Academic journal article Storytelling, Self, Society

Shape-Shifter in the Green: Performing Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Academic journal article Storytelling, Self, Society

Shape-Shifter in the Green: Performing Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Article excerpt

Who, namely, was that weird, imperious being, qualified to challenge, test, unmask, and pass sentence? The Green Knight who could tuck his head under his arm and appear with it in place again, whose wife was the fairest temptress in the world, and whose Green Chapel was a kind of eerie crypt, "the cursedest kirk," as Gawain judged it, "that e'er I came in!"-who is he and what is his name?

-Heinrich Zimmer, The King and the Corpse (76)

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a courtly romance, the finest Arthurian romance in English," Albert C. Baugh wrote in A Literary History of England in 1948 (236). The critical reputation of the poem remains unquestioned today, and succeeding generations of literary critics continue to praise the poem in words nearly identical to those used by Baugh over half a century ago. "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is," wrote Vincent J. Scattergood five decades later, "the finest Middle English Arthurian romance" (419). The poem's brilliance shines through in its alliterative verse, its complex blending of Pagan and Christian mythologies, its weaving together of its two plots (the Beheading Game and the Temptation), and its masterful use of suspense.1 "But there is no end of things to exclaim over," concludes Baugh, "and we can only hint at the enjoyment to be had from reading and re-reading this fine romance" (237).

Given its literary reputation, its language, and its complexity, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a particularly challenging source text for storytelling performance. Yet I took up that challenge as if under its enchantment and chose Sir Gawain and the Green Knight for exactly that, and I have continued to perform it over many years at storytelling festivals, schools, academic conferences, and the International Congress on Medieval Studies.2 For me, the power of the poem has always been in its mythic resonances and, specifically, its enigmatic Green Knight. This essay considers the poem's critical heritage and the different ways literary critics have interpreted the mysterious character of the Green Knight-that green "shape-shifter"-whose appearance is no less remarkable today than it was long ago that Christmastime in Camelot. Additionally, I think, the essay serves as an exemplum of the kind of research required by oral interpretative storytellers who turn to canonical texts for performance.

Joseph D. Sobol describes the oral interpretative storyteller:

The teller begins with a written text, whether of her own or another's devising, and commits this text to memory. She then overlays paralinguistic, performative elements of facial, vocal, and kinesic expression and timing upon the preset verbal scaffolding, whether in the rehearsal process of in the heat of performance. ("Innervision" 72)

Sobol's description is very helpful for articulating the artistic work of the oral interpretative storyteller.3 However, its purview does not include the background research this mode of performance requires. Too often my experience has been that listeners and those new to storytelling assume that the work of an oral interpretative storyteller is simply to abridge and to memorize a selected text, which would be tantamount to performing a text offthe surface. Risky business, especially if the storyteller is performing the text for an audience of literary scholars! Research, I argue, is invaluable and, indeed, necessary for the storytelling artist working with a complex literary text in order to develop a resonant, grounded performance. Research informs a myriad of artistic choices, among them (but not limited to) the tone of the story, the attitude of the teller to the story's characters, and individual characterizations, as well as an understanding of a story's use of symbolism. This essay, then, takes its reader behind the scenes with the oral interpretative storyteller to the library to understand the research behind a performance of a complex, multivalent masterwork. …

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