The Green Knight

In the winter of 1985 we traveled to Munich where my wife sang some opera auditions. We only stayed a few days, partly because our funds were limited, but mostly because I needed to get back to my work in Bergamo, where I had a Fulbright fellowship to do musicology research. We passed our final evening in Munich in an economical restaurant in the central Platz in anticipation of the overnight train back to Milan. As we came out of the restaurant into the dark empty square a couple of drunks came lurching toward us. They approached, and one of them laid hands on my wife. I broke my umbrella over his head before she restrained me, and we hurried away, as did our assailants. Safely on the train, I remonstrated with my wife for checking me, and she explained that she feared spending the night in a German jail more than she feared the muggers.

My story is eerily similar to the inciting incident in Iris Murdoch’s The Green Knight, where a professor accidentally kills a mugger by smiting him with his umbrella. That episode propels everything that unfolds in the 472-page novel.

In a previous blog about Iris, I wrote about her double life as philosopher and novelist. But her knowledge of literature is also quite impressive, with frequent allusions to writers like Herodotus, Dante, Milton and Shakespeare. I hadn’t got far in The Green Knight before I began to experience a bit of déjà vu, not the tedious kind, but a welcome sense of remembering something important. Browsing my bookshelf I quickly found my old copy of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, translated by J.R.R. Tolkien. As I reread the medieval English alliterative poem, I began to get my bearings in the 20th-century novel. Not until about three-fourths of the way through does Murdoch give an explanation, and that is left inconclusive.

Murdoch’s novels sometimes remind me of Chekhov’s plays. They are very theatrical, and one of the characters often has a connection to the stage. She introduces a large cast early on and their dialog keeps the action moving forward inexorably toward an uncertain, and often surprising, denouement. Along the way she creates some real nail-biters. After drawing you into the lives and fates of her characters she proceeds to put them in parlous situations. Without indulging in explicit depiction of sex, Iris generates a great deal of sexual tension between her characters, and this too contributes to the suspense. The love triangles are amusing and bemusing.

As in the other two Murdoch novels I have read, religion is often discussed by the characters, who run the gamut from cynical atheist to aspiring monk bordering on holy fool. The title character is frankly Christological but practices Buddhism. Questions about the hereafter are of course raised and left open. Murdoch quotes scripture from time to time and gives every impression of knowing her way around the Bible; but she seems to want to veer in the direction of pantheism. At any rate, she’s not afraid of metaphysics. One of her characters even has the gift of kinesthesia.

There are a few poignant remarks on how dreadful it must be to lose one’s mind. The title character experiences memory loss after a blow on the head. Not long after Murdoch published The Green Knight in 1993 she began to lose her memory and eventually descended into complete dementia.

While Murdoch does a good job of tying up loose ends, she also leaves us wondering about the fate of these people we have come to care about. The day after I finished the novel, I found myself wishing for a sequel. Alas, there will be no sequel. The Green Knight was Iris’s penultimate novel.

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