When the Vikings invaded the northeastern coast of Britain in 793, they raided the monastery at Lindisfarne. The monks fled – and they carried with them the remains of Saint Cuthbert.
His coffin not only contained a corpse but also material relics, the Saint Cuthbert Gospel among them. The book so well preserved in his coffin has been recognized as a marvel among medieval manuscripts, along with the Lindisfarne Gospels, which the monks also saved from destruction by the Danes. Much like these extraordinary books, the embroidery that survived alongside Saint Cuthbert’s body is remarkable for its rarity.
Cuthbert of Lindisfarne was born in 634 and spent his life as a monk, bishop, and hermit in the Kingdom of Northumbria. When he died in 687, he was buried at Lindisfarne. As the Venerable Bede recounts the story, Saint Cuthbert’s coffin was opened again 11 years later with the intention of removing his bones to a reliquary, but his body was found to be perfectly preserved.
Under the duress of Danish attack, it was more than 100 years before the monks laid Saint Cuthbert to rest in Durham, where they settled in 995. Several artifacts accompanied Saint Cuthbert as he traveled posthumously around the English countryside, and the book and embroidery are very special for their survival.
The Saint Cuthbert Gospel was discovered when the coffin was opened at Durham Cathedral in 1104, and like the body of its patron, the book remained incredibly well preserved. Dated to the early 8th century, it is the earliest European book to retain an original, intact binding. The covers are made from goatskin that has been dyed red and decorated; the tooled leather is stretched over wooden boards, most likely birch. It is a pocket-sized book measuring 5.4 by 3.6 inches, and the manuscript contains the Gospel of Saint John.
The British Library’s description of the binding beautifully correlates the book’s cover with its content. On its front cover, “the central motif of a stylised vine sprouting from a chalice reflects Christian imagery from the eastern Mediterranean. The plant on the cover of the Gospel has a central leaf or bud and four fruits, echoing the text, ‘I am the vine, you are the branches’, from St. John’s Gospel 15:5.” On the back cover appears “rectangular borders containing a geometric, step-pattern double-armed cross, recalling John’s central role in the Crucifixion narrative.”
The other relics were discovered much later when Saint Cuthbert’s tomb was opened in 1827. In addition to the saint’s body, Canon James Raine found a pectoral cross, a portable altar, an ivory comb, and a set of embroidered vestments. The vestments, or religious robes, date between 909 and 916 and are the earliest pieces of embroidery that survive from the medieval period in England.
Only a few pieces of Anglo-Saxon embroidery survive at all, and these pieces are unique among the extant examples in that they feature full-length human figures. The vestments include a stole decorated with figures of Old Testament prophets and Apostles, as well as a maniple, a girdle, and bracelets. They are made from Byzantine silk with silk and gold thread decoration. According to inscriptions on the fabric, the vestments were commissioned by Queen Aelfflaed for the Bishop of Winchester and produced between 909 and 916. Her stepson, King Athelstan, who ruled England from 927 to 939, placed them in Saint Cuthbert’s tomb when he visited the shrine in 934.
The style of embroidery called Opus Anglicanum, or English Work, was used on clothing, hangings, and other textiles, often created with silk and gold or silver-gilt threads stitched on linen or velvet backgrounds. Between the late 12th and mid-14th centuries, these luxury goods were in great demand across Europe. Often they were procured as diplomatic gifts, and they were very expensive. They were produced for both secular and ecclesiastical use, but most of the surviving examples were designed for liturgical use like those found alongside Saint Cuthbert.
Although English embroidery was renowned for its beauty during the medieval period, the majority has been lost to neglect or destroyed for the extraction of precious metals or stones, such as pearls and other jewels mentioned in inventory descriptions. Fragments, however, can be found in museums, and one of the most substantial collections of Opus Anglicanum can be found at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
The vestments recovered from Saint Cuthbert’s tomb can be seen on display at Durham Cathedral, where visitors can view the entire Treasures of Saint Cuthbert collection. The oak coffin made to cradle the saint’s body when he was found incorrupt in 698 also resides among the relics, its own fragmented body a reminder of what arduous travels medieval artifacts endure to remain with us in our own time.
Emily McLemore, Ph.D. Department of English University of Notre Dame
Film adaptions of SirGawain and the Green Knight have also emerged in modern times, including Steven Weeks’ two movies based on the medieval story: Gawain and the Green Knight (1973), and then about a decade later, The Sword of the Valiant: The Legend of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (1984), which famously features Sir Sean Connery as the Green Knight. While Weeks draws primarily from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in his film adaptations of the medieval poem, he also borrows from other Arthurian legends, such as the tale of Sir Gareth in Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur and Yvain, the Knight of the Lion by Chrétien de Troyes.
Moreover, last year a new film adaption of the poem, titled The Green Knight (2021), directed, written, edited, and produced by David Lowery, was released in theaters. This recent movie adaption of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight drew both praise and opprobrium from critics, prompting me to view and write my own review of the film. The Green Knight stars Dev Patel as Gawain, a nephew of King Arthur in this adaptation, who embarks on an epic quest to test his chivalry and confront the Green Knight.
But today, as I previewed in my previous post on adaptations of Beowulf in modern cartoons, I want to discuss the introduction of a character adaptation of the Green Knight in the final season of Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time. The episode that features and centers the Green Knight is called “Seventeen” (Season 10 Episode 5), in which the plot borrows substantially from the medieval alliterative poem, despite significant redactions and reworking on certain characters and themes from the source text.
As in the Middle English romance, the episode begins with feasting and a celebration. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, King Arthur and his court at Camelot are celebrating Christmas and Yuletide. In Adventure Time, the celebration centered on the 17th birthday of Finn the Human, who is also the main hero and one of the primary protagonists of the show, at Princess Bubblegum’s court in the Candy Kingdom. In both the medieval poem and modern cartoon series, the Green Knight rudely barges into court, unannounced, uninvited and riding on his green horse, before offering a green battle axe and proposing a dangerous challenge.
In “Seventeen” when the stranger enters, Finn exclaims “you’re green,” to which the guest responds “I’m the Green Knight.” Like in the medieval poem, Adventure Time‘s Green Knight is exceedingly green, from his armor and clothes, to his hands and face, and even his mount and weapon are all shades of green. The special attention the cartoon gives the green axe and green horse pays homage to the Middle English romance, which contains detailed descriptions of the green man, his green axe and his green steed.
In both the television series and Middle English poem, the Green Knight’s arrival is shrouded in anticipation and ladened with suspense. Just as in the original poem, the Green Knight in Adventure Time is a mystery knight, come to challenge the champion and test his opponent’s heroism and mettle. In keeping with its source, Adventure Time makes games central to the episode, beginning with the very game featured in the original poem.
In Adventure Time, since it is Finn the human’s 17th birthday party, when the Green Knight arrives at the court of Princess Bubblegum, he gifts his green axe to Finn for the occasion. The Green Knight greets Finn by saying: “And before you ask, of course I brought you a birthday present. It’s a battle axe.” The Green Knight follows up with a cryptic caveat “But only if you play me a game for it.” As Gawain does in the Middle English romance, Finn accepts the battle axe and the Green Knight’s challenge, deciding to game with the mysterious guest.
As in Sir Gawain and the Green Night, the first birthday contest in “Seventeen” is a weird beheading game. When Finn asks which game they will play, the Green Knight describes the game: “Oh this game is called all you have to do is strike me with it and it is yours.” Finn struggles with the idea of “axing a stranger” but soon has a revelation. Noting the absence of his partner, Finn assumes that the mysterious Green Knight is nothing more than a birthday prank orchestrated by his best friend Jake, so the hero plays along and is unfazed by the uncanny strangeness of the proposed game. Finn deals what appears to be a death-dealing blow to the neck, decapitating the Green Knight, much like Gawain does in the original poem.
Again, as in its source, the Green Knight in “Seventeen” proves to be some sort of undead being, able to simply pick up and replace his head after his beheading. It is at this point that Jake arrives, signaling that the Green Knight is not an elaborate birthday hoax by Jake, and what was planned as a fun birthday turns into a fight for his life. Citing fairness, the Green Knight isolates Finn from the rest of his friends so that they cannot aid him, or warn him of any foul play on the part of the Green Knight.
Unlike in the Middle English romance, in “Seventeen” Finn asks for alternative games rather than allowing the Green Knight to return an axe stroke to his neck. This marks the major point of divergence in what follows as a loose adaptation. The stakes are set: if Finn wins, the Green Knight will reveal the mystery of his identity and the Green Knight makes plain his reward, stating, “if I win, chop, chop.”
The Green Knight is able to win the first contest through deception and subterfuge, ideas central to the source text as well, and then the Green Knight allows Finn to win the second contest without competing at all, undercutting his heroism. This ultimately proves the only game in which Finn defeats his opponent. Again, the Green Knight has a trick up his sleeve, this time the plan is to allow Finn to expend his energy and strength, giving the Green Knight the upper hand in the decisive game between Bubblegum’s champion and the mysterious guest.
Finn recognizes the trick immediately, but Finn believes his “robot arm” will continue to provide him with an advantage in the final contest of strength: an arm wrestling match. While Finn is able to compete with the Green Knight until the first mystery is revealed, once the hero learns that the Green Knight is none other than Fern, his formerly deceased, plant-form doppelgänger, he becomes overwhelmed causing him to lose their last game. The surprise of the Green Knight’s identity disarms the hero and allows Fern to easily defeat Finn. Fern, in Green Knight form, smashes his enemy upon the table, breaking it, and leaving Finn on the floor, vulnerable and in shock, as the Green Knight approaches, axe raised and ready to deliver a fatal blow.
These additional games replace the hunting and bedroom games featured in the Middle English romance, but the narrative of “Seventeen” nevertheless realigns with the original plot as the hero ultimately fails and appears as if he is about to be beheaded by his opponent. In the medieval poem, the Green Knight is revealed to be Bertilak, the lord who houses Gawain and whose wife seduces him. But the double reveal includes the revelation the it was Morgana Le Fay (2446), a witch and King Arthur’s half sister, who sent the Green Knight to Camelot to test the Knights of the Round Table and frighten Queen Guenevere.
Similarly, in Adventure Time, the Green Knight is a servant of disgruntled, royal relatives. In “Seventeen,” the Green Knight is called off by his own steed, which is shown to be a mechanical horse in which three treacherous relations of Princess Bubblegum are hidden: Uncle Gumbald, Aunt Lolly and Cousin Chicle. The double mystery aspect of the cartoon mirrors the medieval poem’s dual reveal at the end of narrative, in both cases returning focus to intrafamily power struggles over the throne while simultaneously demonstrating the limitations of chivalry and the dangers of hubris. By the end, in both Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and “Seventeen” the royal champions are bested by the Green Knight, although in Adventure Time, the Vampire Queen Marceline is there to step in and scare off the intruders, causing the Green Knight to retreat into the night.
The way in which Adventure Time creatively adapts and reinvents Sir Gawain and the Green Knight for a broad modern audience carries forward the medievalism from “The Wild Hunt” (Season 10 Episode 1). Although at times the episode deviates dramatically from its source, Adventure Time makes the complex (at times enigmatic) medieval story both accessible and comedic, while retaining some of the key aspects including the fraught presentation of chivalry and heroism, thereby helping to set the stage for future generations of medievalists.
With the possible exception of certain stories about King Arthur, Beowulf is probably the best-known work of English medieval literature, and it is likely one of the oldest works as well predating early English Arthurian literature, such as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by around six hundred years and Thomas Mallory’s Le Morte d’Arthur [The Death of Arthur] by around seven hundred years.
Beowulf has deep roots in popular culture as has long been taught in the English curriculum in the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia, New Zealand, and many of the former British colonies and current British Commonwealth. Beowulf has been remade into comics such as DC Comics’ Beowulf (1975), Gareth Hinds’ Beowulf: A Graphic Novel (2007), Stern’s Beowulf: The Graphic Novel (2007), and Santiago Garcia’s Beowulf (2016); novels such as John Gardner’s Grendel (1971), Michael Crichton’s Eaters of the Dead (1976), Susan Signe Morrison’s Grendel’s Mother: The Saga of the Wyrd-Wife (2015), and Maria Dahvana Headley’s The Mere Wife (2018); films such as Robert Zemeckis’ Beowulf (2007), Sturla Gunnarsson’s Beowulf & Grendel (2005), John McTiernan’s The 13th Warrior (1999), and television series such James Dormer’s Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands (2016) to name just a few of the more recent and successful adaptations of this famous medieval poem.
Of course, medievalism is also popular in children’s literature and adult cartoons. Nevertheless, I will admit I was somewhat more surprised to notice the poem’s influence in children’s cartoons. My intersecting identities as a medievalist and a father invite me into the rich world of children’s literature, and as someone who enjoys a good story in any form, there are certain television shows that my daughter likes to watch that I too find entertaining. Little did I expect to encounter Beowulf and more specifically the character of Grendel in two children’s cartoons that mobilize and rework Beowulf into their narratives: Disney’s Amphibia (2019-2022) and Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time (2010-2018).
In Disney’s Amphibia one two-part episode which seems draw directly from Beowulf is season one’s episode fifteen, “A Night at the Inn; Wally and Anne.”
The first part of the episode, “The Night at the Inn” starts with a journey to a “creepy lagoon” right by a “scary forest” in a woodland horror setting—the mood is suspenseful and disconcerting—a dark and stormy night as they travel through lands filled with frightening creatures. Eventually they end up at a spooky yet cozy inn, a cottagey bed and breakfast run by a family of horned bullfrog people. After a haunting night, the story unfolds as an adaptation of the Grimm Brothers’ Hänsel und Gretel “Hansel and Gretel” with the bullfrog folk as the cannibal family. It is Polly, the tadpole, who ultimately thwarts their murderous plans and proves herself to her family.
Of course, cannibalism and monstrous families feature also in Beowulf, and the second half of the episode “Wally and Anne” mobilizes the characterization of Grendel in the representation of the enigmatic Moss Man.
The second part of the episode “Wally and Anne” also borrows from Sasquatch lore, conflating Bigfoot and Grendel into the mysterious Moss Man. As the show progresses, the Moss Man shifts from being regarded as a cryptid monster to a beautiful and misunderstood creature, in a reparative move in line with other modern adaptations that present sympathetic portraits of the monster.
“Wally and Anne” starts with Anne seeing the shadow of a creature, much like Grendel the sceaugenga “shadow walker” (703) and she follows it into the monster’s murky domain. She then catches a glimpse of the majestic creature, but it hears her and takes off into the woods. Other characters believe the Moss Man is a myth, which frames the remainder of the episode, with the exception of “the town weirdo” Wally, who swears to have also seen this creature “deep in the moors, where it makes its home and feeds on mist.” Wally further describes the monster to Anne, saying “Skin of moss it had. Took my hand clean off it did,” (as happens to Grendel in Beowulf), but as Anne is quick to point out, Wally has both his hands in tact, signaling his role as an unreliable witness and narrator.
The Moss Man, like Grendel, lurks in the mistige moras “misty moors” (162), and this place name is used to describe both the realms of Grendel and the Moss Man. The eerie swamp resembles the monster mere and marshy haunts of the Grendelkin. As Anne and Wally search for the Moss Man together, Wally warns the “journey will be fraught with peril” and sings a song to his accordion playing with the lyrics, “the Misty Moors are dark and grey” an allusion to the Grendel’s haunted fens. The place name “Misty Moors” is repeated throughout the episode to characterize the eerie swamplands where the Moss Man roams.
However, the behavior of the Moss Man tracks closer to Sasquatch, huge and terrifying, but more elusive and mysterious than dangerous, though of course Grendel and his kin are also described as mysterious in the compound helrune (163). In “Wally and Anne” the plot hinges on the misfit team who become unlikely friends in their failed attempt to take a picture of the creature once they find it at last. Although Wally first describes the Moss Man as Grendelish, by the end we learn that the creature is no threat to the local community.
The tenth and final season of Adventure Time kicks off with and episode called “The Wild Hunt” which includes a medieval-inspired, Bayeux Tapestry-inspired, image of the protagonists Finn and Huntress Wizard in the center with a monstrous hand on the right and fleeing banana guards on the left. In addition to foreshadowing the plot, this signals the heavy influence of medieval literature that features in the forthcoming episode.
The episode begins in a dark hall with two banana guards, members of Princess Bubblegum’s royal army, just outside their Gryffindor-like “dormitory” where the soldiers agree that they are afraid. This in media res intro creates suspense from the very start of the episode, and the audience’s epistemic limitations invites fears of the unknown thereby mobilizing the psychology of terror. After some debate on how this should be accomplished while also holding their spears, the banana guards decide to hold hands. Just then, a huge, monstrous hand reaches from offscreen and grabs them both.
After dispatching the guards, the gigantic and vicious monster then enters the dormitory and attacks the soldiers at night, slaughtering its victims. This scene from “The Wild Hunt” is one of terrifying carnage and comes straight out of Beowulf. The Adventure Time heroes (Finn the human and Jake the magic dog), who have been recruited to slay the banana fudge monster, are there hiding, yet they do not stop the monster from grabbing a sleeping guard just like in Beowulf, when Grendel grabs and devours Hondscio before Beowulf makes any counter move (739-745). In fact, in both Beowulf and Adventure Time, it is not until the monster reaches out to grab the incognito hero (Beowulf and Jake respectively) that an epic battle ensues. Moreover, just as Beowulf famously refuses to use blades against Grendel (426-41), and allows his enemy to escape back to the monster-mere of the Grendelkin, Finn likewise is repeatedly unable to use his sword against the banana fudge monster and therefore it escapes into the wilderness seeking its home. These narratological parallels pay homage to the medieval poem and demonstrate how medievalism is alive and well in popular culture including children’s cartoons.
After the opening scene, there is a flash back to earlier that morning when Finn and Princess Bubblegum prepare for a baseball game and stumble upon what Bubblegum calls “a banana fudge massacre.” The surviving banana guards report to their princess and describe the monster’s initial midnight assault on the Candy Kingdom, and they characterize the murders as cannibalism stating “a terrible monster kidnapped squadron 5. It looked like a banana, but it peeled other bananas.”
Like Grendel is described as mara þonne ænig man oðer “greater than any other man” (1353), the banana fudge monster has what Jake calls “crazy devil strength” and carries the corpses away to his home, stealing warriors like plunder. Since Finn is unable to kill the monster, he is forced to hunt down the monster in its lair, like Beowulf does with Grendel. The remainder of the episode involves an epic hunt with Finn’s friend, Huntress Wizard, who calls the monster “an invasive species that’s destroying the local ecosystem with its nasty hot fudge” and names it “The Grumbo.”
Indeed, “The Wild Hunt” even explores some of the essential questions and core tensions posed in Beowulf. The psychological drama that preoccupies the rest of the narrative focuses on Finn’s internal struggle as he tries to overcome guilt for killing his monstrous, plant-like doppelganger, Fern. Fern’s untimely death at Finn’s hands forces the hero to reflect on his previous use of excessive violence and to question his retaliatory actions, blurring the distinction between heroism and monstrosity and destabilizing both concepts. As in Beowulf, heroes and monsters are juxtaposed and paralleled in the episode of Adventure Time, highlighting how these categorizations are often a matter of perspective and how heroic deeds and monstrous actions are virtually identical in substance. In attempting to talk himself into attacking the Grumbo, Finn tries to tell himself “I don’t care why you’re doing this or if you’ve had a tragic past. I’m hard like that,” but his tone betrays his hesitation as he sympathizes with the monster.
Nevertheless, with the support of Huntress Wizard, Finn is ultimately able to slay the Grumbo, but like in Beowulf (1605-1611), the sword used to stab the monster melts down to the hilt as a result of the creature’s toxic blood (which in the show is a form of hot fudge).
Adventure Time makes their medievalism perhaps even more explicit later in the fifth episode of final season titled “Seventeen” in which a previous character thought to be dead, Fern, returns and surprises Finn on his 17th birthday as the Green Knight. The mysterious Green Knight rides upon a shimmering green horse and offers Finn a green battle axe as a present before challenging him to a beheading game. As “The Wild Hunt” reworks and refashions the plot of Beowulf, “Seventeen” similarly draws directly from the 14th century Middle English alliterative poem, Gawain and the Green Knight. But that’s a discussion for a future post.
Richard Fahey, Ph.D University of Notre Dame Medieval Institute