Black Panther: The New Gawain

The Arthurian stories have many sources, from the Celts of Wales and Scotland to the French and Germans to, possibly, even the Persians. In the earliest tales, the Welsh stories, Gawain plays a prominent role. Arthur’s First Knight, he is not just the strongest warrior after Arthur, but a silver-tongued councilor who helps Arthur forge alliances and avoid war. He is also the Knight of the Goddess, the one who fights for the land, the goddess-mother of all.

At one point he saves Arthur from death by helping him find the answer to the question “what do women want?” The answer is sovereignty, the right to control their own lives. Gawain proves he understands this when he chooses to honor a promise Arthur made (never intending to keep it) in return for this answer: to marry Gawain to the hideous crone Ragnell. On their wedding night she asks him to kiss her, which he does—and Ragnell is immediately transformed into a beautiful woman. But there’s a catch, she tells Gawain: she can either by beautiful by day, when others can see her, or at night when they are alone. “Choose,” she says, but Gawain leaves the choice up to her—giving her sovereignty and thus freeing her entirely from the curse.

In another story Gawain hunts down the rapists who have deflowered the maidens of the wells, causing the wells to dry up and the land, once wealthy, to wither away. Once Gawain has punished those responsible for the violation of the maidens, the land is restored.

Over the centuries, both the Goddess and Gawain, Her knight, fell into disfavor. As the goddess eroded over time into the witch Morgan le Fay, Gawain devolved from First Knight to a lout and coward, and in Tennyson’s Idylls of the King is a rapist himself. As the feminine lost value over time, so did the man who defends the feminine.

But the Goddess is returning at last. I have been predicting for years that we would see not just superheroines but goddesses in our movies soon. Sure enough, Moana was about healing the land so She could return, and shortly after that, She appeared in Wonder Woman. And now Gawain is back to claim his rightful place at Her side.

In Marvel’s Black Panther, T’challa (Chadwick Boseman), the Black Panther, is the new King of Wakanda, a hidden paradise where the feminine is every bit as honored as the masculine. T’challa’s councilors are a mix of male and female, including his mother (the stunning Angela Bassett), his science whiz-kid sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), the general of his all-female palace guard, Okoyo (Danai Gurira), and his sometime girlfriend and moral conscience Nakira (Lupita Nyong’o). Wakanda, thanks to an ancient buried asteroid of pure vibranium, enjoys a level of technology and well-being unmatched in the world—but has kept this hidden for centuries, easily done as the world sees only what it expects to see: a poor third-world country.

T’challa’s rule is challenged from day one: first, by the leader of one of the original tribes of Wakanda, and soon thereafter, by his cousin who was abandoned and left to grow up in the ghettos of America. Both these men want to take Wakanda in a different direction. The first challenger wants to turn back the clock, abandon the technology and return to the simple life of tribal hunters and herders. He loses, but T’Challa spares his life.

The second challenger, T’challa’s American cousin Eric (Michael B. Jordan), has a different agenda. He has no respect for the feminine; he casually shoots his own lover when she accidentally gets in his way. He wants to use Wakanda’s technology to make war on “the colonizers,” all the Europeans whose ancestors invaded and enslaved Africa and other parts of the world. He wants to reverse the world order and put Wakanda and Africa on top by invading and oppressing in turn. And he has the support of the “war dogs”— the fighting men of Wakanda, who have been itching to get out there and right what they see as the wrongs of the “developed” world.

Inevitably, T’challa defeats Eric in physical combat. But he does not do it alone. The women of Wakanda stand with him—as do the fighting men of the old tribe that has kept its strong connection to the land, and one American CIA agent (Martin Freeman), who proved his worthiness  earlier by taking a bullet from Eric that was aimed at Nakira.

The climax of this movie, for me, was not when T’challa finally bests his cousin. It came before that, when the leader of the war dogs drops his weapon and falls to his knees before Okoyo, whom he loves. Ginette Paris says that for men to be healed, they need to learn how to honor the feminine, to “put their hand under her foot,” to let themselves by guided by her wisdom. Black Panther is a movie about men who honor, protect, and let themselves be guided by the wisdom of the feminine, like Gawain. At the end, the women turn to T’challa and say “we cannot hide anymore. We need to take our knowledge out to the world and help heal it.” And T’Challa, the latest avatar of Gawain, Knight of the Goddess, agrees. It is time for warriors to support the feminine so we can all heal.

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