Fern: Adapting the Green Knight in Adventure Time

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the Middle English alliterative Arthurian poem, has long captured the imagination of audiences, medieval and modern. Recently, Valiant Comics has adapted the Sir Gawain and the Green Knight into a comic titled “Immortal Brothers: The Tale of the Green Knight” and brought the poem to modern audiences (2017). The same year, Emily Cheeseman adapted Sir Gawain and the Green Knight into a graphic novel (2017), which was funded by Kickstarter and which is now publicly available online.

Cover image from Emily Cheeseman’s Gawain and the Green Knight (2017).

Film adaptions of Sir Gawain 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.

The Green Knight (Sean Connery) in Stephen Weeks’ “The Sword of the Valiant: The Legend of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” (1984).

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.

The Green Knight (Ralph Ineson) in David Lowery’s The Green Knight (A24 Films, 2021).

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.

Opening image for Adventure Time‘s S10E5 “Seventeen” (2017).

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.

The Green Knight barges into the Candy Court in S10E5 of Adventure Time, “Seventeen” (2017).

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.

The mysterious Green Knight in S10E5 of Adventure Time, “Seventeen” (2017).

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.

The Green Knight gives Finn a birthday axe in S10E5 of Adventure Time, “Seventeen” (2017).

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.

Finn beheads the Green Knight in S10E5 of Adventure Time, “Seventeen” (2017).

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.

Green Knight grabs its severed head as Jake arrives in S10E5 of Adventure Time, “Seventeen” (2017).

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 horse interferes with the first game in S10E5 of Adventure Time, “Seventeen” (2017).

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.

Green Knight is revealed as Fern in S10E5 of Adventure Time, “Seventeen” (2017).

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.

Finn as he is about to receive an axe stroke in S10E5 of Adventure Time, “Seventeen” (2017).

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.

Uncle Gumbald, Aunt Lolly & Cousin Chicle are revealed in S10E5 of Adventure Time, “Seventeen” (2017).

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.

Marceline vs the Green Knight in S10E5 of Adventure Time, “Seventeen” (2017).

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.

Grendelish Creatures in Modern Cartoons

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.

Cover image from John Gardner’s Grendel (1989).

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.

Cover image from Maria Dahvana Headley’s The Mere Wife: A Novel (2018).

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).

Disney’s Amphibia (2019-2022).

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.

Cannibal family of horned bullfrogs in S1E15 of Amphibia, “The Night at the Inn” (2019).

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.

The Moss Man in S1E15 of Amphibia, “Wally and Anne” (2019).

“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.

Misty Moors in S1E15 of Amphibia, “Wally and Anne” (2019)

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.

Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time (2010-2018).

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 titlecard for Adventure Time, S10E1 “The Wild Hunt” (2017).

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.

Banana guards grabbed by the monster in Adventure Time, S10E1 “The Wild Hunt” (2017).

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.

The Grumbo grabs a sleeping banana guard before Finn & Jake attack in Adventure Time, S10E1 “The Wild Hunt” (2017).

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.”

The Grumbo in in Adventure Time, S10E1 “The Wild Hunt” (2017).

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).

Finn’s melted sword after slaying the Grumbo in Adventure Time, S10E1 “The Wild Hunt” (2017).

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.

Fern as the Green Knight in Adventure Time, S10E5 “Seventeen” (2017).

Richard Fahey, Ph.D
University of Notre Dame
Medieval Institute

Public Humanities and the Future of Medieval Studies

It is the work of public humanities to question how we wield memories of the past for present ends. Through community-engaged teaching and learning, medievalists have the opportunity to pass on memories of the Middle Ages that move us toward social justice. We must begin by telling the dangerous memories of suffering that marked the millennium between 500 and 1500 C.E.: the expulsion of Jews from Christian kingdoms, Crusades against Islamic rulers in the Holy Land, and other instances of violence against religious and ethnic minorities. However, violence is not the whole story. At different times and places during these 1000 years, people of different religions and cultures lived peaceably side by side. Jews and Christians in Islamic Spain shared new learnings from Greek and Arabic writings on theology and philosophy. In the Levant, crusaders of diverse ethnicities farmed alongside their Muslim neighbors, not only tolerating the other’s religion but even appreciating their style of worship. Many Christians converted to Islam. Travel along trade and pilgrimage routes brought medieval people into contact with cultural others as they traversed commercial networks spanning from China through Syria and around the Mediterranean to North Africa and Europe. Migration compelled people to settle far from home, carrying their culture with them and adapting to their new circumstances. This is the more complicated story we need to tell.

A student studies a facsimile of the Catalan Atlas in the Medieval Institute library.

Through public humanities initiatives, medievalists can engage community partners in remembering a messier, more complex Middle Ages and discovering the relevance of that memory to our messy and complex world today. At Notre Dame, the Medieval Institute is animating students and faculty to engage the wider community on campus and beyond. This fall we hosted Game Day events during which the community could learn from local artisans who practice historically informed crafts. We sponsored roundtables that put MI faculty fellows in conversation with scholars working on labor and religion to discuss issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic. This spring we are partnering with a local public high school to offer an elective history course on the global Middle Ages and participating in the public library’s hands-on science programming. These initiatives invite our community partners to think critically with us about popular (mis)conceptions of medieval culture, to challenge modern assumptions about the past, and to lift up the stories of marginated medieval peoples: women, laborers, and religious and ethnic minorities.

Mark Booth talks about training falcons for hunting at a Game Day event in September 2021.

It is challenging to envision ways of engaging a broad public in reimagining history and its meaning for us today. Nevertheless, I care about this work because the dangerous memories of the medieval past help me imagine – and hope for – a more just future. In the political theology of Johann Baptist Metz, the dangerous memory of Jesus Christ, executed by the state for challenging the power of empire, is subversive of the status quo and impels Christians to work for liberation. I perceive medieval art and literature to be full of similarly dangerous memories: of women who dared to write against the fearful and patriarchal theologies of their day, of poets who critiqued ecclesiastical abuses of money and power, of reformers who wanted all people to have access to sacred scripture in their mother tongue and who dreamed of “a poor church, for the poor.” Theirs are the stories I want to remember from the Middle Ages – stories that feel urgently relevant for our time, as dangerous then as they are now.

Annie Killian, Ph.D.
Public Humanities Postdoctoral Fellow
Medieval Institute
University of Notre Dame