10 Songs for Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
The Very Best in 14th-century Holiday Morality Tales
Here’s my thing: I love Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. This is deeply nerdy, I know. But I am in charge of this column and I’m calling the shots. In case you don’t know, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a 14th-century Arthurian tale written by an unknown author often described as the “Pearl Poet” (because he or she also seems to have written Pearl). It begins on New Year’s Day in Camelot. King Arthur and all his buddies are hanging out at the round table, when an enormous knight, who is also completely green, rides his horse into the festival hall. The horse, by the way, is also green. He says he wants to play a game: anyone who wants to can strike him a single blow with his fancy axe—and then in one year and one day, the Green Knight will return the same blow. The axe will be the prize. Some game. Sir Gawain, the youngest knight, accepts the challenge, and realizing that his blow better be a final one, he beheads the Green Knight, right there in the hall, with a single stroke. “Super,” says the Green Knight (I am editorializing), and he stands up and picks up his head. “See you in a year,” he says as he rides off into the forest.
Right. So when the time comes, Sir Gawain heads off into the forest to find the Green Knight and fulfill his end of the bargain: getting beheaded! He comes to a castle occupied by Lord Bertilak and his very attractive wife. It is nearby the Green Knight’s abode, and they invite him to stay until the day he must meet him. In the morning, Bertilak goes off to hunt, and suggests something relatively bizarre: that he will give Gawain whatever he kills that day if Gawain gives him whatever he himself gets while Bertilak is away. Knights are pretty much always making nonsense deals, as it turns out. While Bertilak is off hunting, his wife comes in and tries to seduce Gawain. He resists, but she kisses him a single time. When her husband comes home, he gives Gawain the deer (the “hart”) he has killed, and Gawain gives him the kiss. The next day, it’s the same: a boar for two kisses. On the third day, the day before Gawain must face the Green Knight, the Lady Bertilak offers him not just a kiss but her magical girdle, which she says is enchanted to protect the wearer from all harm. Facing down his certain death, Gawain can not refuse. She also gives him three kisses. When Bertilak comes home, Gawain dutifully gives him the kisses, but keeps the girdle for himself.
In the morning, Gawain rides off the face the Green Knight. He exposes his neck. The Green Knight swings, but pulls away. He mocks Gawain for flinching. The Green Knight swings again, and this time Gawain holds strong, but again he pulls away. On the third swing, the Green Knight strikes, but only cuts a shallow wound in Gawain’s neck. He takes off his disguise: it is Bertilak himself, who forgives Gawain for his deception and sends him home.
So there’s a lot going on. I won’t try to make a playlist out of Arthurian ballads here, but I will choose some contemporary songs that I think are tonally appropriate and fit with the essential themes of this classic story: temptation, seduction, deception, the natural world, magic girdles. I know, I know: what song isn’t about those things?
“St. Stephen’s Day Murders,” The Chieftains
First, some lackadaisical party music for that opening scene of drinking and revelry. St. Stephen’s Day is technically the day after Christmas, but honestly this is close enough, and by the way: The Bells of Dublin is the only Christmas album, in my view.
“O Green World,” Gorrilaz
This is perfect tromping through the forest on your horse to seek out your own personal killer music.
“Untitled (How Does It Feel),” D’Angelo
When you hear this song, you know there’s some seduction going on, perhaps by the fire in a big castle, while you’re expecting some wild boar for dinner later. If Lady Bertilak actually played this, the story would have just ended there, so on balance, I’m glad she lived (“lived”) some 700 years too early.
“Whatever Lola Wants,” Ella Fitzgerald
Didn’t you know Lola was Lady Bertilak’s first name?
“Running with the Wolves,” AURORA
Music for letting go of your chivalric code, just a little bit, when you’re lost in the woods and fearing for your life.
“Urge for Going,” Joni Mitchell
Joni Mitchell’s music could sound current in almost any century. This is a winter staple, particularly for travelers, questers, or those who wish they were. “All that stays is dyin’/all that lives is getting out.”
“Everything’s Gone Green,” New Order
Gawain spends a lot of this story being confused, even when he doesn’t know he’s confused. This is the perfect song for spiraling into a surrealist nightmare secretly cooked up for you by Morgan le Fay.
“Creature Fear,” Bon Iver
The wild ups and downs of this song mirror the wild ups and downs of Gawain’s adventure—first calm, then mania, then calm, then terror.
“Cello Song,” The Books ft. José Gonzales
This song just sounds like waking up in a castle to me.
“Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” Heather Dale
All I have to say is: this exists!