18 Feb 11

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger

I’ve got a movie plot to pitch. It starts out with a big Christmas party. Lots of food, music, and young, attractive friends hanging out in posh digs. There’s a quest, hunting, seduction, feasting and decaptiations galore.

Food. Sports. Sex. Fighting. Blood.

Yes, it’s Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, in theaters this spring starring Arnold Schwarzenegger!

What’s that? You’ve never heard of it? The book has only been out for like, six hundred years. It’s fantastic, but most of you are going to need subtitles, because it’s in Middle English. Yeah, I know. You hate subtitles. But there are lots of axes to make up for them.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was written by a dude modern scholars have named “The Gawain Poet” (clever) because we don’t know his identity. Unlike today’s modern world obsessed with legal agreements, indemnification, intellectual property, and making sure the right people get paid, those who created art prior to the printing press created it, put it out there, and let it belong to everyone. Stories were created to be retold, mixed, mashed, and translated. The more sharing the better. Because of this, authors often didn’t put their names on a manuscript. This scenario often leads people to mistakenly use the term “anonymous” when describing the unknown author of a work. “Anonymous” — literally “no name” is a bad word to use because it implies a single author, and it implies that we don’t know who created the work. The term “Traditional” applies much better to works of poetry, music, and art that can’t be pinned to one person. The art was the property of the community, and was passed on as a tradition.

I got in trouble in graduate school when we were discussing Gawain in my course on literature of the Plague Years. We were discussing the illustrations that accompany the manuscript. They’re fantastic. This level of full-page, full-color comic book action is unheard of for most medieval works.

“Why do you think,” my professor asked, 100% deadly serious, “that the author or authors would include these drawings?”

The classroom went nervously silent as all fifteen of us tried to think of something Super DeepTM to say. Oh, wait. The other fourteen did that. I did the stupid thing, which was to open my mouth and be honest about what I thought.

“Isn’t it possible that they included these drawings because they look awesome, and it’s a really exciting story?” I offered. I should have paid attention to the crickets chirping, but I went on. “I mean, look at this drawing on the left.” I pointed at the projection. It looked like this:

This is a picture of Arthur and Guinevere feasting with the court at Camelot at Christmas Time. This knight all in green, from his skin to his hair to his armor to his horse, crashes the party and dares somebody to chop off his head. So Gawain does it. BAM! Off with his head. Blood everywhere. Awesome. Then the knight picks up his own head and tells Gawain he has a year to find him so he can chop his head off, which Gawain must do because of like, chivalry or something. Either way, this is a phenomenal image and one that is unusually rich and detailed for a manuscript from England in this period. The other pictures are just as edgy, like this one of a hot babe sneaking into a Gawain’s room while he’s naked under the sheets. There would be nothing like this again until books with illustrated plates came along.

I pointed out that this was an adventure story with a plot that could easily be made into a summer movie or a comic book. Wasn’t it possible that the poet, after writing this amazing scene in alliterative verse, was all like, DUDE this needs a picture. It’s like, once James Cameron had written the words “Hasta La Vista, Baby,” he just KNEW he had to then create the image of Schwarzenegger pointing a grenade launcher at the camera.

I didn’t say the part where I compared Sir Gawain and the Green Knight to Terminator 2, but I may as well have. As soon as I said the words “Summer Movie” my professor’s jaw dropped in horror.

“That assessment . . . may be . . . a bit . . . pedestrian . . .” he said in his most pedantic voice.

“Maybe,” I shrugged in agreement. “But it’s a possibility that a work with so much popular appeal would want to include visual imagery for those who would be listening to the poem.”

My teacher cleared his throat, and called on somebody who made some more acceptable comment about the violence of the image being a commentary on the transience of life within the plague years. Everyone else nodded obediently, and I took the cue and shut up for the rest of the class.

But I still don’t think I was wrong. I started a paper on this idea a while ago, and I think I’ll be turning my attention to finishing it in the next week or so. I’ll have to look and see if there are any good conferences coming up where I wouldn’t be booed off the stage for presenting a paper that had the audacity to claim that medieval people liked to be entertained just as much as modern folks do. Preferably with a tale involving some big dude with a giant weapon and a monster to kill.

If you haven’t read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and don’t want to put in the effort to learn English 2.0 (we’re currently on 3.0) check out J.R.R. Tolkien’s translation. Then tell me what you think about the pictures. Are they a medieval hipster’s commentary on this brief life, or are they the medieval method of coping without having a Blu-Ray player with 5.1 surround sound?