How “The Green Knight” Changed My Connection to Arthurian Tradition
Courtesy A24 / Design by Leah Romero
I think I could trace my whole life in adaptations of the Arthurian lore. There was The sword in the stone and A child at the court of King Arthur at primary school, First knight at a seventh grade sleepover, and Monty Python and the Holy Grail when I was in second year in high school. I read Mary Stewart’s Merlin Quartet when I was way too young, alongside The Mists of Avalon. I cried with laughter King Arthur: Legend of the sword just a few years ago. The list is lengthened increasingly. This classic myth is so widely told that the characters have become shorthand (Merlin the magician; Lancelot the knight; Guinevere the queen). They so deeply inhabit our public conscience that they need no explanation.
I’m sure there are ideas about what the canon of Arthurian legend should be – and like so many mythologies, it probably starts with where you are, which side of the story you heard first, and which side. historians tell us came first. Despite their infusion into pop culture, Arthurian adaptations (movie, TV, books, or whatever) tend to imply that very specific people can be centered and exist within their walls.
In the mid-1980s, I was born to Indian immigrant parents in a very small town in the south. I grew up with the mythologies of my parents inside the house, associated with the mythologies of America at the turn of the 20th century. This meant VHS tapes of the Mahabharata as well as repeat viewings of The sword in the stone. I read the Krishnavatara series and A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur’s Court at a time. I loved all these stories of right and wrong, of ordinary people put in extraordinary circumstances. But when we played Knights and Kings it was The The sword in the stone that my friends understood. They were posters by Thomas Ian Nicholas that our walls shared. There are no little brown children in The The sword in the stone.
In 2018, two of my friends, Jenn Northington and Swapna Krishna, mentioned that they wanted to put together an anthology of Arthurian narratives focusing on gender, race and LGBTQIA + and asked if I would contribute. My response was an enthusiastic, uppercase “YES”. I know people will get irritated by the word “inclusive”. But I don’t know how to explain to someone who’s never sat outside what it’s like to always look in, unable to participate. This was my chance to participate. I started working on a story about Merlin coming back into contemporary society to find Arthur. Only, in my story, Arthur was now Arjun, a young British Indian relieved of his history, but understanding the fact that he has a destiny. It was a deliberate choice on my part: I wanted to include someone who is not used to being the king in these stories. I wanted to create a character familiar to my story, who was shaped by a story like mine, who could be meant for something more.
At the beginning of 2020, I had just rendered the final version of “Once (Them) and Future (Us)” for the Sword stone table anthology. I was grappling with the historical and cultural baggage that comes with putting an Indian at the forefront of an Arthurian myth given India’s colonial history. Then the trailer dropped for The green knight, David Lowery’s adaptation of the medieval poem, and in the lead role of Sir Gauvain? Dev Patel. All of a sudden, the piece I was working on was going to be paralleled with a very visible live-action example. To say I was ecstatic would be an understatement. Just ten years ago, it was reported that a woman of Pakistani descent was considered “too dark” to be considered a hobbit. Now the main character in one of the most famous stories of all time is a dark-haired man. Is there a word for a whiplash in slow motion? This is how I feel.
Mythologies unite us. These are common stories that we learn and experience that help us become who we are. When these stories tell you that only the chosen few deserve their story, you believe it. But that changes when these chosen few are extended to something more. I was finally able to watch The green knight recently. It is beautiful, bewitching and heartbreaking. Dev Patel is amazing in it, never afraid of being awful or vulnerable. His Gauvain is not the chivalrous hero that one might recognize in the poem; it is complicated and trying. Lowery’s version of the story is both one we know and one we don’t know, but through it all, Gauvain de Patel is centered, and that’s his story. Putting Patel in this position – in the middle of the narrative that we live and relate to – adds a surprising layer of connection that I still don’t know how to articulate. There is an unexpected ease in looking at it.
It is not about the validity of the representation, which we know does good but should not be used as the only tool to fix a failed system; it is something within the feeling that the performance can provide. There’s comfort in the familiar, and Dev Patel’s deserved inclusion in this cast provides a level of comfort I’m not used to. It brought a kind of fundamental change in my relationship to the material.
Sword stone table: New voices, new legends was released in July, less than three weeks before The green knight was released in theaters. The purpose of the anthology has always been to blend the comfortable and the new, whether it’s perspectives you find comfortable and myths you find new, or myths you find comfortable and perspectives you find new. Such stories can take us into this space of the unknown and the known. And I want to see more. The truth is, all I want is more stories – the stories I know, the stories I don’t know. And the stories I thought I knew, which come to life when someone who looks like me takes my hand and invites me in.
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