Sir Gawain and the Green Knight vs. Sword of the Valiant. The representation of the Green Knight in comparison

Term Paper, 2021

17 Pages, Grade: 2,0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Outer appearance of the Green Knight
2.1. Physical appearance
2.2. The holly branch and the axe

3. The atmosphere around the Green Knight
3.1. The Green Knight’s first appearance
3.2. The Green Chapel

4. Conclusion



1. Introduction

The Gawain -Poet introduces a mysterious and magical character in his poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The Green Knight is a dangerous and powerful character in the beginning of the plot. He sets the happenings in motion and is the reason for Gawain’s journey. However, the Green Knight is uncovered to not be the main villain of the story. Therefore, there must be hints at his weakness and vulnerability throughout the plot, just as the depiction of magical elements. The same applies to the movie adaptation Sword of the Valiant directed by Stephen Weeks. Although Weeks’ adaptation shows clear alterations to the poem, the beginning and the ending of the plots can still be compared. As for the beginning, in both versions the Green Knight enters the Arthurian court and explains his errand. Towards the end, both versions of Gawain find themselves in the Green Chapel. Thus, these two scenes are comparable. This paper aims at answering the question whether the representation of the Green Knight in the original poem corresponds to the movie Sword of the Valiant. Moreover, this paper is going to focus on the aspect of vulnerability and magical elements. Thus, the following questions will be answered: How is vulnerability portrayed in contrast to each other, and in how far is magic emphasized through the depiction of the Green Knight?

The first chapter is going to focus on the outer appearance of the Green Knight. Firstly, his physical appearance will be analysed, and afterwards a selection of his properties, namely his axe and the holly branch are further discussed. Both properties are present in the poem and the movie, still there are differences in the depiction and location of them. How does the different location of the properties alter the character?

Secondly, the analysis is going to focus on the atmosphere around the Green Knight. His first appearance in the court is accompanied by mystery and fear, whereas his second appearance in the Green Chapel is differently depicted. In the poem, the Green Knight does survive as well as Gawain does. On the contrary, in the movie Gawain is the only survival of the game, as he strikes the Green Knight to death. Can these different endings be explained with a different depiction of the Green Knight?

The movie Sword of the Valiant is highly criticized in scholarly writings. It is said that Stephen Weeks’ alterations to the plot did lead to an inconsistent and unaccountable plot. Nevertheless, I am going to analyse the movie out of a neutral viewpoint and this paper is going to try to find answers to the reason of Weeks’ unpopularity.

2. Outer appearance of the Green Knight

2.1. Physical appearance

The physical appearance of the Green Knight represents his mightiness and strength, as well as his magical elements. This chapter analysis in how far the depiction of the Green Knight’s physical appearance introduces these aspects and whether they differ in the poem and in the movie adaptation. First and foremost, the Green Knight’s colour is shown in both depictions. In the poem it is written that the man is “oueral enker-grene./ Ande al grayÞed in grene Þis gome and his wedes” (150 f.1 ). Here, the Green Knight is overall green including his skin. In the movie adaptation only his armour and hair are coloured in green. Furthermore, it depends on the lighting conditions to what extend the Green Knight is portrayed in bright green i.e., while the Green Knight is sitting on his horse in daylight, he is not fully in this colour but is wearing a mixture of green and brown clothes (cf. Appendix – image 1). Still, there is a green reflection on Gawain’s armour in this scene (cf. 1:29:46), which hints at a technical fault rather than a conscious decision to not portray the Green Knight in a bright colour. However, both depictions include the colour and can therefore be interpreted through it.

There are many different interpretations of the colour green that differ from scholar to scholar. One is, that the greenness connects the knight to nature and him being a “vegetation-god, a life-giving spirit” (Brewer 181). This depiction can be strengthened with the depiction of the chapel, which is also surrounded by nature. Others argue that green is the colour of ancient myths and the supernatural (cf. ibid. 183). Additionally, Brewer states that green is the colour of fairies (cf. ibid.). This would link the colour to magical elements. Furthermore, green can be seen as the colour of illusion, as hunters dress themselves in green to hide from their prey (cf. ibid. 184). With the Green Knight this would be confirmed as he deceives Gawain and the Arthurian Court and thus creates an illusion. Lastly, there is a connection of green and religion. Here, Beauregard argues that the green colour opens the depiction of the Green Knight being Christ, as “green stands for ‘the preservation of life through the dead season’, for eternal life […]” (Beauregard 155). The Green Knight represents this with the survival of the beheading. Furthermore, the timing of the Green Knight’s arrival hints at a religious connection, as he comes at Christmastime (Beauregard 156). Also, the knight’s place is called the Green Chapel, and as chapel is a religious term the connection to religion is strengthened (cf. Puhvel 11). Another scholar states that when the Green Knight leaves the court without his head on its proper place, he resembles the “image of the broken body of Christ.” (Sharma 191) In such religious interpretations the Green Knight’s mysteries are described as being divine rather than magical. Nevertheless, as there are various meanings attached to the colour green, it cannot be stated which definition fits the Green Knight best. His character appears to be just as ambivalent as his colour (cf. Brewer 190). Besides the colour, there are more aspects which offer such an ambivalent interpretation.

The poem introduces the Green Knight with the use of many descriptive adjectives such as “aghlich” (136), “sware and so Þik” (138), “Þe myriest” (142). These adjectives allow an ambiguous interpretation of the character, as he is on the one hand dreadful (cf. 136), but on the other hand the finest (cf. 142). The strong use of descriptive adjectives continues with the repetition of the word clene (cf. 154-161). Here the Green Knight’s cleanness as well as his transparency is emphasized, as Mann states: “Nothing, it seems, is hidden; there is no shabby “underneath.”.” (Mann 209) What the adjectives offer in the poem, the sound effects do in the movie. The Green Knight’s approach to the castle is introduced by magical sounding music and harsh weather (cf. Weeks 0:04:00) and climaxes at his entrance which is accompanied by a thunder and loud noises (cf. ibid. 0:05:00). Although the sound effects may be mysterious, they still create a more dramatic and evil depiction of the Green Knight. Therefore, the poem offers an ambivalent and thorough depiction of the Green Knight from beginning on, whereas the movie relies on magical and mysterious music and dramatic sound effects, which correlate with the entrance of the villain. Moreover, the physical appearance of the Green Knight is further described.

His hair and beard are prominently depicted. The poem describes it as follows:

And Þe here of his hed of his hors swete. Fayre fannand fax vmbefoldes his schulderes ; A much berd as a busk ouer his brest henges, Þat with his hiȝlich here Þat of his hed reches Watz euesed a vmbetorne abof his elbowes, Þat half his armes Þer-vnder were halched on Þe wyse Of a kyngez capados Þat closes his swyre (179-186)

Thus, he has a strong beard and exceptionally long and thick hair. His hair is further described as being “longe louelych lokkez” (419). The movie shows the Green Knight also with a beard and relatively long locks. Still, neither his beard nor his hair are as exceptional or as long as the poem describes them to be. The same inconsistency is visible with the depiction of his clothes.

Whereas, the poem repeatedly emphasizes the lack of armour and the cleanness of the Green Knight, Sword of the Valiant shows the Green Knight in full armour. One learns in the poem that the Green Knight is wearing “A strayte cote ful streȝt” (152), “A mere mantile abof” (153) and “hose of Þat same” (157). Therefore, he is wearing clothes and no armour. The lack of armour is highlighted repeatedly in the poem (i.e., 203-205). He wears no armour intentionally, as he says that he has armour at home but wanted to appear peaceful during his errand at Camelot (cf. 265 ff.). On the one hand, Gawain is described as a typical hero, especially through the detailed descriptions of his armour (cf. Lacy 172), on the other hand the Green Knight contrasts him, as he is wearing none. Furthermore, he is not wearing shoes (cf. 160), but his feet are not naked as he is wearing stockings (cf. 159). Therefore, there is no bareness in his appearance. In contrast, as already mentioned, the Green Knight in the movie is fully armoured. This armour is only interrupted with a hole in his chest area where his bare skin is visible without protection (cf. Appendix – Image 2). The hole in the armour can be depicted as a weak spot, especially as this is the spot where Gawain hits the knight in the end of the movie. Thus, the Green Knight’s vulnerability is made visible for the spectator. The poem does not show this kind of vulnerability in the Green Knight’s physical description. Moreover, the poem emphasizes the knight’s strength through his stature.

The Gawain -Poet repeatedly highlights the Green Knight’s massive stature and his height i.e.: “Herre Þen ani in Þe hous by Þe hede and more.” (333) Therefore, he is depicted as extraordinarily tall. This is not demonstrated in the movie, as the Green Knight has the same height as most of the other men in the court. Furthermore, in the movie he is not a “borelych” (2148) man and also not “more he is Þen any mon vpon myddelerde” (2100), but a man of ordinary height and stature. Hence, the poem’s Green Knight appears stronger and more powerful than the movie’s version. Additionally, this is emphasized with the Green Knight’s eyes.

Again, mightiness and magic are portrayed in the poem, where there is nothing visible in the movie. The Green Knight’s eyes are portrayed ordinarily in the movie; there is nothing exceptional about them. Unlike the movie, here the eyes are described as follows: “And runischly his rede yȝen he reled aboute” (304). The Green Knight’s red eyes emphasize his strength and mightiness. In addition to the generally known associations of red being linked to “blood, cruelty, and violence” (White 251), one can add a deeper interpretation to the Green Man’s eyes. There did exist numerous theories on physiognomy in the Middle Ages. Amongst them was a handbook called Secreta Secretorum which stated that: “If eghen be Reed, he Þat hauys hem ys coraious, stalworth, and mighty.” (cf. White 251). Thus, in addition to the Green Knights height and massive body, his red eyes offer even more aspects that lead to the intimidation of the court. Again, this is lacking in the movie adaptation, as the Green Knight does not have red eyes here. Overall, the Green Knight’s physical appearance is described more impressively compared to the portrayal in the movie. The movie’s character lacks numerous aspects which depict strength and superiority. This difference continues with the depiction of the axe, as will be explained in the following chapter.

2.2. The holly branch and the axe

While the Green Knight enters the court, he is holding an axe and a holly branch in each hand in the poem; the movie, in contrast, omits the holly branch in his hand. The effects of this difference will be analysed in this chapter. The axe is a prominent property in both the poem and the movie. In the poem it is the last property of the Green Knight that is describes. Still, it is described in much detail (cf. 208-220) and thus, its importance is stated evidently (cf. Walls 13). The axe is introduced as being “hoge and vnmete, a spetos sparÞe to expound in spelle” (208 f.), through this its danger is highlighted from beginning on. Furthermore, the sharpness of the axe is repeatedly mentioned i.e.: “As wel schepen to schere as scharp rasores” (213) and “A dene zax new dyȝt” (2223). Therefore, the power of the axe is emphasized in the beginning of the poem as well as during the second encounter with the Green Knight. In addition, the axe is considered heavy and worthy as the Green Knight says: “I schal gif hym of my gyft Þys giserne ryche, / Þis ax, Þat is heué innogh, to hondele as hym lykes.” (288 f.) The axe is given as a gift to the court; therefore, it must be worthy enough to be considered a gift. Although the axe is a weapon, Beauregard argues that the axe must not be interpreted as a symbol of war, but rather as a symbol of martyrdom (cf. Beauregard 155). As described before, the Green Knight is depicted as a soft figure, not a violent or aggressive one, which is why this interpretation makes more sense than an aggressive interpretation of the axe (cf. Beauregard 155). Still, the axe represents power and agency in the poem. A similar depiction is shown in the movie adaptation.

Here, the axe’s heaviness and sharpness is emphasized, as well as its magical element. Every move of the axe is accompanied by magical sound effects, such as in the scene in which he swings around the axe (cf. Weeks 0:06:40). Here, the axe appears noticeably light in his hands which lets the Green Knight appear powerful. But this demonstration of power is interrupted: While holding up the axe, he also prominently shows his bare chest (cf. Appendix – Image 1), which will later turn into his weak spot. Therefore, with power comes the knight’s vulnerability. Right before this scene, the Green Knight demonstrates the sharpness of the axe which is also highlighted by a sound effect (cf. ibid. 0:06:35). Furthermore, he calls the axe heavy himself and throws it at a man in the hall (cf. ibid. 0:06:54). Nevertheless, the man can easily fetch the axe, which makes the scene bizarre. In contrast, at another point two children struggle to carry the axe (cf. ibid. 0:10:50). Overall, the axe does not look as impressive as the poem depicted it and the depiction of the axe in the movie is inconsistent and ambivalent. Moreover, there do exist two different axes in both versions of the story.

Although there do exist two axes in both the poem and the movie, there is still an ambivalence in the representation of both. In the movie, the Green Knight pulls out two axes at once in the chapel (cf. Weeks 1:31:17). There is no difference between the two axes, which is why this scene disempowers the axe, as it is nothing special anymore. In the poem there can be made a distinction of the two axes. Whereas the second axe in the poem is “clearly an agent and symbol of redemption” (Walls 16), the first is on the one hand a Christmas gift, but on the other hand the tool that sets the plot in motion. The interpretation is therefore ambiguous (cf. ibid.). In the movie, such an interpretation of the two axes can hardly be made, as the Green Knight pulls out both axes in the Chapel and one cannot distinguish them from another. Therefore, it can be regarded as two of the same kind and therefore, there is no ambivalence here. There is still another difference which alters the interpretation of the Green Knight: the holly branch.

The poem introduces the Green Knight holding the axe in one hand and a holly branch in the other (cf. 206-208). The branch is described in opposition to the axe and is thus a sign for peace: it is an “emblem of peace” (Beauregard 154). In contrast, Martin states that the holly branch stands for immortality as a holly branch lives through harsh winters and does not die (cf. Martin 312). Therefore, it can be seen as either a peaceful symbol, or a hint at the Green Knight’s survival of the beheading. Blanch further argues that the holly branch and the axe symbolize the “embodiment of choice” (Blanch 25) and with it the dilemma Gawain is in (cf. ibid.). Therefore, it portrays the inner conflict Gawain is in which is the result of the Green Knight’s arrival. Such an interpretation cannot be made in the movie, as he does not carry the branch in his hand.

In the movie it is pinned to his crown (cf. Weeks 0:06:06). Therefore, the contrast, as is depicted in the poem, is not visible here. There is no choice for Gawain, as there is only the axe to pick, thus there is no tension. Blanch argues that in the movie Gawain is forced to seek out the Green Knight because of the missing branch in the hands of the Green Knight (cf. Blanch 25). Hence, the missing holly branch in the Green Knight’s hand leads to the failure “to spark internal conflict within the young knight […].” (Blanch 26) Concluding, the poem depicts the Green Knight as a more ambivalent and profound character. In the movie the character is portrayed inconsistently and less powerful.


1 While quoting or referring to the poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight I will refer to the lines of the poem rather than the page numbers of the used edition. All these quotations and references are taken from Tolkien, J. R. R., and E. V. Gordon. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Oxford University Press, 1967.

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Sir Gawain and the Green Knight vs. Sword of the Valiant. The representation of the Green Knight in comparison
University of Bonn  (Institut für Anglistik, Amerikanistik und Keltologie)
English Medieval Studies
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ISBN (Book)
gawain, green, knight, sword, valiant
Quote paper
Nicole Piontek (Author), 2021, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight vs. Sword of the Valiant. The representation of the Green Knight in comparison, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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