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Gawain and Green Knight Hardcover – September 15, 1994
From Publishers Weekly
The brothers Shannon valiantly fail at the improbable-a picture-book version of a dense, alliterative, complex medieval classic. As the tale opens, Gawain is "the youngest and most inexperienced" knight in King Arthur's court. After being teased by the members of the Round Table, Gawain is quick to accept the challenge issued by the Green Knight, who interrupts the Yuletide festivities to propose an exchange of blows. Gawain slices off the stranger's head, who then picks it up and calls Gawain to a meeting a year hence. Gawain travels long to find the appointed spot, enduring fierce winter weather before finding shelter in a castle. There he resists the offer of an allegedly magic sash, for in this version he has promised to wear a sash made for him by his girlfriend. The Green Knight therefore withholds his blow, telling him, "You were true to the mysteries of your own heart." In the original, of course, Gawain (sans lady love) accepts the sash in hopes of saving his life, but is forgiven this minor fault-even a chivalrous Christian knight could not be perfect. Though David Shannon's chiaroscuro effects suit his eerie castle scenes and larger-than-life Green Knight, the mundane, altered text disappoints, giving no sense of the extraordinary language of the original, and so heavily adapted as to be an entirely new and lesser story. Ages 4-8.
Copyright 1994 Reed Business Information, Inc.
From School Library Journal
Grade 3-5-The gigantic Green Knight storms into Camelot challenging Arthur's knights to chop off his head. If he survives, he expects his beheader to seek him out in a year and a day and have his own head chopped off. Gawain accepts the challenge, and the giant survives. He leaves with his bloody head, reminding the young man to keep his word. Questing for him, the young knight stops at a castle where he is wined, dined, given a soft bed, and tempted by his stunning hostess to exchange the sash given to him by his beloved for her magic one, which she says will save his neck-literally. This archetypal story dates back 1,000 years in Celtic lore as a Cuchulain tale, and Gawain emerged as the hero in an anonymous 14th-century epic. The theme has always been honor for its own sake and the importance of keeping one's word. Earlier illustrated versions, notably Selina Hastings's Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Lothrop, 1981) and Constance Bartlett Hieatt's book of the same title (Crowell, 1967; o.p.), are truer to the original. This simpler abridgement only infers the attempted seduction, invents Gawain's love interest back home, and depicts him refusing the sash not for courage or honor, but for love. The writing is strong, except when Gawain says "Oh my goodness" when the Green Knight's head rolls. Dark, richly textured art with Rembrandt lighting suits the violent tale. The full-and double-page paintings flow from one to another and exhibit great attention to detail. The artist obviously researched time and setting. Flaws aside, this is an early taste of a magnificent adventure. The Shannons are worth watching.
Helen Gregory, Grosse Pointe Public Library, MI
Copyright 1994 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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A collaborative effort between the brothers Mark and David Shannon tells the story of Sir Gawain, King Arthur's youngest knight who is celebrating Christmas with the royal court when the banquet is interrupted by a colossal figure who introduces himself as the Green Knight. He issues a challenge to the crowd: that anyone is free to cut off his head on the condition that in one year's time he can render the same service back upon them. Gawain takes him up on his dare and is horrified to find that after the deed is done, the Knight simply picks up his severed head and rides away.
The year passes and his fate approaches, but before setting out, Gawain is given a sash from Caryn, a lady of the court, who promises that it will keep him safe on his journey. Seeking out the Green Knight in order to keep his vow, Gawain eventually reaches the castle of Sir Bertilak, who offers him hospitality before he goes to meet his death at the Green Chapel. It is there that the Lady Bertilak offers Gawain a new sash in exchange for Caryn's, assuring them that its magical potency will protect him from the Green Knight's axe.
Whether or not you know the outcome of the tale, it doesn't take a genius to figure out what Gawain does. My interest lies in the differences that author Mark Shannon makes between the traditional legend and his own retelling, and the changes are not always for the better. The original Gawain is a much older man, who accepts the Green Knight's challenge out of pride; here he is described as the youngest in the court, who acts impulsively as a result of the ribbing he's been receiving from the other knights.
Sadly removed is the deal that Sir Bertilak and Gawain come to whilst Gawain is staying in his household: that at the close of each day, the men will present the other with whatever they received during the day. Thus Sir Bertilak obligingly brings Gawain game from the hunt, and Gawain duly bestows the kisses that Lady Bertilak has privately given him back upon her husband! Unbeknownst to Gawain, all of this intrigue is a test of his honesty, and the crux of story lies with Gawain accepting Lady Bertilak's gift of a protective sash, one that costs him a nick on the back of the head, though his life is spared due to his otherwise honorable behaviour.
Here, the sash is not a form of temptation that Gawain cannot resist, but rather a token of love that he clings to, given to him by Shannon's original creation of Caryn (a name that rather anachronistically resembles "Karen"). Having given her a promise to her to carry it always, Gawain chooses to die rather than give it up. This unfortunately makes him come across as a bit of an idiot - a sensible man would have chosen the gift that would have saved his life to ensure that he gets the chance to see his love again. I much prefer the idea of the fearful Gawain choosing to keep the sash, but being spared regardless due to his prior honesty about Lady Bertilak's elicit kisses.
Here, the small cut on the back of his neck is given to Gawain as a souvenir of his adventure, and he's spared by *not* taking Lady Bertilak's sash, holding fast to Caryn's instead. It's a fairly significant change, and it saps away some of the original tale's symbolism and potency.
Likewise, much of the mystery of the tale is gone only to be replaced with questions. The original Green Knight delivers his bloody challenge because he's under a curse that Gawain's actions manage to break. Here, it's unclear why exactly the Green Knight issues the challenge, and eventually and Lady Bertilak congratulate Gawain on remaining true to "the mysteries of your heart." Not quite the same thing...
The book is illustrated with rich oil paintings in a style that is beautiful, though difficult to describe. It's like a blend of realism and animation; in which human figures have a certain softness to them, almost as though they've been formed out of plasticine. There is intriguing use of deep shadows and light, as when Caryn is the only lit figure in the dark host of people who watch the beheading, and many of renditions of people have dark hollows in the place of eyes (it's not as disturbing as it sounds), providing a comparison to the Green Knight's blazing red ones.
The Green Knight himself is quite a creation: with long antlers, a braided beard, glowing red eyes, and tunic and weapons covered in Celtic symbols. He looks like a spirit out of an even older legend than this one, and the illustration that shows his face morphing between his true form and his alter-ego is striking. I read this book to two young boys, and both fell quiet for a long time, just staring at this particular image.
There are other nice concepts at work, as when the text describes Lady Bertilak's as having "hands that moved like birds in the air," the picture shows her thumbs as bird's heads and her fingers as the sweep of white wings. Likewise, there's a reoccurring visual image on each page that shows a part of the sash that Caryn has stitched for Gawain, with each panel revealing a scene from his journey (though how she knows all this in advance is something of a mystery).
This is an enjoyable and beautiful picture book, but as the editorial reviews point out is "so heavily adapted as to be an entirely new and lesser story." Although the changes to the tale may make this dark tale more palatable to very young children, if you're browsing for the right version of "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" I'd recommend checking out a more faithful adaptation first.
In the Sir Gawain and the Green Knight legend, there is sexual suggestivity; that is totally absent in this book.