01 | Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Transcript for the episode 01 | Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Gwen (G): Hello, and welcome to this episode of “Hey, You Should Read This”, the podcast where I take recommendations from my friends on the internet–well, and the internet–on the books I should be reading already. And this is the first episode with a guest. I’m Gwen, and this is Caroline, my friend with a medieval degree? Say hi Caroline!
Caroline (C): Hi Caroline! It’s me!
G: Did I get your degree right? What do you technically have a degree in?
C: I have a bachelor’s degree in sci–not science, definitely not science– history…
C: And then a certificate in medieval studies.
G: Okay, just so we get that qualification out of the way, we are talking about Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which is–correct me if I’m wrong–epic medieval poetry?
C: I don’t know if it’s considered an epic, but it is a long poem.
G: Okay, yeah, because I am reading the Simon Armitage translation, and that was 189 pages, which is long for poetry. Especially when you’re not used to reading it, which is where I’m at. My familiarity with poetry is fairly low, as well as Camelot and Arthurian legends. But, I made it through, and I enjoyed it. Caroline, why did you recommend this book to me?
C: So this was kind of my first exposure to Arthurian actual text, and I read it initially in a medieval literature class, and I really enjoyed it. And I think that the whole game plotline is very interesting as well as the depiction of courtly romance kind of highlighted in Sir Gawain. And I just kinda had a good time with it, so that’s why I suggested it!
G: Yeah, so really quick, I think I understood most of it–I read it, I read the whole thing–and I think I got the gist, but if you could give us like the highlight reel synopsis of what happens in this book, just in case people haven’t read it or have read it and aren’t quite sure what’s going on, that would be lovely. Because I’m not quite sure what’s going on.
C: Yeah, so the poem kind of starts out with King Aruthur holding court at the end of the year, around Christmas time/New Year’s time, that’s the vibe. And there is Sir Gawain, who is his nephew, and while they are feasting, a giant green man rides in on a giant also green horse–
G: I got that, that part I was like woah, okay yeah, he is not kidding about the green knight. He is very green.
C: *Crosstalk laughter*
G: And also, has like thick-set thighs–
G: – And I was like, okay, so we’re noticing the shape of people’s thighs. That is a thing I have not yet encountered. Like I have not yet– who is looking at people’s thighs enough to describe them, you know what I mean?
G: So I think that might just be a medieval thing, or at least just a poetry thing, where it’s just like–they’re translating poetry, work with it. Yeah, he’s very green.
C: Yes, he’s very green. Comes in, and is like, “Hey I have a challenge to all of you. Behead me, hit me with this ax, and then in like a year and a day, I will do the same thing to you, and it’ll be a game.” Sir Gawain steps in after King Arthur is like “No, I’m gonna do it, you’re challenging my honor”, Sir Gawain is like “Maybe, we shouldn’t have the king agree to this.”
G: Yeah, we don’t want the king being beheaded. But for context–sorry to keep interrupting your summary, it’s very useful–but for context, my background with like Merlin and King Arthur stuff is BBC Merlin from like 2008. I am picturing all these like hot people from 2008 in my head, which is not– BBC Merlin is not particularly accurate, but I did enjoy it. But it also threw me a little bit that Gawain is apparently Arthur’s nephew?
C: In this version, yes.
G: Okay, so it’s one of those shifty-changy thingies that changes with the lore that changes on who’s telling it.
C: As most stories, yeah.
G: Okay, so my experience with Gawain in BBC Merlin was that he was just some guy. He was not like related to King Arthur. But I was like, okay, we’re rolling with it
G: We don’t want the king to be beheaded, that’s where we’re at.
C: Yes, so Gawain is like, “Hey, king, I’m obviously the lowliest of this court, I should do it, because you’re just so amazing. This is a challenge to prove– court shenanigans.” And basically, decapitates the Green Knight. But then the Green Knight just picks up his head and rides away.
G: I was not expecting that–
C: *Crosstalk* – And is like, “Meet me at the Green Chapel”
G: I was like, woah! I like, audibly, out loud, was like, “What is going on?”
C: It is so fun. I love it!
G: I was like, imagining it in a sort of Rick Riordan way. LIke it would make a great Percy Jackson style situation. Like, I don’t know, it felt very like some teenager is going to say something snarky and then run for their lives. So the beheaded guy has gotten back up on his horse and carried his head away.
C: Yes. And so he says that Gawain has to meet him at the Green Chapel, but without directions. So Gawain–a little bit of a time skip–departs in…I believe it is winter.
G: Yeah, mine said something about Michaelmas, which is not a holiday I know anything about, except for having read Pride and Prejudice, because Netherfield was taken around that time.
C: And so Gawain eventually finds this castle to spend the night–I believe Christmas Eve, because he was trying to find mass. And the like, lord of the house is like, “Boy, do I have a coincidence for you, and that coincidence is that you’re really close to the Green Chapel. Stay with us for three days, and then I’ll have a guide lead you to the Green Chapel.”
G: That was three days? It felt like it went on forever. I’m being judgy of this poetry, but like man, how long can you–okay I’m not one to talk–but how long can you lounge around a house and eat when you have a mission? Like, man’s on a quest, and he’s like “let me take a pause for three whole days on a time sensitive quest to eat food”
C: So then Gawain is at this lord’s castle, kind of takes a like respectful interest in the younger lady of the household, which is also the lord’s wife–like very chivalric, but also, part of chivalry is–I believe the quote at least in my text is that Gawain can teach others the “Lovetalk”, so you know…kind of goes with it.
G: Okay, questions there. Like I genuinely meant to Wikipedia “courtly love” before this. I have gone down a fair amount of, like, King Arthur rabbit holes and found myself on that Wikipedia page, but I have not done that recently as of this recording. I meant to, but as my recollection of courtly love was that it wasn’t, like, sexy, it was about the yearning and the like politeness and stuff.
C: Yeah, it was like showing–kind of how I think about it was showing off for a person you can never actually have. But like devoting yourself to them, but also having other things in your way.
G: Like the goal is to have unrequited love? This is a question I don’t know enough about. I was very confused with the courtly love portion of this apparently three day misadventure midquest.
C: Yeah, it’s a lot. And like, that–
G: Yeah, there is a lot of kissing happening, and like laying in beds.
C: Yes, there is a lot of kissing happening, which during this time at the castle, Gawain has the exchange of winnings with the lord–
G: That was interesting.
C: Yeah, the lord goes out hunting for three different days and brings back whatever he caught for Gawain, and then Gawain for three days kisses the lord because the lady of the house had kissed him, so that was his winnings to present to the lord.
C: Except for the last day, when the lady also gives him a love token in the form of a girdle that magically will save him from not being decapitated, and he doesn’t give that to the lord, which is important for the finale.
G: Yeah, okay, so about the lady and the love token situation. So she is married to the king of this castle…
C: To the lord, yes.
G: And she also like, into Gawain in a polite courtly way, but there is also kissing and laying in beds and also talk about sin and bliss and stuff. What is the situation there? I am confused.
C: Okay, so there’s courtly love and then there’s– this is also courtly love, but it is also a test of temptation.
G: Okay, that makes sense.
C: So the end debacle is basically this whole she-bang with the lady has been a test of Gawain’s purity kind of? But also, like, strength.
G: Yeah, he is literally laying in bed next to someone else’s wife and still being like polite and nice to her, and not (as he said) committing sin with her. Or something to that effect.
C: He’s also being tested, so it’s not like–
G: There are multiple games afoot here.
C: There are multiple, multiple games afoot here.
G: Got it. I think. I believe we find out later in the finale that this was an intentional temptation thing. This was a set up.
G: Which makes it make more sense, but at the time, during the three day span that lasted apparently forever, I was very confused. But that makes more sense now. And now we’re onto the finale, the final fitt (question mark on the pronunciation there) of the poem.
C: During this final section Gawain finally goes to the Green Chapel, meets the Green Knight, and the Green Knight takes three strikes at Gawain with his ax. The first two don’t actually strike Gawain–the first was under the pretext that Gawain flinched, and then the second…I don’t remember what the pretext was actually
G: I think in mine the first one was…it did not connect with him deliberately to see what he would do. Or no, the first one was the flinch and then the second one, for some reason, it did not connect with him and went off to the side.
C: I think that was to test his courage. And then the third swing connects briefly, but it doesn’t decapitated Gawain, because the three strikes correspond to the three days where Gawain honored the exchange of winnings. So the first two days, Gawain gave everything he got, and then the third day he didn’t give him the girdle–
G: Which the lady told him to do…
C: –Yes. So there was the breach of the vow–
G: She was like, “Hey, I’m going to give you this belt, don’t tell my husband.”
C: – Yes, but in doing so he was breaking the vow with the lord. But because it was survival, the lord took, the Green Knight took, like, pity on him, like, “I understand it was for survival, so I’m only going to give you this nick in the back of your neck instead of fully decapitating you.”
G: Between the first and the second non-decapitations, Gawain says…The first one, it doesn’t connect with him but he flinches, and then the Green Knight is like, “Hey man, you flinched and you’re a coward.” And then Gawain’s like, “No no, I’ve got this, I promise I won’t flinch.” Then it doesn’t connect with him, but he also doesn’t flinch the second time. But you… you said the lord when you meant the Green Knight, would you like to elaborate?
C: Oh! Yes! The lord is the Green Knight!
G: Which totally threw me, I was not prepared. It was so fun, I was like, “Oh so he shape shifts now?”
C: Yes! And it was all a plan by Morgan le Fey, who was the old lady at the castle.
G: I’ve watched enough Merlin to know that. But yeah, it was like to test Gawain’s courage/knightlyhood chivalry something? And it turns out that Morgan le Fey is in the house and has been watching him the whole time, but as like an old, old lady.
G: So that was interesting, and I was like, wait I know who Morgan le Fey is. That’s Katie McGrath!
G: This is what you get when your one context for Arthurian legend is a BBC series from 2008, it’s fine. But yeah, I really liked this. I thought it was…I certainly had preferences for which parts I enjoyed more. I liked more of the questing adventuring parts than the castle part, the three days. I couldn’t tell you exactly why, but I liked this translation’s description of nature.
C: Oh, yeah.
G: That was really good and interesting. And I’m not going to read it out, because I don’t know that that is something I can technically do, legally for copyright reasons. It has some beautiful, beautiful descriptions of nature, and as someone who “doesn’t like poetry” (I’m referring that to myself because I don’t have a lot of familiarity with poetry and like dissecting the language of it) I was like, “Oh this is nice! I could get used to this.” So that was fun.
And there is some rather brutal descriptions of hunting.
G: Which I forgot were mentioned in my introduction. The introduction to the Simon Armitage translation was actually quite helpful. It talks about the structure of the poem being…I want to say it’s a bell and a wheel, but I don’t think that’s correct. It’s something and a wheel.
C: A bob and wheel, I believe.
G: Here, I’ll look it up. But it’s the long bits, the main sections, are whatever they’re called, I need to do better at this. What are the sections called?
C: The short sections at the end are bob and wheels–
G: –Oh it’s the bob and the wheel!
G: I’m right now. It’s the long sections, are called the bob, and the four lines (the shorter sections at the end at the end of each of those chunks) are called the wheel. So that being the rhythm and stress of the poem changes. I don’t know why I thought it was called a bell, that does not make sense. It is the bob and the wheel. The rhythm changes, so it’s less long and more rhyming in the wheel sections. (Less long, it’s shorter). And more obviously rhyming. Those were fun to me because they kind of punctuated the end of the bits with some important thing that was happening.
But that’s all I’m going to say on the structure of the poetry, because that is not my area expertise at all. I had a good time with this. Caroline, what did you think of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight? Was it fun to read a second time?
C: It was definitely fun to read a second time. I also wrote a very long paper on armor and protection comparing Gawain’s outfits to armor described in Beowulf that Beowulf wears, so it was fun to revisit all of the sections that I spent like 30 hours staring at, and remember just how tiny they are just in comparison to the rest of the poem.
G: No, but there’s a lot of, like, gleaming armor and golden rings of mail. And I was like, okay cool, I’ve never heard them described as golden, but that rocks.
C: I have a fun fact.
G: Oh, bring it.
C: I have a fun medieval fact. So when Gawain is talking about his gilded spurs–
G: Like on his boots to spur his horse?
C: Yes! Knights in the medieval time period–late medieval–were given golden or gilded spurs as a symbol of their knighthood.
C: So that is kind of part of his status as a knight, which is why it is kind of pointed out, along with the rest of his fancy clothes, because he is so important and fancy.
G: Yeah, he is very fancy. He appears to be very fashionable.
G: Which is very fun. But yeah, I don’t know exactly what I was expecting from Gawain and the Green Knight, but again, I’ve got Merlin as my background, so we’re not working from a huge place of historical accuracy here. But I don’t know, maybe I was expecting a little bit more adventure and less Christian dealing with temptation. But like, it’s King Arthur and those things kind of connected as far as I know.
C: Yeah, those are very tightly woven topics, especially… Like one of the direct conflicts of this story, at least once you dive into it a little bit more, is the ideals of Christianity in the medieval time period and the ideals of what a good chivalrous knight is supposed to be like. Because those two things have contradictory elements–
C: –And that is what Gawain is navigating.
G: I kind of picked up on that, but not in a way that was like, “Oh, I totally see where these things conflict.” Could you talk more about what it means to be a chivalrous knight?
C: Yeah! So chivalry–oh gosh this is complicated–
G: Give us the highlights of the syllabus on how to become a chivalrous man.
C: So it’s..so you have elements of courtly romance. A good knight is supposed to not only be good at actual fighting (which you kind of see a little bit in this), but he’s supposed to be honorable, he is supposed to be honorable of the ladies in court (which is where you get into the courtly romance aspects). You aren’t supposed to be mean to them, you’re supposed to do whatever they say (kind of).
C: There’s like a balancing act there, and that leads into these kind of forbidden, requited or unrequited but there’s like barriers in the way, romance stories.
G: So I guess that was where the lady of the house temptation thing came in, of where like you don’t want to say no to her because that would be unchivalrous, but if she asks you to do something that would be considered sin, that would also be bad.
C: Yes, exactly.
G: Okay, that was something I kind of picked up on, but I didn’t have a good enough foundation on what courtly love was supposed to be to be able to be like “Oh this could get dicey for Gawain.”
C: Like a really good example of that is when, the first day of him staying at the castle, where he gets trapped in his bed quarters by her sneaking–
G: Oh yeah! That was such a wild choice!
C: –in. And he is like, “Hey…umm… “
G: She, like, fully climbs into his bed.
C: Yeah, she traps him there. And he’s like, “I would love to go on a walk with you, but I need to put on clothes.” Because he was sleeping. And she goes, “Oh, but I have you trapped, hehe haha. We can just chat right here!” And then he’s like, “Well…umm…I guess.”
G: Yeah I know! Because I feel like that would be in conflict a little bit with like…this woman is married. Wouldn’t she get into some kind of trouble if she were seen going into like the guest’s chambers? Like what’s the deal there? Or was like everyone in this enormous castle in on this trick we are playing on the poor knight that is visiting?
C: So in this section she does say, “Oh my husband is out to hunt, and everybody is asleep”. So implying that she is sneaking around. But the third time she just kinda comes in, so…yes?
G: It could be anybody’s guess. But also I suppose to be a chivalrous knight you wouldn’t tell the lord of the house because that would be improper to the lady to tell him that the woman he’s married to is sneaking into your bed. This is a guess, but it feels impolite to the lady, which is taboo.
C: There’s a lot of layers.
G: There is a lot of layers.
C: Which is part of why I like it so much, because it has reread potential. You can be like, “Oh I didn’t pick up on that the first time. Wow.”
G: Definitely. I feel like I might need to reread this at some point in the far future and take notes. Just so I can clear my mind of it a little bit and come in with a fresh perspective. But I had a good time with it. So it wasn’t bad for a first run at medieval poetry. Also, my edition had a thing where it was like the medieval language on one side of the page and the english–like Modern English–on the other. It was still poetic Modern English–so there were words I did not know–but we made it work! And we are not quite closing in on our last 5-10 minutes of this recording. Do you have any final thoughts or who else would you recommend this to? Besides me, who is quite frequently referred to as Guenevere, despite that not actually being my name.
C: Yeah, I would say it’s not the easiest text to get through. Don’t try to read it in the Middle English; it will not be a good time. Read a Modern English translation. But anyone–like this was one of…as a medievalist, this was one of the few stories or texts in that class where I didn’t feel like it was something I had to go through. I looked forward to reading it for the next assignment. If you want an adventure—
G: Yes, the adventure is good. People do get beheaded, there is shape shifting, there is excellent descriptions of nature.
C: –and if you want a look into, like, “Oh what’s that courtly romance deal?” Right here.
G: It’s wild!
C: Right here. You can find so much, and there’s so many layers to this text, and there’s a lot of resources if you need help with it. So like, it’s so good. It’s just so good!
G: Yeah, also mine has a sticker on the front that says that it is the basis for the motion picture The Green Knight, which I think is super interesting that we are now making feature films of like–I keep calling them King Arthur stories, that’s unfair to Gawain–but you know, that. We’re making films of that, and I’m tempted to watch the film with all of the people in it, and watch it happen in front of me and see if I can pick up on anything else that my brain did not parse from the poetry.
C: Yeah. I have not seen that movie either, but I need to.
G: That could be a fun follow up episode at some point.
C: Yes, a review of the movie. I’d be there.
G: Yes, that would be so fun. Okay, we are closing in on the last five minutes of our timed, unnamed video conference call. So, I had a good time. I don’t know quite if I can rate this on like a star scale, because we’re getting out of our comfort zone, but I keep saying I enjoyed it and that still remains to be true. I did not come out with an outro for this episode, but what else should I be reading?
You can find transcripts for this podcast at thegirlinthechair.com/podcast. And we will see you next time, or at least I will. I don’t know when Caroline will see you next. But we will, at some point perhaps, be back for a review of the movie The Green Knight.
G: Alright, see you later Caroline, and thank you for doing this with me! It was so much fun!
C: Thank you for having me! I loved this!
G: Of course, you are welcome back any time, and if you wanna do Le Morte d’Arthur I will be willing to try it.
C: I will find a translation that I like.
G: Okay, because Barnes & Noble apparently has a beautiful copy (we’re not endorsing any particular book store here, though I do have a bookshop.org link if you would like to support the podcast. That can also be found on thegirlinthechair.com). And I don’t know, but there is a very pretty edition available, I don’t know how good the actual text inside is but it’s nice to look at.
I will see you next time. Goodbye everybody!