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Contains some spoilers.
The recent cinematic release of the film The Green Knight may have slid right past your notice this summer. After all, how many people flock to the theaters for a broody, ambiguous take on a fourteenth century poem? Also, the film was released to theaters in the doldrumsy depths of summer on July 30—later than originally planned because of Covid-related delays—and with relatively modest media fanfare.
I went to see it, of course. I teach Sir Gawain in the Green Knight in my Brit lit courses, so I was professionally obliged. Also, it stars Dev Patel, so there you go. My assessment: it’s weird, but wonderful, and well worth seeing. Notice I used alliteration there, because that’s how we do things in medieval English poetry.
Is it a faithful rendering of the original poem? No and yes. Director David Lowery, who also produced and wrote the film, has stripped out almost all of the subtle satirical commentary on Christian piety and chivalric pride. Instead, he’s focused on the problem of romance narrative itself—at least this is how I’m seeing the film. What does it feel like, the film asks, when you are forced to be the hero of a story?
The original poem is an aesthetically lavish, humorous tale about King Arthur’s court in its prime. The story goes like this: in the midst of the court’s Christmastide partying, a mysterious figure arrives: a gigantic, entirely green knight on a green horse. The court is well and truly freaked out, but the Green Knight is a genteel figure with gorgeous accoutrements and flawless manners. He proposes a Christmas game for the express purpose of testing the court’s pride. You think you’re so amazing, well, here’s my game: you get one free hack on me with my ax, and I get one free hack on you a year from now. Sir Gawain, basically to save his uncle Arthur from what looks like a bad deal, accepts the challenge and takes a big swing, chopping off the knight’s head. However—and this is presented humorously in the poem—the Green Knight promptly scoops up his own head, says “See you next year!” as if it’s no big deal for a severed head to speak, and gallops off.
The rest of the poem is a deep dive into poor Gawain’s consternation. Sir Gawain dutifully sets out on his quest, a series of adventures that test his bravery and more importantly, his moral mettle. He almost completely succeeds, and his one lapse is graciously forgiven when he encounters the Green Knight again. Interestingly, the Green Knight operates both as a pagan figure and, ironically, as the most Christian figure in the poem. The ending of the original poem is ambiguous in its own way, but it only makes sense (at least as I see it) in the context of spiritual pride. Sir Gawain, in the end, is offered grace, but can’t receive it. He cannot accept not being perfect.
Lowery, who is not a religious person, jettisons all that spiritual pride business, the humorous tone, and the aesthetic color and dazzle. Instead he has created a tonally dark, meditative puzzler. It’s full of a different palette of aesthetic delights: artfully lit faces half in shadow, vast Irish landscapes, a little light horror, and inventively weird uses of special effects both filmic and psychological. Honestly, I want to see the film again in the theater just for the soundscape, a wonderful concoction of distorted sound motifs and wordless, motet-like, choral dissonance.
Though he’s not much concerned with Christian themes, Lowery deftly draws out two other themes true to the original poem: ecology and gender politics. In Lowery’s telling, the figure of the Green Knight has lost his odd combination of nature’s vitality and civilized sophistication; he’s basically a big tree. (He looks like the grandfather of Groot from Guardians of the Galaxy.) In this way, Lowery has gone all-in on one common interpretation of the Green Knight as a figure of Nature, pure and simple. (I would argue it’s not quite that simple, but … another time.)
Meanwhile, in the film, Gawain accepts the Green Knight’s challenge not out of duty to Arthur but because he’s been made to feel he must prove himself as a manly hero. In this version, Arthur’s court is aging and weak. The old guys have made it clear that Gawain, to earn his place (perhaps even as heir), must undertake some heroic journey. Key women in Gawain’s life prompt and manipulate him as well. Queen Guinevere assures him he doesn’t have a good story to tell yet—hint, hint. And Gawain’s mother, whom Lowery conflates with Morgan le Fay (actually Gawain’s mother is traditionally Morgan’s sister Morgause), uses her paganish, incantatory powers to engineer the Green Knight’s visit. She wants to jolt her too-passive son into an adventure. In other words, these women are complicit with the men in propelling Gawain into a heroic quest. Since feminine weaving has long been associated in literature with story-telling, the frequent weaving images suggest that these women characters are weaving Gawain into a story form to which they want him to submit.
As in the poem, though, Gawain is rather befuddled and reluctant about the whole thing. Patel’s “soulful and vulnerable” performance invites us to sympathize with Gawain while simultaneously appreciating everyone’s impatience with him. His girlfriend Essel—invented! not in the poem!—serves as a compelling voice of dissent to the expected heroic narrative. Essel (played by Alicia Vikander) does not want Gawain trotting off through the wilderness to a probably grisly fate. That’s how silly men perceive greatness, she suggests. Instead, she wonders, “Why is goodness not enough?”
A good question. But Gawain trots off anyway, and here we enter more deeply into the ecology theme. The poem attends in detail to landscape and the natural world, showing the passage of time through the famous “hymn of the seasons” section and portraying Gawain’s journey through specific Welsh landmarks. However, as Gawain travels on, the poem’s GPS coordinates become increasingly uncertain as Gawain enters the Wilderness of Wirral and “countrayes straunge.”
The film’s treatment of landscape nicely reflects the poem’s flirtations with the line between reality and imagination. Gawain passes through a clearcut, then through a battlefield splattered with corpses. Is the landscape trying to tell him something about the costs of the masculine heroic code? Then the countries get “straunge” indeed, with Lowery picking up on the poem’s brief mention of “frekes,” godless men, and giants to supply both torments and wonders for Gawain in long, slow-paced, sometimes bizarre sequences.
When Gawain encounters the beheaded virgin martyr St. Winifred—a sequence Lowery inserted based on the poem’s mention of Holy Head, site of Winifred’s shrine and pilgrimage site—then we really start to wonder whether this is some magical landscape, where reality and imaginative possibility are blurred. Or perhaps Gawain has always been in imaginative territory, a character always stuck in a tale over which he has no control? Lowery’s stunning visual imagery and perspective swapping invites us to dwell uncomfortably in that uncertain space.
The ecological theme finds its center point once Gawain reaches the castle of Lord Bertilak de Hautdesert and his lady, also played by Alicia Vikander. In the poem, this is the location of Gawain’s most humorously humiliating moral tests, as the lady cheerfully attempts to seduce him. Here the lady is a more ominous figure and the “magic girdle”—a woven belt that is supposed to protect Gawain—is more explicitly associated with sex, female control, and Gawain’s weakness of will.
More importantly, though, Lowery gives the lady an invented speech through which (he has said this) he wanted to convey the central idea of the film. When Gawain claims that the Green Knight is “not of this earth,” she immediately insists that, no, in fact, he is the earth. And moreover, buster—she goes on—the green earth will always win out in the end. You and your adventures: it’s all meaningless. When you’re gone, the earth will just green itself right over you.
At least she says something like that. Honestly, I didn’t catch every word of this film. I’m afraid eighteen months of watching movies at home has rendered me helpless without subtitles. To be fair, I will also point out that in this movie almost everyone mumbles, whispers, growls, or otherwise fails to ar-tic-u-late.
Anyway, the lady’s point in her TED talk seems to be that the power of life, the earth itself, prevails over human pride, our ideas of honor, our foolish notions over what is important. We think we are the heroes of history, but despite our bluster we are weak and ephemeral. All is vanity. I see the ecological concern and gender/power themes merging here: a feminine critique of the masculine romance hero ideal as both damaging to people and landscapes as well as pointless in the perspective of deep time.
When Gawain finally faces his ultimate reckoning with the Green Knight, well, here’s where the film veers hard away from the poem. Critics and content creators have had a marvelous time coming up with essays and videos titled “The Green Knight ending, explained!” because the ending is a tease. Lowery deliberately revised an original cut (pun there) to be more ambiguous: Does Gawain die or not? Not telling!
Well, here’s my take, while attempting to keep the spoilers on the mild side. Lowery presents Gawain’s final choice as such: should he keep the magic girdle hidden, flee the Green Knight’s blow, go back, tell his tale, and live out his life as a hero-king, complete with all the carnage that will bring? Or should he, in the name of truthfulness, rip off the girdle and take his blow?
The way this dilemma is presented makes Gawain’s choice less about truthfulness as such than about his willingness to succumb to the hero narrative thrust upon him. Remember, we’ve just learned that the masculine romance hero ideal is ultimately meaningless, yes? So when Gawain does choose to whip off the girdle, he signals his refusal: I will not be a character in that story. Thus I see Gawain’s choice as a rejection of the whole masculine romance ideal, thrust upon him by others. What happens to him next doesn’t matter. He has made his choice.
That’s one way to interpret the ending, and I love that I’m not entirely sure it’s right. I love that Lowery has made a film very different from the poem but also equally intriguing in its narrative uncertainty, and thus in its commentary on the nature of narrative. I love that the female characters are both complicit in Gawain’s entanglement and also the source of narrative critique–and maybe his mother did not want him to live the narrative ideal so much as realize, finally, its futility. Anyway, I think my interpretation will hold up, but I’m eager to watch the movie again sometime at home—with subtitles on—notice more, and test my theory.
So while I did miss the colors and gorgeousness and wry humor of the original poem, I also came to trust Lowery as a thoughtful, artful filmmaker with apt instincts for how this old tale can speak anew.
Well! Intriguing indeed.
Thank you for this thoughtful review. I was hesitant to see the movie, but your writing intrigued me and spurred me to watch it in a theater. I found it to be a lovely, slow, and brooding piece. The art theater where I saw it included a preface by the director. He was asked about 5 movies that inspired him. Learning of those movies helped me understand his artistic direction. First movie in a theater since the beginning of Covid, and it was the right one!