Sir Gawain and the Green Knight – World Poets
Venue: Brendon Books, Old Brewery Buildings, Bath Place, Taunton, Somerset TA1 4ER
The newspapers have been all over the latest film sensation The Green Knight primarily because it is based on one of the most exciting verse narratives of all time and place.
Unrivalled in the canon, and huge fun for an evening, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, at 2530 lines a work of enormous imaginative vigour and poetic craftsmanship whose sole manuscript was saved from a fire, has had literary detectives swarming all over it. They have decided that it was written by an unknown hand somewhere in the north-west midlands, and possibly around 1375.
The origins of the story can be traced to 8th century Ireland and French Arthurian legend. An adventure like no other, starting in Camelot and then venturing out into a world of mirage, danger and allure, the poetry and narrative drama are simply wonderful throughout.
When a huge stranger enters the main hall in the great castle during a banquet and invites any of the assembly there to take a single swipe at him with his own axe, in return for a similar swipe at them in the future, he has no volunteers.
Gawain finally accepts the challenge because, he says, he is the youngest and so his life was the most dispensable of all those present. The Knight bows his neck, Gawain raises the axe and decapitates the Knight with his single blow; whereupon the Knight picks up his head, confirms a return meeting with Gawain a year and a day from thence, tucks his head under his arm, re-mounts his horse, and rides off into the murk.
Aye, and what then? How the story, the intricate plot, opens up from then on is at the heart of this poem’s unique magnetic force.
By the end you are left feeling you have drunk to the dregs an inspiring poetic lesson in courage, temptation, seduction, and, along the way, how to face the future and not be disabled by fear of the morrow. The metaphor of a wholly unexpected, dramatic and potentially fatal intrusion into normal life packs an additional punch at a time when living in a pandemic is still so vivid.
We emerge from the theatre of it all blinking to discover that we have been left feeling more able to pull out all the stops in our own lives and regain as much control as we can of our outer and inner worlds.
Top picture: Guinevere and the Court at Camelot, Raimund von Wichera (1862-1925)
Lower picture: Illustration showing the Green Knight holding up his decapitated head, from the manuscript of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight held at the British Library in London (Cotton Nero MS A.x)