Saturday, August 7, 2021

I Want to Talk About The Green Knight

I don't do this very often but this post isn't about RPGs or gaming. It's just some thoughts on fantasy fiction in general, although it does occasionally reference RPGs because that's who I am and I know my audience.

I'll warn you when I'm about to get into spoilers. First I need to set the scene.

This post is a series of short essays. First, what I love about medieval European culture. Second, what I love about Arthurian mythology. Third, what I love about Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Lastly, I'll talk about the movie. Warning: about half the sentences in this post begin with, "I like" or "I love," but I hope I'm still able to drive at something deeper than you might expect. 

Medievalism Is Fucking Weird

Fantasy fans eat up worldbuilding like True Crime fans eat up serial killers. It's a bad habit but man it's just the tastiest thing ever. Some people love reading all the lore books in The Elder Scrolls. Some will play every last second of Mass Effect content ever made just to spend more time in its universe. Some had already came up with nearly every new idea introduced in The Legend of Korra because they'd spent years thinking about how cool the setting of Avatar: The Last Airbender was and what hypothetical bending types there could be.

Personally? I have never found a fictional setting that's ever fascinated me more than real-life medieval Europe. The more you learn, the weirder it gets. And of course, the more it coalesces into a strange-yet-consistent picture of how one views the world around them.

It's always bugged me a bit that we all constantly refer to "vanilla" fantasy as "medieval European" even though that's bullshit. It's, like, four steps removed at least. Anyone who paid attention in history class when they talked about the Middle Ages knows that there’s nothing authentic about Forgotten Realms. Think about all the things that most DMs take for granted as existing in your "vanilla" setting even though they were actually either non-existent or very rare in medieval Europe:
  • Banks
  • Courthouses
  • Hospitals
  • Libraries
  • Orphanages
  • Museums
  • Prisons
  • Universities
  • "Inns" and other hotel-like establishments
  • "General stores" and "off the shelf" goods
  • Coffee
  • Tobacco
  • Oil lanterns
  • Surnames
  • Police
  • Clocks
  • National identity
  • "Childhood" as we understand it
  • "Race" as we understand it
  • Maps
  • In the early medieval period, capital cities
  • A standing army
And so on and on.

I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that speaking to someone from the medieval version of your home country would be quite like speaking to a foreigner from the opposite side of the planet. Maybe even weirder, to be honest. And although I love taking inspiration from real life in my fantasy (truth is stranger than fiction!), there's always the problem that fantasy inspired by contemporary real-life cultures (such as fantasy China and fantasy Aztecs and fantasy Bedouin and so on) are nearly always committing some amount of cultural appropriation, however well-intentioned. But medieval people? They don't exist anymore. There are no medieval people left on Earth to be misrepresented. There's only weird stories. And boy were they weird.

Here's a collection of some of my favorite medievalisms:
  • Every single unit and measurement is based on practical application and never on anything scientific. An acre is 1 day of work for 1 man. Thus, acres vary greatly in size based on where you are and how shitty or flat the land there is. [edited a mistake here] Similarly, a "league" is an hour's walk away. 1 furlong is the amount of land an ox can plow without rest. Bushels are the main unit of volume, for anything. The calendar is based on weather and the change of seasons, so the number of days in a month is not fixed at all. You can literally have a "long winter" since May Day doesn't come until the first blossom. A good example of this on a micro-scale is the moment, a unit used to pace their work throughout the day. A foot is literally the length of the measurer's foot. The barleycorn is the closest thing there is to a base unit for both length and weight. One of the absolute weirdest is "peninkulma," a Finnish word to describe the distance one can hear a dog bark from in still air.
  • People regularly put animals on trial for crimes.
  • It was illegal to wear clothes too fancy for your class. And while that sounds silly at first, sumptuary laws are actually incredibly important in the history of classism and systemic injustice.
  • Contrary to popular belief, medieval Europeans were quite wary of disease and were practically obsessed with hygiene. They loved soap. But before germ theory came along, the prevailing thought was that diseases came from bad smells. That's why plague doctor's filled their beak masks with good-smelling herbs. Because of this, bathhouses were super common and popular and very tightly tied into the sex industry.

  • Have you ever looked through a medieval bestiary? Sure, there's things in there you'd expect like dragons and unicorns. But there's also stuff like bears and lions and jaguars. The reason? Because from the perspective of a medieval person, they're part of the same category. An exotic and strange animal like a rhinoceros is just as fantastic and terrifying to a medieval European as would be a manticore.
  • Related, most modern people I know are pretty comfortable with the idea that "humans are animals." They rarely mentally separate them in most contexts. But to a medieval European, putting them in the same category for nearly any reason at all would be absolutely unthinkable. And it's easy to see why: European societies hadn't been exposed to the existence of any sort of primates until, like, the 1800s or something crazy.
  • Law and punishment was just fucking insane. First of all, the fact that hearsay was not only allowed, but was the principal form of evidence relied on is unthinkable to my modern brain. But when it fails, your alternative is shit like trial by combat? Let God decide??
  • It was a trend for a while in women's fashion to pluck all the hairs on your forehead and eyebrows to make your head appear larger, thus making you seem smarter.
  • You know how I said that "inns" weren't really a common thing? So where did travelers sleep then? Honestly, most of the time, with regular people. If you lived on a major travel road then you'd expect to host guests fairly frequently. They'd knock on your door, ask for hospitality, and you provided it for free. You'd trade stories and gossip and news would spread. Why did people do such a crazy thing? Because they had to! The ethic of hospitality was necessary for society to function for thousands of years!
  • People were fucking obsessed with and terrified of cuckoldry.
  • Marriage simply was not about love. While the cynical still often feel this way, it's really difficult to truly escape our modern connection between the two. Marriage was a business contract and a religious sacrament, and was about sex (in as much as heirs must be created) but just wasn't about love at all. Love has been around forever of course, and courtly love was an idea that emerged later for the nobility but oftentimes still didn't even concern itself with marriage.
  • Literacy has always been a tricky thing to measure, even to this day. Most modern studies claim that at least 99.99% of Americans are literate, but then people argue about how "literacy" is defined and for some reason this inspires weird culture war debates. Well you know what literacy rates were like in medieval Europe? One of our best guesses is around 10%, maybe another 10% could sorta read. It truly strains the imagination to picture an entire society that doesn't rely on literacy whatsoever. It's endlessly fascinating the more you read about it and the more you think about it.
And that's just the goofy, easy-to-digest pop history stuff. There's so many things that are all-encompassing and yet hard to put into words. Medieval people were just so much more in touch with the natural world around them, and yet also so much more ignorant of its true nature. They were obsessed with God and seemed to think he was a literal presence in the room at every moment.

Most historians are far more interested in all the things we have in common with our ancestors. Modern history likes to place a lot of emphasis on just how normal and relatable life was back in the day. Ian Mortimer's famous The Time Traveler's Guide to Medieval England does a really good job of this. But while I understand their motivations for doing so, I gotta say that my interest is better maintained when I'm finding out things that blow my mind.

I love fiction of many genres. I love science fiction, anywhere from space opera to cyberpunk to old-school pretentious "hmmm really makes you think" stuff like Asmiov or Bradbury wrote. I love super hero fiction and I often enjoy spy fiction and I adore noire anything. Most of my favorite books are all in that vague genre that scholars like to call "literary fiction" but I also like monster movies and kung fu movies. And above all else, horror just might be my number one. So you'd think I'd never play the same RPG twice with tastes that diverse.

But man oh man I'll never outgrow this obsession with medieval fantasy fiction, especially for gaming contexts. Many have pointed out how fucking absurd it is that 90% of all RPGs are just trying to accomplish the same thing as D&D even though the possibility space is literally infinite. But I know why.

It's because the most strange-yet-convincing alien world we can reliably construct again and again without getting bored is simply our own past.

Art Credit: N.C. Wyeth
Arthurian Fiction is Better Than Genre Fantasy

Now, don't get me wrong. I have nothing against genre fiction. I mentioned that my favorite books are all part of the prestigious tradition of "literary fiction," which has lorded over the lowly genre schlock of fantasy and sci-fi for decades, but I've never personally approved of that cultural norm. I think they're both equally legitimate. And let's be real: when it comes to the gaming arts, I tend to play things which take more inspiration from Conan the Barbarian than The Great Gatsby

That said, when you get those weird edge cases that could go either way (like Lord of the Rings or Arthur), I definitely know my preference is the pretentious, symbolic, abstract, "literary" crap. Of course, I'm fairly certain that most people's mental picture of what the tales of King Arthur are like is quite different from reality. Or at least, quite different from my mental picture. This is jumping the gun a bit, but a recurring response I'm seeing to A24's The Green Knight is, "what a weird, nontraditional take on Arthurian legend!" and I feel like anyone who's ever actually read a pre-19th century piece of Arthurian literature would find that kind of laughable. These are stories which were always meant to be weird and abstract and spiritual and allegorical and stuff. Fuck, allegory was easily the most popular rhetorical device employed in medieval fiction. I'm convinced it was the only way in which medieval Europeans were capable of making sense of the world around them. Which is kinda funny because it seems to be a sure-fire way to confuse modern audiences.

Anyway, although I try to be quite generous to it, I sincerely feel that 90% of fantasy fiction is pretty void of substance. It's a lot of self-indulgent worldbuilding garbage that's hard to distinguish from each other. Arthur is, by contrast, so full of substance that he's still providing us fresh insights. All enduring folk art possesses something special that keeps people interested for generation after generation. And in this case, Arthur is a wonderful case of mythology and why it's so good.

I'm using a particular definition of that word here. To me, mythological fiction is distinguished from canonical fiction, which is more popular nowadays and something I think is severely overrated. A group of fictional ideas become a "mythology" when familiarity with them permeates culture so deeply that trying to assert a singular, authoritative "canon" is both futile and unnecessary. It's ubiquitous.

We're pretty sure that most people living in the Ancient Greek world were, like, universally familiar with the different Gods and Titans and Heroes and all their standard stories and relationships and whatnot, you know? No one had to tell the version of any given story because everyone already knows the basics, freeing you to just tell your version. Which points us to the quality more important than ubiquity: plasticity.

The more popular a fictional idea is, the longer it lasts, and (according to some) the more "psychologically potent" it is (like, in the Jungian sense), the greater its plasticity. A good example of a plastic character is Batman. There is no platonic version of Batman. A lot of nerds have some "perfect" version of him in their heads but they're just wrong. Adam West's Batman, Christopher Nolan's Batman, and the DCAU's Batman are all equally valid and legitimate iterations of the character. Asking questions like, "what's Batman's alignment?" or "is Batman fascist?" or "is Batman crazy?" or whatever is an exercise in futility because there is no singular Batman that this can be asked of. 

You can't even come up with a list of core traits that apply to all Batmans which categorically define something as being "fundamentally Batman" or not, because everything you could come up with has had some exception at some point. Sometimes Batman never kills people, sometimes he kills people with guns, sometimes he has an oath to never use a gun, sometimes he uses a gun only to kill vampires, and sometimes he is a vampire.

Art Credit: Walter Crane
I consider this a good thing. Perhaps the best thing about the character, and, in fact, all superhero fiction. The reason that we're going to still be telling Batman stories a century from now is because he's a plastic character. Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader is a comic by Neil Gaiman which plays with this idea a lot, and it's a quality capitalized on by literally all of my favorite superhero storytellers. Alan Moore did not give a single fuck about "canon" when he wrote The Killing Joke, he just used characters we're all familiar with and then told a story with them. It has retroactively been worked into various canons at different points but that's always for the benefit of the canon, not The Killing Joke.

All-Star Superman, Kingdom Come, The Long Halloween, etc. neither need nor benefit from being placed into a greater canon and being consistent within it. Instead, they all just take elements we know already, introduce a few new ones as needed, tell an interesting and memorable story with them, and sometimes get stolen from in future myths. Gradually, a hazy and piecemeal "canon" of Batman/DC stories forms in our collective conscious that contains the most potent elements from all of these and can casually refer to any one of them as needed but isn't bound to any specific arrangement of them.

I call this a "mythology" because this is the nature of most real-life religious mythologies. Have you ever noticed that Greek mythology is literally impossible to reconcile into one canon? If you try to compile all the standard Greek myths into one timeline, you'll notice a few contradictions. Here's an example of various connected stories drawn from a range of sources:
  1. Prometheus creates humans from clay.
  2. Prometheus fathers Deucalion. Zeus decides to flood the world because he's pissed off at humans because this one guy sacrificed his own son to Zeus. Deucalion and his family are aided by Prometheus so they can survive the flood. Afterwards, to repopulate the earth, Deucalion and his wife threw some stones backwards over their own shoulders, which grew into people when they landed. Deucalion's became the men and his wife's became the women.
  3. Prometheus, who loves humans, steals fire from the gods and gifts it to humans. He also teaches them a bunch of important arts and sciences and stuff. The gods are pissed about this so they punish him with the whole "chained to a rock for eternity" thing. They also feel like punishing humans, so they decide to create women to torment their existence. Zeus orders Hephaestus to mold the first woman, Pandora, who is sent to live with man so he may be miserable forever.
  4. Pandora blablabla something something gets a box of evils and then opens it and that's how the evils of man come into the world.
So let me ask you: how could all of these things have happened? What would be the right order? Women must have already existed for Deucalion to be born and to marry a wife, so Pandora (the first woman) surely must pre-date the flood. But Pandora only came into existence after Prometheus was chained to a rock for eternity, which must have come after he aided Deucalion.

Even back in the day, there were attempts to reconcile it all with one "canon" version of events, the exact same way that DC and Marvel feebly attempt to sort out all of their own blatantly conflicting material. And you know what? It doesn't fucking work. Moreover, it doesn't need to.

I like that Greek mythology is a complete mess. I like it about Norse myth and Egyptian myth, too. I like that sometimes the sun is the god Ra and other times the sun is being rolled around by a giant cosmic dung beetle. I like that the last tablet of the Epic of Gilgamesh contradicts a ton of continuity established in the preceding 11 tablets.

I like that 1979's Mad Max depicts the fall of civilization and Max's backstory as a police officer during the endtimes, but then later in Fury Road you see Max in a world whose culture must be at least a century removed from our own modern times. It takes many generations to just forget all modern religion and then create your own, remixing pieces of Norse myth and car culture. You don't get something like the Vuvalini clan with generations and generations of traditions and stories and then a slow dying out unless the apocalypse has been in swing for a looooong time. And I like that Fury Road depicts Max still driving around the Interceptor at the beginning even though it was destroyed in The Road Warrior, but then Max also still has his shoulder patched up from when Bearclaw gored him in The Road Warrior, so there's no way to know for sure the order of the two films.

Art Credit: Arthur Hacker
And when it comes to King Arthur, I love that there's no one authoritative version of the story. The diversity of interpretations is beautiful. The way it's evolved over time is fascinating.

I like to imagine an early "dark ages" Arthur who defended against invading Anglo-Saxons and I like to imagine a late medieval "high chivalry" Arthur whose historicity cannot fit into the timeline at all. Sword in the stone or the Lady of the Lake? Or both? Is Morgan le Fay good or evil? Is Arthur killed in battle with Mordred? Or does he live just long enough to give Sir Bedivere the quest of returning Excalibur? Or does he just, like, retreat into a mountain to rest until the end of days when he'll return to claim his throne once more? Do we have time to fit in Galahad or is that just gunna muck things up?

The Once and Future King features a strange, sorta postmodern telling full of anachronisms and weird allusions to our world as being the "legend" that people tell of in their world. Merlin ages backwards and has seen everything from the 20th century, and much of the idealist tropes of chivalric romance are deconstructed with flawed and bitter characters.

There's much to be said of the film Excalibur of course but I think my favorite decision unique to it is to make Arthur himself the Fisher King as well. In a story trying to maintain a strict and logical setting, this would seemingly make no sense at all. But the third act firmly shifts towards things being abstracted and metaphorical and the choice to make this connection between these two characters is simply brilliant.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail is a goofy parody that has an almost-completely original story, not following the narrative of any specific version of the mythos. And yet, it's also surprisingly in keeping with the same spirit that many of the classic versions have, displaying a deep familiarity with the source material and an understanding of all the core tropes and story structures.

Mists of Avalon, while deeply problematic, is one of the most unique and cool things anyone has ever done with these stories. Like pick any one of its traits (told from the womens' perspective, multi-generational story, deeply psychological, reimagined with 70s-80s feminism and Wicca, focus on Christianity as a colonizer, etc.) and that alone could have been a neat and insightful spin on the traditional narrative. But it's all of those at once.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens recycles ideas and images here and there. Luke is old King Arthur, Darth Vader was Uther Pendragon, and Kylo Ren is Arthur's wicked nephew Mordred who takes after his grandfather more. Maz Kanata is the Lady of the Lake who bestows Excalibur to the new boy king: Rey. I guess Snoke would be Morgause or Morgan le Fay in this version. And of course at the end we find that Luke has retreated to Avalon. From there you can see all kinds of visual influences. Maz's European-ish castle, Kylo's longsword-shaped lightsaber, plus his tunic and sallet, stormtroopers wield shields and Phasma looks like a knight, and at one point "Excalibur" even lodges into the earth and can only be retrieved by its rightful owner.

If you don't like The Force Awakens, that's fine. There's lots of good reasons not to. All I'm saying is, all that stuff I just described really worked for me. I think Patrick Stuart once pointed out just how deeply ingrained the power of these myths has become in our collective culture. If you want Arthur-like D&D then a "Holy Cup of Pelor" will never, ever have the same mystique as the Holy Grail. Fuck, when the Arthur stuff was introduced in Hellboy it should have been a ridiculous jump-the-shark ass-pull and yet it was one of the absolute highlights of the whole series instead.

So yeah, out of all the medieval and fantasy literature I've read, I still keep coming back to this mythology because there's just so much to do with it. Miscellaneous episodes like the Lady of Shalott or Saint George and the Dragon or King Pellinore and the Questing Beast all automatically start off with a few extra points with me just for being part of this weird shared world.

And yes, if you're wondering, I'm a big fan of Robin Hood for many of the same reasons. But of course, being a far more contained story it doesn't have the same "epicness" of Arthurian Romance.

Art Credit: Chechula Čupová
Me and My Buddy Gawain

I first read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in my senior year of high school for a course on classical western literature. I read the translation by Marie Borroff, and it instantly became my favorite book (or at least tied for first). Borroff does an incredible job of retaining the poetic devices used in the original Middle English text in her translation, allowing the poem to flow almost exactly as intended. It's still my favorite translation (I even stole my school copy to keep), but I've also read Jessie Weston's translation as well as Patrick Stuart's. Weston's replaces all the original poetic devices with rhyming couplets, which is fun and story book-y but isn't quite as effective as the original version, which is heavy on alliteration instead (and is already quite story book-y, to be honest). Stuart's, which I own a copy of because I love his work and I appreciate it having illustrations, is pretty much just written in his own voice and even has a couple modern swear words thrown in. He also has great analysis at the end.

I love the way the story reads and its descriptions and dialogue. I love the plot. I love the characters. I love the imagery. I love the symbolism and themes and motifs. I love the ambiguity and layered meanings and different scholarly interpretations. I like the reading which interprets the Green Knight as the Devil (or an agent thereof) who means to corrupt the pure (and is appropriately themed like those nature-obsessed Pagan gods). I also like the reading which interprets the Green Knight as Christ (or an agent thereof) who is testing the purity of chivalry with good intentions (and is appropriately themed like God's natural earth he created with his own unerring hand). I also love the reading that it's just fuckin' gay.

I have a picture of the opening scene of this poem as the background of this blog (as of this current writing) because fuck I just love this story so much.

Most of all, I love it as the best exploration of "chivalry" I've ever seen in a work of fiction. Chivalry is a pretty loaded concept but having read a decent amount of medieval literature about it, I'm pretty confident in saying that it kinda sucks. It's a bad ethos to live by borne from bad worldviews. Allow me to explain:

It's rooted in the belief of original sin: all humans are intrinsically sinful and corrupt and weak. Only through the artificial structures of medieval life and society can we save ourselves from our inherently evil inner natures. We live within walls to protect us from barbarians, we wear armor to protect us from injury, and we adhere to honor codes to protect us from our own fallibility. This is what paladins in D&D never properly capture for me: chivalry isn't about being a superhero above mortal men. It's the armor you wear against yourself. It assumes that we are fundamentally flawed and impure and need rules to save ourselves. Being a paladin isn't about being strong, it's about being weak.

And so, medieval society's notions of what kinds of rules will "save" you are mostly things having to do with offering service, keeping oaths, dedication to the Church, and (well-intentioned) reinforcement of binary gender norms.

While it is refreshingly anti-classist that knights were expected to offer service even to those "beneath" them, their service is still subject to abuse. And while it's admirable to see loyalty and honesty taken so seriously, the sanctity of oaths was one of the most toxic parts of medieval culture. Just go watch Game of Thrones and see how people treated Jaime Lannister for breaking his oath despite it being, like, the one correct thing he ever did (and in service to the cause of those who now admonish him for it!). I guess I can't take issue with them valuing piety because, you know, religion is important to people. But hey, I don't think anyone wishes we could go back to medieval Catholicism. And sure, a lot of people are drawn to the gendered aspects of chivalry nowadays, and it's a helluva lot better than a culture that would instead glorify beating and raping women. But patriarchy is still patriarchy, and for fuck's sake, medieval Christian Europe had to have been one of the most ridiculously gender-stratified cultures in history. Men and women were practically aliens from outer space to one another.

A culture which insists that the best method for resolving personal disputes is physical violence rather than simple fucking debate, and that the rationale for this is unironically God will rightly guide the just (the best cover story for "might makes right" anyone's ever come up with), well... maybe it is a culture for monsters.

I dislike chivalry because I think that the concept of original sin is fucked up and toxic and because I don't really trust deontological systems which place deontology itself above all else. That is to say, the rules of chivalry do not care about good or evil, right or wrong. It doesn't matter who your oaths are sworn to or for what you offer your service or how gender roles actually affect people's lives: the idea is that just following rules in-and-of-itself will save your soul. It argues that it's better to have any rules at all, even ones that lead you to commit atrocities or passively allow unjust systems of power to persist or uphold oaths even when they're foolish and benefit no one, rather than to have no rules and risk being like the animals. To the extent that chivalry does care about "goodness," it's only the goodness of personal salvation and never the goodness of creating a Heaven on Earth for the living.

Art Credit: William O'Connor
So why is Sir Gawain and the Green Knight good then?

Because it's the one medieval book that actually acknowledges some of the flaws. It confronts the contradictions and arbitrary nature of it and fucked up motives that feed into it and comes out of it with a surprisingly reassuring and convincing conclusion: that it's okay to fail to uphold the code.

When I read this book in high school, it was paired with The Song of Roland. That book has a lot of really cool things going on in it but at the end of the day it's just kind of a shitty story. It's poorly written and gratuitous and one of the most uncomfortable and blaring examples I've come across of "historical literature that's aged poorly." It's basically a list of everything fucking awful about medieval society and medieval Christianity, but it's completely sincere in its glorification of these things. It felt like reading an Ayn Rand book, or the fucking Turner Diaries. It's so goddamn gross feeling. How could anyone, any human being with good will in their hearts, ever agree with the sentiments expressed here?

But my boy Gawain manages to somehow salvage a bit of value from this toxic thing called chivalry.

[spoiler for the poem's ending]

Some have called the ending a bit cheesy, a little too Scooby Doo. The Green Knight reveals the whole thing was a setup to test Gawain's virtue and sends him home having learned his lesson, and Arthur starts a new tradition among his knights so they'll all remember Gawain's quest. But what I appreciate more than anything is that the Green Knight and Arthur take Gawain, a man full of shame and guilt and regret, and tell him "it's okay my dude. You did your best. You were put into an impossible situation. Chivalry dictated that you be honest to your host but also that you follow the commands of a lady. It dictated that you both face your challenge fairly as agreed upon but also that you not turn down the offer of a host. Sometimes the rules contradict themselves directly and there may not be a 'right' solution. The rules are there to guide us to be better. As long as you're trying to do the right thing, that was the point."

[end spoiler]

Honestly, medieval literature is not quite as "barbaric" as I've perhaps made it out to be. At least not most of the time. There's a lot of great and wonderful things to be found in The Canterbury Tales and The Decameron and even The Divine Comedy. Beowulf is downright admirable. But I still haven't read any other work from this range of cultures that manages to say anything as forward-thinking, open-minded, and genuinely wise as that message at the end of Sir Gawain. It's because of this poem that I am forever fascinated by the psychology and culture of knighthood. Why, even when it's horribly flawed, from the Le Morte d'Arthur to The Faerie Queene to The Mists of Avalon, it's still always interesting and worth digging into. It's why I can't help but adore the Pendragon RPG even if the rules seem repulsive to me and why I'll forever need to have Arthurian knights make up a huge portion of my own game, no matter the form it takes.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a microcosm of the greater theme woven throughout the whole mythos: a dream of how things should be, doomed to failure and yet admirable anyway. The vision of how men and kings and kingdoms should all be cannot last, if it can even be achieved at all. But the best people are the ones who try anyway.

Finally, the 2021 film The Green Knight

So that's why I'm interested in the Middle Ages, more specifically Arthurian Mythology, and more specifically knights and chivalry. Why is all of that necessary to talk about my feelings on A24's The Green Knight? Well, honestly, because people not being on the same page about those three things seems to be the source of nearly all criticism I've seen of the film.

This movie changes a lot from the poem. I think everyone already knew that they'd be adding a lot into that small section where Gawain is traveling from Camelot to Lord Bertilak's castle, but it turns out they also made quite a few changes to the Bertilak episode as well as the general setup and payoff of the whole story. I guess this is an "anti-spoiler" to say, but all in all, if you read the book and go into it thinking you know what's going to happen, then you're mistaken.

That said, for me at least, A24's The Green Knight is just about everything I'd hoped for.

[full spoilers for the movie from here on]

As for medievalism, it's definitely full of anachronisms and quite "unrealistic" like many other fantasy works. And yet, it strikes the same "alien" feeling that a genuinely medieval world has for us. It remains rooted in that same psychology, and also, there's a simple, non-intellectual joy in seeing a fantasy work whose aesthetic more recalls the historical rather than the imaginative. The armor in Lord of the Rings is frequently good-looking, but never as sastisfying to me as the armor in Excalibur. And stuff like the household Gawain wakes up in at the beginning, the puppet shows, and the medieval book that Bertilak's wife has is just... it's fucking tasty.

For Arthuriana, it makes plenty of adaptational changes that greatly benefit this specific narrative. For example, it works pretty well to have all the other knights just be generic older bearded guys. Arthur and Gwen seem to be the age where the Lancelot affair and Merlin-trapped-by-Morgan things "should" have happened by now but I just don't see them really being a part of this version of the tale. The idea of Gawain being the heir to the throne is not something I've ever seen before but I've read that in certain parts and places of the medieval period there was a tradition that kingship passed down not to the king's son, but to his sister's son. Presumably this frees the king from the burden of raising a family and allows him to focus on being a warrior, and his sister just needs to set aside a son who'll be the next warrior and so on.

A lot of people I know have been debating about Gawain's mother. She's not in the poem (her existence is briefly acknowledged in a roundabout way) but a ton of people I know just assume that she's Morgan le Fay and have been operating on that knowledge. And why not? The role that Morgan le Fay plays in the poem isn't used at all really (the old woman of Bertilak's castle is instead just creepy and hilarious set dressing). Gawain is stated to be Arthur's nephew, and many casual fans of Arthurian myth know that Morgan is Arthur's half-sister, so it's a sensible assumption to connect the two. Again, it's "canonically" wrong according to most versions of the myth, but who the fuck knows the names of everyone else in Arthur's family? Fuckit, I like the idea of Gawain being Morgan's son.

Of course most versions of Arthurian myth that take a "long view" of the story almost always preserve the "dream is doomed to failure" ending. But there's no reason not to explore other possible threads of where it could go instead. If we don't just assume that Camelot dies with Arthur, then the question of who shall succeed him and how well it'll go is a pretty interesting one. And it certainly raises the stakes for Gawain's character. Instead of just being about whether he'll make for a good knight, it's about whether he'll make for a good king.

Lastly, its changes to the poem itself are also kind of exciting. Definitely the most questionable, since in many ways the details they change also change the themes in play, but not necessarily for the worse.

Any adaptational changes will inevitably exclude some possible readings of the original work. From the moment we saw the Green Knight depicted as a tree dude, there was little hope remaining for a gay telling of the story. And Gawain himself is pretty much already a perfectly virtuous (if inexperienced and unskilled) knight in the poem, with this one episode being a small lapse in his otherwise-firm moral character. But modern audiences prefer flawed characters and it's easier to keep a protagonist interesting for the duration of a full movie if you can give them an arc, so deadbeat shithead Gawain we got.

Probably the most important change of all is the basic structure of the story, especially the episode at Bertilak's castle. It's kind of weird, but in a way it actually got deemphasized. The Scooby Doo ending is completely cut out, meaning that we have no reason to believe that Bertilak and the Green Knight are connected at all. In fact, I was quite surprised to see they weren't the same actor! And of course, that section was not only cut in length and complexity, but also in narrative importance. Rather than being the source of the green belt, that particular plot device was there from the beginning of the journey and merely re-introduced during Bertilak's segment. But that cycle happened a few times with other objects, too. Gawain lost the Green Knight's axe and his horse Gringolet as well, only to get them back later.

Instead, it's quickly become a pretty universal reading to take the film as a series of separate tests of knightly virtue, with the Bertilak segment merely being one of several, mostly equal scenes. I kinda like that. As long as Gawain is going to be flawed, let's see him fail to uphold every tenet of chivalry rather than just the chastity one. Although it is a bit clunky. It's generally accepted that the virtues in question must be the 5 represented by the pentangle (taken straight from the poem), which are:
  1. Generosity
  2. Fraternity ("Brotherly love" in the Borroff translation)
  3. Courtesy
  4. Purity/Chastity
  5. Compassion/Pity
Of course, I've seen some people translate them differently or just use a totally different list, which I don't quite understand. For example, a bunch of people I've seen include "piety" as one of them, as in "religious devotion" and I don't know where that comes from in either the book or the movie. But whether or not I or anyone else can cleanly sort out all the virtues and mini-quests he has (the bandits, the fox, Saint Winifred, etc.), it's clear to even a casual viewer that Gawain again and again proves himself to be an absolute garbage knight.

And also, even if we don't have the Scooby Doo ending, we still get the sense that the whole thing was just generally some kind of "magical set up." The actress who plays his girlfriend is the same as the one who plays Bertilak's wife, which implies a weird connection like some outside force has arranged this all. Same thing with the items conveniently returning. The fox obviously must be in on it somehow. And to get to see Morgan le Fay casting the spell that sets everything into motion is a great decision to sell this better. While I think the Arthur of this universe is still fundamentally sympathetic and somewhat heroic, I do think his main role is to be, "the failed older generation who fears that the younger generation won't be prepared" and I strongly suspect he personally petitioned his sister to set up this test for Gawain. After the year has nearly passed and Gawain is about to prepare for the second part of his quest, he returns to his mother's home and finds Arthur there talking to her in private. This, I think, was the central conspiracy: whereas in the poem, the whole game is introduced from without to test the integrity of Arthur's court of artificial strength and chivalric virtue and whatnot, in this version it's Arthur and his sister who need to test Gawain's potential to take the torch. And of course, this reading helps us better justify the choice to end the movie right when the Green Knight spares Gawain and never bother tying it up with a good explanation and resolution or anything. We don't need to know about Arthur and the knights' reaction or the new tradition of wearing the belt or whatever. We know that Gawain, in truth, has finally succeeded at the test and will now be a better king for it.

In the poem, he fails to disclose the belt before the chopping and, therefore, fails his test. And failure is acceptable. In the movie, after much difficulty he does disclose the belt before the chopping and, therefore, succeeds his test. And success is imperative. The Green Knight may tell us it's "just a game," but the fate of the kingdom is at stake if this man can't just bring himself to be better.

But I guess the most important line is probably the one his prostitute girlfriend gives about how important it is to be "a good knight" rather than "a great knight." Gawain is a child who dreams of glory and power and prestige and is setting himself up for a future of empty achievement and, possibly, the fall of the kingdom itself. He just can't ever approach a situation with the intent to simply "do the right thing." It's an interesting contrast to the poem's moral conflict because it's no longer a struggle to just "be good enough." It's specifically a dilemma: will you choose to be good or choose to be shitty? It's funny because the poem seems to exist in a world where it's assumed that the worst thing a person can do is just fail at what we're all trying to accomplish. But the modern telling is all-too-wary of a different path that one might go down.

I wonder if that speaks to a fundamental difference in our cultures. The medieval Christians may have been fixated on "human weakness" but we in the 21st century find ourselves contending with a different sort of weakness. The weakness of not even wanting to do good at all. Maybe that makes the message given to us by the Green Knight and Arthur that much more valuable: maybe it ought to be amended to, "As long as you're trying to do the right thing, then holy shit you're already doing better than most people in your position."

There are some miscellaneous things that I love but aren't part of any greater "vision" of its brilliance as a work. I really enjoy that the opening shot is a miniature retelling of the fleeing of Troy by Paris and Helen. I love the thieves, especially the one with the cape and hood with cat ears. Saint Winifred is fucking hilarious. Seeing the Lady do the camera obscura painting was fucking spectacular. The depiction of magic in this movie is really wonderful, especially that one shot early on of Arthur looking to Merlin for a quick judgment on the Green Knight, only for Merlin to quickly do the Kill Bill stare and then look back at Arthur saying, "nah chief, this ain't it."

There are choices I cannot defend about this movie. It needs some fucking subtitles. The giant scene doesn't make a lot of sense, it's just fucking cool. The poem mentions his journey is filled with fights against dragons, wolves, and woodwose, all of which could have been cool and worthy source material to expand instead. The poem is actually very funny and witty in a self-aware way where the movie is (mostly) very serious and devoid of humor (Saint Winifred a notable exception) and I question if that was for the best. And of course, while I strongly disagree with the common sentiment that, "this movie only makes sense for those who've read the poem" (I really do think it stands on its own perfectly well), pretty much everyone I know who didn't read the poem was pretty confused by Bertilak's game, since there was only one "exchange" in this version and it ended up being 1 cum = 1 kiss, sorta. The poem works better because you get to see two straightforward days of them playing the game before the third one breaks the pattern with Gawain withholding the belt, you know?

But fuck it. This movie rules.


[EDIT: here's the director's explanation of those giants. Good enough for me]


  1. Wow! Simply wow. Fantastic insights into Green Knight, and medievalisms in general. And don’t get me started on Force Awakens! I had never considered the film through this lens, I can’t wait to watch it again.

    Thank you for sharing your insights via the Reddit OSR blog roll. I am looking forward to your next post with much anticipation!

  2. Great post! Nitpick - a "league" is around an hour's walk, not a day's.

    1. Whoops! Silly mistake, since I definitely knew that! Thank you.

  3. Interesting post. I agree with a lot of it. It has been far too long since I read anything much arthurian - but when I was younger, I was as much aware of the Carolingian cycle of tales as I was the Arthurian one. I was criticised for not reading or being aware of the ‘canonical’ Arthur as expressed in Le Morte D’Arthur. Even then I thought ‘canonical? What canonical’ — but there you go. I was semi-aware of much of what you mention, but I absorbed all of this before I got to university and discovered AD&D, so I wasn’t the most into academically appreciating and analysing the fiction & history & mythology that I read, so I’ve found your analysis interesting. I’ve also found history and historical fiction, and fiction based on older mythology and legend to be far more useful and inspiring for RPGs. They generally feel more ‘real’ to me.

    The main thing I disagree with you on is the recent film ‘The Green Knight’. I thought many things in it were good, and I like your analysis of it, but at the end of the film, they didn’t add up to a ‘pass’ for me. I didn’t like it. But that is just personal taste, I feel.

  4. A much-belated comment: Gawain being Arthur's heir makes a ton of sense. He's the next-closest legitimate male descendant of Uther Pendragon. Arthur doesn't have any kids besides Mordred (who is usually not known to be Arthur's kid, and is also an incest bastard). Indeed, Mordred was apparently originally also one of Arthur's nephews and Gawain's younger brother.

    Hell, he's also the heir to Lot of Orkney in his own right. He's definitely destined to be a king, if only of part of Scotland.