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Forget Lanceleot, he was always a bit to prim and proper for me, Gawain was always my favourite knight of the round table. The story of Gawain and the Green Knight is one that I remember from childhood, and have often told, in my own version to my sons. When I saw this copy by Michael Morpugo, with such beautiful illustrations I decided to give it a try. However, when I get to the page with the illustration shown on the cover, I change the story. Instead of slaying the dragon, which is meant to be the symbol of both King Arthur and his people, in my story, Gawain frees the dragon from an evil enchantment, but I digress. The dragon is a very minor part of the tale, and not part of the original story at all.
This is an ancient story, true the original poem is only a little more than 600 years old, but the roots of this story stretch back far deeper, into ancient Gaelic myth, with some connection to Germanic folklore as well. Of course the story has been modernised to suit a 14th century audience, including references to the Virgin Mary, and making this into a Christian tale, but others would argue the roots of this story lay in Britain's pagan past, with the Green Knight clearly representing an otherworldly figure, perhaps Manannan Mclir an Irish deity associated with the sea, but also with learning, or The Green Man, a pagan god of spring, and the beheading in this story representing ritual beheading in which the land was nourished by blood. In it's earliest incarnation, this tale was most likely Irish, and represented the renewal of life in the Spring. This is a story that is part of our heritage, and one that I believe children should learn. It most certainly has a moral, in fact there is a very moral tone this story as a whole highlighting the virtues of bravery, honesty, courage and purity, but more than that, it is also a good story and Morpugo has adapted this very well into a children's book while Foreman's illustrations bring the epic story to life.
The story begins on New Years Eve, Morpugo has set this as Christmas time, as did the original 14th century poem, but older tales most likely would have set this as spring time, the Celtic new year began with Beltane, as the earth itself renewed the year. According to the stories Arthur and his knights had gathered, and were waiting for a tale of adventure before the feasting could begin. Into the hall rode a strange green knight, who insisted that someone play his game, insulting the king and all around. At last King Arthur himself agrees to the game which is a very strange game indeed, often referred to as The Christmas Game, or the beheading game. The rules were simple. Arthur or one of his knights must behead the Green Knight, and in turn they must travel to meet him in a year and a day's time and allow him to do the same. In the end, Gawain insists on taking Arthur's place, arguing that if something goes wrong, he an be replaced, Arthur can not.
Now even a child quickly grasps that if you are going to take turns chopping each others heads off, it will be a one sided game. After all, you hardly expect someone to get up and chop your head off after having their own head chopped off. Gawain takes the challenge, and severs the Green Knight's head with a single blow. The Green Knight then lifts his head in his hand and mounts his horse. He then holds the head aloft, it's terrible red eyes glaring at all assembled. The severed head then speaks, reminding Gawain of his obligations, and then holding his own head in his hand, the green Knight gallops away.
Gawain is now in the unenviable position of waiting for a year and day before going to his own doom. He holds little hope of survival, it is clear the Green Knight is a supernatural being, but Gawain knows all to well his own life will end with such a blow. But everything is down to honour. Gawain can flee, or simply avoid going to meet the knight. He has been given no directions as to how to find the knight, only to follow the signs. He could easily pretend he has tried to find the mysterious green chapel where he is meant to meet his death, but to do so would be dishonourable. Gawain's courage is sorely tested, but much more will be tested as well, he will overcome hardships and trials, both of strength and of virtue.
The original story is both violent, and involves seduction or at least attempted seduction. This does rather obviously have violence with a severed head and blood spurting all over, but this is not unlike comic book violence. It is not terribly realistic or gory. There is an unreal feel to the whole aspect of this story, and I do not feel this is likely to upset many children. As to the seduction aspects, these are quite tame, nothing more than a kiss, although much has been made of the fact that Gawain will kiss a fellow as well - in friendship nothing more, but at the time of the original poem this was something the Catholic church was moving to stop, insisting displays of affection between men were inappropriate. My children found this section quite amusing, but it does serve some moral aspect as well. I think it shows that it is acceptable for males to display affection, something which has been sadly discouraged to the point that many men are not even comfortable displaying affection toward their own sons now.
My sons do love this story, although I suspect my youngest would not lie it as well if the dragon were killed. he especially loves the Red Dragon YDraig Goch, as I have told them stories of this dragon from infancy, so he would not care at all to see the dragon defeated. It's wonderful story which has just enough of a spooky tinge, adventure, excitement, and the eventual triumph of the hero. At the moment this is just a brilliant story, although I will warn parents planning to read this at bedtime, it is a very long story, and will take well over and hour, and possibly closer to two to complete. My youngest fell asleep halfway through the first time we read this and we had to finish it the second night.
As they grow older though, this book has a great deal of scope for educational purposes. This story very clearly displays all six elements of a heroic epic, and this is a classic piece of literature as well as being piece of our collective folklore, and a fun bedtime story.
This book does contain a lot of text, and will not suit a child who is restless or has a short attention span. There are always exceptions, but I feel that age 4 is the minimum age to really enjoy the entire story. I do feel that despite this being a picture book, it could appeal to teen agers and adults as well. I certainly enjoyed it and still very much enjoy myths and legends. The text is large and clear, but green, and this may put some struggling readers off. In general though, I feel that this is written at a an older child's reading level. I would recommend this for ages 10+ for independent reading. My son can read this at 8, but while he does have a good reading level, there are a few words he struggles with, such as "delectable" and "luxuriated". Regardless of reading level though, I really feel this is one of those books that it just more fun to read aloud, all curled up under the duvets on a cold winter night.