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Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

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Meltintalle
(@mel)
Member Moderator

Welcome to the discussion of this Arthurian Christmas tale! Some questions to get us started:

 

How were you first introduced to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight?

Which translation are you reading? (Have you read multiple translations? Do you have a preference and why?)

What theme(s) struck you as you read?

Do you have any thoughts about how The Green Knight fits into the larger Arthurian and historical literary tradition?

(Is it a Christmas tale, or does it just begin and end at Christmas?)

 

We have hands that fashion and heads that know,
But our hearts we lost - how long ago! -- G. K. Chesterton

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Topic starter Posted : December 29, 2021 5:36 pm
Col Klink
(@col-klink)
NarniaWeb Nut

Is it OK if I write about how I dislike Sir Gawain and the Green Knight? Giggle  

For better or worse-for who knows what may unfold from a chrysalis?-hope was left behind.
-The God Beneath the Sea by Leon Garfield & Edward Blishen check out my new blog!

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Posted : December 30, 2021 5:52 am
Narnian78
(@narnian78)
NarniaWeb Junkie

I remember reading the poem in college and liking it. There was always something intriguing about medieval England and the stories of King Arthur and the knights of the round table. I read the translation by J. R. R. Tolkien years later, but it was years ago so I don’t remember much of it. I thought it was enjoyable since I like old fashioned tales of chivalry. 🙂

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Posted : December 30, 2021 6:26 am
Meltintalle
(@mel)
Member Moderator

@col-klink I'd be interested in hearing why you're not a fan. It sounds like you had a strong reaction to the story.

We have hands that fashion and heads that know,
But our hearts we lost - how long ago! -- G. K. Chesterton

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Topic starter Posted : December 30, 2021 8:38 am
icarus
(@icarus)
NarniaWeb Junkie

I can't say I've ever read the original text, but I absolutely loved David Lowery's film adaptation this year. Definitely worthy of consideration in the End of Year awards discussion.

It's such an intriguing film with a very unconventional narrative structure. It did take me a bit of additional research to fully unlock all of its thematic subtleties, but I think that's partly why it was such a rewarding watch.

I understand that they have expanded and altered much of the original story, but as it was explained to me, the changes made seemed to make for a more interesting interpretation. In essence, the thematic key to the movie is the 5 Virtues of Chivalry, with the film is broken down into several short individually titled sections whereby Gaiwin is confronted with a moral test of his virtue. 

Spoiler
Movie Spoiler
In the movie, Gaiwin actually fails all of these tests of character, but he is given the chance to redeem himself though his final meeting with the Green Knight, though the final shot is left ambiguous. This then ties it all together with Gaiwin's desire to prove himself worthy and to become a knight.

It's definitely not a very "accessible" movie, and it's easy to see why mainstream audiences would have struggled to decipher it's many layers of coded themes, but I enjoyed it a lot, and really admire it's bravery in choosing to be so unconventional.

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Posted : December 30, 2021 8:58 am
Jasmine
(@jasmine_tarkheena)
NarniaWeb Junkie

I have read Sir Gawain in my high school senior year as part of our English class. (For those of you may not know, I was actually home schooled, though I had a class that was video taped, so it was like I was part of a class). I went through English Literature in my senior year, and Sir Gawain was one of things we've read.

"And this is the marvel of marvels, that he called me beloved."
(Emeth, The Last Battle)
https://escapetoreality.files.wordpress.com/2010/03/aslan-and-emeth2.jpg

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Posted : December 30, 2021 9:15 am
Col Klink
(@col-klink)
NarniaWeb Nut

@mel  Well, full disclosure, I only read it in high school at the end of a stretch of studying medieval poetry, which I'd never liked and by then, disliked. So maybe I was just in a highly unreceptive state.

The basic story isn't terrible or anything. But it's pretty simple and didn't need to be nearly as long as it was. The characters didn't strike me as interesting at all and neither did the description that served as padding. (Maybe I just had a bad translation.) 

Spoiler
Ending Spoilers
I also thought the ending, where the main character goes on and on about how women are always corrupting men and takes no responsibility for his own actions, to be eyeroll-inducingly misogynistic. And I love lots of literature, like The Chronicles of Narnia, that's described as misogynistic, so I'm not paranoid about that sort of thing!

For better or worse-for who knows what may unfold from a chrysalis?-hope was left behind.
-The God Beneath the Sea by Leon Garfield & Edward Blishen check out my new blog!

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Posted : December 30, 2021 10:04 am
Pattertwigs Pal
(@twigs)
Member Moderator

How were you first introduced to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight? 

I probably saw it in a list of Tolkien's works. I saw the movie trailer but lost interest in it when I saw that it was rated R. My friends suggested that we should read it. Unless it is part of Le Morte D'Arthur in which case that is where I was introduced to it. I didn't see it when I glanced through.

Which translation are you reading? (Have you read multiple translations? Do you have a preference and why?)

I will be listening to Tolkien's translation. I hope to locate a hardcopy of it but haven't had a chance to look. I would love comparing different translations but since I haven't read any translations yet, I think I will stick to one.

Pandemics
NW sister to Movie Aristotle & daughter of the King

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Posted : December 30, 2021 9:37 pm
Narnian78
(@narnian78)
NarniaWeb Junkie

My guess is that Sir Gawain and the Green Knight would have been one of C.S. Lewis’ favorite poems. It is something like Spenser’s Fairie Queene in that it is about King Arthur’s knights. Lewis loved those kind of stories, and unlike Eustace, he read the right books.  He probably taught the students how to read the poem in his classes when he was a professor. Sir Gawain is one of the first works that students read in an English Literature class in college.

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Posted : December 31, 2021 8:33 pm
Inkling
(@inkling)
NarniaWeb Newbie

@icarus Intriguing note about the virtues!  I'll have to look into that more; thanks for that.  Having read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight a few times, I can say the movie is very faithful thematically to the story, but the events are quite different.  Not much has been spoiled for you if you still want to read the poem!

@narnian78 Lewis mentions Sir Gawain and the Green Knight very briefly in his essay "On Stories" (1947).  He gives examples of how an author's choices can affect the atmosphere and tenor of a story:

Jack the Giant-Killer is not, in essence, simply the story of a clever hero surmounting danger. It is in essence the story of such a hero surmounting danger from giants. It is quite easy to contrive a story in which, though the enemies are of normal size, the odds against Jack are equally great. But it will be quite a different story. The whole quality of the imaginative response is determined by the fact that the enemies are giants. That heaviness, that monstrosity, that uncouthness, hangs over the whole thing. [...] I have seen landscapes (notably in the Mourne Mountains) which, under a particular light, made me feel that at any moment a giant might raise his head over the next ridge. Nature has that in her which compels us to invent giants: and only giants will do. (Notice that Gawain was in the north-west corner of England when 'etins aneleden him', giants came blowing after him on the high fells. Can it be an accident that Wordsworth was in the same places when he heard 'low breathings coming after him'?) The dangerousness of the giants is, though important, secondary. In some folk-tales we meet giants who are not dangerous. But they still affect us in much the same way. A good giant is legitimate: but he would be twenty tons of living, earth-shaking oxymoron. The intolerable pressure, the sense of something older, wilder, and more earthy than humanity, would still cleave to him.

I love this description of giants; it helped me better understand the figure of the giant in fairy tales, and it added a little extra imagery to my second-favorite passage in Gawain and the Green Knight:

But if those fights were fierce, winter was worse,

when chilling water spilled out of the clouds

freezing as it fell, pelting the pale ground.

Almost killed by sleet, he sleeps in all his armour

more nights than enough among the rough rocks,

where plummeting cascades from the summits ran cold

or hung over his head in hard ice-blades. (726-32, translated by Keith Harrison)

Posted by: @mel

Is it a Christmas tale, or does it just begin and end at Christmas?

I love this question.  Can we discuss this more?  I am finding while rereading the poem for this forum that it's the perfect time of year to be reading it. Grin Coffee   I think it's more of a New Year's tale, in that there's so much thematically about death, reincarnation, and new life.

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Posted : January 28, 2022 8:18 pm
Narnian78 liked
Meltintalle
(@mel)
Member Moderator
Posted by: @inkling

 I think it's more of a New Year's tale, in that there's so much thematically about death, reincarnation, and new life.

I believe the inciting action takes place on New Year's, yes? But it's still functionally a Christmas party according to the traditions of the time. Wouldn't that argue that, for the poet, Christmas and New Year's are the same thing, or that the one informs the understanding of the other?

We have hands that fashion and heads that know,
But our hearts we lost - how long ago! -- G. K. Chesterton

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Topic starter Posted : January 28, 2022 9:22 pm
icarus
(@icarus)
NarniaWeb Junkie
Posted by: @inkling

@icarus Intriguing note about the virtues!  I'll have to look into that more; thanks for that.  Having read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight a few times, I can say the movie is very faithful thematically to the story, but the events are quite different.  Not much has been spoiled for you if you still want to read the poem!

 

From what i've read, it is my understanding that the 5 Knightly Virtues of Chivalry are also present as a sub-text in the poem, though i'm guessing that since no-one has mentioned them so far, they perhaps aren't all that obvious as plot element? (although I think the movie adaptation is just as difficult to decipher and interpret in that regard).

For anyone who was interested then, the 5 Virtues of Chivalry are Friendship, Generosity, Chastity, Courtesy, and Piety, and are traditionally represented by the symbol of the Pentangle (a 5 pointed star) which is featured prominently in the visual imagery of the movie. Guinevere also mentions them in her farewell message to Sir Gawain,

These 5 virtues (along with the broader virtues of Courage and Honour) are explored thematically in the movie as follows:

Spoiler
Movie Spoilers

The movie is titled within the film as "A Filmed Adaptation of The Chivalric Romance".

This is then broken down into sections, all starting with "Sir Gawain and....".

Part 1 is "...the Christmas Game" Sir Gawain is the Nephew of King Arthur, but not a Knight of the Round Table. When the Green Knight arrives to lay down his challenge, Gawain is desperate to prove he is courageous, and so foolishly accepts the Green Knights challenge.

Part 2 is "...a Too Quick Year" - Sir Gawain has one year to come to terms with his impending second confrontation with The Green Knight. He remains committed to seeing it through because he feels it is a matter of honour. He sets out on his quest to find the Green Chapel.

Part 3 is "...A Kindness" - Sir Gawain arrives at the aftermath of a Battle and meets a scavenger. The scavenger offers him directions to the Green Chapel. Sir Gawain give him thanks, but the scavenger admonishes him for not being more generous. Sir Gawain does then throw the scavenger a coin, but the scavenger feels this is too little too late. The scavengers later return to rob Sir Gawain of his possessions.

Part 4 is "...A Meeting with St Winifred" - Sir Gawain arrives at a cabin in the woods inhabited by the ghost of St Winifred. She asks him to retrieve her head from the lake in which she was murdered. Sir Gawain agrees, but asks what he will get in return. St Winifred tells him that it is unbecoming of a knight to ask for something in return. In doing so he failed the test of courtesy.

Part 5 is "....An Exchange of Winnings" - Sir Gawain arrives at a large castle occupied by a Lord and his wife. The Lord offers him food and shelter to help Gawain rest from his travels. The Lord is heading out on a hunt and agrees that he will give Sir Gawain whatever he finds out there, in exchange for whatever Sir Gawain finds in his house. Whilst the Lord is gone, Sir Gawain allows himself to be seduced by the Lord's wife. He therefore fails the test of Chastity, and also fails the test of Friendship by betraying the trust of the Lord. When the Lord returns he stays true to his promise - he takes a kiss from Gawain (symbolic of what he took from his wife) and gives him a Fox he found on the hunt in return (the Fox appears multiple times throughout the story as a sort of spirit guide.

Part 6 is "...A Beheading at the Green Chapel" - Sir Gawain arrives at the Green Chapel to face the Green Knight for the second time. Gawain offers his neck to the Green Knight's axe three times, but all three times he flinches. This is symbolic of a lack of piety, or at least a lack of reverence for the sacred covenant of the promise he has made.

The movie then presents two versions of events... first, we see Sir Gawain fleeing the Green Chapel and returning home, followed by a montage in which he succeeds Arthur to the throne, but becomes a King who lacks virtue - he betrays his wife, allows his son to be killed in battle, and loses the respect of the people.... then the movie cuts back to the Green Chapel and having seen a vision of his future, Gawain is given one last chance to show himself to be truly virtuous. He removes the sash which was given to him for protection and allows himself to be fully at the mercy of the Green Knight. In this moment, Sir Gawain finally proves himself to be courageous and honourable.

The movie then leaves it ambiguous as to whether this display of virtue was sufficient enough for the Green Knight to spare his life, or whether he still intends to proceed with the agreement as planned. [/spoiler]

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Posted : January 29, 2022 4:42 pm
Pattertwigs Pal
(@twigs)
Member Moderator

I listened to part of the story. I finally made it to a bookstore today to get the book. I do much better reading than listening for comprehension.

Spoiler
Opening Scene
When the title said Green Knight, I pictured someone in Green armor not someone who was actually green. I was very surprised that the blow that was struck cut off the Green Knight's head.

Pandemics
NW sister to Movie Aristotle & daughter of the King

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Posted : February 1, 2022 4:51 pm
Pattertwigs Pal
(@twigs)
Member Moderator

I finally read a bit more tonight. I still haven't caught up to where I was listening but I learned several new words. Molains was the trickiest to find a definition for. I'm still not 100 percent sure what is meant by "fay-man fell" (section 7) I think it means something like sinister fairy-man.

Pandemics
NW sister to Movie Aristotle & daughter of the King

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Posted : March 13, 2022 8:59 pm
Reepicheep775
(@reepicheep775)
NarniaWeb Junkie
I love Sir Gawain and the Green Knight! I was first introduced to the story when I made myself a reading list of classic stories about knights and chivalry - either in high school or shortly after. I don't remember what the first translation I read was, but I've read James J. Wilhelm's translations a couple times because it's in an Arthurian anthology book I have. Though to be honest, I'm not a big fan of it. I can't remember the specifics, but he uses some anachronistic phrases and it kills the spell of the poem for me. I got the Tolkien translation for Christmas this year, but I haven't read it yet.
 
The portrayal of Sir Gawain in this poem is the most layered or "grey" of the Arthurian stuff that I've read. In the early stories, before Lancelot and Galahad appeared and stole his thunder, Gawain used to be portrayed as Arthur's best knight. By the time of Malory, he's portrayed as a violent and dishonourable man. I don't know when exactly the transition took place, but I wonder if this story, by showing a chink in Gawain's chivalric armour, was the start of it.
 
As for whether or not, it is a Christmas story... I certainly treat it like one. I can get pretty Christmas-ed out by the time it actually rolls around, so I like reading this story in December as a change of pace.
 
I had mixed feelings on the movie at first, but I've come to really like it. I think it's now my favourite Arthurian adaptation. It feels more like a chivalric romance than I ever thought I would see on screen.
Spoiler
The Green Knight
The only problem is that I wish it had stuck with book!Gawain. They essentially inverted his character. In the poem, he remains honourable until the very end and then he finally gives in. In the movie, he is dishonourable until the very end when he finally proves himself. In a way, the movie is more optimistic. I'm just disappointed that, in a movie this faithful to the tone and feel of chivalric romances, we couldn't get a knight actually behaving chivalrously (until the very end, that is). Hollywood seems allergic to that right now and I don't understand why.
This post was modified 7 months ago 6 times by Reepicheep775

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Posted : March 19, 2022 6:06 pm
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