Adaptations of Arthurian legend have long been popular in Hollywood, but as with superhero movies, many of those films have drawn from various sources and focused on the origin story: Arthur pulls the sword from the stone, becomes king of all Britons, starts the order of the Knights of the Round Table, and goes down in pseudohistory. The Green Knight, released on July 30, is an exception: director David Lowery relied solely on the late-14th-century romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight as the basis for his movie, and publishers of the poem are taking advantage of that decision.
The poem was written in Middle English by an anonymous author known alternately as the Gawain Poet and the Pearl Poet. In it, King Arthur’s nephew Sir Gawain accepts a challenge from an enormous green-skinned knight, who offers up his ax if Gawain will strike him with it. The catch is that the knight will deal a blow to Gawain a year later in return.
Penguin Books has reissued one of two translations of the poem originally published by Penguin Classics in an official tie-in edition retitled The Green Knight, with a new foreword written by Lowery. (Penguin told PW that there is precedent for such title changes to classic works surrounding tie-in publications, pointing to The Turning, the movie tie-in edition of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, which was published in 2019 alongside the release of the film adaptation with the new name.) The first print run is 25,000 copies.
W.W. Norton publishes its own trade and critical editions of the poem and is reprinting upwards of 5,000 copies of Simon Armitage’s 2007 translation with rewritten cover copy, making it something of an unofficial tie-in. Norton’s sales team “will be keeping a close eye on this one, should the need arise to pull additional levers,” the publisher said.
Matt Klise, associate editor at Penguin Books, noted that Penguin chose to go with Bernard O’Donoghue’s 2007 translation for the tie-in, rather than Brian Stone’s 1959 version (which he called “beautifully lyrical and highly regarded”), because O’Donoghue’s verse “had a more contemporary tone that we thought would be more immediately accessible” to newcomers. He added that there is a “steady academic market” for both of Penguin Classics’ Sir Gawain and the Green Knight translations.
“As David Lowery acknowledges in his introduction, like many people, he was familiar with the poem from having read it in school,” Klise said. Tie-ins, he added, give publishers a chance “to capture the excitement a film generates and use it to get a book into the hands of new readers, both those who haven’t heard of the story before and those who knew about it but haven’t been spurred to read it yet.”
Klise pointed to Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House as another example of an adaptation that brought “a ton of new readers to all of the editions of the book that we publish, not just the tie-in.”
The poem has been adapted for screen before, including in two films by Stephen Weeks, in 1973 and 1984, with Sean Connery playing the role of the Green Knight in both, and in a 2002 animated film and an episode of the Cartoon Network show Adventure Time in 2017. The BBC also broadcast a documentary hosted by Armitage in 2009.
Most adaptations have deviated from the original text to some extent. While Lowery’s film does as well, that, Klise said, is part of the point. “He urges everyone to read and reread the poem, and to try reading different translations,” he said. “He captures how a text as old as this one remains vital and open to reinterpretation. So I’m excited to see how the tie-in does in the marketplace. There’s a lot of buzz out there for this film, and I think we’ve put together the perfect edition to show anyone just how beautiful, captivating, and mysterious a 600-plus-year-old poem can be.”
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight has been translated many times over the years and has sold steadily. The Stone translation has sold more than 22,000 print units since NPD BookScan began tracking sales at bookstores in 2001, while O’Donoghue’s translation, released a few months before Armitage’s in 2007, has sold more than 7,500 copies. Armitage’s translation has sold just under 55,000 copies.
Other older translations have also sold well. Arthurian scholar Jessie L. Weston’s 1909 prose translation, originally published by Scribner, has sold almost 8,500 copies in a Dover edition since it was published in 2003. Burton Raffel’s 1970 translation, published by Signet Classics in mass market paperback, has sold more than 50,000 copies to date, while J.R.R. Tolkien’s 1979 translation, published by Random House, has sold nearly 80,000 copies.