Written by Natalie Nobile
Hey, when you were assigned Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, did you try to get out of reading it by using one of the films as a cheat sheet? But then all the films sucked? Well buckle up buttercup, because there’s a new adaptation on the market, and it’s coming for you! The Green Knight stars Dev Patel as Sir Gawain, questing to “prove his worth … by facing the ultimate challenger,” the titular Green KnightTM. The only trailer so far serves striking imagery—a spontaneously combusting halo-crown, an ominous wheel calendar, a jump cut to Gawain’s spooky skeleton, and under it all, an insectoid buzz. Fantasy elements give way to phantasmagoria. Giants loom from the mist, and a tree man straight out of Doctor Who prepares to land a sickening axe-blow. The whole thing styles itself staunchly as horror; it’s even got the industry standard stinger in its soundtrack. But wait! You cry. Surely this medieval tale of Arthur’s knight errs on the side of cheese rather than freeze. Ye must bringeth me a faithful adaptation, for the purpose of getting out of reading it. Well no worries, faithful student, say I, because this story bears less signs of adventure than of survival. Horror may in fact be the best vehicle for Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
Such an interpretation of this tale doesn’t inherently break new ground: see this terrifying clip from Sword of the Valiant: The Legend of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Now I know that this Gawain looks like He-Man, and Sean Connery has inexplicable cleavage (not to mention the full-body bronzer), but this scene clearly intends to chill you to the bone (instead of what it actually achieves, which is tickling your funny bone). Its brand of horror, however, hinges on the shock and gore of a man’s decapitated body rejoining with his disembodied head. Supreme cultural authority Den of Geek describes the best horror films as “rely[ing] on atmosphere and suspense rather than gore and jump-scares”; maybe that’s why Sword of the Valiant falls flat. But then check out the 1973 adaptation. It builds and builds and builds the tension, and then cuts to something completely different. Try as it might to frighten viewers with atmospheric pressure, it cannot sustain the weight of audience expectations—like, y’know, something happening. What does happen feels either underwhelming (Gawain eats soup) or laughable (huRAHHH!). And is that shot of a guy getting thwacked by a tree even meant to be in there?
As you may have seen from those film clips, this story has a tone problem—and unfortunately, that tone problem isn’t inherent to the adaptation process itself. It lies in the text itself. Compare two translations by Simon Armitage and Marie Borroff. In Armitage’s version, the Green Knight calls Arthur’s lords “bum-fluffed bairns,” but Borroff diminishes them in her version merely to “beardless children” (280). An ax Armitage calls “the mother of all axes” (208), Borroff calls “huge and immense”; where Armitage’s Green Knight asks, “So who has the gall? The gumption? The guts?” Borroff’s version calls for “one so willful my words to assay,” (291). Which translator gets it right? Is this High Arthurian Drama or a Chaucerian comedy? Stately or Seussical? Well, obviously, neither. Borroff emphasizes the statelier aspects of SGGK, but doesn’t shy away from (muted) humor; Armitage goes heavy on the humor, but just as willingly draws out the ominous violence dwelling in this narrative. The narrative itself prances between both body horror (flayed alive fox, anyone?) and misogynistic humor (ha-ha, women are jealous). To properly ascertain the tonal acrobatics of this poem, let us review SGGK 101: the basic plot. You’re welcome, Brit Lit students.
On Christmas Night, the Green KnightTM barges into Camelot and demands that someone exchange blows with him. According to his deal, they give him a stroke, then exactly a year later, he deals them a stroke. Gawain offers himself in King Arthur’s place and caput! off goes the Green Knight’s head. But whoopsies, he’s not dead; he picks his own head up, rides around, and tells Gawain to meet him next New Year’s Morn at the Green Chapel.
Smash cut to nearly a year later; Gawain heads out through the lands beyond maps to find the Green Chapel. Instead he finds a dwelling which completely unsuspiciously appears out of nowhere. Inside, Lord Bertilak welcomes Gawain and feeds him, then gets our hero to promise that he’ll stay around for a while, and not get out of bed before mass (yes, he’s that specific). Ever-trusting, Gawain further promises to play a swap game with his host: each day, they will give to each other what they have earned. What all this comes to is that each day, Bertilak leaves early and slays various types of beasts, while his wife, the Lady, sneaks up on Gawain in his chambers and entraps him—courteously—into a variety of sexually incriminating situations. Over three days, the host kills deer, a boar, and a fox (potentially the most important part of the entire poem), sharing them with Gawain, while Gawain receives (in total) six kisses from the Lady, and he…shares those too. On the final day she offers Gawain a girdle, which she claims can magically preserve him from all harm. Gawain succumbs; he accepts the girdle and conceals it from the host, thereby cheating at the swap game. So much for honoring hospitality.
Apparently oblivious to Gawain’s chicanery, Bertilak guides Gawain to the Green Chapel. Three near misses of the axe later, Gawain discovers from the Green Knight—really Bertilak in disguise—that this was simply Morgan Le Fay’s way to scare Guinevere. Bertilak lets Gawain return to Arthur’s court, where Gawain wears the green girdle as a badge of shame; finis. Note: If you’re confused as to why I’ve just now mentioned Morgan Le Fay at the penultimate moment, this is also the moment the poet chooses to reveal her involvement. She appears only in retrospect, as the unknown enemy Gawain has been confined with all along. Scary. And indeed, her only known goal is to scare: she wanted to “frighten [Guinevere] to death” (2460). Why? ‘Cuz chicks be jealous, brah.
The tale’s conclusion is a perfect example of the tone ‘problem.’ At the same time as this story becomes one centering around fear, it also becomes a (misogynistic) joke about female jealousy. The preceding portions’ tone also ricochets all over the place: the Christmas feast is jolly, but then the Green Knight Halloweens it up; Gawain’s lost in the wilderness, but then he bumps into another joyous feast; hunting scenes of bloodshed, flirtatious scenes in Gawain’s bedroom; “wa-hey it’s all just an elaborate prank! to scare someone to death.” Above all these scenes have ambiguous tones: let’s be frank, a head getting chopped off is, without any context, neither inherently serious nor silly (though extreme at least). You’re as likely to see it in a horror film as in Monty Python. So indeed, without the same cultural compass as this 14th-century poem’s audience, a 2020 reader might feel a bit disturbed by how lightly Bertilak references Morgan Le Fay, Sorceress Supreme.
We want to validate a reading of SGGK as horror, not prove it. For the moment we must discard all thoughts of gumption, gall, or guts, and turn instead to the parts of this text which—if framed well, by, let’s say, an upcoming A24 adaptation?—genuinely chill to the bone.
Re-situating ourselves, then, with a wider appreciation of the poem’s flexible tone, we want to find an underlying motivation for this prancing betwixt fear and laughter. We want to validate a reading of SGGK as horror, not prove it. For the moment we must discard all thoughts of gumption, gall, or guts, and turn instead to the parts of this text which—if framed well, by, let’s say, an upcoming A24 adaptation?—genuinely chill to the bone. Let’s review the evidence. Rewind. Pause. Enhance. Okay, Bertilak’s hunting scenes? Let not the façade of simplicity deceive ye, pilgrim. These scenes hide the horrific heart of the poem.
Gawain’s at the castle, and he’s promised to stay in bed every day until Mass (about noon). The Lady’s in the castle with him. Bertilak’s out killing things. At the end of each day, Gawain must swap whatever he ‘wins’ with Bertilak. Day One: Bertilak and his men slaughter deer, which were “harried to the heights and herded to the streams” (1169). Then the poem jumps to Gawain, caught in bed by the Lady: she promises, “I shall hem and hold you on either hand” (1224) in an open display of flirtation. Gawain mirrors the deer, the Lady mirrors her hunter husband. Hmm. Back to Bertilak’s crowd, who hew the deer’s heads off. The reappearance of decapitation ain’t lookin’ good for Gawain. At day’s end, Bertilak gives Gawain the deer, and Gawain gives him a kiss (originally from the Lady… though of course Gawain doesn’t mention that).
Day Two: Bertilak and his men pursue a boar, which charges them but must eventually “retreat/ To a rise on rocky ground, by a rushing stream” (1569-70). Huh. That seems… familiar. Again the poem intersperses Gawain’s attempts to politely decline the lady’s affections. This time he’s ready for her; but like the boar, he is overcome. He accepts the lady’s two kisses, while Sir Bertilak “severs the savage head” of the slain boar. Two Bertilak, Zero Gawain. Bertilak gives Gawain the boar, Gawain replies with two kisses.
Day Three: Bertilak and his men find nothing to hunt but a fox, which they chase over hill and dale. Meanwhile, the Lady makes moves on Gawain yet again. This time she offers him her magic girdle, which can preserve him from all harm! Try as he might to resist, Gawain can’t deny he wants to escape the Green Knight’s axe and live; he takes the girdle (and three kisses). Sir Bertilak returns with the tricky fox’s stripped hide, which he ominously presents to Gawain; Gawain gives up three kisses, but no girdle. The message is very clear: Gawain cannot escape his fate, by fleeing like the deer, fighting like the boar, or feigning like the fox. But where did the stream go? And what about our theme of decapitation?
On this final day, themes aren’t the only things that fail. The swap game’s rules also get broken: While Gawain gives Bertilak the kisses, he never hands over the girdle. Our true knight is now false and all bets are off! This reversal comes at a crucial moment, after two repetitions of the reliable pattern. Storytellers frequently use the ‘rule of three’; but after two repetitions, your audience may get bored, so usually the third (and final) form is something unexpected. The Gawain (or ‘Pearl’) poet seems very aware of this narrative convention, because they explicitly mark each repetition with the number of kisses Gawain receives from the Lady, making the format very obvious. Apparently the poet wasn’t so aware of suspense: the pattern of three builds tension that goes nowhere. The third repetition repeats neither the hallmarks of geography nor decapitation, and thus this loop concludes without event, and the narrative continues on its merry way.
On New Year’s Morn, Bertilak sends Gawain to the Green Chapel, which turns out to be no human dwelling but rather a grassy hillock beside a stream (hey wait). Worse, the Green Knight’s already there, sharpening his axe, ready for decapitation—hey, wait! The Green Knight, after revealing himself to be Sir Bertilak, claims the girdle as his own (because he owns whatever his wife owns, medieval times were sexist, yadda yadda). Gawain gives up what he owes to Bertilak: the girdle, making recompense for his cheat at the swap game, the nick on his neck, fulfilling his promise to receive a return stroke from the Green Knight. All our supposedly dropped threads pick back up again, so what if the fox wasn’t the third repetition? What if this is the third repetition, which means Gawain must somehow die? The false third repetition, with the fox and the girdle and three kisses, was just a hope spot.
The ‘hope spot’ is a term coined by self-described “all-devouring pop culture wiki monster” tvtropes.org to describe a classic technique of the horror genre. The protagonist finds themselves in apparent safety, such that their ordeal is implied to be over, but then, yikes! Out pops the clown/alien/Freddy Kreuger. A hope spot typically induces an epiphany of horror in the audience: the possibility of escape all the more exaggerates how definitively, horribly trapped a character is, and near-certifies a doom and gloom ending. In a way this is just an advanced jump scare, one which plays with your expectations of when a jump scare’s about to occur. The creepy thing appears in an ostensibly safe space, distorting the apparent stability and thus disrupting all trust in anything that appears stable. It gets in your head, man. The Gawain poet reinforces the false hope of the girdle with the apparently played-out repetition of three hunting scenes. By subverting a reliable trope, they destabilize even the expected narrative structure. Gawain has apparently made it out of the repetition of three without himself becoming the decapitated prey, but then the associated imagery re-appears, and we find ourselves wondering if the Green Knight has really let Gawain go. After all, he’s left his mark—the girdle.
The girdle has been called a blazon of lust, or badge of shame, a “sign of sore loss,” (2507), of “cowardice and coveting” (2508); but above all a girdle (a fancy belt) is a binder. Its function is to confine. However Gawain attempts to escape the loops in which he’s bound, he only encounters more. He seems to escape his promise to the Green Knight, but must suffer the blow at this other being’s mercy; he breaks his swap game with Sir Bertilak, but must eventually confront him again and return the girdle; the girdle looped around him becomes a symbol of continued containment, within not only social conventions but also mortality. The girdle becomes synecdoche for the mortal coil: he will wear it “till [he] breathe[s] his last” (2510). The poem’s shaky ending implies that, while Gawain survives this adventure, his fear of death—the reason he accepted the girdle and thus the cause of all his shame—will always pursue him. It Follows. The girdle marks his fleshly flaws, the most obvious of which is mortality.
So. At the start, I said this story was about survival. Horror stories usually have one lone survivor, but with the added implication that, oho, something spooky’s gonna find ‘em! The creepy doll’s back in the basement! They didn’t kill all the vampires! Something something clawhand! And sure, SGGK does the same, in that it reminds you our hero is mortal. In this failing, however, he has some conspirators in the sense that conspire means “to breathe together” (six feet apart). Gawain returns from Bertilak’s castle, from the lands beyond the map, to Camelot. When he proclaims the girdle as a “badge of false faith” (2511), the other knights each adopt “a belt borne oblique, of a bright green” (2517) to admit their faults along with them. They all will die, but they accept that, and by wearing the ‘belt borne oblique,’ they accept their fear of death. S’all right, bruh. We’re all scared. And no crazy axe-man jumps out at them, either, because this is horror on a much grander scale: the existential horror of surviving in a terrifying world, albeit communicated via dodging giant green knights and hunters and witches in a frail mortal body.
Well now. I’ve told you what happens. No need to wait for The Green Knight to come out; the book’s all spooky anyway! Indeed, though the upcoming film seems to be leaning towards a surreal psychological thriller, SGGK’s narrative offers many more interpretive possibilities. Gothic. Monty Python. Mr. Punch, apparently. But a film must make strong narrative choices about what it puts on screen, forcing it to choose a more focused interpretation of the text. Literature has ambiguities: white spaces between the lines, in the margins, on the endpapers, and those are where you get to fill it in. (Those also tend to be what you get tested on.) Which is all to say—should you ever be assigned Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, please… just read it.
And much, much more: The National Emergency Library