Writing Green Knight


With less than a week to go until Green Knight premieres at the 2017 Edinburgh Fringe, I thought it would be worthwhile popping up a blog-post about what led me to write the play.  This is partly because it’s something a few people have asked about, and partly because it’s an interesting thing for me to reflect on now I’m in the final throes of preparation!

The first, most obvious answer is the fourteenth-century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight on which the show is based. It’s an Arthurian romance, one of a series of stories popular in the period about King Arthur and the knights of his Round Table, and their adventures both on strange and marvellous quests, and in love. The poem survives in only one manuscript, British Library MS Cotton Nero A.x, and we don’t know who composed it – the poet is generally referred to as the Gawain-poet or Pearl-poet, after one of the other three poems in the manuscript. All four poems are thought to come from the same poet, and they share the same north-west Midlands dialect (although this may come from the scribe who copied out the manuscript rather than the poet).

You can see digitised pages from the manuscript, including some beautiful illustrated pages, at http://blogs.bl.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2012/08/sir-gawain-and-the-green-knight-online.html courtesy of the British Library and University of Calgary.

I read the poem first when I was seventeen years old, and about to head off to my first year at university. I can remember clearly the shock I felt when I opened the text for the first time and realised that I could understand only around one in every five words! If this was typical of what was coming then university was going to be really hard!

I decided to try and read it in small chunks over two weeks. I was agonisingly slow at it. But at the same time, despite the temptations of summer, friends, and dodgy 1980s pop, I couldn’t leave it alone. There was the cracking adventure it told: the interruption of the new year feast at Camelot by a strange green knight issuing a beheading challenge, a challenge which is taken up by Arthur’s nephew, Gawain, who is famed for his courteous manners and religious purity. It was pretty obvious to me that he was heading for a fall. The language, even if it was odd and challenging, was at the same time rugged and beautiful – and northern! And the characters, young and lively and gorgeous, were simultaneously painfully human and flawed. It tuned in perfectly with my sense of where I was at seventeen, about to leave home and live independently for the first time, testing myself in the world, bubbling with arrogance on one hand and simultaneously terrified I wasn’t up to the job. The poem’s combination of the strange and the familiar, the ideal and otherworldly and the messily, dirtily real, was irresistible – actually I’ve never quite got over that. It led me on to specialising in medieval literature, and then a D.Phil in medieval studies, and I’m still drawn to anything related to the Middle Ages.

When I came back, nearly thirty years later, to thinking about a story to adapt for a one-woman show, I wanted something that fed my medieval obsession – and Gawain was an obvious choice. I started to feel curious about the woman at the heart of the poem. Arguably any power she has in her world is very limited – and while she speaks a lot in the main section of the poem in which she appears, the words may have been fed to her by others. But her ambiguous motivation (in my head, at least), and the ingenious flirtatious skirmishing she enjoys with Gawain, made her irresistible. I began to wonder about what could have brought her to this point in her life, and how she felt about it. What was going on in her head, and if she could tell us her side of the story, what would she want us to know? So, I started writing framing pieces for the main adventure story, in which my lady spoke about her life, and to shade the storytelling of Gawain’s challenge to express her perspective.

Writing the story from the lady’s point of view brought to the fore of my mind the shortage of female voices in medieval literature. When I’d worked on my D.Phil, I’d looked at the problem of ordinary people who might want to be remembered by future generations and how that might be achieved – in the research I was doing, this included town clerks (male, of course) who exploited their control of city records and the gift of literacy to insert information about themselves into those records. In particular, I was struck by an early town clerk of London, Andrew Horn, who commemorated a son, lost at an early age, with a brief but poignant listing in one of London’s civic books. For women, making their voices heard, ensuring they would be remembered, was an even bigger challenge. So, I started to explore the idea of my lady, seized by an urgency to tell her story before time ran out for her.

And lots of other reasons! But what’s here will begin to give you an idea of what inspired me. More soon!