#FolkloreThursday Review: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight


No, I haven’t got around to the film. The blu-ray sits on a pile back in NY whilst I am idling in Michigan. So I was gratified to get an advance copy of the new comics version of this terrific medieval story AKA the only Arthuriana I like. That’s a lie: I like some of Marie de France’s Arthuriana. You’ll find that there are two kinds of medievalists when it comes to Arthuriana and seldom the twain meet.

As a medievalist you know I’m going to be somewhat picky about adaptations — not that I don’t like a good terrible one now and then (Sword of the Valiant, anyone? I wrote a twenty minute presentation on the first ten minutes of that film, which is awful in fascinating ways). There have been some Beowulf adaptations that suffer mostly from being based on 19th century translations that are generally both wildly inaccurate and painfully stilted (a lot of Lo! and Milady! stuff). Or they try too hard to be ‘medievally’ and just make you groan.

I found this delightful.

Penman’s art manages to evoke the medieval without the typical cliches. The opening page elegantly deals with the ancient history in Troy, visually connecting it to ‘present day’ in Camelot. Reppion’s text hits the alliteration strongly at the start, though wisely loosening it as the story goes along. It may not be noticed much by most readers, but I really appreciate the nod to the fourteenth century poet’s use of the ‘old-fashioned’ style, more like pre-conquest poetry than his contemporaries like Chaucer.

I love the green shadow on the white snow at the bottom of that first page, contrasting with the red flames of Troy burning and the red robes of the court in Camelot. This is a poem with an important colour scheme: the Green Knight contrasts with Gawain’s red finery embodying the clashes of nature and ‘culture’, pagan and Christian. The full page arrival of the Green Knight shows him wreathed in holly leaves on his green horse, with a thump as he dismounts wielding the ever-present axe. The stark art of black and white against green and red just pops on the page especially with the dramatic exchange of the ‘game’ and its challenge.

Many of these full page spreads are just gorgeous: the year passing — one of the most beautiful passages in the poem — contrasts Gawain’s still stunned (and shrinking) face with a frame of branches and leaves conveying the passage of time. I know I will be using the pentangle page to get students to understand how that symbol on his shield works (and so they remember it!). I love how he’s encircled in Mary’s arms (she’s on the inside of the shield) and the five fives of knightly qualities encircle the pentangle. Red and green and white and the only black outlines Gawain.

Students often miss the fact that while Gawain is searching for the Green Chapel to keep his appointment, he does a lot of other things before he stumbles on Bertilak’s castle. In this version we see those adventures, so there’s no doubt we know what Gawain is capable of doing. The eeriness of that Christmas eve when he feels far from hope comes through in the stark black and white art, with just a touch of red on Gawain and Gringolet. The sudden splash of green tips off the careful reader as Gawain steps into Bertilak’s castle, but the lively interaction of the hunting scenes, outdoor and indoor, will keep you turning the pages so fast you may not think about that.

The fox hunt page is just *chefs kiss*!

Long story short: this adaptation is great fun. It has respect for the original tale and all its folk horror glory, but it’s thoroughly modern and sleek. The art is phenomenal and the story is told with excitement and efficiency, which is saying something for a fourteenth century poem in a regional dialect with over 2500 lines. I highly recommend it, even if you’re not medievally-inclined — and especially if you are.

Brief quibbles probably of interest only to medievalists: a prayer to Saint Julian as well as Mary, of course but I suppose explaining who he was and why one would do that might slow the story down a bit. Yes, they should be ‘fasting’ on Xmas eve and not eating meat, but after all the poet wants us to see how much of a feast their supposed-fasting is. If I had one wish it would be that the parallels between the hunts outside and the hunts inside would be made a little more obvious, but at least Morgan is much more present which helps the ending. Students are always confused by the sudden introduction of a ‘new’ character. And the misogynist speech out of nowhere is not included, hurrah.

The team will be at Thought Bubble and the book will be published soon: check the website.