Poem: Wishing for lemon trees by Meredith Debonnaire

This was another one that was submitted to the Laurie Lee Prize this year. I’m not sure I’ve got the shape of it right, but I’d still like to put it out into the world.

Some years ago
I saved the pips from a lemon and planted them.
I know nothing about lemon trees.
Three of them sprouted with ease, but one died. 
I tried my best with the other two:
found them positions  of sunlight, 
watered, 
re-potted, 
sang them an odd selection of workers rights tunes. 
Excitedly watched bright leaves unfurl:
young green near the white of my chilli plant’s blooms.
Leaves hurl themselves upwards.

As far as I can tell from internet searches
it could be five to twenty-five years from pip to tree.
Hard to imagine that future in the seedlings I see:
how, one day, lemons might come to be from a pip.
I am shaping a wish to be guarded by lemons:
an intention.
That I shall live for the next five to twenty five years, 
and that, 
by the time these seedlings are trees, 
I will have a garden with a spot in the sun where they can grow.
If I want anything to bear fruit, 
I know
I must be in it for the long run.
Wishing for lemon trees sometimes means planting one.

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REBLOG: SpookyMonth Showcase ~ THE CROWS — C. M. Rosens

This Monday, you should check out CM Rosen’s excellent books! It is SPOOKY SEASON and what better way to enjoy than with a sentient house, a cannibalistic neighbour, and a whole lot of problems?

You knew it was coming… my first novel is available in eBook (alone and with THIRTEENTH, its sequel), audiobook, paperback and an anniversary edition hardback that has a prequel short story in the back, “Gerald”. Ebook, Hardback, Paperback & Audiobook Versions The hardback and paperback are from Amazon only Ebook from my Ko-Fi Ebook duo […]

SpookyMonth Showcase ~ THE CROWS — C. M. Rosens

Poem: Sleeping Hills by Meredith Debonnaire

I submitted this poem to the Laurie Lee prize, but as I did not get shortlisted (and to be honest nature writing is not exactly my strong point!) I thought I could share it here now! Enjoy

There are giants in these hills.
Beneath my feet their bones crumble.
When I climb and my breath spills out 
      sharp on the air like a knife, honed - 
I stumble.
Catch myself on thick wildflower grass.
Lie down, wait for unsteadiness to pass.
Listen.
Below the soil the stones sing:
they remember oceans.
The high thin voice of a lark joins in.
I have so many memories sewn into this hill:
the still inside of a hollow tree,
the dips and ditches I used to run down flicker-fast, 
choir picnics haunted by the hum of bees.
This ever-present past sinking down,
through soil and stone and sediment,
to the deeply dreaming giant wrapped around our valley,
humming a lament for remembered things. 
The hill sings.
There is grass up my nose and ants in my hair.
I lie there.
Too tired. 
Roll over to flop on my back, and look up.
The perfect blue of the sky
      so vast - 
flecked with the whip-quick needles of birds.
My skin is thick with sunshine.
My hurts vanish into this space.
My face holds no trace of the pace of my life.
Always next next next next next with no breath.
The hill knows time.
Rolling along in an unending sea. 
I press my shoulders to the ground
and borrow some peace from the weight of the years in the land
until the hill is part of me
and I’m held in its hand.
Doesn’t matter I can’t reach the top:
here I stop.
The depth of the sky such
I half expect to see fish.
I inhale the air, and the memories,
and for a moment there is bliss.
There are giants in these hills,
built from dreaming trees, 
and the hooves of cows, 
and feet running falling tumbling down
and kites scooped up by a shrieking breeze. 
And even when I am long gone
the secrets I whispered to this hill will be part of the giant’s song.

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Update: Fatigue and Poetry

It’s been quiet on the blog lately. This has mostly been a health thing – being chronically ill seems to generate an enormous amount of admin and bureaucracy which all need to be dealt with AS WELL AS ordinary life things (which are much harder because I’m chronically ill). It’s a stupid system, and I won’t get into it here because then this will turn into an entirely different (ANGRY) post about the utter shambles of the welfare state and everything I’ve had to do to try to get PIP.

The other part of why the blog has been quiet is because I made some decisions about where to put my energy: fatigue is terrible, hard to describe, and eats away at everything including on some days my reading comprehension. So I have been focusing my creativity on things that aren’t visible (yet) (cross your fingers for me!). Last month I entered some previously unpublished, new poems to the Laurie Lee prize – I’m not convinced they’re of the quality I’d like, but I’m trying to be a bit more at peace with a lack of perfection in my work. I also submitted a poetry collection to a small press, which I won’t hear about either way for six months. So I’m in a funny place where I’ve written quite a lot of new poems, but I cannot share them with you here!

The next thing I’m hoping to put some energy into (when I have any) is getting back into the Queer Galaxy Storm rewriting that I was doing a few months ago. This is an expansion/writing into with the aim of it being somewhere near book length, with the eventual aim of maybe submitting it somewhere… I shall have to take it all very much a step at a time. So that’s me!

Other bits of update:

Reading: just finished Ocean of Stars by John Dodd, and also The Angel of Crows by Katherine Addison. Two quite different, very enjoyable books!

Writing: just about to start the Queer Galaxy Storm overhaul.

Listening to: The Last Man on Earth by Grace Petrie

Watching: Been watching season one of Elementary and enjoying it mightily!

And that’s me for now! Catch you again soon I hope.

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If you are wondering about what the fatigue is like, this is a good video!

Book Review: A Harvest of Ripe Figs by Shira Glassman

Queen Shulamit carefully studied the two necklaces before her.

This book is the third book in the Mangoverse series, following The Second Mango and Climbing the Date Palm. I recommend reading them both because they are wonderful, although the author has written all the books in this series to stand alone.

A Harvest of Ripe Figs is an utter delight. Queen Shulamit is busy ruling and parenting. May I say off the bat how utterly delightful it is to have a representation of parenting as a joyful, communal family thing that doesn’t take away from Shulamit’s power/authority? It is delightful.

I’ve had this review sitting here long enough that I’m struggling to be coherent, so this may be a bit of a bullet-point thing rather than my usual. Nevertheless, I strongly recommend it. Shira Glassman has once again given us joyful queer Jewish stories in a fantasy setting, and this series continues to be enormously loved by me.

A Harvest of Ripe Figs is a whodunnit mystery centring on the theft of a violin. Esther of the Singing Hands, beloved musician, has her violin stolen while in Perach. Queen Shulamit sets out to figure out what has happened, while continuing her other ruling responsibilities.

If you’ve read any of the series before, you will know what sort of atmosphere to expect from this. I’m always blown away by Shira Glassman’s writing of a fantasy-sovereign setting in which the Queen sees her rule as an act of service and continues to act in that manner. Queen Shulamit’s found family continues to be wonderful, and also possibly expands with the introduction of new characters. I’m attempting not to totally spoil things, but there is some LOVELY trans rep in this book. Of particular joy (to me) were also:

  • Esther is plus-sized, and presented throughout as being beautiful.
  • Aviva and Shulamit always fill me with joy.
  • Parenting. As. A. Queen. Seriously, so often in fantasy or sci-fi it’s all “ah yes the wimmins are equal in all ways in our society” and then someone has a baby and it’s all “THIS IS A WEEEAAKNESSS” as if that situation has never occurred before???? So I’m really enjoying Shulamit having a baby, a partner, a supportive family, and being Queen.
  • Personally I find whodunnits very satisfying, and this one is a MAGICAL whodunnit with MUSICAL INSTRUMENTS! So, you know, wonderful.
  • Very sensitive handling of an unhealthy, emotionally abusive relationship. Feel free to leave me a comment if you want some proper TWs on that: I personally found it was done in a sensitive way, and resolved very cathartically.
  • Rivka and Isaac: agents of chaos!

I feel I have not done this book justice, but I figure an imperfect good review that actually exists is better than the imaginary good review that lives in my head! I’m hoping to acquire the next book in this series sometime around my birthday…..

Rating: read this book, rediscover the beauty of violins.

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Poem: Midnight Seabones by Meredith Debonnaire

For Megan
This one is definitely your fault!

There is something terribly lonely
About lying in bed at midnight
listening to the neighbours fight.
Phone clutched in one hand
like a prayer
like the only light
As I wonder if tonight is the night
I call someone.
My skull is so heavy.
My shoulders so sore.
How much more do they scream 
Before I lean out the window and add my opinion?
There are creatures shuffling on the roof - a pigeon coos.

I am immeasurably tired 
 - though in the last few weeks I have been constantly asked to measure it - 
And my heart is a bundle of wires, 
the remnants of a build-it-yourself children’s kit. 
My chest hurts so that every breath feels like a hit
or a slit in my lungs, the quick kiss of cracked ribs.
I cannot sleep while the night keeps being shattered, 
so instead I keep this strange watch, 
never knowing what’s happening or happened.

On my phone there is a voicenote from Germany
- a little miracle still hard to believe - 
So I lie on my side in my bed in the night
listening  to your voice: a cornucopia of plenty.
And you talk about queerness and the weight of being unknown
of feeling alone
of carving the names of our ancestors onto our bones.

Midnight is gone,
And someone is crying in the corridor below
but I can’t hear the words.
My ceiling shakes under the shifting weight of birds.
I still hurt.
I try to explain the pain of absence.
The gutting, gutttering, gasping ghosts
who I mostly know in whispers;
of finding myself in slivers.
Of the killing thing that is exhaustion
hunting me down like the memory of wolves.
Of the relief of recognition
and the screaming in the walls.

I am sending you a 1am essay:
I say
I want to stop carrying this inheritance of pain
- it’s like standing on the edge of the ocean
waiting for the tide to bring me survivors
but it delivers me bones again -
And I am always two steps behind myself, watching.
And I am always stalked by something with teeth.
And the grief of histories unspoken chokes me:
All I want is a body that knows how to breathe.

And the wind is a torrent of darkness, 
but there is no road for the highwayman to ride - 
just the yellow light pooling through the window
and the tide of small joys that I cling to inside
like
the taste of your names on my tongue
the long road travelled to know who I am 
the belly-deep song of euphoria
all the threads weaving back to where this began
- we are endless -

The weight of the morning presses down.
I have found I am not lonely
when I hold your voice in my hands.
As it stands I am always trying to carve beautiful things out of bones,
but I am part of the threads that hold this quilt together:
I do not have to do this alone.

I still want to cry when I meet queer people over fifty,
the voice in my head whispering: you survived you survived you survived.
And it’s nearly 2am and the neighbours are screaming
But I’m alive I’m alive I’m alive.
And my joy is a fire in a hearth, 
a torch in the dark for someone to find.
It’s a fluttering, flickering, flaring light
unconfined.

I am lying in bed in the wee hours of the morning.
I am hunting the shoreline for bones.
I am writing a fanfiction about queer softness.
I am listening to you
and we are both known.


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Poem: Marginalia by Meredith Debonnaire

Marginalia

I find myself in the marginalia:
it is where my people live.
Quotes such as
“the poet’s spinster aunt, 
with whom she lived
and to whom her friends considered her to be married.”
I find myself in the marginalia: 
it is cramped here.
“Lived with a dear friend.”
“Never married.”
“Confirmed bachelor.”
We are still, in 2021, footnotes. 
Or sometimes the sudden, terrible full stop - 
a sentence you never knew until it ended
“trans woman killed in attack,
full stop.”

I find myself in the marginalia, 
the notes at the edges of history books, 
the underlining in second-hand poetry, 
the question-marks surrounding an Egyptian tomb
of two people
who were very good friends...
This expanse of empty page terrifies me - 
I do not know if I am permitted here, but
Someday
I hope
Someday
In a better future
Some young person may find me, 
sprawled out across a page from the past
Saying
“I am here, 
I am here
I am here”
And there will be no more
heart-stopping
full stops

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This poem is quite old, and I’m honestly unsure about it. But I’ve also been trying to edit it on and off for a looooonnngggg time so I decided it was time to usher it out into the world!

Poem: bog lovers by Meredith Debonnaire

bog lovers

She told me that she was
The memory of a skull from a bog
Just trying to recall what it was to have skin.
And I told her that I was
The ghost of a paved-over stream,
and would she please let me in?

And she told me that she
had a bird for a heart
and its twilight cries were a song.
And I told her that I
longed for dippers and jays
but the water, the water was gone.

And she held me as close
as a vine holds a tree;
as the soil holds her bones;
as her bones hold me.
And when she talks
her mouth drips bladderworts
and I sing back in the key of my love for the sea.

I haunt this landscape
wailing grief to the sky
and I hold her and gaze at the flame in her eyes.
And we’ll sink into each other
like boots into mud,
while the water welcomes us home
with dreams of a flood.


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The Green Knight – film by David Lowery/Sir Gawain and the Green Knight – translated by Simon Armitage

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Those of you who follow me over on twitter may have noticed that I recently watched the film The Green Knight. What you may or may not have realised is that immediately after watching it I decided I had to re-read the source material, so I’ve also recently re-read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by Simon Armitage. And I have some thoughts. Buckle up, it’s a long ridiculous ride.

Firstly, film and poetry are two very different formats. It takes completely different skills to create an atmosphere with poetry than it does to create an atmosphere in film. People interact differently with film than with poetry. A poem depends on rhythms, on alliteration and description and meter to build something in your mind. A film depends on its imagery, on its soundscape, on the acting and costuming, to elicit a reaction in the audience. So moving something from one format to the other is going to be an act of translation.

I watched The Green Knight and was utterly blown away. I think it is likely to be the best film I’ve seen in several years. It was a masterpiece in creating atmosphere – the music was all (as far as I could tell) in a Medieval mode and so sounded distinctly odd to the modern ear, and the visuals were prioritising symbolism and the communication of feeling over realism. I’d honestly like to kiss whoever was in charge of the cinematography, because it was stunningly beautiful. I adored it. I adored Dev Patel as a less confident Gawain who spent a lot of time wandering about in the woods looking confused. I adored the casting decisions overall. A lot of interesting creative decisions were made about how to bring this old, weird poem to screen and how to interpret it, and personally I loved it. A lot of things were actually made stranger and given less explanation in the film than in the poetic translations that I have read.

For the sake of this post remaining a readable length, I will try to remain brief about some of the specific things I found interesting/loved in the film (I could easily ramble about it at length, and have done to some of my friends).

BEWARE SPOILERS FOR ALL THE THINGS

THE FILLUM: The Green Knight

The casting.

I adored this cast. I love fantasy and mythical genres, but like nearly every other genre, they have a racism and representation problem. I am not really qualified to talk about the differences between how worthwhile a raceblind casting of a traditionally white story is as opposed to telling more stories with a different origin and focus (I’d guess that doing both the things is good? Alongside really thinking through the implications of which characters you choose to racebend), but I would say that I am always excited to see these kinds of recasts. (If we wanna get nitpicky, I’d be pointing out that there was at least one Arabic Muslim knight in Arthurian legend anyway and that Medieval England saw a lot more travel and trade than people tend to think it did.) I loved the cast – all the actors were incredible, convincing, and brilliant. End of.

New Fun Parallels.

There were some parallels in the film that were (as far as I can tell) nearly entirely the invention of the film. Nevertheless, they were beautiful. At the Christmas feast that starts everything, we see Gawain’s Mother (played fantastically by Sarita Choudhury, and listed in the cast as Morgan le Fay – more on this later!) and characters who I assume are Gawain’s sisters taking part in a magical ritual. It is strongly implied that this ritual is what summons the eponymous Green Knight. At the Christmas feast, the Green Knight’s challenge is read out by Queen Guinevere, who gets some AMAZING spooky possession acting – glowing eyes, rigid body language, overlaid voices and all. Later when Gawain is setting out on his journey, there are two separate and parallel preparation sequences happening simultaneously: Queen Guinevere blessing Gawain’s shield and heart in the name of the Virgin Mary, and Gawain’s Mother and sisters preparing his armour and his belt with a whole other series of blessings. If I remember correctly, Guinevere’s blessing is to help him maintain honour and courage even if that means death, and his Mother’s blessing is more focused on his safety and return. There’s probably at least one essay in here about the portrayal of feminine relation to magic and religion, but I’ve only seen the film once and I’m writing this from memory. Still, watching these two parallel powers trying to work their influence on Gawain’s quest was fascinating.

Interestingly, Gawain was given a sort-of love interest (although she’s actually a sex-worker) named Essel back in Camelot. The actor for this was Alicia Vikander, who also played the Lady (Lady Bertilak de Hautdesert if you are familiar with the poem). This created an interesting set of contradictions and parallels: in the poem Lady Bertilak is a (quite lighthearted) challenge to Gawain’s virtue. In this film, Gawain’s virtue (in chivalric terms of sex without intention of marriage) was already gone so the Lady presented a whole different type of challenge: was she a reminder (a ghost) of Essel, who he abandoned to go on his quest? A threat to his notions of hospitality, which would certainly forbid him from a liaison with the wife of his host? A comment on the way he treated women of different classes? There’s a running theme of Gawain’s doubts about his honour and place as a knight, a questioning of what that might even mean, and women who keep offering him safety with a price. The Lord (Lord Bertilak de Hautdesert) also clearly wants to offer him rather a lot of things, including possibly safety from his fate of dying at the hand of the Green Knight, but that’s less a of a theme.

Oddly, the biggest reveal/parallel in the original poem is in fact removed from this film: the Lord is played by an entirely different actor than the Green Knight, and so this part of the story remains entirely different and obscure. I’m still not sure what I think of that.

Saint Winifred, and a picking apart of the notion of knightly romance as a whole.

Saint Winifred, acted by Erin Kellyman, is another invention of the film rather than something from the poem. Or at least, Saint Winifred is a Christian saint, but her appearance in this story is not something I’ve seen in any translation of the poem. There is a crystallisation in her interactions with Gawain of a theme that runs through the whole: that is, the interrogation of what honour, chivalry, and that kind of knightly romance even is. The whole encounter with her is wonderfully eerie: an exhausted Gawain falls asleep in what appears to be an abandoned cottage, only to be woken by a young woman in nightwear wanting to know why he is in her bed. He is clearly unnerved by her, offers to leave, but stays when she asks for his help. It turns out that what she needs is to find her head. Gawain is concerned about this, as her head is on her neck. There is some lovely dialogue about whether she is real or a spirit, and whether that matters. When she reveals her head is in a millpond (and how it came to be there – a knight/lord taking umbrage to Winifred’s refusal to bed him) Gawain asks what she will give him if he does this for her. THIS is a type of exchange seen often in knightly romance: do this thing for me and I will give you a kiss/ribbon/handkerchief/frog/magical belt/etc. Winifred, however, responds in visible distress “Why would you ask that? Why would you ever ask that?” and into the pond Gawain goes.

There’s a lot going on in this scene on a lot of different levels, including the amazing visuals, but I’m really excited by this rejection of that courtly romance thing. The Green Knight as a whole offers us a lot of thoughts about knightly romance and honour (see: all the conflicting magics at work on Gawain, the differing treatments of Essel and the Lady, Gawain’s struggle to identify either bravery or honour, the dialogue between coming home safely and acting honourably), but this is a moment where it is really not fucking about. Why, when presented with someone in distress and need of help, should one follow a script about exchange and honour? Chivalry may have some set etiquette, but (the film seems to be saying) surely the more chivalrous thing to do is simply to help. Not to ask what gifts a dead woman might give you for finding her skull and bringing it home.

Ominous smooching.

So the bit of the poem that I always remember is the surreal exchange of kisses between the Lady, Gawain, and the Lord. It’s got a whole framing in the poem (more on that later), but overall The Green Knight has an atmosphere of mildly threatening weirdness and this exchange is not an exception. The film decided to make the whole sexual innuendo about the belt more than an innuendo, so we get the World’s Most Awkward Handjob after which the Lady tells Gawain off, and then there’s a whole ominous bit with the Lord who has caught a fox that has been hanging out with Gawain and lets it go and then ominously smooches Gawain. I really haven’t managed to sort out any of my feelings about all these things at all. I am but a poor confused queer attempting to poke my feelings with a stick.

My initial thoughts went something like this:

  • Poem smooches are lighthearted and fun and the descriptions make me laugh and it all feels mildly queer. I enjoy this.
  • Film is all like “menacing menacing menacing menacing” and explores that whole knightly romance with exchanges thing (if you do x for me then I will give you y) but from a different angle (that angle being the Lady gives Gawain The Most Awkward Handjob, then gives him a magic belt and tells him he’s a disgrace. Which is somewhat confusing. Unless Gawain is into being told he’s a disgrace? A discussion for another day perhaps).
  • Lord smooches Gawain and it is… Threatening? Touching? Sweet but threatening? There’s a semi-metaphorical fox.
  • Gawain clearly has no idea what he wants or what he’s doing, and I think most of us queers can relate to that.

The queerness of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was a draw before I even knew I was a queer, so I have feelings about how it’s presented here. I just don’t know what they are. The lighthearted-ness of the poem is something I adore. The atmospheric weirdness of the film is also wonderful. Perhaps the problem is that there is still such a dearth of queer rep (especially in fantasy television) that every time there’s any I feel like I have to pick over it with a fine-tooth comb.

The Green Knight as a Big Ol’ Pagan Tree

I’m not sure how to elaborate on my heading, but the Green Knight in this film, rather than being a man with green skin and green hair and green beard and green clothes etc etc, is a fecking tree. He has more in common with the Green Man motif that is common across the UK (and elsewhere? I think you see it across parts of Europe as well) than the physical description of the Green Knight in the poem. He lives in a chapel that is actually a chapel, not a hill, but that is entirely overgrown. The Green Knight has always had this element of something Pagan about him, but the film goes all out on that interpretation, separating him from Lord Bertilak, cutting out the whole explanation bit at the end of the poem, and so creating a mysterious, ancient, magical, tree-man who can survive death. The way the promise and return-strike plays out in the film (I’m trying to avoid spoiling everything for you!) adds to the sense of the Green Knight as a seasonal harbinger of death/rebirth.

 

There are many other things in this film: giants, music, a band of strange ragamuffins, endless landscapes, brilliant costume designs, a fox. It’s a strange and beautiful thing, and I love it. I think, in my head at least, it’s easier to simply see this film as something inspired by the poem, rather than ask for a faithful rendition of it.

ONWARDS WILDLY TO THE POEM! Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

 

Simon Armitage’s translation is a gorgeous beast. The rhythm is wonderful: he uses alliteration and internal rhyming schemes to create a lovely mouth-feel (yes that’s a word I’m now using to describe poetry, no I shan’t be taking questions). Each stanza ends with four short lines in a more traditional ABAB rhyming pattern. Overall it has a lovely shape to it, which is somewhat essential for a poem this length.

I have not read enough poetry from this era to know if this is a thing, but it strikes me that Beowulf starts in a far away country and establishes lineage, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight does the same. For some reason it is very important that we know about Troy and how because some people left Troy, England now has The Best People before we can get onto the important business of Christmas at Camelot.

Again, I am trying to keep this to an actual readable length, so I’m splitting this into things I enjoyed about the poem and occasionally contrasting them with the film.

General poeticness.

I cannot overstate what a delightful poem this is – Simon Armitage is very skilled, and it’s a translation that really lends itself to reading aloud. There’s a sort of rollicking-ness to it that is very enjoyable, and the imagery and dialogue are all beautiful.

King Arthur is Ready To Throw Down.

So in The Green Knight film, King Arthur is old and clearly a bit broken. I actually enjoyed this representation of him enormously, along with the proliferation of slightly Northern accents. Not so our poetic King! The only reason that Gawain is the knight who faces the Green Knight is because he manages to talk King Arthur out of his table-jumping rage and persuade him that the knights would feel dishonoured if their King had to defend himself in his own hall when all the knights are right there. Gawain comes across as rather calm and thoughtful, and does not even stand up until given leave (I think he’s sat with a lady, and just up and leaving her would be Rude). I’m always fascinated by trying to pick apart what constitutes honourable and proper behaviour in narratives like this, and this initial dialogue between the Green Knight, King Arthur, and Sir Gawain is really interesting. Also the contrast of Arthur being quick to anger, and Gawain appearing more calm is an interesting one. Sadly, poem Guinevere does not get to be spooky and possessed.

Where the narrative weight is.

Something I enjoyed, in a mildly surreal way, was that the poem gave almost as much time to how much fun everyone had after the Green Knight was beheaded as it did to the weirdness of the Green Knight. It felt like we just… Needed to know that yeah, sure, one of the knights has entered into a strange game with a total stranger who can survive having his head chopped off, but this does not stop the celebrations at Camelot. There were several instances of things like this, where the narrative weight seemed odd to me: something about being a modern reader of an old piece of work probably. One of my favourites was that, in the poem, Gawain’s journey to find the Green Knight is summed up in a single stanza which is effectively “Gawain travelled through some scary mountains and woods, and had a lot of adventures, there might have been giants, we don’t have time for that”. Then when he arrives at the house of the Lord and Lady, we get actual pages of him and his hosts just talking, descriptions of the Christmas revelry, and what everyone was wearing, and how polite everyone is. Whoever the author of this poem was originally clearly just Did Not Have Time for things that weren’t the focus of the story, and also had very clear ideas about what was important e.g. telling us all the great food that was being eaten, describing people’s clothes, and making sure we know how polite and kind and honourable all our protagonists are when they talk to each other.

Contradictions, challenges, and hospitality in the Bertilak de Hautdesert Household.

(according to an exceedingly speedy duckduckgo search, Bertilak is German in origin and means “playful dance of light” and Hautdesert is French and means approximately “high forest”)

So after his entirely unspecified adventures that may or may not have involved a giant, Gawain is given shelter at the house of an unknown noble: the Lord. This happens after he gets very upset that he won’t be able to attend mass over Christmas because he is wandering about in the woods, so the fact he finds this place at all is a near-literal answer to his prayers and a sign that God rewards the faithful. Probably.

This is a large section of the poem, and an entirely fascinating one. It makes up a small portion of the film towards the end, and the atmosphere is entirely different. Gawain in the poem is a committed man who has already had to make several arguments about how he is duty bound to fulfill his promise to the mystery knight, even if it means death. He is not the confused and untested knight that Dev Patel portrays (I love Dev Patel, and Dev Patel’s Gawain).

Poem Gawain is greeted with enormous enthusiasm and delight by his hosts. They are clearly OVERJOYED that this strange knight has turned up and needs hosting over Christmas. The reaction is basically that this is The Single Best Thing To Happen Ever, We Have Been Given A Knight For Christmas! Thank The Lord!!!

This is when the infamous smooching game gets set up: it’s framed as a bit of Christmas fun, and the Lord comes up with this idea after a whole evening of celebration (he’s quite possibly drunk). The game is that the next day, the Lord will give Gawain whatever he receives/wins, and Gawain will do the same.

We then get this AMAZING contrast where the Lord goes hunting and there’s about six pages describing the hunt in great gory detail, including the dressing of the deer. It’s all very visceral, bloody language. And then we go back in time to the morning, and get Gawain’s day. The Lady has snuck into his room and is laying out an extremely logical case for Why They Should Have The Sex using all the rules of hospitality. Gawain (who is naked in bed) then comes up with an equally logical counterargument also using the rules of hospitality and chivalry. She counters his counterargument, and this goes on until eventually she admits defeat but comes up with a very good argument for some kisses, which Gawain accepts. The whole thing is playful and mildly ridiculous, and there’s real emphasis on the fact that Gawain goes to mass afterwards.

Of course at the end of the day, the Lord turns up with all the dead deer and gives it to Gawain, who makes a speech about how fantastic the Lord is at hunting, and then proceeds to kiss him.

This goes on for three days.

Some things that are interesting:

  • the contrast in descriptions of the hunts against Gawain and the Lady’s conversations – so on the second day the Lord hunts a boar, and on the third he hunts a fox. The descriptions are intense, and the Lord is portrayed as this sort of relentless force. It’s all about the baying hounds and the bloody hunt. Some of the huntsmen die. And the boar puts up a massive fight. Meanwhile the Lady is, perhaps, hunting Gawain. She sneaks into his room, implies everyone else is asleep (including her unexplained old woman chaperone, more on her later), comes up with all sorts of well thought out arguments that take into account Gawain’s code of conduct and current place in their household, that he’s agreed to do anything she asks (this was some sort of chivalric thing when he first arrived) and Gawain has to try to wiggle out of this argument while naked in bed. You get the feeling they’re both having a lot of fun. And then of course, Gawain gives any kisses he’s received to the Lord at the end of the day, after having been gifted with a massive amount of deer meat, or a whole dead boar, or on the third day, nothing much in particular. I don’t know if we’re meant to see the kissing as doubly dishonourable because the Lord is out doing Honourable Manly Stuff, or if we’re meant to compare these two hunts, or what. But it’s a fab sequence.
  • Hospitality and chivalry – I don’t know a lot specifically about chivalry and hospitality rules in Medieval England, but the impression I get is that Gawain is put in a difficult position here because A) he is a knight receiving hospitality, and a certain code of conduct is expected. This appears to include a level of fealty specifically to the lady of the house. It would be Extremely Rude to refuse a direct request from her. B) She is making a direct request – in a roundabout way – which is Hey Gawain, thou art a Most Attractive Knight, Let Us Do The Horizontal Waltz. C) HOWEVER it would also be definitely against the rules of hospitality and chivalry to sex up someone else’s wife, especially the wife of his host. D) He is honour-bound by their little game to give anything he receives to the Lord – this may or may not be something that Gawain considers when deciding not to sex up Lady de Hautdesert.  All this means he has to find a way out of having sex with her without appearing, at any  point, to be directly refusing any request she is making of him. The dialogue is brilliant.
  • Promises and honour – Gawain has made a lot of promises at this point. He’s promised to find the Green Knight and suffer his return blow. He’s promised fealty and service to the Lady. He’s promised to play a game with this Lord. And this point in the story is when we see a crack in Gawain’s commitment and courage. Lady Hautdesert, on day three, wants to give him a gift. She first offers a ring, which he refuses as it is too expensive. She then offers a belt that will protect him from harm. Gawain tries to refuse, but he is scared of dying at the hand of the Green Knight and so accepts it. That evening (interestingly on the day of the Lord’s least successful hunting venture – he only got a fox) Gawain gives the Lord all the kisses he received throughout the day (the Lord is always Entirely Delighted by this, and Gawain often precedes the smooching with another speech about How Excellent The Lord Is), but keeps the belt. I touched on the chivalric romance with exchanges earlier when discussing Saint Winifred: where the film spent some time taking apart this entire notion, it is simply part of the world of the poem. It is however, something that, although presented in a lighthearted manner, can 100% get you dead if you misjudge things…

Finding the Green Knight.

In the poem, the Lord supplies a servant to guide Gawain to the chapel of the Green Knight. The servant warns Gawain away in pretty grisly terms, offers to lie about where Gawain went, and implores him not to die because he’s been really gallant and well-liked while he was a guest, and it’d be a shame. This role is fulfilled in some ways by the Fox in the film, who also warns Gawain away. In both interpretations it is important that Gawain is given the option of leaving, sometimes more than once, and chooses to go anyway even though it is made explicit in the text that he is frightened to die.

When Gawain, alone, locates the Green Knight’s chapel he finds only a hill and a glade, and the sound of an axe being sharpened. It is a wonderfully atmospheric moment, with the Green Knight actually making Gawain wait while he finishes sharpening his axe before coming to meet him. And then the confrontation, in which they play an extremely high stakes game of chicken. First Gawain flinches, and the Green Knight has a go at him about that. Then Gawain girds his loins and prepares to take another blow, which the Green Knight pulls at the last moment because Reasons. Finally, the Green Knight strikes him and breaks skin, and Gawain decides he’s had enough and grabs his own weaponry and makes an excellent speech about how he only promised to receive one return blow and has now received three and if the Green Knight tries again it will be a proper battle. Gawain has fulfilled his promise and upheld his honour, and now he is no longer obligated not to Throw Down. 

By this point the overall shape of the story in the film has completely diverged from the poem. Where in the film we never get as far as the third strike, ending on a delicious cliff of anticipation, the poem continues and offers us explanations (for a given value of explanation). As in the traditional heroes’ journey, Gawain gets to return home. The mysterious Green Knight is given some rationale, and tied firmly to the world of the real and tangible rather than the mysterious and inexplicable.

I find this interesting, because on the one hand you can view the explanation given — the Green Knight is actually Lord Bertilak de Hautdesert, whom Gawain has been smooching. Morgan le Fay persuaded him to let himself be magicked up and go to Camelot to test the resolve of their knights, though Morgan le Fay thought they would fail and Lord Bertilak thought they would win. Lord Bertilak set up his own, independent second test of Gawain’s virtue through persuading his wife to seduce him, and seeing if Gawain would actually give the Lord everything he’d received during the day as promised. He only nicks Gawain’s skin because Gawain accepted the belt and did not pass it on as promised — as removing the magical connections from the Green Knight: he’s just a guy that was enchanted, not a tangible representation of a strange seasonal being turning up to test your courage in the face of inevitable death. On the other hand, you can read this as a blurring/entangling rather than disconnecting – yes the Green Knight is in fact just some dude, but there is a sorceress powerful enough to enchant him. His existing concepts of courage and bravery were enough that he thought this a fair enough test to carry out, and he still survived having his head chopped off. I like this connection: the Green Knight may be Bertilak de Hautdesert under a spell, however that doesn’t detract from the fact that this is a world in which spells and magic are an ordinary part of the landscape, and miraculous deliverance happens.

 

There is much else to get your teeth into here: Gawain’s return and welcome to Camelot is significant in many ways. The overall shape of the poem, the descriptions of landscape, the relationships between magic, religion, miracle, and happenstance are fascinating, and it is an excellently weird window into a period of English fantastical literature.

And finally, a note on Morgan le Fay

This post has gotten ridiculously long, but I can’t leave without a quick Morgan le Fay mention. She is an elusive but catalystic presence in both the film and the poem. Sarita Choudhury’s character is never named in the film, but Wikipedia credits her character as Morgan le Fay: this is thematically backed up by the fact that she is the one (along with Gawain’s unnamed sisters) who summons the Green Knight. The Morgan le Fay of the poem is revealed to be the unnamed elderly chaperone following Lady Hautdesert about, as well as being Gawain’s Aunt (the Green Knight mentions this after he and Gawain have made friends, to try to persuade him to come stay with him again and hang out with family), and the one who came up with the whole idea and then enchanted Lord Bertilak de Hautdesert. There is something absolutely fascinating to me here, both about the character Morgan le Fay generally, and about this specific way she appears in this narrative. In both tellings she starts everything, either by summoning the Green Knight or by “creating” him. Her motives fall anywhere between idly testing the court of Camelot to angling for its downfall, and are not entirely explained in either version. She has no dialogue in the poem, and almost none in the film. She is a presence, and a catalyst, and clearly has an agenda, but she haunts the narrative (it makes me think, especially in the film where she is acted by a woman of colour, of Ebony Elizabeth’s Dark Fantastic Cycle of spectacle, hesitation, violence, haunting, and emancipation, laid out in The Dark Fantastic  which you should read). There is an untold story in the background of both film and poem, and that is the story that would actually hold an explanation of the events that happened and the motives behind them, and that story belongs to Morgan le Fay.

Image shows a woman of Indian descent, played by Sarita Choudhury. She is facing the camera, wearing a sculptural cloak with a large hood in gold.cream. She is holding a white scarf up to her face, about to blindfold herself, and part of her face is obscured. Her eyes are closed. Due to the lighting, most of her body is in darkness. Light emanates from behind her head like a halo in shades of blue, darkening as it travels out so that the edges of the backdrop are black.


*post edited evening of 15th Dec to add in sentences in the section about finding the green knight that had been accidentally deleted somehow!

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Tales from Tantamount

Some thoughts on Tales From Tantamount by Nimue Brown.

Druid Life

First Image

Tales from Tantamount is a project by Merry Debonnaire that frankly isn’t easy to describe. It’s made of words, and is charming and funny.

Tantamount is a town that doesn’t stay put, and during the book it goes on holiday, gets in the river and visits a swamp. The life of the town comes to us through found objects and ephemera, and while there are stories, they aren’t told in conventional ways. Tantamount has an array of supernatural beings, and a goat on the council. No one seems to know how the various local councils work.

Fans of Nightvale are going to find this is just their sort of thing. If you enjoyed my Wherefore series I rate the chances of you also enjoying this. It made me chortle a lot.

You can get Tales from Tantamount from Merry’s ko-fi store https://ko-fi.com/s/c8cbd9a609

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