Iris Murdoch's The Green Knight

It’s time for us to talk about “The Green Knight” – this was always one of my favourites and happily remains one. I bought my paperback copy on 19 Jan 1995, so presumably not long after it came out, and I presume this was my fourth reading of it. Although I felt a bit of confusion around who exactly was reading the John Cowper Powys novel that’s mentioned, I don’t see any lessening of IM’s powers here and it’s a great read with some memorable characters – and, like “The Philosopher’s Pupil”, some scenes narrated by a dog. I read it in my original Penguin paperback as there’s no fancy new Vintage edition; this proved to be useful as I could bung it in my holiday suitcase without worrying, as it has the rings of multiple cuppas on it!

If you’re doing the readalong or even selected books along with me, or of course some time afterwards, do share how you’re getting on and which have been your favourites so far.

Iris Murdoch – “The Green Knight”

(18 January 1995)

Loosely based around the Arthurian legend of Gawain and the Green Knight (it’s almost a shame when Clement realises this and spells it out), we come in in the middle and go back to the beginning, having learned that Lucas Graffe has unintentionally killed a man, then going back to the scene, witnessed by his brother (by adoption) Clement. When a man returns and claims to have returned from the dead and now to want retribution, Clement and Lucas have to work out what to do. Is there a miracle? Is there a saint? There’s certainly a big fancy party and lots of rather strange goings on. And alI the while, Louise is waiting for her three daughters to find their fates and leave her, while other characters move between various handy flats and think about religion. I think his book revolves around whether people are who they say they are and counters of retribution, injury and fate. There are two brothers and three sisters, related folks and their offspring in one of those courts that exist in IM’s novels, plus a seeker of truth and religion and his self-created guru. So lots of classic Murdochian stuff.

Lots of pairings and oppositions exist, from Aleph and Sefton the intellectuals versus Moy, the arty, fey sister through Lucas the sneering professor and Clement the people-pleasing actor to Louise the good mother (and girl) and Joan the bad mother (and girl). There are innumerable fatherless people, including Bellamy, who loses his spiritual father. Louise and Clement meet originally in an empty theatre and then their pivotal encounter occurs in another one. Clement, Anax and Bellamy all fall asleep in cars. Clement faints in his sleep and then when Mir challenges Lucas. Bellamy loses his faith and so does Father Damien, although Mir regains his Buddhist faith. Of course the plot includes double encounters for the Graffes and Mir.

Water exists in terms of tears, fog, and rain, and also the sea at the cottage everyone thinks Bellamy is going to give up. Stones are mainly concentrated around Moy. She also makes masks, a small theme which crops up in almost every novel. London is a strong character with lots of different routes taken and described in detail so you could map them. Harvey and Joan provide hyacinthine curls and red tresses, and Moy cuts off her plait as she matures into her next stage in life.

Characters are divided into those who open windows and those who don’t, and now I feel the need to check the whole of Murdoch to find out if this was a theme I’d not noticed in the rest of the novels.

We have a man waiting outside houses looking in, in this case Peter Mir and various houses, and he’s seen by people looking out. Bellamy chases Mir through the wet streets, providing that common aspect of the novels. Harvey watches outside Lucas’ door and thinks he sees his mother, echoing a similar scene in most.

There is humour in the book – some savage irony e.g. Harvey damaging himself at the end of his ordeal, not during it, but also some funny moments, as when Clement puts on a pompous voice to give his speech which reminds him of the one people put on to play Polonius. The pub landlord is also amusingly very Australian.

Who is our saint? I rather think it is Louise. She is described as leading a life which

even after its great catastrophe, was quiet and calm, a sensible rational life, a decent satisfactory cheerful life, as presaged by her kindly gentle parents and her orderly high-minded school. (p. 3)

and she has a classic IM saint characteristic, there in the books since at least “An Unofficial Rose”:

… her kindness, the way in which … she instinctively made things better, speaking no evil, disarming hostility, turning ill away making peace: her gentleness which made her seem, sometimes, to some people, weak, insipid, dull. ‘She’s not exactly a strong drink!’ someone said. So secretly did she work in her courtesy. (pp. 64-65)

Clement craves her company, “to get a whiff of ordinary good life” and she absorbs his and Harvey’s emotions while not interfering in her daughters’ lives (although she humanly wonders if she should have).

She says Clement wants to suffer for Lucas, but in fact Peter “dies” “for” him and not only once. But I’m not sure Peter is a saint, as he seems to enchant and live in enchantment, and he’s “other” to the characters and their world, like an “alien”. Bellamy is described by Clement as a muddler, which is another saintly attribute, but that doesn’t really go anywhere. Emil exhorts him to “attain your open busy life, helping other people. Why not have innocent happiness as well?” (p. 426) and I feel like Emil echoes N from “The Philosopher’s Pupil” helping others behind the scenes while remaining unencumbered.

Who is the enchanter? Lucas has certainly been created as that by at least Aleph, Sefton and Clement, Harvey, who is “fascinated” by him, and perhaps Peter. It feels in a way that everyone’s been looking for Mir to appear in their lives, but he’s very much a paper tiger or a voice behind a curtain. Is it just that everyone’s seeking something to believe in and control them.

In relationships to other books, of which I found many, as you’d expect near to the end of our project, the girls’ tears might recall the Tears of Blood of Moy’s children in The Sandcastle, who cry at will. Moy’s ducking in the sea recalls the weir scene in “Nuns and Soldiers” and the near-drownings in “The Nice and the Good” et al. The seals at the end which give Moy and Bellamy enlightenment echo Charles Arrowby’s in “The Sea, The Sea”. Moy’s telekenesis links to other novels with supernatural elements – “The Nice and the Good” with the UFOs and “The Philosopher’s Pupil”. The standing stone Moy returns the smaller stone to recalls the stone in “The Message to the Planet” and the lingam stone in “The Good Apprentice”. Anax missing Clement in the park recalls various missed encounters, including in “A Word Child”. The various ordeals gone through by the characters recall again the weir scene in “Nuns and Soldiers”. Tessa’s left-wing writing and women’s refuges reflect various other women who do good on the margins in several other novels. Clement watches Louise sewing and, although he doesn’t say so, we know he likes to. Thus she joins the ranks of Murdochian women observed with a needle and thread. Clement dreams of playing Hamlet, taking us back to “The Black Prince”. The broken telephone, fizzing away, recalls a litany of broken telephones from “The Black Prince” through “The Book and the Brotherhood” and elsewhere. Is the empty, small, steeply raked theatre where they meet Sadie’s theatre from “Under the Net”? I’d love to think so. Going back to this novel, in Clement’s car dream, the darkness is like “lots of knitted steel nets” (p.84). The hospital recalls the one in “The Message to the Planet” and Bellamy is described as a “seeker” which links it, too – maybe this novel is ‘about’ an inmate come out, whereas the previous novel is about being an inmate?

I don’t think my reading of this one has changed that much, although I took note of Louise and her reality a bit more and was less forgiving of the machinations of the younger characters, perhaps. I had forgotten some key outcomes while remembering little details like Moy’s plait.

Please either place your review in the comments, discuss mine or others’, or post a link to your review if you’ve posted it on your own blog, Goodreads, etc. I’d love to know how you’ve got on with this book and if you read it having read others of Murdoch’s novels or this was a reread, I’d love to hear your specific thoughts on those aspects, as well as if it’s your first one!

If you’re catching up or looking at the project as a whole, do take a look at the project page, where I list all the blog posts so far.