In many of the texts we read in class, if not all, there is a significant amount of change in the story because of generations of translating. Most of these stories began as early as the sixth century. Others come a little later. For example, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, written by an unknown poet, was written in the fourteenth century. There is now a movie titled “The Green Knight” written, produced, and edited by David Lowery that came out in 2021. These two, while they are the same story, have vast differences that change how the story is read. Especially when it comes to religion, it is portrayed much differently now than it was in earlier centuries. Another example would be Beowulf, a poem written somewhere between 975-1025 by an anonymous author just like the Green Knight. This story has hints of Paganism and rituals but has an overlaying theme of Christianity. The Green Knight also has a mix of these two completely different religions, and it is interesting to see the differences in the early versions of these texts and more modern takes. It is important to acknowledge these differences because they are prime examples of why and how religion and its meaning has changed over time. Religion is a huge cause for many disagreements in today’s political atmosphere. Pointing out these changes and inconsistencies in religion and its past can be beneficial towards facilitating educated conversation on the topic.
The Green Knight was originally titled “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” written by an anonymous poet in the fourteenth century. The original follows the youngest knight, Sir Gawain on a quest to fulfill a challenge given to him by the Green Knight. The legend is that at a New Year’s feast, The Green Knight shows up and says, “One of you gets to strike me now, then in one year, I get to strike you back the same way” (Edelman, 2021). In response to this, Sir Gawain beheads the knight. The Green Knight then tells Gawain to meet him at the Green Chapel in exactly one year. A year later, Gawain makes the difficult journey to the Green Chapel. Towards the end of his journey, he meets Lord and Lady Bertilak.
Lord Bertilak makes a deal with Gawain. This deal was that the Lord would bring back whatever he hunted that day and give it to Gawain, but in return Gawain must give anything he receives while the Lord is away to him when he gets back. Gawain agrees to this deal. When Lord Bertilak goes hunting, he leaves Gawain with his wife, Lady Bertilak. On the third day, Lady Bertilak kisses him three times, but also gifts him a green silk girdle. She claims this girdle is magic and will protect him from death and harm. Gawain accepts this gift, but does not give it to the Lord, therefore breaking their deal.
Once Gawain finally made it to face the Green Knight, the knight attempts to slay him in the same way Gawain slayed him: by beheading him. But he swings the first two times and stops just short of his neck. And on the third swing he strikes Gawain but only enough to make a small cut on the back of his neck. The Knight then reveals himself as Lord Bertilak, and that he had done this with sorcery done by Morgan Le Fay. The blood that was drawn on the third strike was punishment for not returning the gift on the third day. Gawain was unknowingly going through a chivalry test. After this realization, he is sent home with the girdle still wrapped around his arm.
So, in the original, sorcery and witchcraft are very prevalent. The Green Knight itself was sorcery done by Morgan Le Fay and even the girdle holds its’ own “magic.” The movie adaptation focuses more on the Christianity aspect than the original poem. In the movie, the green Knight is created by Morgan Le Fay using a ritual involving bone, a blindfold, and fire. But, on top of this, Lowery includes many Christian symbols that are not originally used in the poem. For example, Lowery makes the Green Knight appear on Christmas day compared to New Years in the original. This is an immediate hint towards the switch of traditions. Lowery also includes Christian sentiments in King Arthor’s speech. He says, “I thank thee for breaking bread with me on this blessed day” (Lowery, 2021). The king also mentions celebrating the birth of Christ. The villagers all attend mass, and Sir Gawain even uses a shield with an image of Mary blessed with holy water. None of those religious aspects are present in the poem.
Another difference is Margan Le Fay. In the original, she is a sorcerer who creates the Green Knight. In the movie version, while she is still the sorcerer who made the Green Knight, she is also Gawain’s mother. This adds an interesting aspect to the story as Morgan is now much closer to Gawain than in the original. Morgan Le Fay shows an opposition between two traditions, and has the Green Knight created with pagan roots versus the rest of the knights that the king claims to be Christian. This poem is based during the fall of the western Roman Empire and Christianity was on the rise. People who were Pagan for centuries started to accept and consider Christian beliefs.
By the end of the movie, Gawain does not have the same fate. In the original, he keeps the girdle and goes home. But, in the movie, Gawain gives the girdle back to the Green Knight, and this is what determines that he “passed the test.” Before we see this play out though, we see what would have happened if Gawain fled. In Alex Wech’s explanation of the ending, he says “However, when the Green Knight goes to bring his ax down upon Gawain’s neck — replicating the blow that Gawain delivered to him a year earlier — Gawain panics and runs away, aware that he will not survive the swing. He finds his horse waiting for him across a nearby stream and goes back home to Camelot.” (Welch). We then see his life play out in images before it flashes back to Gawain giving the girdle to the Green Knight. It ends with the Green Knight saying, “now off with your head!” before the screen goes black so we are not totally sure about Gawain’s fate. (The Green Knight (film), 2022). What we do know is that it was seen as “honorable” for him to give the girdle back as it meant he would no longer be under its’ protection. The girdle represents an attachment to mortal life, so giving it away is another sign of religion as well.
Similarly, the original Beowulf has many topics that oppose Christianity. It is originally about Beowulf defeating Grendel, and Grendel’s mother then proceeding to attack. Beowulf defeats both and becomes King of the Geats. Fifty years later, Beowulf must defeat a dragon and he does, but dies in the process. It is argued whether Beowulf predates Christian ideologies, but it is a fact that both Paganism and Christianity are present here. The idea that you survive through God and everything good you receive comes from God. In the original, he says, “The fight would have ended straightaway if God had not guarded me.” (Little, 1). But there is also selfishness, and pride that gets in the way of these ideologies. Beowulf has this need to “prove” himself and gloat about his accomplishments. This does not align with Christian beliefs.
Grendel, on the other hand, represents Pagan beliefs as she is seen as the “evil” and Beowulf is seen as the “good.” The importance they put on the swords and other weapons is also an example of Paganism. In Maria Dahvana Headley’s translation, she changes these concepts by using modern language like “bro” and commonly used swears. In David Wilton’s book review, he says “She translates the first word of the poem, the famous Hwæt!, as Bro! The monster Grendel is fucked by fate. And Beowulf himself is Hygelac’s hit man, who at one point gives zero shits. In the hands of less-skilled writer this approach would be laughably silly, but Headley’s translation manages to simultaneously position the poem in a time long past while making it relevant to the current now” (Wilton).
She also sees and writes this with a more feminist point of view. In her introduction, she says, “Beowulf is usually seen as a masculine text, but I think that’s somewhat unfair. The poem, while (with one exception) not constructed around the actions of women, does contain extensive portrayals of motherhood and peace-weaving marital compromise, female warriors, and speculation on what it means to lose a son.” (Headley, xxiii). In another book review by Jason Sheehan, he talks about the variety that Headley displays in this rendition of Beowulf. He says “it has everything: Love, sex, murder, magic, dungeons, dragons, giants, monsters. It spills blood by the bucket and gore by the gallon, makes heroes, slays villains and serves as an instruction manual for toxic masculinity, circa 700 AD.” (Sheehan). Headley’s version is for everyone compared to the smaller audience that the original was targeted to.
Headley, just like Lowery in the Green Knight, changes the depiction of Beowulf based on her own ideals. Seeing texts translated over time and seeing the differences made by these translations is remarkably interesting especially when it comes to the religion aspect. Times have changed so much that it is inevitable that there will be changes in the depiction of religion and religious characters, and David Lowerys’ depiction of “The Green Knight” and Maria Headleys’ depiction of “Beowulf” do just that. We live in a world where religion is a heavy and politicized topic. Being educated on how these religious ideologies have evolved and how similar some beliefs used to be that are now considered complete opposites can help bring peaceful conversation to an otherwise hostile disagreement. Noting differences in these adaptations of old religious texts is one of the many ways that can be done.
Edelman, George. “Sir Gawain and ‘the Green Knight’ Movie Explained.” No Film School, No Film School, 22 Oct. 2021, https://nofilmschool.com/Sir-gawain-the-green-knight-explained.
“The Green Knight (Film).” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 9 Oct. 2022, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Green_Knight_(film).
Headley, Dahvana Maria. Beowulf: A New Translation. Scribe, 2021.
Little, Steve. “Christian Elements in Further Celebration of Heorot.” Christian Elements in Beowulf, https://csis.pace.edu/grendel/projs1d/CHRIST.html.
Sheehan, Jason. “Bro, This Is Not the ‘Beowulf’ You Think You Know.” NPR, NPR, 27 Aug. 2020, https://www.npr.org/2020/08/27/906423831/bro-this-is-not-the-beowulf-you-think-you-know.
Welch, Alex. “’The Green Knight’s Ending, Explained.” Inverse, Inverse, 6 Aug. 2021, https://www.inverse.com/entertainment/the-green-knight-ending-explained.
Wilton, David. “Review: Beowulf: A New Translation, by Maria Dahvana Headley.” Wordorigins.org, Wordorigins.org, 29 Aug. 2020, https://www.wordorigins.org/harmless-drudge/review-beowulf-a-new-translation-by-maria-dahvana-headley.