A Knight of No Honor: Adapting Gawain in David Lowery’s The Green Knight

“Gawain as good was acknowledged and as gold refinéd,
 devoid of every vice and with virtues adorned.”

– The Pearl Poet, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (lines 33–34, J.R.R. Tolkien’s translation)

Spoiler Warning: Mild spoilers for both the 14th century poem and the 21st century movie adaption of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

(700) Years of Chivalry

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a 14th-century Arthurian Romance in verse written by an anonymous author known as the Pearl Poet. It tells the story of Sir Gawain, the youngest knight of the Round Table and the strange game he begins one Christmas Day.

A mysterious knight, green of both skin and attire, enters King Arthur’s court and challenges any who dares to strike him one blow with his great axe if, in return, they will allow him to strike them in the same manner at his Green Chapel one year hence. Gawain takes up the challenge and in a single blow severs the Green Knight’s head from his shoulders.

Unfazed, the Green Knight picks up his head and turns to leave. “At my Chapel, one year hence!” the severed head calls out as it’s body carries it out the door. So begins a tale of honor and doom.

On July 30, 2021, David Lowery released The Green Knight, his adaption of the classic poem, starring Dev Patel as Gawain. As a massive fan of the poem and Arthurian literature in general, I was extremely excited for this adaption. Now, having seen it, I was struck both by how faithful and how remarkable different Lowery’s adaption is.

The Armor Makes the Knight

In the poem, before Sir Gawain departs on his quest to the Green Chapel, both he and his horse Gringolet are arrayed in finery. Among Gawain’s accoutrements are a damask doublet from Tharsia and golden spurs. Gringolet wears a crimson horse-breastplate (called a poitrel) studded with gold and a saddle fringed in golden tassels.

The Pearl Poet makes explicit that this finery is not merely fashion, but represents the inner fineness of Gawain’s soul. Gold in particular is a metaphor for moral purity.

This scene from the poem is lovingly rendered in Lowery’s Green Knight. Particularly beautiful is the prop design of Gawain’s shield. As in the poem, the shield has as its device a pentangle (five pointed star knot) representing the five knightly virtues, and on its interior a painting of the Virgin Mary that Gawain may look at for courage when he is sorely tested.

But there is one key difference in both this scene and the rest of Lowery’s adaption. While the Pearl Poet tells us from an omniscient perspective that the clothes represent Gawain’s true inner virtue, in the movie Queen Guinevere merely prays that the armor represent the truth of Gawain’s character, a prayer that will go unanswered. A scant handful of scenes later, the beautiful shield is sundered, splitting down the center of the Madonna’s face.

Gawain the Impetuous Fail-Son

Lowery’s Green Knight replaces the chivalric hero at the center of the poem with a rather self-centered character who Lowery describes as a “cad.” According to Lowery in an interview with SlashFilm, he cast Dev Patel to play his hero in part because Patel was so charismatic an actor that he could make the audience like his pathetic protagonist.

The Gawain of Lowery’s adaption is not even a knight at the film’s beginning, and spends most of the movie wandering aimlessly through a quest meant for a nobler, less human hero. Patel does a truly marvelous job of playing a living embodiment of imposter syndrome: an overgrown boy who should have been a knight but cannot even manage to be a man.

I couldn’t help wondering if this was how I would perform, if thrust suddenly onto a hero’s journey. Very few real people would walk a path towards certain death with the self-assured honor of the Pearl Poet’s Sir Gawain. To be a person, I think, is to be somewhat dishonorable, at least when compared with the hero of an Arthurian Romance.

Final Thoughts & Critiques

Lowery’s Green Knight is a more complicated and fraught retelling of an ancient Romance. I thoroughly enjoyed and was routinely surprised both by its detailed faithfulness to the original text and its stark deviations at key moments.

Perhaps my only criticism of the film was its choice not to explore the gay subtext of the poem. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a famous for its queer undertones: Gawain exchanges no less than six kisses of increasing intensity with one Lord Bertilak de Hautdesert as part of a strange game. In the film, this section of the story is much reduced in scope. And while this choice makes perfect sense in the context of Lowery’s overall shift in narrative focus, I hope to one day see another adaption which explores this fascinating element of the original work more fully.

Book Review

We Do This ‘Til We Free Us: Abolitionist Organizing and Transforming Justice by Mariame Kaba

Publisher: Haymarket Books
Genre: Political Science, Essays
Pages: 240
Format: Paperback
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My Rating: 4/5 stars

Summary

Educator, organizer, and curator Mariame Kaba collects seven years of essays and conversations on Prison Industrial Complex (PIC) abolition into one volume.

Kaba has been a foundational organizer in multiple prison abolition projects, including Survived and Punished (which helps free “survivors of domestic and sexual violence and other forms of gender violence who are imprisoned for survival actions”) and Project NIA (which aims “to dramatically reduce the reliance on arrest, detention, and incarceration for addressing youth violence”).

For those who were first introduced to PIC abolitionism last summer through #DefundThePolice, Kaba presents a holistic vision of the movement’s history, present, and future.

Thoughts

The modern theory and practice of PIC abolitionism grew out of the civil rights movement half a century ago. The movement’s roots, as the name implies, can be traced back to the slavery abolition movement that presaged the American Civil War. However, PIC abolition has been almost entirely excluded from mainstream conversations about the American justice system, until its ideas became central to the Ferguson uprising of 2014 and the George Floyd uprising of 2020. But as “Defund the Police”—the first demand of #8toAbolition—became a policy demand of a plurality of local Black Lives Matter organizations, the national news media were forced to suddenly contend with the work and vision of PIC abolitionists.

By the summer of 2020, Mariame Kaba had been writing about PIC abolition for a decade on her blog Prison Culture. I was introduced to PIC abolition through Kaba’s work, as were many other young abolitionists. She is a gateway for a new generation into the ongoing struggle for emancipation.

Kaba’s greatest strength, in my opinion, is the combination of her writing’s accessibility and her scrupulous care to cite the sources of her ideas. I often have trouble understanding works of political theory, but Kaba stubbornly refuses to deal in the abstract; every idea she presents is grounded in examples drawn from her work as an organizer. Likewise, each idea is attributed to the activists, organizers, and writers who provided her with its germ. ‘Til We Free Us thus functions as not only an introductory text, but an index of foundational PIC abolitionist writers (almost entirely Black women).

If you would like a taste of what this book offers, I’d recommend starting with Kaba’s June 2020 opinion piece for the New York Times, “Yes, We Mean Literally Abolish the Police,” which is also included in this anthology.

A Childhood in Books and the Importance of Local Libraries

“A library is a place that is a repository of information and gives every citizen equal access to it. That includes health information. And mental health information. It’s a community space. It’s a place of safety, a haven from the world. It’s a place with librarians in it.”

– Neil Gaiman, “Why our future depends on libraries, reading and daydreaming

Opening Pages

My first memories of reading come from when I was about four or so. My dad sat me on his lap and pulled out an illustrated edition of The Hobbit. I can still picture the wonder on the faces of the elves as little Bilbo (about the same size as I was) held up the Arkenstone for them to behold. When we’d finished I asked to start again.

But my first memories of reading by myself come from the library. We moved within biking distance of Red Mountain Branch Library shortly before my eighth birthday.

I remember walking into the building, the sweat from cycling up the long climb of Adobe Street in the summer sun cooling in the blast of the air conditioning. And just inside and off to the left of the entrance was a big archway of yellow, orange, and green blocks. The neon sign above it read “Children’s Library.” I took the sign literally: this was the part of the library that belonged to me.

The children’s library had its own desk and its own librarian. This meant I didn’t have to stand in line with a bunch of adults to ask my questions. And boy did I have a lot of questions.

They let me sign up for my own library card, highlighter yellow with my name scrawled across the back in illegible chicken scratch. The limit was 35 books at the time (a limit I knew because I regularly hit it). I checked out every book in the Redwall series by Brian Jacques, went home with a bulging backpack, and by the time they were due I was ready for a new series.

Middle Chapters

By the time I was thirteen, I was far too cool to be seen near the children’s section. I was a teenager, which to me meant getting a stool and grabbing something from the top shelves (though I’d often sneak back to children’s section when no one was watching to nab the latest installation in Brandon Mull’s Fablehaven series).

In 2013, Red Mountain Branch opened a new wing called THINKspot: a place full of sewing machines and 3D-printers and cameras and computers. Most important to me, it had a conference room anyone could sign out for a couple hours if they wanted to hold a meeting. This allowed me—a self-conscious teen who hated having people at his house—to host a writing group. I’m sure we were annoying, a bunch of loud fifteen year-olds who spent half the time watching YouTube videos on the conference room monitor. But no one ever told us we couldn’t be there.

That’s what meant the most to me about Red Mountain Branch. It was a place I could go without getting kicked out for being a kid or not having any money. Mesa has always suffered from a paucity of community-oriented spaces, which made the library that much more valuable. It was unique. It taught me what a community space could and should look like.

The Ending or New Beginnings

In 2019 it had been a couple of years since I’d last been to the library. But as fortune would have it, I moved back to Mesa and found myself living once again within biking distance of Red Mountain Branch.

In my absence, they’d opened a miniature bookstore where they sold off old books that were going out of circulation. Thumbing through the stacks, I found the exact (somewhat beat-up) copy of the first collection of Ray Bradbury stories I’d ever read. It cost two dollars. Holding it, I felt like my life had closed a circle.

On that same visit, I got a new library card. As I signed the back, I realized that when I got my last library card was the first time I ever signed my name.

Epilogue

On March 16, 2020, Red Mountain Branch temporarily closed its doors due to Covid-19. They would remain so for an entire year. During that year, librarians staffed the CARES call center—a City of Mesa initiative to inform residents how to petition the city government for funding for their small businesses, rent, or utilities if their ability to pay had been impacted by the pandemic.

As of April 2021, the branch has reopened for business. They had planned to debut a new monarch garden and reading sanctuary last year, but had been delayed (for obvious reasons). This sanctuary is now open, just in time for the Arizona’s monarch breeding season (March – June).

I encourage any readers who live in Mesa to go show the library your support as it reopens. A list of library events and updates can be found here. If you don’t feel comfortable going in-person, you can get books from the library online at phoenix.overdrive.com.

The author would like to express thanks to Joyce Abbott, the manager of Red Mountain Branch Library, for answering his questions regarding the library’s history and programming.

Book Review

A Taste of Honey by Kai Ashante Wilson

Publisher: Tor.com
Genre: Fantasy
Pages: 160
Format: Paperback
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My Rating: 4.5/5 stars

Summary

In this queer fantasy romance, Aqib bgm Sadiqi, son of a lesser noble in the court of Olorum, falls hard for Lucrio, a Daluçan soldier in the city as part of a trade delegation. Their love burns quick and bright, both knowing that each moment together is precious. All too soon the treaty will be signed, and Lucrio will be called back home. But they must also be careful, for the religion of Aqib’s forefathers does not approve of their union.

While kings and gods negotiate the future of their nations, Aqib and Lucrio negotiate their own futures in a treaty no less monumental for all that it defines—not relations between kingdoms and empires, but only between their two hearts.

Thoughts

The wonderful thing about short books is that you can read them in one sitting, and ever since Tor.com decided to start publishing novellas (one of the most underappreciated literary forms, in my humble opinion) I’ve been on the hype train.

A Taste of Honey is Wilson’s second novella from the imprint, set in the same world as his debut The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps. Tonally, however, the two books could not be more different. Sorcerer was a tour de force of experimental fantasy: a traditional sword-and-sorcery story with a non-linear narrative structure, and a masterful use of layered, naturalistic dialect. Imagine my surprise upon picking A Taste of Honey to discover an aching summer romance, full of queer longing and forbidden love.

Honey is in many ways a more casually approachable work than Sorcerer. This was a purposeful decision on the part of Wilson, who wrote in his essay “A POC Guide to Writing Dialect in Fiction” that “Many people won’t read even gorgeously written dialect—cannot, in the first place, perceive the beauty in it.” Therefore he toned-down the dialect in his second work, though he notes that Honey is still “deeply although subtly spiced with it.” His experiments with form, on the other hand, have been—if anything—heightened. The warp and weft of interwoven past and present give the book an almost dreamlike quality, imbedding the reader into a diachronic character study of Aqib bmg Sadiqi.

Aqib’s personal turmoil takes center stage in Honey. I’m not ashamed to say this book made me cry as Aqib’s thorny relationship with his family tore its way through my heart. (Don’t worry though, Ashante knows better than to violate romance’s sacred trust of the happily ever after).

And Lucrio—sweet Lucrio—is just about the best Prince Charming I’ve ever encountered in print. If you fall hopelessly in love with storybook characters (as I do), be prepared to go head over heels for this strong and gentle Daluçan soldier.

I recommend this book whole-heartedly. You would be hard pressed to find a more intimate portrait of tragedy, romance, and longing in a smaller package than A Taste of Honey. Come spend a chilly winter evening warmed by love and the light of the Olorum summer sun.