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The magic, sex, and violence of the 14th-century poem behind The Green Knight

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a bizarre and thrilling story about lust and war and shame.

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Alicia Vikander and Dev Patel in The Green Knight.
A24

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is one of the best stories in the whole King Arthur saga, and one of the weirdest.

Composed by an anonymous poet in the late 14th century, Sir Gawain features none of the most well-known aspects of the Arthurian legends. There’s no Excalibur or sword getting pulled from stone, no Merlin, no Holy Grail, no Lancelot-Guinevere-Arthur love triangle. Arthur himself barely features. Most of the poem is centered around Sir Gawain, he of the minimal pop culture footprint and the hard-to-pronounce name (depending on who you ask, it’s either GAH-win or gah-WAYNE).

Nonetheless, since its rediscovery in the 19th century after a few hundred years of obscurity, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight has endured as one of the name-brand poems of the Arthurian legend. That’s mostly because, even in the 21st century, it is still really fun to read.

“This poem has an astonishing visceral sensory impact,” says Mark Miller, an associate professor of medieval English literature at the University of Chicago. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight fairly revels in its bloody, sexy, violent material — and the poem’s dense, alliterative language only heightens its sensuality.

Today, you can read Sir Gawain in translation or, clumsily and with a glossary, in the original Middle English. Either way, you will still be able to recognize its charms, in the same way readers could when it was first composed in the 14th century, how funny and sexy and thrilling and fraught and weird it is.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is now the source material for the new A24 movie The Green Knight, written and directed by David Lowery and starring Dev Patel. The movie offers a perfect opportunity to revisit the original poem and see why it’s endured for almost 700 years.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is all about sex and death

Sir Gawain has a twisty plot, with lots of magic and sex and violence. But it begins with empire.

The first lines of the poem take us from the fall of Troy, through the founding of Rome, and into Arthurian Britain. Camelot is part of this lineage of great empires, we learn — and, as Simon Armitage puts it in his fluent modern translation, “a bold race bred there, battle-happy men.”

Shortly thereafter comes the battle and the violence.

On Christmas Day, the Green Knight appears at King Arthur’s court. He’s a giant with green flesh and a green horse, green clothes embroidered with birds and butterflies, and he’s carrying a holly branch. Scholars sometimes read the Green Knight as a descendent of the pagan Green Man, who symbolizes the natural world, chaos, and rebirth. He’s come to this place of knights and kings and empire, and he has a challenge for them.

The Green Knight offers to stand perfectly still while one of Arthur’s knights strikes a blow at his head. And then a year and a day later, he says, that knight must stand still while the Green Knight strikes a blow at his head.

Most of Arthur’s knights are too afraid to rise to the challenge. But Gawain, Arthur’s nephew and the youngest of his knights, volunteers.

Gawain is related to Arthur through their mothers: Arthur’s half-sister Morgause is Gawain’s mother. She’s also the mother of Arthur’s son Mordred, who will later kill Arthur. And her full sister, Arthur’s other half-sister Morgan Le Fay, is a powerful witch who toggles back and forth in the legend cycle between helping Arthur and his knights and being their enemy. So magic is in Gawain’s family. He takes the Green Knight up on his challenge and strikes off the Knight’s head in a single blow.

But then: blood, gore, and supernatural horror. The Green Knight’s blood spurts out, staining his green clothes. His head rolls onto the floor, over to where the rest of Arthur’s knights are sitting. And then the Green Knight picks up his own head by the hair while he is still bleeding out, reminds Gawain to come find him in a year and a day, and rides off with his head. It’s incredibly creepy.

As violent as the poem gets, sex doesn’t come far behind.

At the appointed time, Gawain rides off in search of the chapel of the Green Knight. Before too long, he finds himself at the remote country castle of one Sir Bertilak and his beautiful wife. Bertilak happily offers to let Gawain stay at his castle for three days before he has to go off and face the Green Knight. And he’d like to offer Gawain a deal during that time.

Bertilak declares that he’ll go hunting every day, while Gawain rests in the castle. Whatever he wins, Bertilak says, he’ll give to Gawain. All he asks is that Gawain reciprocate, and give to Bertilak whatever he happens to win while he stays in the castle.

Gawain agrees to the deal, pronouncing it an excellent game. The catch is only apparent the next morning, after Bertilak leaves to go hunting and his beautiful wife slips into Gawain’s room while he’s still in bed.

“What lady of this land wouldn’t latch the door,” she asks, in Armitage’s translation, “wouldn’t rather hold you as I do here — in the company of your clever conversation, forgetting all grief and engaging in joy — then hug to her heart a horde of gold?” Gawain has a reputation as Camelot’s greatest courtly love-speaker (he’s the smooth talker of the Round Table) and Bertilak’s wife wants to see if Gawain can live up to the hype.

With great difficulty, Gawain manages to hold the lady off, at last convincing her to leave in exchange for a kiss. Later, when Bertilak comes back from his hunting trip with a pile of dead deer for Gawain, Gawain makes good on his end of the bargain and gives a kiss to Bertilak, too, “in the kindliest way he could.”

All of this goes on for three days: Bertilak off busily killing animals in brutal detail, his wife cooing and giggling over Gawain in bed, Gawain desperately fending everyone off with kisses as best he can. It is, in many ways, the true action of the poem, moreso even than the beheading game that frames it.

“You get this toggling back and forth between sensual eroticism and this teasing, dangerous flirtation, and then scenes of hunting that are are really intense and violent,” says Miller.

There’s sex, danger, and gore all over the place; what’s not to like? And the poetry of Sir Gawain brings the story’s thrilling, bloody eroticism to life.

The poem uses alliteration as a 14th-century special effect

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, says Miller, “is the most intensely alliterative poem in Middle English.” Alliterative poetry has a long history in English: Most Anglo-Saxon poetry was organized around alliteration rather than rhyme, and in the 14th century, there was a revival of interest in alliterative verse. Sir Gawain would have been written amid that revival, but even so, says Miller, “It practically doubles the degree of alliteration that you would expect for the period.”

And, Miller adds, “It’s not just alliteration for the sake of it. The sounds are reflective of what’s happening in the moment.”

Miller points to one of Bertilak’s bloody hunting scenes, with a herd of deer falling underneath a rain of arrows from Bertilak’s men. You can get a sense of how visceral the language is in Armitage’s translation:

Then the eye can see that the air is all arrows:
all across the forest they flashed and flickered,
biting through hides with their broad heads.

In the original Middle English, however, the urgency of the alliteration comes through even more clearly. Here’s how the Gawain poet puts it, if you want to try your hand at reading the lines out loud (some of the original archaic characters have been transliterated):

Ther myght mon se, as thay slypte, slentyng of arwes;
At vche wende vnder wande wapped a flone,
that bigly bote on the broun with ful brode hedez.

“You can hear the arrows flying out of the bow with those s’s, se, slypte, slentyng,” says Miller. “And then with the w’s, wende vnder wande wapped a flone, the sound of arrows passing by your ear, the breeze of them. And then finally: bigly bote on the broun with ful brode hedez, the sound of that bam bam bam as the arrows hit the deer flesh. It’s incredible special effects that are happening, through the sound of the alliteration. And that kind of thing happens over and over again throughout the poem.”

Gawain isn’t just about sex and violence. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is also deeply invested in the question of Gawain’s character: of what kind of man he is, and why he is so devoted to his ideal of honor that he’s willing to let a giant chop off his head rather than go back on his word. Those questions are built into the structure of the poem.

Sir Gawain is constructed to make you feel its hero’s failure and shame

As Gawain prepares to go off on his journey to meet the Green Knight, we’re given a long description of the device on his shield — though, the poet admits, “it will stall our story.” It’s a pentangle, a five-pointed star, and it stands for Gawain’s great strength as a knight: his trawthe, which translates roughly to his truthfulness, honor, and integrity. Each of the lines of the pentangle stands for one of the five subvirtues that makes up Gawain’s trawthe, and each of those subvirtues in turn has five aspects of its own. (One virtue is that his five senses are faultless; another is that he finds his fortitude from the five joys of the virgin Mary; you get the gist.)

The idea is that all five of Gawain’s virtues are interdependent on one another, and that as long as they remain constant, he will live up to the pentangle on his shield and be a perfect knight.

“These five sets of five were fixed in this knight,” the poet explains, “each linked to the last through the endless line, a five-pointed form which never failed, never strong to one side or slack at the other, but unbroken in its being from beginning to end, however its trail is tracked and traced.”

But if each of Gawain’s virtues depend on all the others, that doesn’t just mean they lift one another up. They can also tear themselves down. If one fails, they all fail, and so does Gawain.

“You could have a failure in relation to something like courtesy, which Gawain is highly known for,” Miller says. “That wouldn’t seem to necessarily be connected to being courageous or keeping your sworn word, but the poem wants to investigate the ways in which they are. That’s part of why it has these bedroom scenes in which Gawain must be perfectly courteous, and in which being perfectly courteous is practically impossible for him because of the way the lady of the house is flirting with him.”

Gawain manages to walk the tightrope of courtesy to Bertilak’s wife and courtesy to Bertilak himself for most of the poem, but he does fall down in the end. On the last day before Gawain leaves to face the Green Knight, Bertilak’s wife offers him a green girdle as a love token which will, she says, render him invulnerable to bodily harm.

Gawain, seeing that such a token is extremely handy to a man who is about to go let a giant try to chop off his head, keeps the girdle for himself, thus violating both his gift-trading agreement with Bertilak and the spirit of his agreement with the Green Knight. And this failure, in the end, becomes his disgrace. The Green Knight spares Gawain’s life in recognition of his many virtues, but leaves Gawain with a scar to mark him for having taken the girdle for his own.

“It was loyalty you lacked,” the Green Knight explains, “not because you’re wicked, or a womanizer, or worse, but you loved your own life.” Gawain, in response, is profoundly ashamed: “So shocked and ashamed that his stomach churned and the fire of his blood brought flames to his face, and he wriggled and writhed at the other man’s words.” He has failed the ideal promised by his pentangle.

“It’s this image of a kind of chivalric perfection of virtue,” says Miller, “which is at once incredibly idealistic and incredibly vulnerable and brittle. Any failure anywhere causes the whole edifice to collapse.”

The Green Knight’s reasons for testing Gawain in this way never quite become clear. He explains, eventually, that he was also Bertilak, and that he put his wife up to seducing Gawain as part of the test. Moreover, he adds, the whole enterprise was the fault of Morgan Le Fay, Gawain’s aunt: She enchanted Bertilak and masterminded the entire ordeal because she thought maybe it would frighten Guinevere to death, and this is one of those poems where Morgan is Arthur and Guinevere’s enemy.

But the poem never bothers to give us Guinevere’s reactions to the Green Knight’s appearance in Camelot. It doesn’t seem particularly interested in her response to Morgan’s provocations.

The poet is interested in the failure of Gawain’s virtue, and the form of the poem explores that. The poet plays again and again on the idea of Gawain’s five virtues, and just to make sure that we get it, each alliterative stanza ends in a short rhyming verse of five lines.

But the play on the five virtues is not quite perfect. There are not quite an even 100 stanzas in this poem (20 fives), but 101 stanzas. And there are not quite an even 2525 lines in this poem (five squared, twice in a row), but 2530.

“Any poet who can get it that close to 2525 lines could have made the numbers work out perfectly if he wanted to,” Miller says. “So the numerical architecture of the poem is flawed in this way that looks very minor, but prevents it from having that crystalline architectural perfection.”

The force of the poem is built around Gawain’s failure, around his inability to live up to the promise of the pentangle. His shame at that failure is so visceral that we can still feel it, just as strongly as we feel the lust and the terror of the rest of the poem, more than half a millennium after it was first written.