Written by an anonymous author in the late 14th century, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight continues to entice the human spirit: drawing us toward something grand, mysterious, and—perhaps most of all—towards the betterment of our own virtue. The titular hero, captured in poetic verse, exemplifies chivalry. Sir Gawain demonstrates courage, piety, courtesy, honesty, honor, and chastity. He also shows us the struggle to maintain these virtues against real and sometimes contrary temptations.
In 2021, David Lowery’s cinematic adaptation, The Green Knight—which he wrote, directed, edited, and produced—was released to critical acclaim. Notably, the film differs from the poem almost as black from white. It presents context, characters, settings, and even many of the actions in an almost inverted light from those of the anonymous author. To some, this may seem a merely “postmodern” contrarianism. But, regardless of its differences, the film, too, captivates us and for reasons not dissimilar—even if by opposed means.
For both, it seems, present a version of chivalry’s challenge: one, situated in a chivalric context; another, placed amidst decline. The former gives us an image we may hold up as an ideal. Does the latter hold up a mirror to ourselves? What does an un-chivalric age do to a would-be chivalrous man?
On 5 January 2023 [edit: delayed from December because of travel woes], the Lyceum Institute will hold a Symposium on The Challenge of Chivalry: Sir Gawain & the Green Knight. We will feature the poem in our discussion, but draw out certain themes through comparison and contrast with the film, as well. What does it mean to be chivalrous? How does this concept of virtue fit into our present times? This Symposium is free to all enrolled members. Both reading the poem and watching the film (or at least reading a synopsis) are recommended. Note that the film is not suitable for children.