Who Is Sir Gawain and the Green Knight? New David Lowery, Dev Patel Movie Latest Reinvention of Arthurian Legend

Nephew to King Arthur and one of his most loyal knights, Sir Gawain of the Round Table is one of the oldest characters in Arthurian legend, appearing in poems, romances and histories beginning approximately 900 years ago. But the knight Gawain wouldn't meet his most formidable adversary until the 1300s, when he faced off against a knight with green skin and green clothes in the Middle English chivalric romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

Gawain and the Green Knight will get a 21st century update in the next movie from A Ghost Story and The Old Man & the Gun director David Lowery, whose The Green Knight retells the story, with Dev Patel (Slumdog Millionaire, Chappie) as Sir Gawain and Ralph Ineson (The Witch) as the reimagined Green Knight.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Sir Gawain decapitates the Green Knight in the original manuscript. British Library / Public Domain

In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a mysterious figure clad entirely in green and riding a green horse interrupts a New Year's Day celebration in King Arthur's court at Camelot. The Green Knight says that no one there could defeat him in battle and challenges the assembled knights to strike him with his own axe, with one condition: a year and a day later, he'll get to hit back. Before Arthur can accept the challenge himself, his nephew and youngest knight steps forward. With a single blow, Gawain decapitates the Green Knight, but the supernatural axeman simply picks up his own severed head and rides away.

As the date of their second confrontation approaches, Sir Gawain searches out the Green Chapel, resting at the castle of Bertilak de Hautdesert on the way. Lord and Lady Bertilak have their own strange connection to the Green Knight, which is revealed only after Gawain accepts his blow...

The author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is unknown, with the story surviving into the modern day thanks to a single manuscript once held by a private collector (and almost destroyed in a 1731 fire), but now in the collection of the British Library. High definition images from the original manuscript, called Cotton Nero A.x., are available online.

History of Sir Gawain

Sir Gawain himself predates the Green Knight by hundreds of years, making an early appearance in the cleric Geoffrey of Monmouth's 1136 history, De gestis Britonum (On the Deeds of the Britons), later known as Historia regum Britanniae (The History of the Kings of Britain). While taken as real history for hundreds of years, modern scholars treat it as pseudohistory, primarily valuable for its wealth of legends, which have shaped the culture of Great Britain for centuries.

Geoffrey traces the lineage of British kings back to Brutus, great-grandson of the Trojan hero Aeneas (Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome, are also claimed to be descendants of Aeneas). Brutus' three sons divide Britain into the kingdoms of Wales (Kambria), Scotland (Albany) and England (Loegria). Subsequent kings of England include the magician Bladud and King Leir, whose story became the basis for William Shakespeare's play. It's not until late in Geoffrey's history that Arthur is introduced, when Uther Pendragon seduces Igerna, the wife of an allied duke, with the help of Merlin's magic. Arthur grows up to defeat the Saxons and conquer much of Europe, until he is mortally wounded by his nephew Mordred at the Battle of Camlann.

An actual historic King Arthur may have existed, with mentions of his military victories and his death in the year 537 appearing as far back as the tenth century. But the historicity of Gawain is less likely, with origins in Welsh mythology instead. Named Gwalchmei in 11th century Welsh romances, with variations on the name Gawain emerging decades later. The son of Arthur's sister, Gawain soon became a popular character in Latin, Middle English and Old French.

Our modern conception of King Arthur and Gawain is most indebted to Thomas Malory's 1485 Arthurian chronicle Le Morte d'Arthur, which inspired more contemporary stories like T.H. White's The Once and Future King. Gawain has also appeared in numerous movies before Dev Patel's upcoming portrayal in The Green Knight. In Excalibur, Sir Gawain is played by Liam Neeson, while Joel Edgerton plays the character in 2004's King Arthur.

Liam Neeson as Sir Gawain and Helen Mirren as Morgana in 1981's 'Excalibur.' Warner Bros. Pictures

History of the Green Knight

Unlike Gawain, whose legend long predated Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the Green Knight first appeared in the 14th century alliterative verse romance. Revealed in that story to be Lord Bertilak in magical disguise—created by Morgan le Fay, Arthur's evil sorceress sister, to test the knights of the Round Table and scare Queen Guinevere—the meaning behind the Green Knight is debated by scholars to this day. Sometimes interpreted as a Christian symbol, or possibly an embodiment of the Devil, the Green Knight is also often associated with the so-called "Green Man."

First named by Julia Somerset, also known as Lady Raglan, in a 1939 issue of the journal Folklore, the Green Man comes from a face made of leaves carved into a church in Monmouthshire, Wales. So-called "foliate heads," similar faces were found across Great Britain and Europe. But Lady Raglan saw in the faces more than popular ecclesiastical decorations, instead speculating that the Green Man was an ancient nature spirit or vegetation god, which acted as a mega-myth connecting Robin Hood and folkloric May Day characters.

Lady Raglan's theory has no relation to historical fact and widely regarded as "bunk," as Josephine Livingstone called it in a 2016 article for The New Yorker, but the Green Man myth has proven remarkably durable and is often ascribed to the Green Knight. This interpretation looks to have inspired Lowery's The Green Knight as well, with the character depicted with tree bark skin.

The Green Knight (Ralph Ineson) in the 2020 movie 'The Green Knight.' A24

While Sir Gawain is a staple of Arthurian movies, the Green Knight is less commonly brought to screens. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight has been previously adapted to screen a handful of times, including in 1984's Sword of the Valiant: The Legend of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, in which the Green Knight is played by Sean Connery.

With hundreds of years of accrued mythology and history-shaping and reshaping the story, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight transforms in every telling. Lowery's take on both characters will add new wrinkles to what has come before, when The Green Knight comes out in theaters this summer.

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