Deacon Steven Greydanus Takes an In-Depth Look at The Green Knight

If you care about the poem, or film, or good criticism, you will want to read this. He begins:

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Fitt 1: Sir Gawain and Christian Camelot

If you know anything at all about the plot of the celebrated 14th-century Middle English narrative poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, you probably know this much: It opens with the mysterious Green Knight challenging King Arthur’s court to what has come to be known as a “beheading game,” leading to Sir Gawain lopping off the Green Knight’s head with his own axe.

From conversation among anonymous patrons at a Camelot pub in David Lowery’s The Green Knight—along with gruesome Punch-and-Judy puppet shows depicting the confrontation—it seems that this much, at least, about Gawain’s encounter with the Green Knight has already become common knowledge.

The only catch is that it isn’t so—not in the film, anyway.

Whatever locals and storytellers may have heard or relate to others, Dev Patel’s Gawain did not lop off the Green Knight’s head with his own axe. He did it with the sword Excalibur, which his uncle, King Arthur himself, lent him on the spot for that purpose.

Although the actual decapitation diverges from the poem, then, characters remember the incident, not the way it actually happened in their world, but the way it happened in the poem. What’s more, this isn’t the film’s only invocation of elements from the source material at odds with the film itself.

The very fact that Gawain’s antagonist is universally referred to as “the Green Knight” is an intertextual oddity. “Why is he green?” Gawain is asked at one point, a question leading to a pivotal monologue on the unsettling associations of that color. Yet Lowery’s “Green Knight” isn’t really green (a color largely muted, in fact, by the film’s orange-and-teal color grading). His arboreal appearance, more Groot than Ent, does lean into the character’s associations with the foliate-headed Green Man of medieval artwork. Yet even Groot, with his slightly mossy bark, was greener than this Green Knight.

Then there’s the wording of the challenge from Lowery’s Green Knight to Arthur’s court, which diverges somewhat from the poem: Challengers are invited to “try to land a blow” against him, after which, one year later, the uncanny Knight will “return what was given me, be it a scratch on the cheek or a cut in the throat.”

“A scratch on the cheek” is another intertextual orphan, an allusion to something that happens in the source material but not in the film. In the poem, no one ever speaks of the axe being used only to scratch, but a scratch is unexpectedly given where a fatal blow is anticipated. This doesn’t happen in the film, but the language is there.

Finally, there’s the awkward moment when Gawain finds himself hailed as “the finest and most virtuous” of knights—an accolade that’s as eminently suited to the poem’s gallant hero as it is crashingly inapt for Patel’s character, who is not even a knight, and certainly not outstanding in virtue or in any other way.

* * *

After the library of books that is the Bible, no literary corpus means more to me than Arthuriana, and no Arthurian work means more to me than Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. A chivalric romance written in 2530 lines of alliterative verse, divided into stanzas ending with a rhyming bob and wheel, the poem offers the archetypal knight-errant his ultimate challenge, putting his courage, integrity, trustworthiness, courtesy, chastity, and truthfulness to the test.

My love of the source material doesn’t mean I’m in the least resistant, in principle or in practice, to revisionism in connection with this or any other Arthurian book. After all, the whole Arthurian corpus is a record of constant revision and reinvention. (Even revisionist Bible movies, like Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, can be hugely exciting to me.) 

That said, I did have to watch The Green Knight twice—the first time simply to absorb the extent of its revisionism, and the second to try to see it for what it is rather than what it isn’t—before I was ready to try to write about it. It’s important to see any film for what it is and not for what it isn’t. In this case, though, the story Lowery has chosen not to tell is, in a way, part of the story he does tell. The film’s use of what I’ve called intertextual orphans (allusions to elements in the source material at odds with the film itself) prevent me at least, even if I were capable of such a thing, from putting the poem aside and evaluating the film in isolation.1 

This textual tension between the events we see and the way they’re talked about is consistent with Lowery’s history. Running through his work is a curiosity about how and why stories are remembered, retold, and reshaped. Ain’t Them Bodies SaintsThe Old Man & the Gun, and even Pete’s Dragon aren’t just stories, but stories about stories. In that spirit, The Green Knight seeks not simply to retell or reimagine the poem’s story, but to interrogate or cross-examine the poem itself: to cast a shadow of postmodern skepticism over the original telling, and indeed all of Arthuriana, with an eye to the ideological forces that shape stories into legends and myths.

* * *

Notably, this skepticism does not take a demythologizing, naturalistic form. The film’s world is as uncanny and dreamlike as the poem’s, hugger-mugger with witchcraft, apparitions, and unearthly phenomena.

The Green Knight himself—summoned, Lowery establishes from the outset, by the witchcraft of Morgan le Fay (Sarita Choudhury), here identified as Gawain’s mother rather than his aunt—is no more dismayed by his beheading than is his literary counterpart. He even flexes his indifference in the same way, not bothering to remount his head on his shoulders before riding away in triumph, having delivered his final challenge to Gawain to seek him out one year hence at the Green Chapel.

It’s not Arthuriana’s supernatural milieu that The Green Knight views in a skeptical light, but its moral and religious order. At times the film is literally iconoclastic, never more flamboyantly than in the surreal opening shot, which might perhaps be more precisely termed “iconopyrotic:” not icon-smashing, but icon-burning. This portentous prologue depicts an impassive Gawain enthroned as king, a levitating crown floating down onto his head. Like those we will see worn by Arthur and Guinevere (Sean Harris and Kate Dickie), it is an open crown adorned with crosses around the band and, strikingly, a large vertical ring worn on the back of the head, with metal rays radiating from its center. In effect, the crown confers upon the wearer a halo that is also a sunburst.2 Then, as the haloed crown comes to rest, Gawain’s head bursts into flame—a nightmare image suggesting both a scorching interrogation of the iconic, haloed Gawain (with all he represents) and the consumptive tendency of power to destroy all who wield it.

By fashioning their own halos, Arthur and Guinevere have styled themselves not only as Christian sovereigns but as living saints, and Camelot by extension as a realization of the kingdom of God on earth.3 Yet even Gawain, though he reveres the knights of the Round Table as “legends,” hints that the brotherhood of Arthur and his knights is defined less by shared ideals than shared bloodshed. Arthur himself, praising his knights for bringing “peace” to the land, measures this “peace” by the submission of the Saxons who “bow their heads like babes” before them.

Any lingering notion of the legend of Camelot as a brief, shining moment of glory, honor, virtue, and chivalry is swept away by a horrifying scene in which Gawain finds himself riding through an Isengard-like desolation of felled trees amid which countless Saxon corpses have been left to rot by Arthur and his forces. A Saxon scavenger tells Gawain that Arthur was credited with single-handedly killing 960 men—a reference to the Battle of Mount Badon, the last and most important of the battles establishing Arthur’s reign, but also doubtless another skeptical bracketing of the legend.4 

* * *

A critical cross-examination of the legend of Christian Camelot’s brief, shining moment—of what we might call “Arthurian exceptionalism”—is one thing. If The Green Knight’s callow, venal Gawain and ruthless Arthur bear little resemblance to the revered characters of Arthurian romance or tragedy, well, the same is true of most of history’s Great Men. Any self-styled “shining city upon a hill” is a target for critical reappraisal.

It isn’t necessarily a great shock, then, to meet Gawain in virtually the first narrative shot (after that ominous prologue) waking with a startled gasp in a brothel following an unceremonious dousing by a prostitute. This introduction tells us only that this is not your great-great-great-grandfather’s Gawain, whom we hardly expected to meet anyway in any contemporary film, and certainly not one from Lowery. 

But then the prostitute, whose name is Essel (Alicia Vikander), greets Gawain with the film’s first line of dialogue: “Christ is born.” It is Christmas Day, and church bells peal in the distance. “Christ is born indeed!” Gawain replies, but the way he grabs for Essel suggests that the Virgin Birth is the last thing on his mind. Essel, though, pulls away, cheerfully telling Gawain that she’s headed to Mass. “Why?” he asks languidly. He may or may not accompany her to Mass, but when he later tells his mother that he was at Mass—at least partly a threadbare explanation for his whereabouts the night before—her response is a skeptical “You?”5

The prostitute may be closer to the kingdom of God than the king’s nephew, or, for that matter, than the king himself. But is there any kingdom of God? Can we confine Lowery’s skeptical interrogation of narrative traditions to the legend of Camelot while bracketing his explicit invocations of the Christian story—starting with the story of Christ’s birth—underlying that legend?

Arthur speaks of deeds done by his knights “in honor of our Christ,” using the words “tale” and even “myth.” Are the wondrous deeds ascribed to Christ any less mythical in the world of the film than the noble and gallant feats supposedly performed by Arthur and his knights? Are the halos of the apostles and saints any less constructed than those of Arthur and Guinevere? Lowery’s interest in this question is oblique, but not nonexistent, as we will see.

Much more here. Steve is one of the best and most perceptive film critics I know. Reading him is always a pleasure. Check out the whole thing.

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2 Responses

  1. I’ve been reading Greydanus since 2003, when I stumbled across his review of X2 and saw his explanation of why today’s superhero films are so much better than the Superman films from the 80’s. It isn’t just that today’s special effects are better – it’s also better storytelling. “The Superman films always reserved the right to throw in new, deus-ex-machina “powers” ranging from memory-wiping kisses to levitating finger-beams to the power to spin the planet backwards and turn back time”.
    Respect.

    – joel

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