The Green Knight: A Captivating Allegory on Human Adventure

Spoiler alert

The Green Knight, written and directed by David Lowery, is undoubtedly one of the most original and interesting films of the previous year. The film, adapted from the 14th-century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, tells the story of Gawain, a medieval Knight in Camelot, the castle of legendary King Arthur, who sets out on a journey to test his courage and face the Green Knight. ((There exist in fact two earlier movies based on the same poem, Gawain and the Green Knight (1973), Sword of the Valiant: The Legend of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (1984), both directed by Stephen Weeks. Yet they are generally considered as failed.)) Yet, as we shall see, although a metaphysical medieval fantasy film, The Green Knight has a profoundly worldly approach and some timely implications.

After an introduction with Gawain (Dev Patel) and his mistress Essel (Alicia Vikander), a prostitute, action begins in the palace of King Arthur (Sean Harris), whose nephew is Gawain. At Christmas, Arthur invites Gawain to sit at his side. At the same time, Gawain’s mother (Sarita Choudhury), a witch who intends to make him king, invites through magic the Green Knight (Ralph Ineson) to the castle. The latter promises that any knight who confronts him will win his green ax, but will have to visit him after a year at the Green Chapel, where he will receive the same blow in return. Gawain responds and beheads the knight, who walks away with his head at hand, laughing and reminding him of his oath.

After a year of debauchery, Gawain departs for the Green Chapel, taking with him the green ax and a green girdle from his mother, which will protect him from all evil. On his way he encounters various adventures: a group of robbers steal his horse, ax and girdle; a beheaded woman villager in a hut asks him to put her head at its place; he meets a fox with a human voice as well as a race of women giants and is hosted in a castle by its lord (Joel Edgerton), whose wife, a double of Essel (also played by Alicia Vikander), seduces him. While being there, a mysterious woman wrapped in bandages, who is actually his mother, gives him back the green girdle.

Eventually, Gawain arrives at the Green Chapel, where the sleeping Knight awakes on Christmas morning and prepares to behead him. Gawain reacts, saying he is not ready, and in a vision he fantasizes he escapes and returns to Camelot. He becomes a knight and king after Arthur’s death. Essel gives him a son, but he abandons her and marries a noblewoman. His son is killed in battle, his castle is besieged, his family flees away and he, removing the green girdle, eventually falls decapitated to the ground.

Seeing what the future has in store for him, Gawain removes the girdle, turns to the Green Knight and tells him that he is now ready to accept his fate. The latter raises the ax with the words, “Now, off with your head”, and at this point the film ends.

The Green Knight, as has already been mentioned, is a highly allegorical film, a metaphor for the human quest (this being also partly true of the medieval poem on which it is based). This makes it susceptible to a variety of interpretations. However, a central nucleus can be discerned in it. It becomes clearer when one takes account of the changes Lowery has introduced to the original story, creating thereby the specific atmosphere that gives the movie its identity.

Contrary to the medieval myth, which highlights chivalrous ideals, Lowery’s hero has hardly anything chivalrous about him. He is rather an anti-knight, an uncertain young man still at his formative age. He has good, positive elements and moods in him, he seeks greatness, but without possessing a positive goal of his own. His existence is carried away and dominated by external forces that he does not control and to which he adapts passively or reacts spasmodically. His relationship with a prostitute, Essel, also points away from chivalry in any sense.

These original, decisive traits of the hero have been keenly noted by critics. In a detailed analysis, Alissa Wilkinson points to their centrality in Lowery’s version: “In the [medieval] poem, Gawain is already a beloved and respected member of the Round Table, noted for his chivalry. In Lowery’s film, Gawain is young, impetuous, prone to carousing, and ashamed of how little of his life has been spent on bold and brave exploits. He’s new to manhood. In other words, he’s also “green,” and that’s an important part of the story… In the film, unlike the poem, Gawain has a love interest named Essel, a young woman… who is a sex worker, and dreams of spending her life with him.” ((A. Wilkinson, “The Green Knight is glorious and a little baffling. Let’s untangle it.” )) And Alison Willmore adds that the film “is about someone who keeps waiting for external forces to turn him into the gallant, heroic figure he believes he should be… at the film’s heart is a lesson that’s as timeless as any legend – travel as far as you like, but you’ll never be able to leave yourself behind.” ((A. Willmore, “The Green Knight Is a Ravishing, Unsettling Fantasy.”))

Indeed, it is the innovations noted by Wilkinson that modernize the story and at the same time, in a sense, make it timeless. ((I.e., in the sense of not being above time, but of expressing what is common to all times.)) Clearly, while a medieval king would look quite different from a modern royal remnant like queen Elizabeth II or from Alexander the Great, there is a much closer affinity between youths of every epoch. Yet, while these unformed traits could be partly shared by youths at all times, Lowery makes us feel that they are still distinctive of the hero: in the year that follows after his first encounter with the Green Knight we do not see him change or mature in any way.

The external, foreign forces that dominate Gawain are embodied by his mother and the world of magic she sets in motion. That already points to a close, necessary connection: they are not something accidental, which he could bypass, but lie at the core of his destiny, which is not determined by him, but is rather predetermined by what he should become, in accordance to social roles and conventions.

The Green Knight, on the other hand, personifies the experience of life, wisdom and self-knowledge that each person gains in his journey. Far from being a frightful, horrific force, in the end he addresses Gawain with understanding and humanity. In a sense, it could be said, he elevates him to a conscience of his human duty, however cruel and fearful this may be.

The robbers on their part may be compared to the hardships on the road, the fox with the animal instinct of self-preservation – she warns Gawain not to continue on his way to the chapel, as this will be his doom – the beheaded woman to human aspirations that remain unfulfilled, the giant women with the ideal of a bright, humane future and the lord and lady with the ideal of happiness that Gawain would desire for himself and Essel.

Lowery’s depiction of the Middle Ages is basically realistic in its spirit. True, he does not focus on the oppressive aspects of social relations, crystallized in secular and religious powers, as Verhoeven’s movie we discussed recently does, ((See Chr. Kefalis, “Benedetta: A ‘Provocative’ Film that Demythologizes Religion.” )) but to their viable aspects. There is nothing problematic in this; every society has its viable aspects, otherwise it could not endure for long, and the Middle Ages were no exception to this. The decisive question, however, is whether these aspects allow for a valid, genuine realization of human aspirations, and this turns out not to be the case with Gawain.

Another aspect in which the film remains realistic and worldly is the insignificant role played by religious and magical forces in developments. Religion with its miracles is in fact absent from the story, while magic simply serves as a tool to confound reality with imagination and help the allegory unfold. However, having been set as a frame, the world of magic does not determine the hero’s decisions or interfere with their realization. This accords with another contrast with the medieval poem: in the later much emphasis is laid on Gawain’s temptations, while Lowery focuses on the hero’s adventures, with his actions being responses to real challenges. ((A. Wilkinson again aptly notes this difference of emphasis in her article: “In the poem, the journey is described as arduous, but Gawain’s adventures are only hinted at. In the film, two main adventures are shown.”))

In one connection, the Green Knight can also be seen as personifying the world of nature, as opposed to the sterile and static Christianized world of Camelot. ((See also here Wilkinson’s remarks: “one way to read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is to view the Green Knight as representative of the natural world –the wildness of creation and even a more pagan spirituality, full of witchcraft and unseen creatures– impeding on the deeply Christianized and slowly modernizing world of Camelot.)) However, it is precisely here that the backward, barbarous features of medieval society come to the fore and are revealed, in the final scenes of the movie, as necessary aspects of all discriminating societies. Gawain’s quest for happiness and goodness proves unfeasible, because the conditions for its fulfillment are missing: wicked social norms will not allow a king to marry a prostitute. Realizing what he would become if he lived –a king whose apparent greatness would be based on a lie– he tells the knight to take his life. The crucial final scene sums up the meaning of the film: the recognition that death and non-existence are better than a fake, meaningless, even if flamboyant life.

Georg Lukacs, the famous Hungarian Marxist, had argued in his time with some justification that allegory, being closely linked, like parables, etc, with religious moods, lends itself to mystifications and distortions of reality in the spirit of religion and mysticism. Yet all things are two sided. Lowery’s film bears witness that, provided one holds a “this-sided” worldview, allegory can be quite helpful in artistic generalization, in raising the particular to the general.

The Green Knight deservedly received almost universal praise in sites like “Rotten Tomatoes” and “Metacritic”. Yet even some partly negative criticisms seem to justify this appraisal. Thus, Keith Watson argues that being “A self-consciously revisionist take on Camelot lore… [the film] smooths out the enduring mysteries, opaque psychology, and narrative idiosyncrasies of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, resulting in a work that’s only superficially more daring and enigmatic than its source material.” ((See “The Green Knight.”)) We think, however, that it is precisely this smoothing of mystery in favor of real human motives, values and aspirations that makes the film truly remarkable.

Lowery himself stressed the importance of the final scene in the plot: “[The beheading of the hero is] a positive thing… He faces his fate bravely, and there’s honor and integrity in that. But that doesn’t mean that he’s dead, he’s killed. He received the blow that he was dealt, and all is set right within the universe of the film.” ((See “The Green Knight.”))

One should only add that to the same extent the film succeeds in strongly conveying the feeling that not everything is right within the kind of society that causes the hero’s tragedy and demise. This, together with its inspired, captivating and artistically gifted exploration of human adventure, is what makes The Green Knight a valuable achievement.

Christos Kefalis is a Greek Marxist, editor of the journal Marxist Thought. Read other articles by Christos.