With the recent release of the trailer for David Lowry’s adaptation of The Green Knight, I’ve been itching to go back and read the story it’s based on. Lowry is the director of recent films like Pete’s Dragon, A Ghost Story, and The Old Man and the Gun, so him making a medieval fantasy film is an exciting prospect! I’d previously seen the book Sir Gawain and the Green Knight looking through fantasy books under the name Tolkien as he famously translated the book in the 1920s. As a fan of Tolkien and a movie fan excited for the upcoming loose retelling of the Welsh legend, I took the effort this past week to dig into the classic Arthurian story.
Spiritual Content: Most every character in the story is overly Catholic and piously religious
Violence: Beheadings and some blood described, animals are hunted for food and sport
Language/Crude Humor: None
Sexual Content: A woman tempts another man sexually to which he is honor bound not to reciprocate
Drug/Alcohol Use: Minor alcohol consumption
Other Negative Themes: None
Positive Content: Themes of honor, integrity, and honesty
Though primarily remembered now for Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien was first and foremost a philologist. He loved language. He was the type of chap who was inclined at a young age to learn Icelandic to better understand Norse fables in their original language. Over the course of his life, he nurtured the ideas and stories that would become the Middle Earth saga as a hobby on the side, which he never intended to publish until convinced by his fellow Inkling C.S. Lewis to submit The Hobbit for publication.
Naturally, some of his most interesting work outside of his Middle Earth Saga comes from his scholastic work as a translator. His most famous translation is his personal translation of Beowulf which he worked on in the 1920s. Like most of his work, it was completed and published posthumously by his son Christopher Tolkien in 2014. Lessor revisited is his much celebrated translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was originally written by an unknown Welsh author during the 14th century at the time of Chaucer. In that and several respects it shares similarities with Beowulf. They’re both medieval epic poems and they’re both functionally illegible to modern English readers. They’ve both since been translated into common parlance multiple times. J.R.R. Tolkien’s posthumously published translation is one of several available.
The titular Sir Gawain is of course the Arthurian character of Anglo-Saxon legend. If you aren’t familiar with King Arthur, the Knights of the Round Table, and the overall narrative of his legend, much of this particular style will likely fail to make much sense. The story picks up in the midst of a festival populated by King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. When a mysterious knight and his horse interrupt the proceedings, the court is offered the chance to take a challenge where in an individual can take a shot at the knight with his axe in exchange for the right to do the same thing to the challenger one year and a day later.
Sir Gawain takes up the challenge in Arthur’s place and successfully beheads the knight in one swing. To his surprise, the mysterious knight picks up his head and walks out of the court, their agreement still very much expected to be honored. Nearly a year later, Gawain sets out as a knight of integrity to allow the mysterious Green Knight to take a free swing at him as agreed to. In the process of his travels, he finds himself in the presence of a powerful lord and his wife who simultaneously guide him in his journey to the Green Chapel and provide him a massive series of temptations. Ultimately, he faces the Green Knight and comes to understand a plot conceived by the sorcerous Morgan Le Fay, Arthur’s half-sister.
Fans of Monty Python and the Holy Grail will likely pick up on the similarities the second act of the story has with The Tale of Sir Galahad, obvious differences aside. In that story, Sir Galahad finds himself trapped in a convent of sexually frustrated nuns who want to take advantage of him before he’s saved by Sir Lancelot at the moment he’s most inclined to give into his temptations. That story is obviously being played for comedy, unlike the poem.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is ultimately a story about the integrity of knighthood. Despite his temptations and the deathly consequences of his actions, he allows himself to be taken down the path of danger and honor and ultimately is allowed to return to the Round Table. As a knight who must live by his code of honor, he’s duty bound to allow the mysterious Green Knight to take his turn in the challenge, even if it costs Sir Gawain his life.
As with most stories of this kind, it’s not that clear cut. This isn’t a story of a man riding off to his inevitable demise. It’s about a man being tempted to compromise and not live up to his code in the face of death. Thus most of the second and third acts are dedicated to Sir Gawain struggling with various temptations. As is appropriate with a story about temptation, his perseverance is ultimately that which saves him.
In some ways, I find Sir Gawain and the Green Knight to be a more interesting story than an entertaining one. Even translated by J.R.R. Tolkien, it’s quite a dry read. However, the details of the story are fascinating to reflect upon. As with most of the great medieval fairy stories, there’s immense depth and religiosity to the text. As Tolkien and his translation partner E.V. Gordon mention in the book’s prologue, the author had to have been a singularly devout and educated soul.
“He was a man of serious and devout mind, though not without humour; he had an interest in theology, and some knowledge of it, though an amateur knowledge perhaps, rather than a professional; he had Latin and French and was well enough read in French books, both romantic and instructive; but his home was in the West Midlands of England; so much his language shows, and his metre, and his scenery.”
Certainly coming a century before the works of William Shakespeare, such a man wouldn’t be hard to find in Great Britain. Yet he’s been lost to history. His works were discovered centuries later and spread in the 19th century.
The book is open to much interpretation given its place in history, cultural background, and the depths of the references it’s calling forth. Gawain’s arc and his story are fairly straightforward in their telling, but the implications of the themes and what they mean are fascinating. He must maintain his integrity and pay penance for the choice he made, but to what is he paying penance to?
Tolkien himself had difficulty interpreting exactly what the titular Green Knight within the story symbolizes. Is he a manifestation of nature given his green color? Not exactly, but that’s a common read. Given what we come to understand about his identity and motivations in the final part of the story, he’s mostly a catalyst to bring about an end result for Sir Gawain and King Arthur. He may very well be a representation of chaos only Sir Gawain can satiate with his integrity. It’s worth remembering Gawain didn’t take the challenge initially out of greed, but out of a desire to serve and protect his king. The challenge as laid out ends up being something of an unfair punishment for a man who technically didn’t do anything wrong.
Still, the Green Knight’s supernatural abilities suggest he’s a greater force than a mere physical challenge. His vagueness implies a greater meaning to his challenge. If we take him to be a symbol of nature, this becomes a story of Christian values overcoming man’s bestial state of nature through their integrity. Only by staying chivalric can order be restored and the knight quelled. Only by maintaining our values in the face of oblivion can we maintain society. As the story makes clear by the end, Gawain isn’t totally dedicated to that standard as a human being who struggles with temptation, yet his perseverance is enough for him to return home. Even so, he feels shame for not totally maintaining his standards.
The entire second act of Gawain grappling with the temptations of a powerful Lord’s wife reflects this central theme as well. Throughout this digression, he’s placed between a rock and a hard place being a knight who must respect the marriage of the man who is giving him shelter while still honoring the requests of a married woman who finds him appealing. To this end, he allows the woman to kiss him and then returns the kisses to the lord as part of an elaborate game he’s decided to play with him. Being a knight of integrity doesn’t just mean having integrity in publi; it means having integrity behind closed doors as well. This is, of course, a trial that his contemporary Sir Lancelot famously fails.
None of this even begins to cover the role Morgan Le Fay plays in the story and what the implications of her schemes have on the themes. Fans of T.H. White’s The Once and Future King know her role in Arthur’s story as an agent of King Arthur’s ultimate destruction. Her showing up here has fascinating implications.
I could go on, but there’s decades of academic speculation on the nature of the symbolism of this book that I’m sparsely prepared to comment upon. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a blessedly short yet endlessly fascinating read that’s been persistently on my mind in the week since I started reading it. There are many ways to read and interpret the story, but it yields much depth to its reader regardless of your preconceptions. It’s a simple tale of gallantry and integrity that gives way to mythic and mysterious ideas. I look forward to revisiting this story again and again!
+ Complex themes on temptation and integrity
+ Fascinating characters living by chivalric codes
+ Brisk length
- Somewhat dry writing by modern standards
The Bottom Line
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a quintessential piece of Arthurian legend and one of the great pieces of classic medieval literature. J.R.R. Tolkien's translation brings the story to life with gentility and gravitas and makes the old English legible to modern eyes and ears.