Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a mediaeval poetic masterpiece, forms the narrative backdrop to this insightful and intelligent one-hour show by Edinburgh-based Dr Debbie Cannon.
It is inspired by a small, though crucially important, section of the poem towards the end when Gawain, having been outwitted by The Lady, issues a tirade against women for leading even the greatest men astray.
This section, though only a small part of the poem, has led to many describing the work as misogynistic. Debbie Cannon's play explores this and compels us to reflect upon the role of women in mediaeval society and in literature. As Cannon’s Lady says, “do not forget me”.
Certainly women were not powerless in the Middle Ages; Nichola de Haye, for example, inherited land from her husband and twice defended Lincoln Castle. Yet mediaeval marriage, as Georges Duby examined (The Knight, the Lady and the Priest), was a legitimisation of property gains acquired through marriage and placed into the hands of men.
Women outliving their husbands could be seen as powerful but they needed to fight for their inheritances and were still seen as a route to assets to be acquired (by men) through further marriage. Heraldry, in depicting the union of great families, reveals the visual importance of historic land ownership and the assertion of title through marriage.
Chivalry versus sex
At the same time, new Orders of Chivalry were blossoming in the fourteenth century and women were placed on pedestals. Women were to be admired, loved, revered; men were to earn their affection and worship yet be discreet. Geoffroi de Charny’s Book of Chivalry gives us a unique insight into this way of thinking and how men compelled themselves to behave.
Yet, it is a fascinating element of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight that the power of The Lady exists to challenge these notions, giving women a power of their own; a sexual power of enormous potency.
The Lady in the poem is the chattel of her husband, Lord Bertilak, but the plaything of Morgan le Fay. She is a wife but also a sexual being. This woman has needs and also has a way to see them satisfied, through the articulacy of her own version of “luf-talk”. She is highly flirtatious.
Such power was not unknown; in Gascony in the latter part of the fourteenth century, knights were criticised for licentiousness and loose living.
Chivalry was one thing; sex another.
A life of regret
So this is the setting for Debbie Cannon’s Green Knight. The play begins with The Lady towards the end of her life, about to go into a convent. She reflects on the early advice of her father, telling her that, once old and her child-bearing hips grown broad, no man will look at her. Yet she is haunted by her history: her early life, her marriage to Lord Bertilak and how his death compels her, as a chattel, to enter a convent.
Immediately, we see that this is a woman with regrets about the life laid out for her – from start to finish - in a male dominated world.
Playing with the poem
Once we are drawn into her life, The Lady then cuts to the chase - so to speak – by casting her mind back many years to when Sir Gawain came visiting Hautdesert as part of his quest to find his nemesis, the Green Knight. Gawain had taken part in a beheading game whereby he cuts off the head of the Green Knight, clearly not believing that in a year’s time he will have to hunt down the stranger to receive a similar blow in return…
Students of the poem know that while Gawain stays in the castle for three days, Lord Bertilak goes hunting in the forest. The tension of the poem rests on the “exchange game” whereby the lord will exchange his winnings with whatever Gawain “wins” while he rests in the castle being looked after by the lord’s wife (known only as The Lady).
The Lady attempts to seduce Gawain but he resists her advances, taking instead three kisses as his winnings and – a secret gift on day three – a magical green girdle to protect him from any deed (including his execution at the hands of the Green Knight).
A conventional reading of the poem invites us to share Gawain’s discomfort at being seduced by a woman, the seeming reverse of de Charny’s ethos.
The Lady pins him to the bed, speaks arousing language, almost snaps his strings of resistance and yet chivalric Gawain, with the help of Mother Mary, resists. Having said that, he takes the magic girdle and does not confess this to the Lord; a crime against chivalry and religious duty.
Later, the girdle appears to save Gawain from execution at the Green Chapel but then the Green Knight reveals that he is in fact Lord Bertilak - and his wife was under orders. He has been shamed by a woman; brought low by a woman; made a fool of by a woman.
This is a man’s poem about the dangers of women – and that women can be told what to do by the men who own them.
A real woman, not a plaything
Yet in this play, we see that this “woman” is actually a real person with her own mind, not a plaything of mediaeval morality. In prefacing her story by telling us of her life being controlled by men, we are now told something different: The Lady loved Gawain all along.
Her husband was aggressive, envious of Gawain. This coarse, northern castellan in his far away castle is unsophisticated and uncouth. Unlike the poem’s manicured, articulate, gentle Gawain, its other leading male, Lord Bertilak, is a man’s man. He enjoys hunting, bloodshed, and appears to prefer a trophy wife to a woman he can respect.
We see here a woman’s love lost and lamented over the years. Despite Bertilak’s control, even in death, this lady had the one thing he could never have of hers: her real love. He owned her title, her body, her daily deeds but he could not own that one thing which can only ever be freely given.
We are told she bore him children and was dutiful towards him but are left with the impression that she wouldn’t lavish the attention on him that she gave to Gawain. She was unlikely to seduce Lord Bertilak; no flame burned here to draw her to his room.
Though her hips be now broad, and her features fallen, in her mind she is a young and passionate woman still. In her head, through all of her days, lives the man she truly loved, was born to find and was not to see again: Sir Gawain.
Intelligent and highly recommended
This is an astonishing and thought-provoking play which reverses the male-dominated morality of the Middle Ages. It demands of its audience that they don’t just think of mediaeval women as chivalric trinketry. A woman and her financial and territorial assets were far more than the other half of an heraldic shield to be watched over by Mother Mary on the reverse.
At its heart, this play carries the most haunting theme of all: a true love lost and not attained. A love of permanent heartbreak and sorrow. It cuts to the heart of love where passion is its purest, most liberated and energetic. The exquisite pain of such loss is tragic.
In the person of The Lady, Debbie Cannon tells this magnificent tale in the finest manners of a storyteller; she invites the audience into her world straight away and slowly, subtly tells her tale and in a most unexpected way. Her final request, not to be forgotten, is a wonderful reflection on how the mediaeval world is often remembered for the deeds of men and why it mustn’t be so.
Whilst the title leads the audience to expect a meeting with the Green Knight, we find instead three green knights: the monster in the shadows and notional subject of the story; The Lady’s husband, green with envy; and an innocent Gawain, green in the ways of women.
This is an intelligent and thoughtful play, rich in period observation and with magnificent control over the storyline and its relationship to the original anonymous poem. Combined with Debbie Cannon’s energetic, passionate and emotional presence, it brings right to the fore what it must have been like to be a mediaeval woman in a society controlled by men.
Flavia D’Avila’s direction also brings immediacy to the proceedings. Relying on minimal props – including a particularly inspired use of the apple to represent Gawain – the direction focuses all on The Lady herself. We are in the castle, in the chapel, and in the bedroom, with the tiniest move of a sheet or drum. An astonishing achievement in such a confined performance space.
Green Knight is a play which, like The Lady, should never be forgotten. Indeed, I would urge any student of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight to come and see this show. It will open your eyes to one of the poem’s more intriguing facets – and lead you into new ways of thinking about this mysterious and magnificent alliterative masterpiece.
Green Knight is currently showing at the Green Man Gallery, Buxton, Derbyshire until 12th July 2019. Tickets here
Written and Performed by Dr Debbie Cannon
Directed by Flavia D’Avila
Dramaturgy Jen McGregor
Photographs - Paul McGuigan (courtesy of Debbie Cannon's website)
Michael Smith's translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was published in 2018. More information here