Literary Mixtape: Sir Gawain


If you’ve ever wondered what your favorite literary characters might be listening to while they save the world/contemplate existence/get into trouble, or hallucinated a soundtrack to go along with your favorite novels, well, us too. But wonder no more! Here, we sneak a look at the hypothetical iPods of some of literature’s most interesting characters. What would be on the personal playlists of Holden Caulfield or Elizabeth Bennett, Huck Finn or Harry Potter, Tintin or Humbert Humbert? Something revealing, we bet. Or at least something danceable. Read on for a cozy reading soundtrack, character study, or yet another way to emulate your favorite literary hero. This week: The Pearl Poet’s classic Arthurian tale, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

This is a mixtape only for the true English major nerds among you, but so be it. In the Pearl Poet’s 14th century text, Sir Gawain, a knight of King Arthur’s Round Table, accepts a challenge from a mysterious knight who is completely green, except for his burning red eyes. The bet is this: Sir Gawain may strike any blow he wishes to him, with the provision that the Green Knight will return the blow in a year and a day. Sir Gawain, ever gallant, and knowing how to beat this sort of game, beheads him with one strike. The man calmly collects his head, tells Gawain he’ll see him in a year, and rides off. When the time comes, Gawain sets off to meet his fate, stopping at the castle of Lord and Lady Bertilak, who offer him hospitality — and a whole lot more. Lord Bertilak and Gawain make a deal: they shall each bring the fruits of the day to the other. While Lord Bertilak is out hunting, the lady of the house attempts to seduce Gawain, and ultimately gives him a girdle that will, she says, protect him from all harm. When Bertilak returns, Gawain dutifully returns the kisses his lady bestowed on him, but, fearing for his life, keeps the girdle. The next day, he goes to meet the Green Knight. No spoilers here! Like anyone who was told he would be beheaded in a year and a day might be, Sir Gawain is full of existential angst, and his playlist would probably reflect that. He’d also need a good number of songs for wandering through the woods, because on some level, the story is about nature itself. Here’s what we think Sir Gawain would and step up to the challenge, struggle with his chivalry, trade three kisses for a fox to.

Stream the mixtape here.

“Burden of Tomorrow” — The Tallest Man On Earth

Sir Gawain would probably love this earthy, morose band, but most particularly this song, perfect for any gallant knight with a bellyful of adventures now headed to certain death: “Oh once I held a pony by its flying mane/ And once I called the shadow in the turning game/ But I will fight this stranger that you should fear/ So I won’t be your burden of tomorrow dear.”

“Crazy On You” — Heart

The strings that open this classic track sound like a delicate, unsure dance, followed by a triumphant decision, followed by a love song. We imagine Sir Gawain going through this song in his head as the tantalizing Lady Bertilak slips in and out of his room.

“Nothing Short of Thankful” — The Avett Brothers

Some good old boy rock for a good old boy — but more importantly, this is music for the road, sung to Gawain’s imaginary companions.

“I Put a Spell On You” — Screamin’ Jay Hawkins

This is one of the sexiest songs of all time, and since knights are kind of not allowed sleep with people, they have to get their kicks somewhere — probably in this desperate, yawping ballad. But we think this song would work nicely with the whole Lady Bertilak/Lord Bertilak/Gawain love triangle… especially given who Lord Bertilak really is. And that whole Morgan le Fay business.

“Rainbowarriors” — CocoRosie

This song captures the magic of the natural world that rises up in this tale, something we think Gawain would experience with the same kind of wide-eyed wonder as the reader.

“Green Aisles” — Real Estate

A song for being lost in the woods.

“Ambling Alp” — Yeasayer

Now, this song may not correspond to the rules of chivalry, but we think that when it came to the thick of it, Sir Gawain would need some other influences to remind him that it’s okay to save his own life, even if it violates the rules just a little bit. “Now kid I know I haven’t been a perfect man/ And I’ve avoided doing things I know I can/ But if I’ve learned one thing to tattoo on my arm/ Or burn into my thumb it would be that/ You must stick up for yourself son/ Never mind what anybody else done…”

“Waiting Around to Die” — Townes Van Zandt

Fraught cowboys are just modern fraught travelling knights, after all.

“Tin Man” — Future Islands

Armor jokes aside, we think Gawain would relate to this growling song about hiding your feelings, about being insular to the point of seeming wooden, but being filled with true passion nonetheless. It was so hard to be a knight, man.

“We Are the Champions” — Queen

Oh come on, what else do you think King Arthur, Sir Gawain, and the rest of the drunken knights at a modern round table would sing after one of their own chops off an intruder’s head? All we can say is: poor Guinevere.