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Maternal Games in The Green Knight: Launching Gawain

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  14 May 2024

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Summary

The actions of Morgan le Fay initiate and motivate the plot of the anonymous late fourteenth-century English romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. She orchestrates the Christmas challenge that sets Gawain on his adventures, yet she is not a major player in any of the events of the narrative. She appears only briefly, in the guise of a crone, in Lord Bertilak's castle where Gawain is offered harborage. Likewise, the text diminishes the agency of Lady Bertilak when her husband claims responsibility for having sent her to seduce Gawain. Chivalry thus remains in the domain of the masculine with women afforded only peripheral roles. David Lowery's 2021 film adaptation of this work, The Green Knight, reimagines the narrative to allow Morgan and a host of other female characters integral roles in the action. Morgan not only instigates the game that will enable Gawain's chivalric growth, but she also travels with and attempts to protect him. Lowery preserves the chivalric tests of the original poem, but in an altered form that gives women, particularly Morgan as Gawain's mother, a crucial role in the chivalric development of a future king.

Notable among Lowery's changes to the original poem are the following: the depiction of Gawain, played by Dev Patel, as untried and unknighted; the depiction of Arthur and Guinevere, played respectively by Sean Harris and Kate Dickie, as old rather than young; and the depiction of Morgan le Fay, played by Sarita Choudhury, as Gawain's mother rather than his aunt. These changes emphasize the themes of chivalric maturity, succession, and maternal protection. Choudhury's Morgan is integral to the development of these themes. From her initial appearance in Geoffrey of Monmouth's Vita Merlini, Morgan le Fay has assumed various roles. She is most often depicted as a sorceress and troublemaker at Arthur's court. Conventionally, she is Arthur's half-sister. In some works of medievalism, her character is confused or conflated with that of Morgause, mother of Mordred through incest and mother of Gawain.5 The malleability of her character and her conflation with Morgause allow Lowery the creative liberty to reshape the narrative. He engages in the time-honored strategy of combining characters in films to create a singular character who possesses the familiar characteristics of both Morgan (enchantress) and Morgause (mother). Taken together, Lowery's alterations empower Morgan's role in Gawain's adventures.

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Studies in Medievalism
(En)gendering Medievalism
, pp. 39 - 56
Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2024

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