The Green Knight

by Iris Murdoch

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1722

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...

(This entire section contains 1722 words.)

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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 must now come to terms with the significance of Lucas’ attempted murder of Clement and Peter’s death. All’s well that ends well, though; two of the Anderson daughters and their widowed mother find appropriate husbands (Lucas takes the oldest sister off to America), and the entire group can now presumably go on with their angst-filled existences.

If this plot summary sounds more like domestic realism than medieval romance, that is precisely what Murdoch intends. Her novel is consciously written to operate on two levels. First, it is a study of modern middle-class Londoners, that group often called “shabby genteel,” who maintain the façade of sophistication but whose problems mirror those of the population at large: a widowed mother bringing up three precocious daughters, several men (most approaching middle age) who struggle with their identity and their sexuality, all close friends in what seems to be an extended family relationship where intergenerational romance is the norm rather than the exception. The petty jealousies, anxieties, aspirations, and concerns that knit the group together make them appear to be the cast of some highbrow soap opera. Murdoch spices up the story by creating a pair of siblings (one adopted, the second the natural child of loving parents) whose rivalry leads the older one to attempt fratricide. That act, foiled by the intervention of a mysterious stranger, generates the primary plot complication and introduces into this social circle the title character of the work.

The similarities to the Arthurian romance are introduced in the details. Murdoch does all that she can to provide subtle parallels between her story and its medieval source. Her mysterious stranger dresses in green (sometimes a dark green suit, sometimes merely a waistcoat) and carries a green umbrella—which serves as a sheath for an unusual knife, the weapon used late in the novel to inflict the retributory wound on the would-be murderer Lucas. Other characters (who, like most middle-class denizens of London, are exceptionally well read) observe the similarities between Peter Mir and the shadowy figure of medieval romance. To be sure that her less well educated readers get the point, near the end of the novel Murdoch provides a brief synopsis of the Green Knight’s story, allowing Clement to point out both the similarities and the differences between the romance and the much more realistic modern reenactment.

Yet this is no slavish retelling of the legend. Unlike many modern Arthurian tales, Murdoch stays away from simply dressing up medieval characters in three-piece suits. Rather, she uses some of the incidents present in the fourteenth century tale of Sir Gawain’s adventures with the Green Knight to explore modern problems. The differences are noteworthy. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the green giant arrives at King Arthur’s court at Christmastime, wielding a mighty ax, and challenges any knight to exchange blows with him. Gawain takes up the challenge, cutting off his head. The knight picks up his head and demands an equal opportunity; the next year Gawain sets off to give his opponent his due. Arriving at the home of the Green Knight (though he does not yet know that he has come to the right place), Gawain is fêted by the host and his wife, the latter a temptress who woos Gawain unsuccessfully but convinces him to wear a magic girdle (a sash) to shield himself from the blow he will receive from the Green Knight. When the knight finally delivers the blow, he merely nicks Gawain, then tells him that the blow is retribution for the Arthurian champion’s failure to resist all the temptations of the wife, who has been working in collusion with her husband.

Only a few of the plot details from this medieval story find their way into Murdoch’s novel. Gone is the wife, and with her any notion of sexual temptation. Predictably, the beheading scene is transformed into something more palatable in a realistic novel—a case of simple battery performed with a cricket bat. Gone too is the Arthurian setting. Instead, the group oriented around Louise Anderson and her daughters serves as the “court” into which the modern-day Sir Bertilak interjects himself. Sir Gawain has been replaced by a self-centered academic whose crime against the Green Knight is accidental, a by-product of his failed attempt to kill his stepbrother. As is expected in realistic novels, every character has a motive for his or her actions, and every seemingly mysterious occurrence has a logical explanation. The suggestiveness of setting and the symbolic qualities of natural settings evoked by the romance become extended descriptions of the everyday—elaborate explanations of room furnishings, table settings, and dinner courses, minute detailing of apparel and hairstyles. Such is the stuff of realistic novels, and Murdoch must provide these trappings to remain faithful to the genre that ultimately dominates this work.

In the transformation of the story from the fourteenth to the twentieth century and from the realm of romance to hard-core realism, there are inevitable losses as well as gains. If Murdoch must provide rational explanations for every character’s actions to satisfy modern readers’ expectations of the novel, she is forced to demystify one of the most enigmatic characters in the history of her nation’s literature. As a result,The Green Knight is destined to meet with mixed reviews: Fans of Murdoch the novelist will applaud her deftness in reshaping old materials to fit her modern purposes, while devotees of medieval literature may well bemoan the fate of the Green Knight in the hands of a twentieth century novelist. Unfortunately, that is the risk one runs whenever one attempts to tamper with a legend.

Sources for Further Study

Chicago Tribune. January 23, 1994, XIV, p. 1.

Commonweal. CXXI, April 8, 1994, p. 21.

The Economist. CCCXXVIII, September 25, 1993, p. 99.

London Review of Books. XV, November 4, 1993, p. 25.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. February 20, 1994, p. 2.

New Statesman and Society. VI, September 17, 1993, p. 39.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIX, January 9, 1994, p. 7.

Publishers Weekly. CCXL, November 1, 1993, p. 64.

The Times Literary Supplement. September 10, 1993, p. 20.

The Washington Post Book World. XXIV, January 9, 1994, p. 3.