Performing Medieval Narrative Today

A Video Showcase

Gawain: Green Knight leaves and King Arthur reacts

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About the scene and clip:
The Green Knight has just picked up his head and left the hall. King Arthur manages to respond to this astounding—and disturbing—marvel in a kingly and cheerful manner, and the Christmas feast begins.

About the work:
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, one of the best loved works of medieval literature, is an anonymous Middle English romance of the 14th century. The style is “alliterative”: each poetic line is dominated by a certain letter sound that is repeated.

The story: At Christmas, a strange, huge, all-green knight arrives at King Arthur’s court. He challenges all present to an exchange of blows with his great axe. Gawain accepts, and cuts off the knight’s head—but the green man does not die! Rather, he picks up his head and, before riding away, reminds Gawain that in a year it will be his turn to receive his blow. Gawain, in his dutiful quest for the Green Knight, encounters many adventures—in particular, at a castle where he has an exchange of gifts with the lord, and where the lady attempts repeatedly to seduce the virtuous and honorable Gawain. He finally finds the Green Knight—in a surprising conclusion to the romance.

About the genre:
Medieval romances are typically long narratives of love and adventure in which an aristocratic hero (or occasionally a heroine) proves himself in combat and courtship. Medieval romance arose in France and Anglo-Norman England in the 12th century and spread through Western and even Eastern Europe. Many early romances tell the stories of knights and ladies at King Arthur’s court. In the 12th and 13th centuries, romances are composed in verse (typically octosyllabic rhymed couplets), and are commonly performed aloud from memory by minstrels; romances are also sometimes read aloud. In the 13th century, some romances begin to be written in prose; public and private readings become more frequent.

About the edition/translation:
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, tr. Brian Stone, Penguin, 2nd ed., London, 1974, I: 21, pp. 38ff. One edition of this frequently-edited work is Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, ed. J. R. R. Tolkien and E. V. Gordon, 2nd ed. revised by Norman Davis, Oxford, Clarendon, 1968.

About the performer/ensemble:
Colleen Smith is a Drama student in the Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts (2009).

About the production:
This performance was created for “Acting Medieval Literature,” taught by Prof. Timmie (E.B.) Vitz in spring 2009. It was videoed in the classroom by a fellow student.