Not Yet Built and Already Ruined: The Ruins of The Green Knight and Pendragon
The Arthurian worlds of Inkle’s tactical narrative game Pendragon and the movie The Green Knight have one thing in common: the grand, pathetic ruins of castles, monasteries, and chapels. In The Green Knight, a castle in ruins is the first landmark Gawain passes as he sets out on his quest to find another ruin: the green chapel. The long journey in-between is full of images of desolation and decay that fit a world whose glory days are long past, if they ever existed. Those castles that aren’t ruined are gloomy, oppressive structures that seem to have existed since time immemorial.
In a memorable monologue, the Lady of the castle (played by Alicia Vikander) muses about the meaning of the colour green. Green, she argues (I paraphrase), stands for the processes of growth and decay of the natural world which eventually reclaims the bodies, buildings, ideals and ambitions of humankind. The mightiest castle will be worn down in time.
Inkle's Pendragon strikes a similarly moody, melancholy tone: the path to Arthur’s last stand is littered with abandoned, ruinous castles. This is the end of a heroic age, the game makes clear. Tangles of ivy and cobwebs have overtaken the homes of heroes.
From a very literal-minded angle, this raises a historical problem illustrated by the following two points:
a) The mighty medieval stone castles we all know and love were a phenomenon of the High and Late Middle Ages (ca. 1000 until 1500). These days, castles are seen as romantic relics of a barbaric age, but back when they were first built, they were high-tech, state-of-the-art structures that took immense resources and technical expertise to build.
b) These stories are set in the age of Arthurian myth, which is usually placed somewhere around 500 to 700 BC in the Early Middle Ages (The Green Knight doesn’t name a concrete date, but Pendragon is set in the year 673).
Now, how come these castles in Pendragon and The Green Knight are already in ruins when they haven’t even been built yet? It’s a headscratcher for sure. A pedant might argue that this is blatant historical inaccuracy, while a cynic might place the blame on popular misconceptions and expectations, which cannot conceive of the Middle Ages without knights sitting in proper stone castles.
The obvious truth, however, is that Arthurian myths and romances have always been fantasies with little regard to actual history. What’s more, the anachronisms of The Green Knight and Pendragon fit nicely in a long and medieval tradition of playing fast and loose with “historical accuracy” and are therefore, in a sense, authentically medieval.
Let’s take the 14th century middle English poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight on which the film adaptation The Green Knight is based. Like all Arthurian romances, the story is placed in an unspecified and idealized mythical past, when the spirit of chivalry was still practiced in its original and pure form. Paragons of knightly virtue and courtly values in a world of mighty castles. Of course, it doesn’t really matter either to us or the anonymous 14th century poet that all of this – castles, chivalry and sophisticated courtly values – were, historically speaking, a relatively modern phenomenon even in the 1300s and would have been unrecognizable to anyone living even a few centuries earlier. To the writers and poets of the time, the era of King Arthur wasn’t so much relevant as history as it was as a projection surface for the contemporary values of a “modern” courtly elite.
There’s an unending supply of even more explicit examples of historical anachronisms in the art and literature of the Middle Ages. One example is the 13th century illuminated manuscript called the Morgan Bible, whose detailed illustrations depict battles of the Old Testament – with chainmailed knights and decidedly medieval fortifications. Ancient events are transplanted wholesale, across both continents and centuries, right smack in the middle of 13th century France.
The urge for historicization of old stories is a relatively recent phenomenon. Ironically, modern interpretations of, say, Shakespeare’s plays that transplant the stories into contemporary settings are in some ways closer to medieval attitudes towards adaptation than “old-fashioned” stagings featuring pseudo-Elizabethan costumes and props.
This, however, does not mean that the historicized retellings of Pendragon and The Green Knight are more interested in “historical accuracy” than were medieval storytellers. Not unlike a medieval poem such as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, modern adaptations use a distant era, mythical rather than historical, as a projection surface. In other words, they tell us more about the concerns and realities of our own time (and our attitudes towards the past) than they do about the distant past in which they are set.
That is not intended as criticism. Rather, it serves as a starting point for questions like: why are ruined castles and other ruined places featured so prominently in The Green Knight and Pendragon in the first place? What’s with all the decay and gloom pervading these transplanted medieval stories? Or put more generally: Why are medievalesque fantasies so often used as a projection for a kind of grim melancholy and a sense of (historical) loss? What do we, modern individuals of the 21st century, feel has been lost since some fuzzy, undefined point in the past? Chivalric virtues? Idealism? The “simplicity” and “authenticity” of a more “archaic” age? Or is it more of an allegory, a fear of what might be lost soon, rooted in and propelled by historical fatalism and doomscrolling? Will our own age have become a mythical non-time in just a few centuries?
These are broad questions, and the answer may be different depending on which example we look at. That’s especially true if we factor in the complexity of the Arthurian subject matter and how many times it has been reinterpreted over the course of roughly one and a half millennia, from vague hints in historical accounts, to medieval embellishments and the genre of the Arthurian romance, to Romanticism’s fascination with beautiful medieval decay, to modern pop culture with its grimdark medieval fever dreams rooted, in turn, in a centuries old tradition of looking down with disgust at the supposed “Dark” Ages, to today’s reactionaries’ and fascists’ yearning for a mythical and “manly” past.
This piece isn’t intended to answer these questions, but to show how to raise them in the first place, and why grappling with them matters. The ruins of Pendragon and The Green Knight aren’t simply a silent part of their landscapes; if you ask the right questions, their walls might echo with them.