6 Medieval Tales That Deserve the Green Knight Treatment

6 Medieval Tales That Deserve the Green Knight Treatment
Sir Gawain (Dev Patel) receives an uninvited quest in The Green Knight. (Image: Eric Zachanowich/A24)

David Lowery’s The Green Knight has been justly acclaimed for its striking imagery, beautiful cinematography, Dev Patel’s fantastic performance as the knight Sir Gawain, and more. Its lack of financial success means we probably won’t be getting any more adaptations of medieval epics anytime soon — which is a drag, because there are so many more classic stories to be explored, deconstructed, and revitalized. If/when Hollywood ever takes another chance on medieval stories, here are half a dozen we’d love to see on screen.

1) Lancelot, the Knight of the Cart

Sir Lancelot crosses the sword bridge in this 1475 illustration by Evrard d'Espinques.  (Image: Public Domain) Sir Lancelot crosses the sword bridge in this 1475 illustration by Evrard d’Espinques. (Image: Public Domain)

The most famous of King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table, Lancelot has made many appearances on movie screens. But there’s never been an adaptation of the first appearance of Lancelot in literature, written by Chrétien de Troyes in the late 12th century, along with the first mention of the knight’s affair with his queen. The unassuming title comes from a scene where Lancelot — on a quest to rescue Queen Guinevere from the clutches of the evil Prince Méléagnant — hesitates to ride in a cart as it will besmirch his honour, but ultimately decides rescuing Guinevere in haste is more important.

While the tale focuses on Lancelot defending his honour from other, more disdainful knights and defending Guinevere’s honour in a tournament and eventual duel with the prince, it’s also about courtly love and the well-they/won’t they romance between Lancelot and Guinevere. Basically, there’s a lot of action, adventure, and romance, along with a perfect-for-cinema scene where Lancelot crosses a bridge that’s also a giant sword.

2) The Romance of Tristan and Iseult

Probably best-known from Richard Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde, this tale of doomed lovers has been adapted many, many times across many media — including a 2006 movie by Ridley and Tony Scott. However, that film somehow manages to take weird, wild liberties with a mythical story that already has had countless different interpretations throughout the last millennium, so the world could stand another. In every incarnation, it’s a romance between the titular knight and the equally titular lady, whom Tristan has been chosen to bring to Ireland to the court of Cornwall, where she’s to marry his uncle, King Mark.

Sometimes there’s a love potion involved, sometimes it’s just love. Sometimes the three are in a tragic love triangle, as Mark loves Tristan like a son, but is forced to punish them both for their adulterous affair for the sake of his honour. While Tristan dies in most accounts, I’m a fan of the versions where they both die and brambles sprout from their graves whose branches intertwine with each other.

3) The Faerie Queene

Britomart meets the Redcross Knight in this illustration from The Faerie Queene by G. Allen London. From the Digital Collections of the University of Maryland. (Image: Creative Commons) Britomart meets the Redcross Knight in this illustration from The Faerie Queene by G. Allen London. From the Digital Collections of the University of Maryland. (Image: Creative Commons)

A personal favourite, The Faerie Queene isn’t one book but six, chronicling the adventures of a variety of knights in Faerie Land in the court of the titular queen Gloriana (a not-at-all-subtle stand-in for Elizabeth I). Written by Edmund Spencer in the late 16th century, it’s all an allegory for the various virtues he believes make the perfect knight, as epitomized by various characters: the Redcrosse Knight is the embodiment of Holiness; Sir Guyon is Temperance; Sir Arthegall is Justice; King Arthur is pretty much everything good, holy and noble, etc.

That might sound preachy, but these knights also fight evil sorcerers, witches, giants, and dragons, and have countless misunderstandings with — and perform subsequent rescues of — their lady loves. What’s especially cool about The Faerie Queene is that half of it is about Britomart, a female knight who bests every male knight (but one) in every duel, rescues her own share of fair ladies, and just basically kicks arse. Imagine if Eowyn from Lord of the Rings had a solo film. Who wouldn’t want that?

4) The Lais of Marie de France

Despite her epithet, Marie de France wrote her Lais — a collection of 12 lyric poems about chivalry, love, and infidelity — after she’d relocated to England in the late 1100s. Maybe that’s why they had such international popularity that King Haakon of Norway had them translated into Old Norse in the 13th century. Or maybe it’s because the Lais were innately popular because they were drawn from myth, fables, and classic fairy tales, just reworked into tales of knights and their ladies. (A few of them were also transcriptions of other people’s stories, as Marie was the first to admit.)

Not all of them could be easily brought into modern sensibilities, and they are all short, but some of them could make a hell of an artsy, angsty anthology movie. In “Bisclavret,” there’s a lord who turns into a wolf for half of each week, whose adulterous wife hides his clothes so he can’t transform back into a human (otherwise he’d be nude!).

In “Equitan,” a scheming lord and a seneschal’s wife tries to trick her husband into taking a bath in boiling water, only to end up there instead. There’s a knight who transforms into a hawk, a swan that conveys secret messages, weasels carrying flowers that bring people out of comas, and more — mostly people having extramarital sex, sure, but that’s still technically more!

5) Njál’s Saga

Njall's son Skarphedin kills Traain in this 1898 illustration. Don't worry about it.  (Image: Public Domain) Njall’s son Skarphedin kills Traain in this 1898 illustration. Don’t worry about it. (Image: Public Domain)

One of the coolest things about The Green Knight is the way it explores the dark sides of honour, masculinity, and self-importance. The 13th-century Icelandic epic Njál’s Saga could explore that even further while dressing it up in an action-packed, Game of Thrones-esque tale of war, especially the egos that cause (and prolong it).

It’s the tale of a 50-year-long blood feud between multiple people and families over the course of several generations, mostly witnessed by Njal, a sage who usually tries (and fails) to keep the peace. There are so many people seeking vengeance that it’s much too much to go into, but suffice it to say people kill people for honour, adultery, greed, theft, a slap, cheating during duels, breach of etiquette, toxic masculinity, avenging the last person who’d been murdered, etc.

Some scholars think the unknown author is criticising this facet of Icelandic society instead of extolling it; nowadays, stressing the useless brutality of it all is the only sensible angle, unless you believe receiving a unisex cloak as a gift is a valid reason for killing 20 people.

6) Yvain, the Knight of the Lion

While writing The Knight of the Cart, Chrétien de Troyes was simultaneously composing this more traditional and straightforward Arthurian poem. The knight Yvain journeys to defeat a sorcerous knight named Esclados, who killed Yvain’s cousin. Yvain defeats his foe and falls in love with Esclados’ wife Laudine, eventually winning her over.

But when Sir Gawain convinces Yvain to return to knightly quests, Laudine forces her knight to return within one year. Yvain gets caught up in the knight thing, Laudine tells him to go to hell, Yvain goes mad with grief, gets cured, rescues a lion from a dragon; fights giants, demons, and other knights, and eventually wins Laudine back.

OK, that wasn’t super straightforward, but Yvain is a virtuous knight who tries to avoid conflict whenever possible and treats Laudine with the utmost respect (other than forgetting to keep track of the time). Plus, the lion becomes his companion, and watching a knight and lion palling around a fantastical, medieval Europe sounds like an absolute blast.