The Welsh History and Mythology Behind THE GREEN KNIGHT - Nerdist
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The Welsh History and Mythology Behind THE GREEN KNIGHT

David Lowery’s latest film, The Green Knight starring Dev Patel, is a loose adaptation of the epic poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a late 14th-century chivalric romance originally written in Middle English. One of the most well-known Arthurian legends, its original author is unknown and the text draws from many sources including Welsh, Irish, English, and French chivalric tradition. Lowery told Vanity Fair that in adapting the story he decided to lean into the history and mythology of Wales in particular. His take on the classic tale includes interpreting the Green Knight himself as a Green Man, a side story with St. Winifred’s Well, talking animals, and a peek at Cewri a.k.a. Welsh Giants

Arthurian legends, Sir Gawain’s tale among them, find their roots in the myths of early Celtic Britons, whose traditions did not survive the invasion of the Roman Empire and the island’s subsequent conversion to Christianity. Druids passed many of these mythologies down orally. As such, they were not put into written form until the Middle Ages, just as the early Christian church in Wales was forming. The Celtic paganism is still clear in the early texts, though they were already transmuted through a Christian theological lens.

A page from , Historia Regum Britanniae

Christie’s

Arguably the most substantial contribution to our modern conception of Arthurian legends comes from Historia Regum Britanniae (The History of the Kings of Britain) by Geoffrey of Monmouth. Written in the 11th century, his accounts were widely given historical credence until about the 16th century. They are now considered closer to myth than history. However, Monmouth’s effect on the structure and content of the stories was strong. So much so that Arthurian scholars often refer to the tales as either “pre-Galfridian” or “post-Galfridian” depending on how much his interpretations affected them

These tales also made their way to France. There, 12th century poets Marie de France and Chrétien de Troyes shaped them further. As they began a new life in the 14th century, from Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur to the anonymous Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, they saw much of their early Welsh pagan roots stripped from them in favor of the chivalric pursuits of the knights. Including their search for the Holy Grail in what’s known as the Vulgate Cycle or Lancelot-Grail. This cycle of Arthurian stories moved the focus away from Arthur himself. Instead, they centered the idea of courtly love, as well as the love affair between Lancelot and Guinevere. 

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight story from 14th Century

British Library

While aspects of Lowery’s adaptation takes the tale of Gawain back to its Welsh roots, infusing the story with pagan rituals, his presentation of King Arthur is more in line with later versions of him as a roi fainéant, or a do-nothing-king. By this later era of Arthurian storytelling, the King was world-weary and defeated, often sending his knights on adventures, rather than going on them himself. It is this version of Arthur we tend to see in even later texts, like Alfred Tennyson 19th century poetry volume Idylls of the King.

However, in the earlier Welsh texts, Arthur is a warrior who takes on not only the impending Saxon invasions, but also cat-monsters, dragons, giants, witches, and other fantastical beasts. In what may be the earliest mention of King Arthur, Y Gododdin, a text dated between the 7th and 11th centuries, one stanza describes a warrior who killed over 300 enemies but was, “no Arthur.” 

In Preiddeu Annwfn (The Spoils of Annwfn), Arthur leads an expedition to Annwn, the Welsh name for the Celtic Otherworld, in order to retrieve a magic cauldron. Composed in Middle Welsh, this poem is possibly a predecessor of the later Grail myths. The poem dates back to the 10th century or earlier, although the earliest extant manuscript of the tales is in the Book of Taliesin dating from the 14th century. Tales of Annwn date back to pre-Christian Celtic tradition. However, it became associated with the Christian concept of heaven by a 7th century Monk named Collen who later became a saint.

A miniature of King Arthur

British Library

Also pre-dating Monmouth is Llyfr Du Caerfyrddin (The Black Book of Carmarthen). It’s considered the earliest surviving manuscript written solely in Welsh. A collection of 9th–12th-century poetry, descriptions of Arthur lie in Geraint uab Erbin (Geraint son of Erbin), which, in one stanza, describes Arthur as an “emperor.” Another text contained in the manuscript is Englynion y Beddau (Verses of the Graves), which refers to Authur’s grave as one of the mysteries of the world. This text also includes one of the earliest mentions of Gawain, then called Gwalchmai, claiming his grave is “in Peryddon where the ninth wave flows.”

Mabinogion is another collection of Medieval Welsh prose. It comprises two manuscripts: Llyfr Gwyn Rhydderch (The White Book of Rhydderch) and Llyfr Coch Hergest (Red Book of Hergest). Published as a complete collection in 1838 by Lady Charlotte Guest, scholars date the works between 1050 to 1225, with the written manuscripts dating between 1350-1410.

The stories include an 11th century tale called Culhwch and Olwen, in which Arthur helps complete a series of nearly impossible tasks in order to help his kinsman Culhwch win the hand of the daughter of a giant. It’s in this tale that we also begin to see more of King Arthur’s court named, including Gawain/Gwalchmai. Just as in later texts, it establishes the character as Arthur’s nephew. While considered one of Arthur’s most noble warriors, he is only mentioned in two lines in the work.

An illustration of the Welsh tale Culhwch ac Olwen

Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru – The National Library of Wales

Three of the stories found in Mabinogion known as Y Tair Rhamant (Three Welsh Romances) have analogous stories found in the works Chrétien de Troyes, although they are not direct translations and include additional material not found in his works. There is still debate as to whether Chrétien de Troyes inspired these three tales; or if they just share common Celtic source material. Whatever the answer may be, it is these tales in which chivalric principals begin to overshadow the older Welsh heroic traits. These chivalric pursuits were later solidified in the works of Robert de Boron, whose 13th century story Joseph d’Arimathie forever linked Arthurian legends with the search for the Holy Grail. 

Although much of Welsh mythology from this era on found itself transmuted through these Arthurian romances and the many texts they inspired, these tales also found their way back into folklore collections like William Jenkyn Thomas’s The Welsh Fairy Book from 1908. Thomas set out to write the fairy stories of Wales for “Welsh boys and girls in particular” so they could have access to their mythic past. 

The first edition cover of The Welsh Fairy Book by W. Jenkyn Thomas

Catawiki

Nearly a century later, Marion Zimmer Bradley sought to retell these legends from the perspective of the female characters with her book The Mists of Avalon. Bradley also explores the tension between the rise of Christianity as it threatens to destroy the pagan traditions of Wales. We see this again in Lowery’s take, where he portrays Gawain’s mother Morgan in all her pagan glory.

Cymraeg, the indigenous Welsh language, is protected by law. It’s been spoken continuously since long before the Romans came to the region, bringing with them Christianity and ushering in the end of the pagan traditions from which these Arthurian legends sprang. Thanks to scholars sifting through the many origins of Welsh mythology and filmmakers like Lowery bringing them back into the pop culture spotlight, hopefully these traditions will continue to beguile for generations. 

Editor’s Note: CW: Sexual assault and child abuse.
The author Marion Zimmer Bradley, though an outspoken feminist during her career, was posthumously accused of sexual assault by her daughter, Moira Greystone, in a 2012 email to The Guardian. Further, Bradley’s former husband Walter H. Breen was a convicted child sex abuser many times over. Bradley herself confessed to knowing of Breen’s crimes and even helping to facilitate them.
While the author’s contribution to Arthurian myth and literature is notable, and therefore germane to this piece, Nerdist will not do so without calling to light these horrific and disgusting actions, and to link to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) for ways you can help other children who were the victims of such atrocities.

Featured Image: A24

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