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  39. Ethics

Gawain and the Green Knight

I have read (in modern translation) the long, epic late medieval Poem of Gawain and the Green Knight. It is hands down, my favorite of the tales from the Round Table. It tells the tale of a young knight accepting the challenge, on Christmas Eve, of a mysterious mythical Green Knight who challenges Arthur’s knights to chop off his head and meet him in a year to receive the same fate. None of Arthur’s Knights accept the challenge. Arthur’s nephew, the young Gawain, accepts the challenge and removes the Green Knight’s head with a mysterious battle axe. The mysterious knight picks up his head, shows it to the court and rides out telling Gawain, “I will meet you in a year in the green chapel. First, it can be seen as the deep-seated conflict between the new spirituality of Christianity and the traditional spiritualty of the Northern Europe’s traditional gods. The Green Chapel can be read as the ancient forest which surrounds and nurtures the emerging European peoples. Second, it is the tormented story of a young man who is finding his way in a strange new world of traditional honor and pitfalls to personal virtue. The rest of the story is Gawain's journey through the forest complete with giants, werewolves, thieves, and sorceresses till he finds the chapel. His one act of un-truthfulness seems to condemn him to lose his head till the Green Knight spares him because he has grown a noble heart. What a story. Despite everything, if you have grown a noble heart, you live. There is a lesson here for all of us. This is why the tales of the Knights of the Round Table still carry a spark for us in the 21st Century.

Now for the 2021 film "The Green Knight." It is a very good but not a great movie. The critics liked it. They noted that the director (David Lowery) stayed true to the plot of the 14th century poem but not to the details. That’s what bothers me. He falls into the modern idea that life in the 9th Century was the dark ages. He presents Arthur and Guinevere as aging, failed monarchs. That is not in the original poem. Arthur is a robust king and a loving uncle to his nephew. Gawain is an outstanding young man loved by the court sent off on his quest with blessings and great ceremony. No one knows that he will betray a vow and jeopardize his quest but that is his story not theirs. This is where the plot thickens.

The Saxon courts of the 9th Century were not gloomy and dark. Saxon warriors, on whom the Arhtur legends are based, had defeated the Danish Viking invasions and were flexing their muscles. This is the context of Gawain’s quest. Lowery doesn’t include this in his take on the story. He makes it gloomy but his take on Gawain’s personal struggles probably hit home. Being young is never easy and often confused. Growing up in the 21st Century is no less complicated than growing up in the 9th Century. You will see very powerful scenes in this movie that will speak to you of the trauma in your own life. Soak it in. This is why the old stories are still with us.

The film is available on YouTube Movies and, I am sure, Netflix. Also YouTube has several videos telling Gawain's story.

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