April 12, 2022

The Green Knight Part II: The Game is Afoot

Games, as identified by mythologist David L Miller, often play a large role in ancient stories. For example, the origins of the Kurukshetra War between Kauravas and Pandavas in the epic poem The Mahābhārata begin over a game of dice.

For the beginning of Gawain’s story, a different kind of game is mooted: A Christmas Game. Riding into Arthur’s Court on the Christmas Day feast, the mythological yet noble Green Knight offers up a suggestion: He who would lay a blow upon him this day, will have that blow returned one year hence. He carries both an axe and a sprig of holly, suggesting that either may be used. Arthur, famously a hothead, steps forward in an aggressive manner, and it is left to Gawain to calm things down and take on the challenge himself. He chooses to avoid the holly sprig, seeing an opportunity for himself to gain some repute, and therefore opts for the axe.

A Beheading Game is a well-trodden trope in folklore of the time, originating in 11th century Ireland, and Gawain’s choice to follow it is important. By beheading him, Gawain has set the course for his fate. He now has two choices: to not go to the chapel, breaking his word as a knight, but have the court keep its greatest warrior; or to keep his word, but ride off to his death.


Chivalry, for Arthur’s knights, was perhaps taken from the Greek conception of kleos: everlasting fame or glory, which would ensure your name would live on. However in comparison to Greek familiarity with stories involving heroic demise, the Chivalric Romances dwelt on death much less than Homer’s epics. Death did not appear much in these stories because they were designed as allegories for how to live, rather than how to die. This is what sets Gawain’s tale apart, and probably a reason why it has remained so fascinating.

In the case of Lowery’s adaption, the game appears to be a conjuring of Morgan Le Fay, Gawain’s mother and Arthur’s sister. It also appears to be some form of spiritual answer to a vacuum that is spreading within Arthur’s court. A key element woven into the fabric of many Arthurian legends is the 'Dolorous Stroke', a wound suffered by a mighty leader due to his descent into sin. His kingdom is crippled, becoming a Wasteland, and a quest must be completed in order to right the wrong.

In Lowery’s Green Knight, King Arthur is ailing and old, barely able to lift his sword. His kingdom is warring, and Lancelot, usually at his righthand side, is away from court. There appears a place for a new hero to step up, and Gawain realises this must be his time. When he is asked by Arthur and Queen Guinevere to “make for me a gift, tell me a tale of yourself, so that I might know thee,” he cannot. “I have none to tell,” he responds, but Guinevere steps in and adds a resounding “... yet.” He is now primed for a game of high stakes. He has everything to gain from playing.

Games are an essential form of interaction. Children are constantly testing, challenging, falling out and befriending one another over games. Board games challenge us to face off against one another in stratagem from the relative safety of their 2D nature. Video games envelop us in their worlds in ever increasing realism. Crosswords and Sudoku puzzles ask us to delve into our intellect and stored knowledge of patterns in order to solve them.

C. Thi Nguyen, a games researcher, has identified, too, that the way we now use technology like social media is gamified. Twitter, he writes “shapes our goals for discourse by making conversation something like a game. Twitter scores our conversation. And it does so, not in terms of our own particular and rich purposes for communication, but in terms of its own pre-loaded, painfully thin metrics: Likes, Retweets, and Follower counts.” Games are also big business nowadays. The gaming industry, including PC, Console, and Mobile games, had a revenue of $145 billion in 2019, compared to movie box office returns, which reached just $42 billion. All of this speaks to Neil Postman's idea (with echos of Aldous Huxley) of 'amusing ourselves to death'. The best way to convince somebody to do something they don't want is probably to place a bet on it; to gamify it.

So the selection of a game as narrative device is intelligent. Something as understandable and timeless, yet one which contains life and death stakes, immediately grabs our attention. The game here is a ruse, a trick, and one Gawain walks straight into. Lewis Hyde, an anthropologist, wrote of tricksters as such: “[The] Trickster isn’t a run-of-the-mill liar and thief. When he lies and steals, it isn’t so much to get away with something or get rich as to disturb the established categories of truth and property and, by so doing, open the road to possible new worlds.””

The Green Knight, whether by Morgan Le Fay’s design or not, has done this, and set Gawain off on a path which has no return journey.

I recently entered into something similar, accidentally ingesting a psychotropic compound of some quantity (just as Gawain does in Lowery’s film). I found myself entering into a kind of a dark night of the soul. Instead of feeling like some chemical cocktail coursing through me, it felt like a foreign force had inhabited my body for the period of the trip. It was showing me things, taking me to new places, and communicating with me. It felt like it had a sense of humour, but concurrently was dangerous and could lead me, if it so wished, into darkness. What made the experience so meaningful was its difficulty, and the fact I made it to the other side with my selfhood intact.

The Promise of Reward

Games can also offer us salvation. Be it via social media, sports, or in a casino, games offer us a chance to place something we have at stake and risk it to gain something new. What that might be, we are not always sure, but the thrill presents itself all the same.

The Christmas Game, whether Gawain intended for it, acts an an opportunity for his salvation, and that of Arthur’s kingdom at large. The wound to his soul, his lack of repute at court, as well as the wound caused by this Dolorous Stroke upon Arthur, sets us up on a journey of healing. But just as a disinfectant poured on a wound can sting, the journey toward salvation is filled with peril and difficulty.

The game is afoot.

Footnote: It's also worth noting that at Lord Bertilak's castle Gawain is subjected to another game of give-and-receive. This time, with Bertilak's hunt and his wife's kisses, Gawain must show courage and discipline, and decide whether or not to tell Bertilak of his wife's gift: the magic belt that will protect him. In Lowery's film version, Gawain is given the belt early on by his mother, but it still plays a strong part in the interplay with Lady Bertilak.

Click for part III
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February 19, 2024
February 2, 2023

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