Macbeth and The Green Knight

“By the pricking of my thumbs,
something wicked this way comes.”


A new film version of Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Macbeth directed by Joel Coen and starring Denzel Washington, Frances McDormand, Corey Hawkins, Brendan Gleeson, and Harry Melling will be released at the end of the year.

This will be Joel Coen’s first film without partnering with his brother. The Coen brothers have directed many great films in different genres and styles. I’m curious to see how Joel’s directing style and tone translate to Shakespeare. From the few tidbits of trailers I’ve seen, the cinematography looks great – cinematographer: Bruno Delbonnel – but photography alone is not what makes a film great.

It will be in theaters on Christmas Day 2021. That seems to be an odd day for this dark play to premiere. (It will be streaming on Apple TV+ on January 14.) But that Christmas date immediately made me think of another recent film based on a classic.

green knight

The Green Knight directed by David Lowery came out earlier this year. It stars Dev Patel, Alicia Vikander and Joel Edgerton. This classic, which I read in college, is one of the Arthurian legends. One surviving manuscript from around 1400 has survived. The author is unknown. It was only rediscovered 200 years ago and published for the first time in 1839.

The original Green Knight tells the story of Sir Gawain who is King Arthur’s nephew. He’s a bit headstrong and takes on a challenge from the Green Knight. He is a huge emerald armored stranger. (In the film, he seems to be green-skinned and more monster than man.) The Green Knight sets forth a challenge. Any knight can take one stroke at him. If he survives, the following year at Christmas the knight must come to the Green Knight and alow him one stroke.

Spoiler alert: Gawain’s beheading of the Green Knight has little effect on him and so Gawain has a year until he will meet his fate.

Gawain’s journey to the Green Knight involves ghosts, giants, thieves, and schemers because the Green Knight test men and the journey is more about his character.

King Arthur Will Return

Arthur and the Lady of the Lake
Tapestry of Arthur and the Lady of the Lake

I was fascinated by books and movies about the legend of King Arthur as a boy and it has continued into adult life. In college, I took a course on the Arthurian legends and we read Le Morte D’Arthur in its 15th-century Middle English.

Sir Thomas Malory’s prose tales of King Arthur, Guinevere, Lancelot, Merlin, and the Knights of the Round Table were compiled and modified from French and English sources to make a complete story of Arthur’s life. Malory wrote it while in prison.

One thing that Professor Kellogg told us was that Arthur’s story has been reinterpreted many times in the centuries since Malory. Each interpretation and reimagining of the legend reflects the time the new author lived in and Arthur is seen in a different way, reflecting the time of the reinterpretation. Since there was a 19th-century revival of the legend, Malory has been the principal source.

For example, the love triangle of Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot has been portrayed in ways so that each of them is to blame. Arthur is at fault. Arthur is a fool. Arthur is loyal to his friend and wife.

Le Morte d’Arthur (The Death of Arthur) was first published in 1485 at the end of the medieval English era. William Caxton published it and changed its title from Malory’s The Whole Book of King Arthur and of His Noble Knights of the Round Table (or actually The Hoole Book of Kyng Arthur and of His Noble Knyghtes of The Rounde Table).

In 1934, the Winchester Manuscript was discovered and that is an earlier version than Caxton’s. Like Shakespeare and other old texts, there are many different editions that show different spellings and grammar and changes to the plot.

I reread the book recently. It was the first time I had read it since college. I read the new version by Gerald Davis of Le Morte D’Arthur which draws on both the Caxton and Winchester manuscripts.  But the key elements of the story remain.

This is not a 21st Century “reinterpretation” but it is a version written for modern readers. The love triangle that forms when King Arthur’s wife, Queen Guinevere, has an affair with Sir Lancelot. This double betrayal breaks Arthur’s heart but it also starts a civil war and ultimately leads to the end of King Arthur’s kingdom.

My rereading is now overlaid with the many movies, TV programs and other books I have read since college about Arthur. When I read about young Arthur I see the Disney cartoon Arthur of The Sword in the Stone that I saw in 1963 and also the Arthur in the source book by T.H. White, The Once and Future King,  which is very good and not cartoonish or a children’s book.

movie poster

White’s young boy Arthur is tutored by a wizard named Merlyn in preparation for a future he can’t imagine where he will be a king with the greatest knights sworn to chivalrous values, a beautiful queen and he would unite a country as Arthur, King of the Britons.

Arthur is the once and future King because the legend is that he will return when England needs him. Versions of the legend during the period of WWII see him as returning in some form to save England.

Malory writing in mid-15th Century was viewing Arthur saw a change in society that included the end of knighthood. He also would have one of the first books printed in England and reach new readers.

In 1509, Henry VIII, wanted to revive an idealized age of knighthood. He had the Winchester round table of Edward III painted over so that he was on now top as the new Arthur.

During the early 19th Century, Romanticism, Gothic Revival, and medievalism developed, and chivalry was appealing. Alfred Tennyson rewrote the Arthur’s story for the Victorian era in Idylls of the King. His Arthur was the ideal of manhood but he fails because he is human.

My wife brought home The Mists of Avalon in 1982. That novel reimagines the story from a feminist perspective.

Excalibur Arthur

I watched the film Excalibur multiple times with my young sons who loved that Arthur and Merlin. The love triangle kind of passed over them. The film, directed by John Boorman, takes a mythological and allegorical approach to the story.  Arthur is the Wounded King who can only be healed (along with his kingdom) by the Holy Grail. It is the cycle of birth, life, decay, and restoration.

There is some of that in the 1991 film, The Fisher King, starring Jeff Bridges and Robin Williams. (It is one of my favorite Robin Williams’ performances.)

The Wounded King’s realm becomes a wasteland as does the Fisher (or Sinner) King. It is not Arthur or Lancelot who find the Grail, because both of them are flawed and unworthy. They are healed by Perceval.

John Boorman remarked that the Christian symbolism of the Grail is what “my story is about: the coming of Christian man and the disappearance of the old religions which are represented by Merlin. The forces of superstition and magic are swallowed up into the unconscious.”

In retelling the legend of Arthur, writers have acted like Malory and included elements from other stories. Boorman has the sword Excalibur between the sleeping Queen and Lancelet which comes from the tales of Tristan and Iseult. Perceval not only gets the Grail to Arthur but also returns Excalibur to the Lady in the Lake (rather than Bedivere as in Malory) and the characters of Morgause and Morgan Le Fay are made one character.

How would a 21st Century view of King Arthur be viewed? Would it address democracy, manipulation of the story presented to the public, deception, healing, loyalty…? What other stories might be mixed in with the Arthurian legends?

The Shortest Total Lunar Eclipse of the 21st Century

October 2014 lunar eclipse by Tomruen, Wikipedia, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license

Eclipses – lunar or solar – always get the popular media excited. It’s a good one minute filler on the news. We have one arriving tomorrow, April 4.

They always make me wonder about how these events must have been viewed by ancient and primitive people. Certainly with more wonder than today. We might today glibly say that they were just ignorant, but ask most people alive today to explain in any detail what actually happens to cause a lunar or solar eclipse and why, and you are likely to get pretty thin information.

In my youth, I enjoyed reading Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court which includes a solar eclipse in its plotting. The modern-day Yankee, Hank, travels back in time (Or does he?) via a bump on the head to early medieval England and the Camelot of King Arthur. Seen as being too strange – and feared by the magician Merlin – he is sentenced to be burned at the stake. The date is set for June 21 and Hank knows that is the day of a solar eclipse. He uses the eclipse as an example of his own wizarding powers and scares the people by saying that he will blot out the Sun if they execute him.

Twain didn’t have Wikipedia to check, so he was off a bit off on his calculation of when an eclipse would have occurred in 528. The solar eclipses nearest in time to June 21, both partial and both in the Southern Hemisphere at maximum, in 528 occurred on March 6 and August 1. But in fictionland, he bargains with Arthur, is released, and becomes the second most powerful person in the kingdom. The power of an eclipse.

A lunar eclipse occurs when the Moon passes directly behind the Earth and into its umbra (shadow). This can occur only when the Sun, Earth, and Moon are aligned exactly, or very closely so, with the Earth in the middle. The term for this is a good Scrabble word: syzygy.

That means that a lunar eclipse can only occur with  a Full Moon. The type of eclipse and the length of time depends upon the Moon’s location relative to its orbital nodes.

Unlike a solar eclipse, which can only be viewed from a certain relatively small area of the world, a lunar eclipse may be viewed from anywhere on the night side of the Earth.

Lunar eclipses last for a few hours from start to finish, but a total solar eclipse only lasts for only a few minutes because of the smaller size of the Moon’s shadow.

It is safe to view the much dimmer lunar eclipse without any eye protection, while it is not safe to view a solar with the naked eye. I wonder how those ancients and the crowd watching Hank in Camelot fared?

The photo of the lunar eclipse at the top of this post may confuse or disappoint you. Shouldn’t the Moon be gone from the picture? The Moon does not completely disappear as it passes through the umbra/shadow because of the refraction of sunlight by the Earth’s atmosphere into the shadow. Now, if the Earth had no atmosphere (not a good thing for us!), the Moon would be completely dark during an eclipse. That reddish color is because sunlight reaching the Moon must pass through a long and dense layer of the Earth’s atmosphere, where it is scattered into the red wavelength.

This particular lunar eclipse tomorrow morning is perfect for the short attention span of our age. The totality, or total phase, of tomorrow’s lunar eclipse will last less than five minutes. That makes it the shortest total lunar eclipse of the 21st century.

Scientists consider the entire eclipse (this includes the penumbral and partial phases) and in that case it lasts several hours.

The total lunar eclipse will be visible from western North America, eastern Asia, the Pacific, Australia and New Zealand.

Here in North American time zones, the “eclipse” we all know and love happens in the morning before sunrise on Saturday, April 4.

Readers in the Eastern Hemisphere – eastern Asia, Indonesia, New Zealand and Australia – can observe it after sunset April 4.  The website always lists eclipse times in Universal Time and for North American time zones.



It has been thousands of years and we are still not sure why Stonehenge was built.

Some researchers were recently allowed to strike the megaliths at Stonehenge and each resonated with sounds like those of metallic or wooden bells. New theory: it was once either an ancient long-distance communication system or a Stone Age church bell system.

We know that this area was a hunting ground along an ancient migration route thousands of years before the stones began to be placed. Archaeologists have found evidence of human occupation spanning 3,000 years. There were pine posts set for some kind of structure there 8,500 to 10,000 years ago.

To build the stone megaliths would have taken thousands of laborers and meant getting stones from far off Wales. Why?

You probably have read or heard that the ancients (and still, some moderns) celebrated winter solstice at Stonehenge. The “avenue” near Stonehenge is aligned with the winter solstice sunset. There is evidence that pigs were slaughtered during December and January, and that suggests a mid-winter feast. There is also a section that faces the sunrise during the summer solstice.

There are skeletal fragments from at least 63 individuals exhumed from the area (an equal proportion of men, women and children) dating to 3000 B.C.. That around the time that the monument was beginning to be built. Is it a burial ground for some exalted class?

A giant helps Merlin build Stonehenge. From a manuscript of the Roman de Brut by Wace in the British Library. This is the oldest known depiction of Stonehenge.

It’s not a credible theory, but as I am a big fan of Arthurian literature, I like the 12th century tale by Geoffrey of Monmouth that attributed the monument’s construction to Merlin. In this tale, the stones are healing stones called the Giant’s dance. Giants had brought from Africa to Ireland for their healing properties. What other reasonable explanation was there for the why and the how of the giant stones having been hauled there?

Merlin built it for King Aurelius Ambrosius who wanted a memorial to 3,000 nobles slain in battle against the Saxons and buried at Salisbury.

Merlin, Uther Pendragon (Arthur’s father), and 15,000 knights were sent to move it from Ireland, where it had been constructed on Mount Killaraus by the Giants. The knights couldn’t move the rocks with ropes and force, but Merlin used “gear,” skill and some magic and transported them to Britain. Aurelianus, Uther Pendragon, and Constantine III were buried inside the “Giants’ Ring of Stonehenge”.


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