaying Game – the focus is on honour and honourable and dishonourable actions (that is the key mechanic). Using the production stills of the movie, the game seems to mirror the episodes of the film, with brigands, a fox, a female ghost who has lost her head, and a showdown with the Green Knight in the Green Chapel.

What is even more intriguing is that the game comes as a box set, deliberately looking a bit battered, which echoes the most famous fantasy roleplaying game (and box set) of all – the Dungeon and Dragons’ Red Box from 1983. Even the advertising was deliberately nostalgic.

This is a deliberate echo in medieval fantasy terms and it is fascinating that the film places itself in this space (Dungeons and Dragons is currently enjoying a resurgence in its popularity so it is an understandable market to tap into). The Green Knight game uses a 20-sided die – the same die as Dungeons and Dragons – but the Green Knight Game is an entirely new mechanic (connected to honour and dishonour) rather than a version of Dungeons and Dragons. There are five different characters (Bard, Noble, Knight, Hunter, Sorcerer) and each has abilities and skills (this is all typical roleplaying game stuff) but all are concerned with honourable and dishonourable actions. Interestingly, no author for the game is credited, only the A24 studio. And there do not seem to be any plans for a larger release – usually such box sets are introductory products to a wider game release.

When any group of players roleplays an adventure, there is always the possibility that they won’t do what they are supposed to, or, since outcomes are determined to some extent by rolls of the die, that things will turn out differently than they expect. Without having seen the movie, it will be very interesting to compare how we played the game in comparison to how the film plays out – in this regard the game coming out before the film is interesting (usually you would see the film and be inspired to buy the game so that when you play it and you ‘know’ what to do). The Dicestormers did very well (in my opinion) and usually acted honourably although in several cases the ‘right’ action was not clear (freeing the talking fox, helping the ghost) – and it will be very interesting to see how the film handles those scenarios. In many ways the right action in The Green Knight game, plays against tropes of fantasy roleplaying games where, unfortunately, killing first and asking questions later can be the norm.

It will be interesting to compare how other groups played out the adventures too – and, when the film finally comes to screens, how similar to the film the game actually is. Nonetheless, having a game (and a role-playing game at that) as the marketing choice to keep a delayed film present in the imagination of potential viewers was a bold choice. And it got me to thinking how unusual the Green Knight is in that regard since he has inspired several artistic endeavours – all the more surprising because film adaptations of this remarkably cinematic story are so few and far between. Happy viewing.

Murray Dahm is the movie columnist for Medievalists.net. You can find more of his research on Academia.edu or follow him on Twitter @murray_dahm

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Top Image: The Green Knight in the upcoming movie.

 

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