The timeless allure of King Arthur’s Gawain: ‘He feels like the first modern protagonist’

In the dark age of my childhood I loved the tales of King Arthur. My favourite knight was Gawain, the king’s nephew, who falls into shadow and then redeems himself at the end. For a year, maybe two, I followed his exploits with the clenched fanboy intensity that others reserved for footballers or singers, pursuing him through paperbacks and comic books, from Roger Lancelyn Green to John Steinbeck, as though each retelling was a fresh start, a brand new adventure. The other knights were largely fixed in place. They were signifiers of virtue (Galahad), evil (Mordred) or all-round knightly prowess (Lancelot). But Gawain jumped around. Gawain had an arc. He was, I now see, my first literary crush.

Arguably he jumped around too much, this indefatigable nearly-man of Arthurian legend (nearly pure enough to drink from the Grail; nearly tough enough to beat Lancelot in battle). Read one book and you’d come away thinking that Gawain was a hero. Read another and he was recast as a boorish thug. He was a lead actor in some, a bit-part player in others. He was variously brave, weak, brutish, venal and steadfast; as smart as a wolf and as dumb as a chimp. The more books I read, the more confused I became. You never quite knew where you stood with Gawain.

We can meet him again (or at least another version of the man) in David Lowery’s The Green Knight, a deep dark adventure story lifted from the epic 14th-century poem. On this occasion he is played by Slumdog Millionaire and The Personal History of David Copperfield star Dev Patel (skinny shoulders, pensive frown) in a tale that weds chivalric romance with full-blown pagan horror. Gawain comes riding through the windswept badlands to honour a tit-for-tat agreement with a mystical, apparently unkillable warrior. But it’s indoors, in the warm, where the real drama unfolds.

Lowery – an American film-maker based in Texas – has relished the poem since his teens. He says Gawain is nuanced, complex; by turns brave and courteous, worldly and fallible. That’s part of his appeal. “I don’t intend this to be a definitive representation of the character,” Lowery tells me. “What Dev and I wanted to do was create an iteration of Gawain that can stand alongside the many others that have populated Arthurian lore over the past eight or nine centuries – and maybe add some new texture to an already dense and marvellous mythology.”

Inevitably, he is riding across some well trodden ground. Since its rediscovery in the Victorian era, the poem has undergone several hundred translations. It has been converted into films, plays and an opera. Most attempts get it wrong, reckons Sarah Phelps, the screenwriter best known for her dark, knotty Agatha Christie adaptations. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight has obsessed her for years. She says it’s the text she has always most longed to adapt. She pitched it once years ago and was knocked back, consoling herself by writing episodes of the TV series Camelot instead. Phelps loves what she has seen of the Lowery version. “Because it needs to be sinewy, feral, stinking, threatening,” she says. “It needs to be nightmarish, hallucinogenic and scary. It’s Heart of Darkness for the late medieval period.”

As for Gawain, he is basically a lamb to the slaughter. He describes himself as “the weakest [of the knights], the most wanting in wisdom”. In accepting the challenge presented by the Green Knight (essentially: you cut off my head, then I’ll cut off yours), he knows he can’t win in conventional terms. He assumes that the danger is out there in the wild when it’s really much closer to home, at his bedside. He’s not your typical hero. It’s not your obvious quest.

This is what Phelps loves about it: that psychological complexity, the shadowy subtext that turns out to be text. “If you look at Lancelot or Galahad, they’re basically defined by their labours. But the weird thing about Gawain is that you’re watching someone mature as a human being, dancing on the edge of things, starting to engage with the world. He becomes the antihero of his own anti-story. That feels very modern to me. Maybe that makes him the first modern protagonist.”

The Green Knight’s wife and Gawain, Cotton MS Nero.
The Green Knight’s wife and Gawain, Cotton MS Nero. Photograph: Alamy

I like this idea that Gawain is modern, somehow ahead of his time, complicated in a way that the other knights aren’t. It helps make sense of the man’s personality; what the Arthurian scholar Ryan Harper describes as “the elasticity of his character”. Gawain is flexible, regenerative; the rubbery character actor of the Arthurian universe. He’s a supernatural bruiser in Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur and an insubstantial gadfly in Tennyson’s Idylls of the King; a charming rogue in the BBC series Merlin and a cantankerous bulldog in John Boorman’s Excalibur. In most versions of the Camelot legend, Gawain dies at the end, struck down while battling Mordred’s army. But in The Buried Giant, Kazuo Ishiguro conspires to show us an old Gawain, the sole survivor of Arthur’s reign, years after England has slid back towards darkness. Finding him there was a happy surprise, like bumping into a long-lost friend on the street.

Ad Putter is a professor of medieval English literature and co-editor of The Works of the Gawain Poet. He explains that the reason that Gawain is confusing is because he’s a composite, the result of centuries of rewriting and repurposing. In the initial Arthurian chronicles, written in England in the 12th century, he was presented as an upstanding hero, Arthur’s right-hand man. But in the French romances that followed, his reputation went downhill. He was a dandy, a flirt; a womaniser, a brute. “We have a name for this process – it’s called epic degeneration,” Putter says. “People tire of the old heroes and want new ones to replace them. And that’s what happened in the French romances. Suddenly Lancelot becomes top dog. Gawain is moved aside to make room for him.”

Putter calls it degeneration, but he may mean the opposite. In losing ground as a hero, Gawain enriched himself as a character. He was sweet in his youth and then deepened and darkened. In his many incarnations, he becomes as flawed and mercurial as any character created by Alice Munro or Philip Roth; as confounding and unruly as our closest friends and family.

Ralph Ineson in The Green Knight (2021).
Ralph Ineson in The Green Knight (2021). Photograph: Landmark Media/Alamy

Which brings us back to the Green Knight tale, written by an unknown hand in the late 1300s. Putter explains that this poet did not work in isolation. He would have read both the chronicles and the romances, and known the differing accounts, to the point where he was able to pit them against each other. Waylaid in a castle, en-route to the green chapel, Gawain is tempted three times by the wife of the lord. The woman knows his reputation. She can’t believe he’d turn her down. And this is where the poem turns fiendishly metatextual, positively postmodern. We have the sense of a Gawain who is at war with his demons, the other versions of himself. He’s determined not to backslide. He wants to be a better man.

It should be noted that Gawain fights other battles as well. The text makes mention of bulls and bears and dragons and snakes, but it skims over these conflicts in 10 perfunctory lines. The real challenge – the real quest – takes place at the castle, in Gawain’s hushed exchanges with the woman in his room. This is what he is judged on: the little questions he’s asked, not the big beasts he runs through.

That, Putter suspects, is the text’s secret weapon. “It’s almost like detective fiction. We only discover how the story works at the end, at the green chapel, when Gawain is told that the big moment has already passed. Isn’t that the case in real life as well? We don’t really know when the critical moments will come. When we’re being tested. What’s important and what’s not.”

How much of this did I pick up as a child? Probably nothing, certainly not consciously. I went to the Arthurian legends for more obvious reasons: for magic spells and betrayals; for the clash of bright swords in dark forests. But I was drawn to Gawain because he interested me and puzzled me. Maybe that’s a good basis for any long-standing relationship. The desire to figure a person out; the unspoken acknowledgment that you’re never going to. That’s true of all the best people, real or imagined. It’s true of a character redrawn over centuries, too.

It’s Christmas at Camelot, another year nearly gone, when the young knight embarks on his impossible quest and the old story resets to the beginning again. He rides over the drawbridge and into the woods; a hero for his time, whatever time that might be. He’s scared and he’s noble, he’s weak and he’s strong, the definitive Gawain until the next one comes along.

The Green Knight is released in the UK later this year.

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