GREEN KNIGHT GETS THE BLUES

by Jeremy Hanson-Finger

The Blue Knight and Red Knight spur their horses forward and lower their lances. The Blue Knight strikes the Red Knight’s shield and his balsa-wood lance explodes. The Red Knight barely even registers the impact, but a fraction of a second later he leaps off his horse, dropping his own lance, which shatters and merges with the woodchips and sawdust of the Blue Knight’s lance. Sometimes authenticity must be compromised for the sake of safety; in contrast with the advertising materials that offer “Revelry! Rivalry! Chivalry!” the Medieval Times, Inc. internal corporate mantra is, “Safety. Tasty. Daily.” The audience members wearing blue crowns cheer as the Red Knight rolls to a stop in the sand, and those wearing red crowns hiss.

“The blue rider must now dismount,” calls the King. “The field must be equal.” The Red Knight rises and grabs a new weapon from his squire, and the Blue Knight vaults off his horse and does the same. The audience members take this lull as an opportunity to consume half-chickens and pork ribs with their hands.

Groomsmen lead the horses away and the two knights return to the centre of the oval. The Blue Knight now holds a sword in addition to his shield and the Red Knight has abandoned his shield and instead grasps a chain mace with both hands, a staff with a heavy metal ball attached to the end by a metal chain. The two circle each other, and then meet, scraping steel against steel to generate the maximum number of sparks.

The Red Knight swings his mace, and the Blue Knight relaxes his grip on his sword enough that the blow sends it spinning away. The Blue Knight scrambles for his weapon, holding his shield up as the Red Knight rains blows down on it. He has almost reached it when the Red Knight jumps and stamps on it. The Blue Knight raises his shield and kicks the Red Knight in the chest. Off balance from the jump, the Red Knight staggers back and falls. The Blue Knight picks up his sword and holds it above the Red Knight. The Red Knight tries to push the sword away with the shaft of his mace, holding it with two hands like a dumbbell, but in deference to narrative over physics, the Blue Knight’s one-handed grip is stronger and he pushes the sword closer to the Red Knight’s neck. The Red Knight finds some hidden reserve of strength, or maybe just starts trying, and pushes the sword away, making the Blue Knight somersault backwards. Now the Red Knight is upon him and he lands a blow with the chain mace right in the Blue Knight’s stomach. The Blue Knight goes down and stays down. 

His squire runs out from under the coping and drags him away. The Blue Knight moves his arms a bit to let the audience know he’s going to be okay by the time all their friends come to tomorrow’s show. The Red Knight raises his mace above his head in victory. He turns to the audience section with red crowns and they cheer. He turns to the blue section and they boo. He faces away from the door from which the horses and riders emerge, and suddenly, moving very fast, fast enough that the audience must wonder how long exactly the hallway is for a horse to get up to such a speed, the Green Knight bursts forth in a cloud of dry ice, holding a halberd, a sort of pike with an axe blade at the end, and before the Red Knight has time to react, the Green Knight leans out and stabs him in the back, or appears to, and the Red Knight doubles over and hits the ground hard. The Green Knight’s horse skids to a stop in a spray of sand. The Green Knight takes his helmet off and smirks at the King.

“Green Knight!” the King booms. “You should be ashamed. This is a fair tournament and what you have done is unchivalrous.”

“I don’t recognize the laws of your realm,” the Green Knight says, with a deep voice that makes lady-parts quiver along the rows of wooden benches. “I didn’t come here to play by your rules. I came here to defeat all the champions of your realm, because Leone is still at war with you, no matter what lies you are sowing among your people.” 

But nobody ever wonders if the Green Knight does feel ashamed.

#

Outside of the sand oval of the castle and the role of the dastardly Green Knight, Gavin Masterson is a nice guy, really.  It’s not within his character to stab someone in the back while they’re celebrating—even if they’re celebrating having beaten a competitor to the ground with a chain mace—but that’s one of the requirements of the position. He wanted the speaking part, the black cheek-microphone, the extra two thousand dollars a year, the chance for hundreds of young women a night to not only see him riding his pure Andalusian stallion, kicking up sand, controlling thirteen hundred pounds of horse with the obvious implication he could also control one hundred and thirty pounds of young woman with the same poise and vigour, but also to hear him talking all manly and heterosexual.

Which he is, more or less. Manly, that is. Gavin is six-foot-five and one hundred and ninety-five pounds, and sometimes he fights other men with two swords at once—or rather, pretends to fight them: he does hit their maces and halberds and shields and swords hard enough to spark but when he hits their chain mail he checks his strength just like they do.

 As for heterosexual—well, in his first year of university in Toronto his long-distance girlfriend Natalia encouraged him to experiment.

“I don’t want our relationship to feel like a dead weight we’re each dragging around while we have all of these new experiences in new cities,” she said, presumably meaning that she wanted to have some new experiences of her own in Ottawa, which was, Gavin had just learned, not only the political capital of Canada but also the BDSM capital and the infidelity capital.

“Sure, let’s experiment,” Gavin said.

But he didn’t take advantage of the new openness of their relationship, its glasnost, she called it, a term he had never bothered to look up, until one night when he came back to residence wasted after a kegger on Spadina and ended up fooling around with Eli, the guy in the room next door, who he shared a bathroom with. 

It was all right. He could chock it up to experience. He honestly didn’t give it that much thought afterwards. He was more concerned about the fact that he had left his keys at the frat house but somehow still woke up in his own bed on the third floor with the window open. When he saw Eli at breakfast, he asked if Eli’s window was also open.

“Yes,” Eli said, “and by the way, Gavin, I had a really good time. We should hang out more.” 

“Mm,” Gavin said, and he felt his stomach drop out as he realized that he must have crawled along the ledge and in his own window while he was pretty much blind drunk.

Once he got out of the panic attack, which lasted for most of breakfast, and during which he did nothing but push tater tots around on his plate as the bacon grease congealed on them, Gavin did have to pull Eli aside and tell him that he was straight.

“I just have no inhibitions when I’m drunk and I guess I wanted to experiment. My girlfriend encouraged it, the experimentation,” he added.

“Oh,” Eli said.

The conversation was uncomfortable mainly just because Gavin could see how much it hurt Eli’s feelings. They continued to share a bathroom without problems for the rest of the year, however, and Gavin didn’t detect any awkwardness when one showered while the other was brushing his teeth, or vice versa. 

Gavin and Natalia broke up a few months later, anyway; no amount of experimenting would change the fact that they had gotten together out of a lack of options while growing up in Collingwood and were completely unaware what compatibility actually meant. Or that’s what she said, at least. 

“I think it’s better for both of us,” she continued. “There are lots of people in Ottawa and Toronto. There are over a million women in Toronto!”

He went through a few other short-term monogamous relationships and then settled on a string of one-night-stands, because there were one million women in Toronto. He drank heavily, powered through morning-after panic attacks when he could remember having done something particularly dumb, and stopped going to class. He was requested not to return to the university for his third year. 

Gavin moved back home and worked on his father’s farm in Collingwood for a while. He had grown up with horses, and, though the work was difficult, he felt more alive than when he was trying to learn about economics.

“Forget school,” his father said. “It just wasn’t right for you. Want to help me put this two-four out of its misery?”

“Yes,” Gavin said. He always said “yes” to helping put two-fours out of their misery at this point in his life. He took the can of Old Milwaukee and cracked it open. He suspected his father bought Old Milwaukee solely for the pin-up ladies on the cans, but this was too sad a thing to think about one’s father, especially one’s married father, and especially in this age of ready access to Internet pornography, even if the only Internet service in Collingwood was dial-up, so he tried to push it from his mind. Once, while smoking pot with his childhood friend Jonathan on Hen and Chicken Island, he wondered out loud if the ladies on the cans were missing girls, and his father was actually doing a good deed by getting the cans as much exposure as possible.

“Are you simple?” Jonathan asked, and they left it at that.

Eventually, Gavin became sick of living in a rural area where there was nothing to do but enjoy the fields and streams and drink Old Milwaukee. He decided to move back to Toronto. He took a basement apartment in Leslieville under a business called the Tasty Chicken House, which didn’t in fact sell chicken, just cheap beer, though, thankfully, no Old Milwaukee. It was too easy to pop in for a quick one and almost as cheap as the Beer Store. He made many meaningful acquaintances there. They called him “Hero” after he once put out a fire on the sidewalk after one of the other regulars had tossed a cigarette into a pile of dried leaves.

A number of film studios were located on Lakeshore Boulevard, just south of Leslieville, and, through a friend whose father was a bigwig at the Canadian Film Centre, which was apparently some sort of nepotistic Ukrainian conspiracy, Gavin managed to get a union job doing physical labour on sets, dragging furniture and building facades that were no less light for their phoniness. 

One day he saw a poster in the cafeteria for a stuntman agency. It had a picture of a man riding a horse on it. 

“We need a guy with your talents,” Stuart of Stuart’s Stunts said. “When can you start?” Stuart scratched his massive beard, which he kept even in the forty-degree-plus humidex of Toronto summers. Gavin sweated just thinking about Stuart’s beard. Most likely Stuart kept the beard because he had some sort of disfiguring injury under it. That might explain the fact that Stuart’s beard grew in a swirl on one side and straight on the other. 

Being a stuntman at Stuart’s Stunts helped Gavin curb his drinking, since a bad hangover could throw off his ability to survive a day’s work. Gavin worked as a stuntman for Stuart for a couple of years and, though he was making more money, he continued to live under the Tasty Chicken House. Once he quit drinking entirely, however, he never passed through its duct-taped glass door again. 

Gavin was never a full-on alcoholic, though—or at least, not the way he thought of alcoholics, new bottle of Wild Turkey inches away from his hand, watching the clock until noon. He thought of himself as more of a cruiserweight social drinker: he picked up women most nights, and he picked them up in bars. 

He didn’t experience the DTs or any other noticeable withdrawal symptoms once he cut himself off. No hallucinations or shakes. And he didn’t miss the feeling of being drunk that much; by the time he quit his body had acclimatized to alcohol to the point that he could give himself a hydration-independent hangover in the morning without feeling noticeably sloppy or slurring his words the night before. 

What got to him most when he tried to taper off his alcohol consumption was the simple fact that he was used to having a bitter taste in his mouth in the evening time. He went through a number of possible solutions once he identified the issue. Oversteeped black tea was a good substitute, but drinking black tea in the evening kept him up all night, as did coffee. And he’d always been wary of the decaffeination process—a belief perhaps instilled by his rural childhood, where the incidence of conspiracy theorizing was a little higher than among people who’d chosen to accept the social contracts involved in living in cities. Natalia had said something about a leviathan when he’d told her about it, but again, political concepts were not Gavin’s strong suit.

Some colas had a nice bite to them but they were all too sweet, so finally Gavin gave in and tried 0.5% beer. He’d been resisting non-alcoholic beer because he thought it would make him miss the real thing, but he’d never been that discerning a consumer of beer to begin with, and the first non-alcoholic beer he tried, the dark Irish beer from the grocery store, was actually better than the domestic lagers he got most often at the Tasty Chicken House. As a habitual keg-party attendee his tastes had been decided for him early on: light, watery beers. He’d never realized what he was missing in the world of stouts and porters until he stopped drinking. 

The picking up of women tapered off for a bit with his newfound sobriety, until he figured out how to change his game to attract the women who watched him perform stunts. Adrenaline was just another aphrodisiac.

During his work with Stuart’s Stunts, Gavin learned quickly that horse riders who could fight as well got more parts. A weirdly large number of ancient, medieval, and sword-and-sorcery films were being shot in Toronto at the time. There were few parts for men who could simply ride horses; those were all simple enough to computer generate. Gavin decided he had to learn to swordfight. A grizzled old stuntman told him that the best place to learn was the Society for Creative Anachronisms because “they took that shit real serious there,” so Gavin swallowed his pride and learned to fight on the grassy meridian where the Society for Creative Anachronisms could appear the most creative and anachronistic to passing motorists. Gavin’s natural coordination and strength made him a quick study, and soon he was getting jobs as doubles for big name actors like Viggo Mortensen and Sean Bean in summer blockbusters.

When Stuart’s Stunts folded after a particularly nasty injury to one of the employees and an extended court case that bankrupted them, he found himself answering a casting call at Medieval Times.

#

Gavin’s been at Medieval Times for two years now. Because he was the most skilled applicant, both in terms of horsemanship and swordsmanship, he got the coveted position as the villainous Green Knight, who, after the King has announced a peace between two realms in medieval Spain, shows up announcing that there is no such peace and that he has decided to enter in the tournament purely to shame the King’s realm further. 

So, the pay is good and the ladies who approach him at the bar afterwards every night and even after the weekend matinees are soft and warm. He even gets to have short hair. He could go bald and nobody would worry since he’s the villain; all the other knights have flowing, long 80s metal locks mandated in their contracts.

But every night he goes out in front of a crowd, and even though he is the best swordfighter and the best horse rider, he loses. And in the narrative they play out nine times a week he loses because he acts dishonestly. He stabs another knight in the back while he’s celebrating and everyone in the crowd boos him, except for the audience members wearing green crowns, who are situated closest to the bar. 

“People who drink heavily are more likely to cheer for the rascal,” said Gavin’s boss. “Bottoms up!” 

Gavin raised his mug of non-alcoholic beer. 

Sometimes it’s the Red-and-Yellow Knight who Gavin stabs, sometimes it’s the Black-and-White Knight, sometimes the Blue, Red, or Yellow Knights. Actually, it’s always the same man playing each part: Andrew Thompson is this season’s daily recipient of the Green Knight’s cold steel in his spine, but the knights all switch their garb around so the crowd doesn’t know which coloured knight will win, though it’s always Harold Dahlberg who triumphs, regardless of which part of the rainbow he’s sporting. 

#

Gavin has always been a very honest man, so even portraying this dishonesty doesn’t sit well with him. He hooked up with Eli only because his girlfriend suggested experimenting. He has never even been paid under the table for anything but doing handyman-type favours for his father’s neighbours. Even when he worked on his father’s farm he received pay slips and a T4, and filed his taxes dutifully. He has never cheated on a significant other, or on a test—except once in primary school when he cheated on a computers test when he had to label the keys on a drawing of a keyboard and he panicked when he realized he couldn’t remember which punctuation symbol was to the right of M. Was it comma or period? He rose slightly from his chair to check the bottom row of the keyboard at his workstation, which had been placed on top of the monitor for the duration of the test. In the next class, Cheryl told Gavin she’d seen him cheating. She said it loud enough that several other people could hear. He said no, he hadn’t cheated. He knew it was wrong, but he laughed it off. He could be trusted. Cheryl had been kissing Brendan underneath the play structure, and, somehow, this meant she could not. 

Jonathan, who was sitting behind Cheryl, stood up for Gavin: “He’s my friend. He wouldn’t cheat.” 

Cheryl said she saw him look at the keyboard very clearly. 

“Did you cheat?” Jonathan said. 

“No,” Gavin said. 

“Well, that settles it,” Jonathan said. Nobody ever spoke of it again. 

At home, Gavin was so paralyzed by shame that all he could do was sit in the bathtub as the water went cold. Not shame over having done something wrong, but shame over someone sticking up for him when he hadn’t deserved it. He never cheated on a test again, and when he had opportunities to boost his grades dishonestly, he chose to fail.

#

Combining being generally evil and sabotaging a peace treaty with stabbing a man in the back in an otherwise fair competition is so un-Gavin, or at least, not how he thinks of himself, that he dreads going to work now. He is consumed with dark thoughts of inadequacy and anxiety. He can’t force himself out of bed.

Sure, he could ask to be transferred to be a normal knight, one of the chameleons who change their shade each show, but honestly, he’d probably be denied. He’s good-looking but his hair and features are dark, not blonde and fair. He couldn’t easily interchange with the other knights. So he’s stuck being the villain. Every night, seven days a week, plus a couple of afternoon matinees. Stabbing Andrew Thompson in the back, then being beaten by Harold Dahlberg, who rises like a professional wrestler from the ground after being beaten down at least seven times during their final battle.

Gavin has started going to the therapist. It was either that or start drinking again, which would lead him somewhere he didn’t want to go. The therapist’s name is Barbara Capek. She is trying to teach him cognitive behavioural theory. It is as effective as Zoloft and Prozac in controlled testing, apparently. His insurance pays for the appointments, which are more expensive than Zoloft and Prozac, especially since both drugs are available as generics. 

Barbara asks Gavin to think about times he felt depressed and then fill out spreadsheets about them. The first column in the spreadsheet asks for “feelings.” Not emotions but physical symptoms, like a rushing feeling of falling into an endless tunnel of stars. Then: “automatic thoughts.” These are supposed to be the things he catches himself thinking, like the following:

“I am a failure.” 

“I am never going to accomplish anything more in my life than stabbing Andrew Thompson in the back and being beaten by Harold Dahlberg.” 

“I am always going to feel this way.” 

“I shouldn’t be worried about this.” 

“I’m stupid for being worried about this.” 

“This depression is my own fault. I would be fine if I had tried harder.” 

“I’m lazy.” 

Then he is supposed to list how these thoughts make him feel. “Worthless. Unmotivated. Inadequate.” 

Cognitive behavioural therapy, as Barbara explains it, centres on a list of cognitive distortions. He is supposed to match his automatic thoughts with the distortion category they fall under. For instance, “I am always going to feel this way” and “I am never going to accomplish more than this” are examples of overgeneralization, jumping to conclusions, and discounting the positive. “I shouldn’t be worried about this” is a “should” statement. “I’m stupid for being worried about this” is labelling. “I would be fine if I had tried harder” is personalization and blame. “I’m lazy” is labelling again. The fact that he’s fixated on the instance of stabbing Andrew Thompson in the back is the result of a “mental filter,” where a single negative detail colours the whole of one’s experience dark, like a droplet of ink in a glass of water. 

Then he is supposed to rewrite the automatic thoughts in a way that they aren’t distorted: 

“Right now I feel this way but it passes.” 

“I can’t help being worried right now but I am doing the best I can. It’s not helpful to blame myself.” 

“I could quit my job and go into a different line of work. I always have that option.”

“I feel like a failure but I am excellent at my job. That is why I have the part of the villain.”

“I’m not failing every night. The Green Knight is failing every night. I’m Gavin, not the Green Knight.”  

In the last column, he is supposed to write how he feels after rethinking his automatic thoughts: “Less worthless. More motivated. Adequate. Less anxious.” 

The whole idea is that after enough spreadsheets he will automatically see these thoughts for the distortions they are when they appear and rationalize them away subconsciously. 

#

After tonight’s tournament, the Green Knight sits at the bar filling out a spreadsheet with a goblet of non-alcoholic Molson Canadian by his side. They don’t have Irish non-alcoholic beer at Medieval Times, but that’s okay. Julio Medina has run out of jokes about non-alcoholic beer by now and leaves Gavin pretty much alone to pick up in peace.

“What are you doing? Filling in a time sheet?” an attractive woman waiting for her drink says.

“Yes,” he says.  He flips it over. “We’re like lawyers. We have to account for billable hours in six-minute intervals.”

“So, like, ‘fighting with halberd, six minutes. Picking hanging rings off a frame with a lance, six minutes. Lying on ground pretending to be injured, six minutes. Flopping lance down in front of ladies so they can wink and stroke it as they take the ribbon, six minutes.’”

“Pretty much.”

“I’m Amanda,” the woman says. She sticks out her hand.

“The Green Knight,” Gavin says. He has to stay in character until he leaves the premises. He kisses her hand.

“Hey, I have a question for you, Green Knight.”

“Sure.”

“How real do you think this is to all the kids? Like to eight-year-old kids?”

“That’s a good question. I’ve never really thought about it. I guess on some level they must know it’s not real. My mom is a school teacher, I think I remember her saying that kids could distinguish between movies and reality by about age five.” 

Amanda looks amused. “And how real is it to you?”

Right then Gavin has what Barbara would call a breakthrough moment, a moment of self- awareness, a watershed moment that diverts the flow of his consciousness in a different direction. “Too real,” he says.

Amanda gets her drink and sashays off to join her friends, clustered around Harold Dahlberg, who today is wearing the costume of the Yellow Knight. 

“Of course I’ll join you for shots at Delirium after I get changed,” Harold is saying to the group, who appear to be celebrating one girl’s birthday. It’s hard to tell which girl, since all of the audience members are wearing crowns.

Gavin finishes filling out his chart. He feels more excited than he has felt in ages when he writes “I understand that what I do is acting and that it feels more real to me than it needs to.” He double-underlines it and feels like having an adult male cry with big racking sobs, but out of relief, not out of loneliness or fear or anything else that makes grown men cry. He writes “triumphant” and “myself” in the final column.

And when another girl approaches him with obvious intent, rather than demanding they go back to her apartment like a rogue or a marauder, he brings her home to his basement unit under the Tasty Chicken House; and when, rather than firing like a piston, he makes love to her, slowly and gently, the way he, Gavin Masterson, actually wants, and when she asks him to slap her hard he says no, and when she leaves he feels good about himself.


Jeremy Hanson-Finger is the former co-editor of Dragnet Magazine. He is currently writing the great Ottawa Civic Hospital hard-boiled detective novel. Find him on the web at hansonfinger.tumblr.com.