It’s Christmas Day and King Arthur’s knights are gathered at the round table, celebrating with the king and queen. The Green Knight, a kind of giant tree-man, rides in on horseback, interrupts the party, and challenges anyone present to a game. Here are the rules: The challenger will be allowed to deliver a blow that the Green Knight will receive without resisting. But first the challenger must agree to seek out the Green Knight in one year’s time and receive without resisting the same blow from him.
This is the set-up to the epic poem, “Sir Gaiwan and the Green Knight,” circa 1300, which I read in a couple of translations after seeing the recent film adaptation, The Green Knight. I’d never read the poem before, but the more I thought about its opening scene, the more I thought: how weirdly precise … and how familiar.
My brother and I, when we were kids, would take turns punching each other in the stomach. I recall, too, a scene from a comedy about insanely competitive college ballplayers, in which teammates take turns thumping each other’s knuckles with a flicked middle finger until the skin over their fists is flaming and their eyes are watering with pain. This is a boys’ thing; this speaks to what it supposedly means to be manly—brave, tough, strong.
Still, the round table knights, big burly fighting men, hesitate to take the Green Knight up on his proposal. The possibility of winning a contest of this sort would depend on one’s belief that his capacity to dish out and take punishment outweighs that of his opponent, a giant who resembles a tree. Who would accept such a challenge? Let me rephrase that. What kind of stupid would a person have to be to take part in a game like that? In answer, I’ll simply say that my brother was two years older than I was, a lot stronger, and although, in our stomach-punching game, I never made it past the first round, neither did I ever refuse to play, and in fact, playing was, as often as not, something I myself initiated.
I may have been acting on an impulse that reaches far back into mythic time. It turns out that “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” is not the only ancient tale that involves a similar challenge. Scholars have called it “the exchange game.”
Gawain, Arthur’s nephew, seated by his side, steps up and accepts the challenge. Making the most of his first-turn advantage, he takes a sword and beheads the Green Knight in a single stroke. To the surprise and horror of everyone in the hall, the Green Knight stands, picks his head up off the ground, reminds Gawain of the bargain, and rides away with his head in his arms.
More commonly in Arthurian studies, this particular version of the exchange game is referred to as the “Beheading Game.”
In my last post, I wrote about Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants and its concept of reciprocity: the biosocial bond between human and non-human life created by the giving and receiving of gifts and the gratitude and obligation it engenders. I wrote, too, about Kimmerer’s project of restoring healthy relations between human and non-human nature as re-story-ation. “Stories,” Kimmerer writes,
are among our most potent tools for restoring the land as well as our relationship to land. We need to unearth the old stories that live in a place and begin to create new ones, for we are storymakers, not just storytellers. All stories are connected, new ones woven from the threads of the old” (341).
Back in the 1980s, physicist and cosmologist Brian Swimme called on artists, poets, mystics, and nature lovers to tell a “Cosmic Creation Story” that connected the big bang, the Gaian emergence of atmosphere and soil, cell symbiosis, the music of Mozart and other works of human genius in a continuous line of creative adventure. More recently, in his 2021 book The Nutmeg’s Curse, Amitav Ghosh argues that lasting solutions to our various crises must be rooted in “a common idiom and a shared story—a narrative of humility in which humans acknowledge their mutual dependence not just on each other, but on ‘all our relatives'” (242). These are only two examples of many who believe, as Kimmerer does, that new and repurposed stories are crucial to disrupting our current trajectory of collapse and to building a constituency for transformation.
Kimmerer’s background gives her access to a storehouse of Indigenous myth to draw on and interpret for present times, but she warns against the “wholesale appropriation” of Indigenous stories, advising that “an immigrant culture must write its own new stories of relationship to place” (344). On the other hand, I seem to remember at some point in the book—I couldn’t find the location in my notes, and, unfortunately, Braiding Sweetgrass includes no index—Kimmerer reminds her readers that all peoples have a past to draw on that is indigenous to somewhere. The implication is that even the immigrant community she is referring to must have some claim—however attenuated, however muddied by subsequent adjustments—to pre-modern myth and to a time when human groups lived more reciprocally with, as Ghosh puts it, ‘all our relatives.'”
It was with all this in mind that I saw David Lowery’s 2021 film, The Green Knight, much lauded by critics but not I think very widely seen. A few of those critics remarked on the film’s ambiguousness, that two viewers might walk away with very different opinions as to the film’s topic and message. Be that as it may, I’ll continue with the story.
A year passes, and to make good on his promise, Gawain journeys to find the Green Knight. As Christmas Day approaches, he comes upon a castle where he’s welcomed by a Lord and Lady. The Lord encourages Gawain to stay a few days and soon proposes a playful exchange. The Lord will hunt during the day and bring back whatever he kills as a gift to Gawain. In return, Gawain will stay in the castle with the Lady and her maids and will give to the Lord whatever good things he receives there. Gawain doesn’t quite understand the point of the proposition, but he agrees.
The hunt, the castle—these episodes make up the bulk of the poem. As do many literary works from an oral age, they play to a wide audience. The descriptions of the hunt are vivid and exciting. They are all about danger, daring, and action. The castle passages are of a different order. The Lady is intent on seducing Gawain. Will he be virtuous, rebuff—and perhaps insult—the Lady? Or, given the likeliness that he will soon be beheaded by the Green Knight, will he take a pleasure offered while he can?
These aren’t the only dilemmas. If Gawain does accept what the Lady is offering, will he make good on the agreement with the Lord and return the same to him? In these castle passages, we have a moral dilemma, we have the ancient question, how should one behave knowing that death is unavoidable and that one’s time on earth may be cut short at any moment? We also have the components of farce.
The director David Lowery makes a few wise adjustments and additions to this basic story. Foremost, he makes Gawain a young man, not yet a knight, a lazy youth who has skated along on his privilege. His story, therefore, becomes a bildungsroman, his journey about the formation of character. That gives the story an arc less discernable in the poem. Without losing the framework, Lowery also keeps a stricter control of tone, emphasizing the existential qualities and deemphasizing the low comedy.
But let’s think about the story in Kimmerer’s terms. First, it’s a tale from the immigrants’ indigenous tradition, reaching back to the early medieval period, with components—particularly, the exchange game motif—that surely go even further into the past. Second, the two games Gawain is involved in—one with the Green Knight, the other with the Lord—are inverted versions of each other, each dramatizing the matter of reciprocity. Both the poem and film render the Golden Rule in ways that transform it from a platitude into a problem of giving and receiving. As a human being in the world, within a household, within a wider ecology: Are you willing to take as you give? Are you willing to give as you take? Are you willing, in other words, to truly engage with others in a reciprocal relationship?
Braiding Sweetgrass is a work of cultural ecology, and my discussion of the film is in the same spirit of critique. What I mean is, Kimmerer’s survey of our “broken” ecology, our bad faith relationships within the web of life, aims mostly at the realm of culture—questions of how stories and ideas shape our account of ourselves as living beings within a living world. Traditionally, cultural critiques have themselves been criticized as shallow, facile, romantic, quietist, anti-modern, and, for these reasons and others, too easily recruited by the forces of political reaction. Whatever the original sources for the Green Knight story may be, the poem which has come down to us certainly bears the marks of a patriarchal, Christian society. On the other hand, the nature of myths is that they can contain the materials for their own subversion. This paragraph, in other words, means to raise a number of new questions. But this post is long already, so for now at least, I’ll leave it here.
A version of this essay first appeared in Society for US Intellectual History.
Swimme, Brian. “The Cosmic Creation Story” in The Reenchantment of Science, ed. By David Ray Griffin, (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1988), 47-56.