Last year I was asked if I would contribute a short retelling of a classic story to the new ‘Great Stories’ series, part of Oxford University Press’s Treetops range of books for schools. I was allowed to choose which story I wanted to tackle, so I opted for Gawain and the Green Knight, which gave me a chance to return to my Arthurian roots again.
I’ve had a quick go at this tale before – it’s one of the stories that Myrddin tells to Arthur’s war band in Here Lies Arthur. But that was a very short version, and I don’t think he even finished it – also, Here Lies Arthur was a very muddy, un-romantic, 5th Century version of the legends. My Gawain and the Green Knight is much a more traditional, magical approach. Based on the long poem by an unknown northern poet, it kicks off at Camelot one Christmastime, when a jolly green giant arrives to issue Arthur’s knights with a challenge – one of them can chop his head off, on the condition that he then gets to return the blow. Only Sir Gawain has the nerve to take up the Green Knight’s offer, and so begins a strange quest…
It’s an odd story, with roots deep in Celtic mythology, and it features a lot of classic Arthurian elements – a long quest through a harsh landscape, castles, magic, courtly love. It’s a real winter’s tale, too, all about the contrast between cosy interiors and the harsh landscape outside. It was a good story to write last winter, snug by the stove in my office on Dartmoor.
I’ve also done some illustrations to go with the text. I don’t really think of myself as an illustrator any more, but when I was at art college I used to dream of illustrating Arthurian tales, so I couldn’t really turn down the opportunity! Hopefully my version will encourage a few readers to seek out the original, or one of the modern English versions (there’s a good one by JRR Tolkien, and a very lively recent one by Simon Armitage).
Since Gawain is an educational title, you won’t find it on the shelves of your local bookshop (although I assume you’ll be able to order it, and online sellers should have it). If you run a school or a school library, OUP has packages which include Gawain along with some of the other books in the series.
There are 35 ‘Great Stories’ altogether, by an impressive range of authors and illustrators, and the series is edited by Michael Morpurgo. It includes books aimed at all levels of reading ability – Gawain is in one of the higher ones, Oxford Level 19. It will be published on 12th May, and I’ll show off more of the illustrations then.