The Mythical Game of The Green Knight
Games have long been a compelling presence in mythology. The origins of the Kurukshetra War between Kauravas and Pandavas in the epic poem The Mahābhārata begin over a game of dice. Mythologist David L. Miller explored Joseph Campbell’s approach to myth and its intersection with games in his book Gods and Games. Then, of course, there is the strange game that serves as the catalyst for Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the Arthurian tale based on the 14th century epic poem.
For those unfamiliar with the myth: It’s a curious story, where a Green Knight appears in Arthur’s court and proposes an intriguing game. He challenges any man to strike him with his axe and then meet him one year later at the Green Chapel, where he will return the favor. Sir Gawain steps forward, wields the axe, and promptly removes the mysterious knight’s head. Gawain’s journey to the Green Chapel and his climactic confrontation with the knight is filled with mythic motifs and moments of symbolic challenge. Resisting definitive explanation, as good myths usually do, interpretations and retellings of the tale have continued through to our present day. A new rendering, aptly titled The Green Knight, hits movie theaters in a few days.
The story of the Green Knight was of interest to Joseph Campbell as well. In Masks of God: Occidental Mythology, he mentions the Dolorous Stroke, a key element woven into the fabric of Arthurian legends such as The Green Knight. Campbell aficionados will recall that the Dolorous Stroke was also the subject of his Master’s dissertation, the full text of which is made available as an appendix in Romance of the Grail as part of Campbell’s Collected Works. It’s a motif he was fascinated by. Discussing the Arthurian tradition, Campbell says “the legend refers to the restoration of a land laid waste through a Dolorous Stroke dealt to its king, by an unworthy hand, that took possession of a sacred lance, that in later versions of the legend is identified with the lance that pierced Christ’s side.” (508) Competing ideologies such as these from the Christian and Pagan traditions spiral their way through all of Arthurian mythology.
As Campbell suggests, Gawain’s world is defined by wounding. It’s a world where institutions have come under indictment, yet matters of life and death are sometimes treated as a game. One doesn’t need to look very hard to see our own allegorical reflection in the story. In the new cinematic iteration of the tale, Gawain is a man searching to redefine himself. He’s looking for a new story, a story where he’s not simply known as a relative of Arthur. The other knights at the table all have stories of adventure and chivalry, but not him. “The concept of chivalry in relation to a young person figuring out what type of man he’s going to be was the root of this story for me,” says The Green Knight’s director, David Lowery. “The subject is present in the original text but it’s something that makes this story incredibly timely. Gawain is on an epic quest towards realizing the value of personal integrity.” We might say that Gawain is a wounded man, trying to determine what it means to be honorable and find meaning, in his world of wounding. The game that the Green Knight proposes to Gawain seems to offer a path towards healing his own wound. Even today, we see individuals drawn to games that might offer a salve for their woundings. These games take varied forms in our culture: politics, social media, or sports, to name only a few. Like Gawain, we jump at the opportunity to engage in any game that offers a balm for our wounds.
In bringing the myth of the Green Knight into our modern context, Lowery continues:
I didn’t truly understand why this poem has stood the test of time until I was well into the process of making it, by which point I realized what a daunting task I’d set out upon. The original text is so rich, so overflowing with meaning and symbolism, that one could make a dozen adaptations of it and still not quite capture what makes it so vital. This adaptation is an interpretation of the text, but it is also in conversation with it. It is a reflection of the values contained in the original poem, and also an inquiry as to how to contextualize those values and make them resonate at this moment in our culture.
Lowery’s comments speak to the power of myth, inviting us into a conversation around the ideas contained in the text, rather than positioning it as an equation to be solved, or a game to be won.
In Romance of the Grail, Campbell goes on to explore the many challenges in the game Gawain engages and how they intersect with those values Lowery mentions. “It concerns the two great temptations of lust for life and fear of death. Those are the same temptations faced by the Buddha. What you have here in these knightly adventures are spiritual adventures, and the tests are those of lust and fear. Gawain has not succumbed to the temptation of Kāma, the god of Desire, and he had felt just a bit of fear at the brink of death (the god Māra). He was fearless, but not without fault. He was human, after all, and this is what keeps him in the world, you might say,” Campbell says. (145)
One might suggest that what Sir Gawain finds at the conclusion of the game, in his final confrontation with the Green Knight, is… himself. The holy grail that waits at the end of so many mythic tales is, as Campbell has so often said, a reference to oneself, as all mythological symbols point to spiritual potentialities within the individual. The Green Knight interrupts us time and again throughout our life’s journey. He proposes a game that we may choose to play or refuse. It is a game of death and resurrection, a game of discovery, and a game that offers us the opportunity to unearth hidden treasure buried deep inside ourselves.
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