The concept of legend hangs heavy over the events of The Green Knight, even more so than the menacing (but largely off-screen) presence of the title character himself. From the very first moments of ethereal tone-setting, where Gawain is seated on a throne as his crown artfully floats onto his head before bursting into flames and consuming him, we’re basically given a visual reinterpretation of an eerily similar treatise: “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.” In this case, however, the true burden of living up to expectations is not felt by Arthur, but his inexperienced knight-in-waiting nephew (some might call him “green,” in fact!) and next in line, Gawain.
That’s about as far as the Shakespeare comparisons go in David Lowery’s laser-focused, revisionist retelling of the anonymously-written poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight…although the episodic trials Gawain eventually undergoes certainly have a built-in Odyssean flair to them. This is an Arthurian story unlike most others, in which iconic staples like King Arthur, Queen Guinevere, Merlin, Morgan le Fay, and Camelot itself are present and accounted for, but never actually singled out by their proper names. Lowery picks and chooses from relevant bits of lore, as countless authors did before him, shaping his take on the story as he sees fit.
The Green Knight never strays far from the intent of the original text — which similarly deals with issues of legacy and chivalry and codes of honor — though the path Lowery takes to get there is anything but straightforward.
Spoilers for The Green Knight follow.
(Re)Defining a Legend
Here’s one way to set an Arthurian adaptation apart from all others: don’t just cast Dev Patel in a role commonly imagined as a white man, but introduce us to this main character as he wakes up in a brothel on Christmas Day with his prostitute lover Essel (Alicia Vikander, a total match, and then some, for Patel’s charisma). In a marked departure from the traditional story, this version of Gawain is youthful and mainly concerned with youthful things, fighting between the dueling urges of ease and comfort and pleasure vs. seeking glory. His drunken exploits are well-known to his mother (Sarita Choudhury), the commoners, and soon even his uncle King Arthur (Sean Harris), which juxtaposes hilariously with a line from the poem where Gawain is described as:
“…and you are the knight of most noble renown in our age,
and your fame and fair name afar is published.”
By the time the enigmatic Green Knight (Ralph Ineson, completely unrecognizable except for his voice) intrudes upon the royal Christmas feast with his challenge of playing a gruesome “game” where one killing stroke will be exchanged for another a year later, it’s all but inevitable that Gawain will jump at the chance to take the bait. Like a newly-made sword tempered by fire and water, Gawain is itching to prove his worth with some grand exploits. His uncle, a much older and more grizzled take on the King Arthur we’re used to, has just invited him up to the place of honor by his side to admit his regrets in neglecting Gawain all these years. Does this lapse stem from oh-so-British attitudes regarding race and ethnicity? Whatever the case, with age apparently comes reconciliatory feelings and, unwittingly, his attempts to finally get to know his nephew (“Tell me a tale of yourself, so that I might know thee,” which Gawain is unable to respond to with any stories of valor of his own just yet) sets young Gawain on his collision course with the destiny that soon comes stalking through the hall on horseback while wielding a giant axe.
These are just a few of the many recontextualizations in the film that force us to reflect on these seemingly untouchable literary figures from our modern perspective. Like Gawain himself, The Green Knight almost seems uncomfortably aware of its burden of responsibility and wastes no time in unpeeling the layers underneath these myths and legends to show what really makes them endure.
Mistakes, Myths, and Misconceptions
The camera lingers on painterly landscapes throughout The Green Knight, perhaps none more evocative than when Gawain first leaves Camelot in search of the Green Knight and immediately comes face-to-face with an untamed wilderness full of ruins and nature encroaching on civilization — a major theme of both the source material and the film. No matter what idealistic stories of grandeur our legends may tell, this King Arthur presides over a kingdom in decline that only barely fends off the natural world knocking at its gate. As Gawain soon learns, this unfriendly world chews up myths and legends just as easily as any manmade structure.
Where the poem largely skips over Gawain’s misfortunes until a pivotal sequence set at a castle later on, Lowery hones in on some chance meetings on the road where our would-be hero essentially falls flat on his face.
A run-in with Barry Keoghan’s “Scavenger” in the aftermath of some great battle (which further belies Arthur’s supposed reign of peace) sets the tone, as his advice on where to find the Green Knight’s chapel is met with nothing but a bemused word of thanks by Gawain. He only grudgingly flips the poor boy a coin as payment, but his subtle arrogance towards someone far less well-off than himself makes the trap he’s soon caught in feel largely self-inflicted. The fact that he manages to wiggle out of his captivity (and, notably, the theft of the Green Knight’s axe as well as the precious girdle his spellbinding mother gifted him for protection) pales in comparison to another turn of the camera, which slowly circles around Gawain’s lonely and tied-up figure before abruptly revealing a possible vision of the future where he unceremoniously died in those woods.
Viewers are left to figure out whether this motivates Gawain to escape, but his next trial hardly fares much better. His next encounter is with the ghostly woman Winifred (Erin Kellyman), who claims to have had her head cut off and thrown in a spring for refusing the advances of her suitor. This helpful explainer goes into the nerdy details of her appearance (as well as other aspects of the challenging movie), but the real moment of emphasis comes when Gawain ungraciously demands to know what she’ll give him in return for retrieving her head. Though he immediately backtracks after her protestations and dives into the waters anyway, the eerie blood-red vision that follows seems to signify that he’s mishandled yet another test of chivalry. Not even the magical reappearance of the axe, the latest exchange in a movie full of them, gives much comfort to the twice-failed knight.
The third test occurs when he arrives at the castle of the kindly Lord (Joel Edgerton) and shockingly familiar-looking Lady, also played by Vikander in yet another instance of the film’s focus on inexplicable doubles and reappearances. Apparently charmed and disarmed by her resemblance to Essel, Gawain gives into temptation when the Lady offers both herself and a replacement girdle to the one he lost. This proves to be Gawain’s costliest mistake.
Differences and Divergences
In addition to Vikander’s simply show-stopping monologue that rams home the idea of a world overrun by man that soon will be returned to nature, we’re also treated to a fireside chat between Gawain and the Lord. Here, Lowery uses Edgerton’s skeptical Lord to look us in the eye and question why any knight of antiquity would ever attempt these sorts of feats in the name of honor in the first place. Even Gawain seems unsure of why he’s so committed to this path that can only end in his death, almost convincing himself that he’s a legend right out of myth where stories typically end happily ever after. This echoes one of Essel’s early remarks to Gawain, where she questions why he should aspire to greatness when simple goodness is enough.
Importantly, almost none of this takes place in the original poem. The castle, the lord and lady, and her flirtations with Gawain all remain intact, but honorable Gawain skillfully dodges carnal temptation while upholding his loyalty and honor to his gracious host. The film takes a much harsher stance on his flaws as well as his motivations, cutting him down to size again and again before his ultimate moral failing at the chapel of the Green Knight.
Armed with nothing but his girdle and the fact that he kept his word, Gawain resigns himself to the Green Knight and anxiously awaits his doom. Intriguingly, there’s a blink-and-miss moment of digital trickery suggesting that every character Gawain has encountered might have actually been manifestations of the Green Knight himself (which rather nicely lines up with the source material, where it is revealed that the Lord was the Green Knight in disguise and sent his wife to test Gawain’s character). But otherwise, this is the intensely personal moment where everything hangs in the balance and Lowery finally makes use of the ace up his sleeve.
Gawain flinches from the Green Knight’s axe multiple times and, in the biggest departure yet from the poem, flees from the chapel to live out the rest of his life. The mostly silent, The Last Temptation of Christ-esque short story that follows is an exercise in misery as we watch Gawain inherit the throne, set aside Essel in favor of a royal marriage (with a woman who looks startlingly like Winifred), send his son off to die in battle, invite the scorn of his people, and finally lose his grip on the entire realm — as well as his head, which falls off in one clean stroke when he finally removes the girdle that had become a crutch.
We can’t help but wonder whether it would’ve been better if Gawain had died at the Green Knight’s hand, and that’s precisely when we’re brought back to that chapel as Gawain awaits the fall of the axe.
With a glimpse at paths not taken, The Green Knight separates well-known legend from the myth that we’ve taken for granted and leaves us with something just as valuable. The epic text offers Gawain one last chance to run away from his appointment with doom, and he steadfastly shrugs off the last-minute temptation. Here he indulges in it unquestioningly and, ironically, this gives him the strength to submit himself, reject the belt, and finally overcome his shortcomings.
Rarely has praising a knight’s honor felt as ambiguous as it does here when the Green Knight offers his respect to Gawain, nor as bittersweet when he offers one last stunner of a parting word: “Off with your head.”
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