After almost forty-years without a major motion picture adaption, David Lowery’s The Green Knight (2021) was much anticipated and made quite a splash, but pulled mixed reviews from scholars and critics.
The film’s primary source material, the medieval alliterative poem Gawain and the Green Knight, happens to be my personal favorite work in Middle English, my favorite Arthurian romance and my second favorite work of medieval literature following only Beowulf. Indeed, because I find both the story and poetics so fascinating, my very first blog explored possible functions of the bob and wheel in Gawain and the Green Knight. I have always read the poem as a tale of a hero brought low and the three conclusions offered by the Green Knight, Gawain himself and King Arthur’s court provide a variety of interpretations from recognition of the hero’s humanity to his feelings of failure and shame to the merriment and celebration of his chivalry by king and court.
The poem’s concatenation on themes (such as schame “shame”) drives these points home but also mimics the psychological experience of anxiety and a nagging, internal monologue. The mystery of the enigmatic Green Knight haunts the entire tale. The parallelism, especially between Gawain and the Green Knight, as well as the playful emphasis on games, exchanges and hunts produces a thrilling, at times dizzying, narrative that is rich with implication and subterfuge.
Often with modern film adaptions of medieval literature, directors and producers make what I consider to be a fatal mistake of perceiving virtually every medieval tale as an action movie. In my view, this fundamental bias plagues every film adaption of the poem to date, and when I learned Lowery’s The Green Knight (2021) was under production and forthcoming, I will admit I was rather skeptical. However, even from the trailer, it seemed—at least to me—this adaption of the medieval poem might get some things right which previous film adaptions like Stephen Weeks’s Sword of the Valiant: The Legend of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (1984) staring the late Sean Connery as the Green Knight did not seem to pick up on. When The Green Knight was released in theaters, I went to see it, making it the only film I have seen in a movie theater since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Thankfully, it did not disappoint.
There were some odd decisions which I did not quite understand such as the introduction of a talking fox. Similarly, demoting Gawain from the status of knight made little sense to me and rather than as an egoistic knight displaying hubris, Gawain appears as a desperate and neglected aspirer doomed to a life of psychological trauma. The humanization of Gawain was apparent throughout, and Dev Patel gives a stunning performance in his role as Gawain, but the arch of his character is somewhat flattened due to these changes in Gawain’s status and characterization. Still, overall, this movie hits the nail on the head for me.
In particular, the Green Knight is in full green man form and spot on. The story is presented not as an action movie but as a psychological thriller. Emphasis on games, exchanges and hunts is imbedded throughout the movie. The visual components from cinematography to mise-en-scène are eye-popping as the film frequently displayed surreal imagery to create a sort of psychedelic mysticism associated with the Green Knight as well as Morgan Le Fay and Gawain’s quest as a whole. Additionally King Arthur and Queen Guinevere are shown as diminished in their old age, and this generates a sort of magical realism within the film.
For some, the movie will perhaps be too vulgar or too artsy-fartsy. Others, expecting to watch Gawain’s epic battles, may likewise be disappointed. Nevertheless, I agree with reviewers who observe a notable affinity between the medieval source and this modern rendition. In my opinion, Lowery’s The Green Knight represents a modern film adaption like few others: one that has its finger on the pulse of the medieval poem which inspired its creation.
Richard Fahey PhD in English University of Notre Dame
Educational training was the cornerstone of ecclesiastical and monastic life in the early medieval period, with the aim of producing knowledgeable clergy, who might then serve as spiritual and intellectual shepherds for their population. However, as Kathryn Kerby-Fulton explains in her recent monograph, The Clerical Proletariat and the Resurgence of Medieval English Poetry, because universities in the late Middle Ages were turning out more clergy than the church could hire in beneficed positions, many found themselves experiencing a crisis of vocation. Kerby-Fulton argues that this crisis produces a “clerical proletariat” many of whom ultimately become civil servants, secretaries in great households, writing office clerks, or casual liturgical laborers, especially in London. She shows how this crisis of mass underemployment is further exacerbated by pluralism (the unethical practice of hogging multiple benefices).
Beneficed priests were in a privileged position: they received both income from parish holdings and wealth from the church. Although medieval universities were producing highly educated clergy, there were more qualified candidates than ever before, while at the same time, beneficed priests were sometimes acquiring multiple benefices and then outsourcing the work of delivering the mass and managing the church operations to poorer paid vicars, chaplains and lesser church officials, while pocketing most of the money themselves.
Kerby-Fulton argues that this sharp increase in qualified clergy and decrease in beneficed positions, resulted not only in a vocational crisis and the creations of a clerical proletariat, but ultimately in a resurgence in Middle English poetry, as this class of clerks saw more opportunities for writing English because they were working for the laity, though many still worked with Latin (or French) documents all day long. Figures like Thomas Hoccleve, a late medieval poet-clerk, comment regularly on the financial struggles and tenuous existences of the unbeneficed clerical proletariat, observable in his poem “The Complaint” which states:
I oones fro Westminstir cam, Vexid ful grevously with thoughtful hete, Thus thoughte I: ‘A greet fool I am This pavyment a-daies thus to bete And in and oute laboure faste and swete, Wondringe and hevinesse to purchace, Sithen I stonde out of al favour and grace.
“When once I came from Westminster, very bitterly troubled with burning anxiety, I thought like this: ‘I am a great fool to beat these streets like this every day and to work doggedly and sweat indoors and outdoors, in order to earn nothing but restlessness and misery, since I am fallen out of all good fortune and grace.’” (Jenni Nuttall, 183-189). In this passage, we learn how Hoccleve is very upset with his vocational prospects (184), and he deems himself a greet fool “great fool” (185) for working endless and performing in and oute laboure faste and swete “firm and sweaty labor, indoors and outdoors” (187) with nothing to show for it but wondringe and hevinesse “wandering and hardship” (188).
Similarly, in his poem, The Regiment of Princes, Hoccleve laments how he initially pursued the priesthood but ultimately forgoes these dreams and instead marries. Hoccleve describes his vocational rollercoaster, emphasizing that at first he sought Aftir sum benefice “after some benefice” but states that whan noon cam, / By procees I me weddid atte laste, “when none came, in time, I did wed at last” (1452-53). Moreover, Hoccleve stresses that his initial reluctance to marry is specifically because he long held hopes of a career as a beneficed priest, explaining that I whilom thoghte / Han been a preest “for a while I thought I would have been a priest” (1447-48). In both poems, Hoccleve expresses his frustration with the vocational crisis of underemployment which produces the clerical proletariat that Kerby-Fulton examines in her book.
Members of the clerical proletariat loom large in Middle English literary culture, and various characters in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, including the Clerk of Oxenford, the hapless lover and parish clerk, Absolon (in the “Miller’s Tale“), and the noble Parson, who is perhaps the most virtuous figure on the pilgrimage. Similarly, William Langland (the author of Piers Plowman) was such a clerk, and likely so were the authors of the Owl and Nightingale and Laȝamon’s Brut. The University of Pennsylvania Press notes that “Taking in proletarian themes, including class, meritocracy, the abuse of children (“Choristers’ Lament”), the gig economy, precarity, and the breaking of intellectual elites (Book of Margery Kempe), The Clerical Proletariat and the Resurgence of Medieval English Poetry speaks to both past and present employment urgencies.”
Indeed, many modern untenured scholars (including myself), who work three or more academic jobs to pay the bills, will surely identify with the position Hoccleve voices in his complaint. As Kerby-Fulton insightfully observes in her book, the circumstances outlined in this late Middle English poem closely resemble the current crisis of vocation within modern academia, where well-paying tenured faculty positions are disappearing as the universities seek to outsource more and more of the work of education to adjunct professors, the modern equivalent of the late medieval clerical proletariat. Meanwhile, universities continue to produce an endless stream of highly skilled and qualified professionals, many of whom will sadly face chronic underemployment and even possible unemployment as a result of over-qualification and unethical practices now embedded in our private university system that is seemingly more concerned with profits than with the future of the academy.
Richard Fahey PhD in English University of Notre Dame
Further Reading& Selected Bibliography
Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales. Harvard University: The President and Fellows of Harvard College, 2021.
The Crusades reveal that medieval attitudes towards sexuality were not always rigid and repressed. In fact, medieval societies expressed varying levels of tolerance and fluidity depending on circumstances and necessity. Unlike what a simple understanding of the Crusades would imply, Christians and Muslims did not occupy such disparate spheres that sexual relations between them—even those as legitimate as matrimony—were inconceivable. At times, miscegenation was tolerated. Moreover, while attitudes towards sexual relations with the religious ‘other’ remained largely (though not always) negative, the factors that governed these attitudes varied.
Literary sources and medieval chronicles reveal a complexity of attitudes and concerns. Lynn Ramey, in her 2001 work Christian, Saracen and Genre in Medieval French Literature, has explored medieval attitudes towards miscegenation as expressed in Frankish literature.[i] A genre of romance literature, called Chansons de Geste, that became popular in the Frankish world between 1150 and 1250, reveal anxieties over interfaith marriage in Western Christendom. This genre of literature reveals racial biases against Muslims, but at the same time, present models of marriage between Muslims and Christians that accommodate these biases. A recurring component in these poems is the scene of baptism: a symbolic enactment of washing away the spiritual dirtiness of the previous faith to embrace the purity of Christianity. But the dirtiness is more than spiritual. These texts reveal the concern over biological inheritance from the Muslim spouse in interfaith marriages. In her article, “Medieval Miscegenation: Hybridity and the Anxiety of Inheritance,”Lynn Ramey explores reproductive anxieties that texts such as King of Tars reveal, and argues that there was serious apprehension over whether the offspring of an interfaith marriages would be healthy. She traces these fears to Aristotelean, Galenic, and Hippocratic models of reproduction that Christendom had inherited. Ramey suggests that religious traits were perceived as biological and inheritable, and most importantly, undesirable. In the King of Tars, for instance, a marriage alliance between a “Saracen” king and a Christian princess leads to the birth of a defective offspring. However, the conversion of the Muslim king to Christianity corrects the offspring’s birth defects. Christian features, therefore, were desirable while Muslim ones were not. Thus, religion determined biology. King of Tars, she argues, offers conversion as a suitable means of eliminating undesirable traits. Thus, the “dark” Saracen king turns “white” upon conversion and the “blob” of an offspring becomes a beautiful boy following his baptism.[ii]
In the poem, King of Tars, the desired inheritable physical traits are achieved upon conversion. However, in other poems, there is less certainty over the mutability of physical traits. In these poems, assimilation is permissible only when the Muslim fulfils two major criteria: he or she fits the Christian standard of beauty and he or she willingly converts to Christianity. The Capture of Orange, composed around 1150, for instance, narrates the tale of a Crusader knight, William of Toulouse who falls in love with the beautiful and noble-hearted, yet, religiously “misled” Saracen queen, Orable of Orange. In the poem, the Crusaders describe the physical beauty and sexual appeal of the ‘Saracen’ queen in the following terms:
King Teebo’s wife, so fair of hair and head: You’ll never find her peer for loveliness In Christendom or any Pagan realm! Such tenderness! Such slender hips and legs, And falcon’s eyes, so bright and so intense! Alas for youth and beauty so misled In ignorance of God and His largesse! How fine a place she’d make a Christian bed For somebody who’d save her soul from hell![iii]
Orable, therefore, fulfils the Christian beauty standard by being ‘fair of hair and head’, and following the capture of Orange and the defeat of King Teebo, she converts willingly to Christianity in order to marry William. Similar to The Capture of Orange wherein the Muslim woman weds a Christian Knight, the Aye of Avignon, composed around 1190, features a noble-hearted Muslim King who is willing to leave his faith and his land behind in order to wed a Christian woman. Again, in this poem the Muslim man is honorable but, most importantly, handsome:
KING GANOR WAS as gracious and kind as he was bold. In one hand he was holding a pilgrim-staff of oak, But took off from the other a glove with stitches sewn. The graceful hand beneath it was long, and pale as snow, And, on its little finger, displayed a ring of gold.[iv]
Ramey points out that medieval romances read like legal treatises on marriage, recommending assimilation of those parts of Muslim culture that were perceived as non-threatening in Western Christendom and “othering” those aspects that were. The dark skin, for example, was alleged to be a physical sign of barbarism. However, the internal virtues of patience, tolerance and courage in a “Saracen were grudgingly admired.”[v]
These poems, thus, seek to balance the Christian penetration of Muslim culture by absorbing valuable traits of the latter while at the same time emphasizing the ultimate victory of the former. For instance, in King Ganor’s case, he is not required to change his name; while in the case of the queen in Capture of Orange, she is baptized as ‘Guibourc.’ The latter expresses the symbolic victory of Christianity over Islam through the male penetration of the female: the Christian knight acquires a Muslim wife by baptizing her. Moreover, since inheritance of name, title, and the honors associated thereof was paternal in Western Christendom, changing the woman’s name presented no problem. Further, there is little unease when a woman sheds her name upon marriage. On the other hand, all the desirable achievements associated with King Ganor’s name could not be inherited by his sons had his name changed. This would likely create cause for concern in the medieval imagination. Moreover, a man shedding his name stirs unease not quite on the same level as but somewhat similar to castration. The idea is that a man is cuckolded or less manly when he changes too much for his wife. So, the change has to be just enough to establish the superiority of Christianity, but not so much that it establishes the dominance of the woman over the man. Consequently, King Ganor’s name stays the same despite his baptism. Chansons de Geste, thus, present a fictional playing field where medieval anxieties over miscegenation are revealed and resolved.
Anxieties over biological inheritance is apparent not only in literature but also in the laws of the Fourth Lateran Council, 1215. Canon 50, for example, prohibits marriages to the fourth degree of kinship. The reason provided for this restriction is a biological one: “The number four agrees well with the prohibition concerning bodily union about which the Apostle says, that the husband does not rule over his body, but the wife does; and the wife does not rule over her body, but the husband does; for there are four humours in the body, which is composed of the four elements.”[vi] But, it is not merely biological inheritance that is addressed in the Fourth Lateran Council. Canon 68 discloses concerns about impurity incurred due to intermixing. This Canon mandates that Jews and Saracens should dress differently from Christians:
A difference of dress distinguishes Jews or Saracens from Christians in some provinces, but in others a certain confusion has developed so that they are indistinguishable. Whence it sometimes happens that by mistake Christians join with Jewish or Saracen women, and Jews or Saracens with Christian women. In order that the offence of such a damnable mixing may not spread further, under the excuse of a mistake of this kind, we decree that such persons of either sex, in every Christian province and at all times, are to be distinguished in public from other people by the character of their dress.[vii]
This decree suggests that it was difficult to distinguish between Christians and non-Christians which allows for free mixing between the two groups. While this Canon expresses the concern that uninhibited ‘mixings’ often led to sexual relations, it might also reveal apprehension about the exchange of ideas and practices between Christians and non-Christians. Hence the insistence that other religious communities dress differently so as to contain all types of mingling or at the very least make such interactions in plain view and, by extension, manageable.
The apprehension over exchange of ideas and practices is obvious in Canon 70, which prohibits new converts from retaining any remnants of their old faith: “Certain people who have come voluntarily to the waters of sacred baptism, as we learnt, do not wholly cast off the old person in order to put on the new more perfectly. For, in keeping remnants of their former rite, they upset the decorum of the Christian religion by such a mixing.”[viii] This canon points to a phenomenon that was probably occurring in Christendom, that is, of non-Christians converting to Christianity as a means to achieve goals other than a genuine acceptance of a new faith and, therefore, converts did not necessarily shed the customs and traditions of their previous faith. Moreover, even if there was genuine intent, a combination of factors such as habit, comfort, and social pressure may have caused them to revert to the practices of their former tradition. The problem that the Canon addresses is not a biological one, but that of maintaining religious decorum while receiving converts from other faiths and traditions.
Literature in Western Christendom reveals an anxiety about biological inheritance in a mixed marriage. These anxieties appear to stem from the idea that religion was inheritable. Along the same lines, these poems permit assimilation of only those Muslims who fulfil Christian standards of beauty. In other words, in order for the Muslim to be assimilated, he or she should either already have the physical attributes of a “Christian” or conform to those attributes upon baptism. Biological inheritance is a concern in the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 as well. However, the principal focus of these decrees is the maintenance of religious homogeneity and decorum.
The most fascinating feature about the study of medieval miscegenation is the extent to which these negative yet complex attitudes persist in the modern world. Clearly, even today there is unease and concern about marrying a person of a different race or culture. While the idea of having sexual relations outside racial categories may sound appealing, the extent of difference—physical or otherwise—that individuals are willing to tolerate may not be substantial enough to allow such relationships to succeed. Whether it is sexual purity or biological inheritance or religious decorum that was the concern during the Crusades or whether it is the extent of difference individuals tolerate in modern day culture, miscegenation stirred and continues to stir complex attitudes in ancient and medieval as well as modern societies.
Ambika Natarajan Visiting Lecturer and Research Associate UM-DAE Centre for Excellence in Basic Sciences
[i] Lynn Ramey, Christian, Saracen and Genre in Medieval French Literature (New York: Routledge, 2001).
[ii] Lynn Ramey, “Medieval Miscegenation: Hybridity and the Anxiety of Inheritance,” in Contextualizing the Muslim Other in Medieval Christian Discourse, ed. Jerold C. Frakes (New York: Palgrave Macmillan 2011), 1-20.
[iii] “The Capture of Orange,” in Heroines of the French Epic: A Second Selection of Chansons de Geste, trans. Michael Newth (Hungerford: D.S Brewer, 2014), 17.