During 1987–88, I was a TEFL teacher in a small village in northern Italy called Magenta. The town was so-named after the decisive battle fought there in 1859 and won by a French-Sardinian army led by Napoleon III against the Austrians. According to local legend, so many lost their lives that day and so much blood ran in the streets that they named the colour of so much blood after the town. When you exit Magenta railway station, the first thing you still see is a villa peppered with bullet holes.
The school I taught in was owned by local priests and one of them would arrive every Friday evening and take away a bag of cash with him. The classes were organised and taught by myself and one other teacher, Chris, and we were left pretty much to our own devices. I taught evening classes twice a week as well as some one-to-one lessons with local businessmen who had to learn English for their jobs. These hour-long one-to-one sessions were tortuous as the businessmen were often there against their will and were always dog-tired after a day at work. I remember one very overweight man falling asleep in front of me every time we tackled the present perfect.
One day, however, in walked a student with a strange request. His name was Bruno and he was 16 years old. He said that, at his local gymnasium, they were going to read the 14th-century Middle-English alliterative romance, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and he wanted someone at our school to help him tackle the text. I had, and still have, no idea why an Italian secondary school would put their 16-year old pupils through such an ordeal, but I was intrigued and so agreed. From then on, we met at the school once a week for three months or so, each time going through line-by-line a section of the text I had photocopied for him the week before. I was as much a newcomer to the text as Bruno and learned just as much as him about the intricacies of Middle-English verse—the way the alliterations come in threes, the way the stresses produce the four-beat pulse of each line, the turning of the shorter ‘bob and wheel’ sections. It was one of the most unusual and rewarding teaching experiences I’ve ever had.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a test of courage and a tale of the limitations of personal integrity. The story opens with a giant Green Knight arriving on horseback at Camelot and issuing a challenge—any of King Arthur’s knights may cut off his head with a single blow of an axe on the condition that the Green Knight may return the blow in one year’s time. Gawain, Arthur’s nephew and famous as the most noble of his knights, immediately stands up and accepts the challenge. He makes his strike and cuts off the Green Knight’s head, but the Green Knight merely picks it up and rides off, telling Gawain that he must seek him out and fulfil his part of the bargain. The text follows Gawain as he rides out the following winter to find the Green Knight and face certain death.
Not just a story of chivalry under duress, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is also a nature poem, a ghost story, a thriller, a romance, an adventure story, a 2,500-line tongue twister, a myth and a morality tale. The imagery is unforgettable. As Gawain rides along the borderlands of Cheshire, Staffordshire and Derbyshire, we see the turning of the seasons; the hills, vales and forests gripped in winter’s clutches. Gawain sleeps in his armour, taking shelter under waterfalls, and the pages of the poem seem tinged with frost.
Four years later, I was doing an English degree at Sussex and came across Gawain again, this time in a course on Semiotics. The tutor for that course, Jacqueline Rose, was looking at Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in light of an essay entitled “Morphology of the Folktale”, written in the 1920s by Russian theorist Vladimir Propp. The essay is still one of the most fascinating and convincing demonstrations of the underlying homogenous nature of all plots. For his essay, Propp looked at more than a hundred folktales and drew up a chart, or ‘morphology’, of their basic elements. He first of all noted that there were only seven basic character roles: Hero, Villain, Donor/Provider, Dispatcher, Helper, Princess and False hero. He then made a list of the thirty-one basic ‘functions’, as he called them. Not all the folktales included every single function, but the overall shape of all the tales remained the same. The functions are:
- A member of the family leaves home or is absent.
- A restriction of some kind is placed on the hero.
- The hero violates that restriction.
- The villain tries to find the hero.
- The villain secures information about the hero.
- The villain tries to trick the hero into trusting him.
- The hero falls for it.
- The villain hurts the hero’s family or one of the family desperately lacks something.
- This injury or lack comes to light and the hero must act.
- The hero decides upon a course of action against the villain.
- The hero leaves home.
- The hero is tested in some way and, as a result, receives a magical agent or helper.
- The hero reacts to the actions of the future donor.
- The hero uses the magical agent or the helper aids him.
- The hero is led to what he is looking for.
- The hero fights the villain.
- The hero is wounded or marked in some way.
- The villain is defeated.
- The injury or lack [in #8] is put right.
- The hero returns.
- The hero is pursued.
- The hero is saved from this pursuit [Propp notes that many of the folktales ended here].
- The hero returns home, unrecognised.
- A false hero makes false claims.
- A difficult task is set for the hero.
- The task is accomplished.
- The hero is recognised.
- The false hero or villain is exposed.
- The hero is transformed in some way.
- The villain is punished.
- The hero is married and/or crowned.
What’s remarkable about Propp’s morphology is how well it can be applied to all kinds of story, from any period, including Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Here is a synopsis of its plot in ‘Proppian’ terms:
On New Year’s Day in Camelot, King Arthur’s court is feasting and exchanging gifts. A large Green Knight armed with an axe enters the hall and proposes a game. He asks for someone in the court to strike him once with his axe, on condition that the Green Knight will return the blow one year and one day later (4). Sir Gawain, the youngest of Arthur’s knights and nephew to the king, accepts the challenge (5) (6) (7). He severs the giant’s head in one stroke, expecting him to die. The Green Knight, however, picks up his own head, reminds Gawain to meet him at the Green Chapel in a year and a day (New Year’s Day the next year) and rides away (8) (9) (10).
As the date approaches, Sir Gawain sets off to find the Green Chapel and complete his bargain with the Green Knight (11). His long journey leads him to a beautiful castle where he meets Bertilak de Hautdesert, the lord of the castle, and his beautiful wife (12); both are pleased to have such a renowned guest. Gawain tells them of his New Year’s appointment at the Green Chapel and says that he must continue his search as he only has a few days remaining. Bertilak laughs and explains that the Green Chapel is less than two miles away and proposes that Gawain stay at the castle (13).
Before going hunting the next day, Bertilak proposes a bargain to Gawain: he will give Gawain whatever he catches, on condition that Gawain give him whatever he might gain during the day. Gawain accepts. After Bertilak leaves, the lady of the castle, Lady Bertilak, visits Gawain’s bedroom to seduce him. Despite her best efforts, however, he yields nothing but a single kiss. When Bertilak returns and gives Gawain the deer he has killed, his guest responds by returning the lady’s kiss to Bertilak, without divulging its source. The next day, the lady comes again, Gawain dodges her advances, and there is a similar exchange of a hunted boar for two kisses. She comes once more on the third morning, and Gawain accepts from her a green silk girdle, which the lady promises will keep him from all physical harm. They exchange three kisses. That evening, Bertilak returns with a fox, which he exchanges with Gawain for the three kisses. Gawain keeps the girdle, however (14).
The next day, Gawain leaves for the Green Chapel with the girdle. He finds the Green Knight at the chapel sharpening an axe (15), and, as arranged, bends over to receive his blow (16). The Green Knight swings to behead Gawain, but holds back twice, only striking softly on the third swing, causing a small nick on his neck (17). The Green Knight then reveals himself to be the lord of the castle, Bertilak de Hautdesert (18), and explains that the entire game was arranged by Morgan le Fay, Arthur’s enemy. Gawain is at first ashamed and upset, but the two men part on cordial terms (19) and Gawain returns to Camelot (20), wearing the girdle in shame as a token of his failure to keep his promise with Bertilak (21). Arthur decrees that all his knights should henceforth wear a green sash in recognition of Gawain’s adventure (22).
Of course, I’m not suggesting that anyone should slavishly follow Propp’s morphology, but it is a brilliant, illuminating way to see how a plot works in practice, from the inside-out, as it were. Reading Propp’s morphology in tandem with Sir Gawain and the Green Knight showed how well its author had laid the traps and sprung the surprises. The beauty of the tale is that, while the story initially seems to be about one thing—the beheading game—it turns out actually to be about something else entirely—temptation.
Ultimately, every story has its own personality. Plot may be the genetic code of a text, but, just as human beings who share the same DNA are obviously and wildly different from each other, so books that show their common lineage are also peculiarly and stubbornly individual. Thank goodness for that! There are very many stories that follow, more or less, the same plot, but it is the writer’s task to create stories, not copy plots. Stories these days might not be original, but they can still be authentic.
Richard Skinner is an author, poet and Director of the Fiction Programme at Faber Academy. This essay will appear in his forthcoming collection Vade Mecum: Essays, Reviews & Interviews to be published early this summer by Zero Books
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was also one of the inspirations behind Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant.