In an essay on Message to the Planet (1991), Karen A. Kildahl remarks that “part of the interest” in reviewing a novel by Iris Murdoch lies in charting “the intense reactions it invariably provokes among reviewers.” An Oxford professor, Murdoch has used her vast store of knowledge about literature and philosophy to give her novels a sense of intellectual depth not always present in popular fiction; on occasion, however, critics have found this smattering of erudition simply window dressing aimed at making the commonplace seem more significant than it really is. It is hardly surprising, then, to see that comments about Murdoch’s 1993 novel The Green Knight are widely divergent: One reviewer praises Murdoch for her novelistic skills, while another warns readers of the superficial schlock to which they will be subjected if they pick up this book.
Such remarks could be predicted, given the task Murdoch sets for herself in this novel. In The Green Knight the author attempts to blend two distinct literary genres: the Arthurian romance and the realistic novel. She is not the first to try the merger—among contemporary works, Mary Stewart’s novels of the Arthurian cycle immediately come to mind—but her choice of subject is particularly noteworthy. The curious medieval tale “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” has long been recognized as one of the premier literary productions of the late Middle Ages. Penned by an unknown author whose only other writings are bound in manuscript with this story of one of Arthur’s chief lieutenants in a single extant copy now in the British Library, this northern English romance tells how Sir Gawain defended the honor of Arthur’s court against an intruder who had, in essence, called everyone at Camelot a coward. Some of the best medieval scholars of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have devoted considerable attention to exploring the philological and psychological aspects of this tale. A number of fine modern translations have graced the shelves of academic bookstores and private libraries for more than a hundred years. Though the outline of the story may not be known to that loosely defined group known as the general reading public, the story of Sir Gawain’s encounter with the mysterious green giant Sir Bertilak is household fare in the halls of academe.
Readers not versed in medieval literature may miss the significance of Murdoch’s narrative if they read quickly and only for “the plot.” Murdoch’s story involves the aftermath of a curious incident in which a university professor, Lucas Graffe, kills a man in self-defense when—according to Lucas—the man tries to rob him. This is his story at a trial held while the would-be thief turned victim lies dying in the hospital. After the trial, Lucas disappears. His friends and family, especially his stepbrother Clement, worry greatly for Lucas’ safety, especially when they find themselves being watched by a stranger. What the circle of friends discovers when Lucas finally returns to London is that the stranger is actually the man who had supposedly died at Lucas’ hand. Peter Mir, the returned-to-life victim, tells a different version of the assault: He claims that he was struck when he tried to stop Lucas from killing Clement. Forcing Clement to admit that he is correct, Peter then blackmails Lucas into introducing him into the professor’s circle of friends—the Andersons and the men who have attached themselves to the Anderson clan.
No one is quite sure what Peter wants; it turns out that he desires a curious form of revenge, in which Lucas is made to acknowledge his crime to those who are closest to him. He demands further that the principals involved in the original altercation replay the scene a year later. In the same field where he had been bludgeoned, Peter pulls a knife on Lucas but merely nicks him. Then, at what ought to be the denouement, a lavish dinner party at Peter’s home, the group learns that Peter is actually an escapee from an asylum, where he has been undergoing treatment for mental illness brought on by the attack. Peter is summarily whisked off to his sickbed—and dies within weeks. The Andersons, the Graffes, and others in their group...
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