A Deep Cut: The Green Knight (2021)


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 Saints, The 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.

The occult ritual enacted by Morgan le Fay (eerily blindfolded) and the members of her coven to summon the Green Knight attests that Arthurian Christendom has not fully conquered pagan Britain; even Christmas Day does not belong wholly to Christ. (Morgan’s magic involves sticks arranged in a sunburst pattern resembling the Arthurian crown-halos: a reminder that, like other fixtures of Christian culture, halos were pagan before they were Christian.)

Like its source material, The Green Knight can be at least partially seen as a contest, or an expression of tension, between the Christianity of Gawain’s uncle and the paganism of his mother.6 This theme may have influenced Daniel Hart’s unsettling score, with its echoes of Mark Korven’s score for Robert Eggers’ The Witch, a horror film pitting the faith of a Christian family against the power of Satan and his human allies. (Gravel-voiced Ralph Ineson, the paterfamilias in The Witch, plays the Green Knight.) Like The Witch, The Green Knight puts the power of magic onscreen in a way that the power of Christ, or of faith, is not depicted. While there are reasons for this in both cases, The Witch seems to me to support a fundamentally Christian reading—in marked contrast to The Green Knight.

Fitt 2: Sir Gawain and the Green World

Outside of Camelot, references to Christianity are few, but consistently iconoclastic—most literally in an early close-up shot of a Madonna and Child image, a visual representation of Essel’s opening declaration that “Christ is born,” being smashed to pieces.

Shortly after leaving Camelot, and immediately after the exchange mentioned above with the scavenger on the battlefield, Gawain is robbed in the forest by the scavenger and two other Saxon bandits. They leave him bound, absconding with his horse and provisions along with the Green Knight’s axe.7 For some reason, though, they smash his shield, which (following the poem) bears the pentangle—a five-pointed star in a circle, a symbol of great significance in the poem, to which we will return later—on its face, but on its inner surface bears an image of the Virgin Mary. That the image in the film depicts the infant Christ as well as the Virgin goes beyond the poem, and reinforces the Christmas motif. The smashing of the image is filmed in tight closeup, its iconoclastic force heightened by the inverted camera angle which depicts Mary and Christ upside down before the image flies apart—both a symbolic decapitation and an act of violence to the Christmas story.8 The axe, and perhaps the horse, are eventually recovered by paranormal means, but the shield and the image of Mary are gone forever, left to rot on the forest floor.

The iconoclasm of this shot is not, of course, a refutation per se of what the icon stands for. To smash a Madonna and Child image doesn’t mean that Christ is not born, nor that the Virgin Mary does not intercede in heaven for those on earth.9 On the other hand, one of the film’s episodic chapters, titled “A Meeting with St. Winifred,” does appear to deny to a Welsh virgin martyr the heavenly beatitude implied by her title.

* * *

The St. Winifred episode was inspired by a fleeting mention in the poem of a placename in Gawain’s journeys, “Holy Head.” This reference has been speculatively linked to Holywell in Wales, named for St. Winefride’s Well and connected with the legend of St. Winefride or Winifred, said to have been decapitated by a local chieftain whose advances she spurned. In the legend, where Winefride’s head fell, a healing well sprang up. Her head was subsequently rejoined to her body and her life restored through the efforts of her brother, St. Beuno.

The thematic resonances of this tale with the story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and the appeal for any adapter of the story, are self-evident. In this telling, though, Winifred (Erin Kellyman) manifests to Gawain as a restless ghost whose head is lost at the bottom of the spring, and who cannot be at peace until it is recovered and reunited with the rest of her bones.10 

This episode is notable on two counts. First, it’s the one episode in which Gawain rises to something like genuine nobility and heroism. Though starving and exhausted, he responds to the spectral woman’s plea for help, plunging into the dark waters of the uncanny spring to face whatever may be there in search of the lady’s head, and surfacing in triumph with her skull in hand. Granted, Gawain pauses to ask what Winifred will do for him if he does this for her, trying to frame the transaction in the same terms of exchange that run through the rest of the story. After she rebukes him for asking, though, he does the deed anyway. In this moment, if nowhere else, Gawain achieves something like greatness—and Winifred does apparently reward him, returning the axe stolen by the Saxon bandits.

But, second, the episode appears to be openly at odds with Christian eschatology and specifically Catholic piety. Not that restless ghosts are in principle incompatible with storytelling in a Catholic mode—a point not lost on Lowery, who was raised in a devoutly Catholic family. The filmmaker, who now identifies as an atheist, has said that the idea of ghosts and whether they are souls in purgatory was much discussed during his upbringing.11 Winifred, though, by the film’s own chapter title, is a saint, who on a Catholic accounting ought not to be in a purgatorial state, but to be absorbed in the perfect bliss of the Beatific Vision.12

It’s one thing to disregard the legend of St. Winifred’s head being reunited with her body. It’s another to depict the spirit of a saint lingering in the locale of her murder, restlessly seeking the reunion of her skull with her bones before she can be at peace.

* * *

The last time that Christianity is referenced outside of Camelot is at Gawain’s approach to the Green Chapel, where he passes a stone Celtic cross, partly crumbled with age. The chapel itself, where the Green Knight waits for him, is likewise an overgrown ruin, but the ruins of a real chapel, as opposed to the unhallowed barrow or grotto where the poet’s Gawain finds the Green Knight waiting for him. What Lowery depicted human vandalism doing in an instant to the sacred image of Mary and Jesus on Gawain’s shield, he depicts time and nature doing in slow motion to what was once a house of God.13 

The significance of this state of affairs is explicitly laid out in the monologue mentioned above regarding the color green, one of two crucial moments in which the film’s outlook comes into sharpest focus. The monologue takes place at the castle of a lord played by Joel Edgerton and named in the poem as Bertilak (or Bercilak), though, like all the Arthurian characters except Gawain, he is unnamed in the film and even in the credits.14

The reflections on the significance of green come from Bertilak’s wife (the lady who, in the poem’s most important test sequence, repeatedly tries to seduce Gawain, here played by Vikander in a double role presumably intended to enhance her sexual connection with Gawain).

Green, according to her monologue, represents the inexorable forces of the natural world working against the human world—growth and decay constantly eating away at human achievement and human bodies, resist it how we may. 

“Pull it out by the roots one day and then next, there it is, creeping in around the edges,” she declares with oracular gravitas. “When you go, your footprints will fill with grass. Moss shall cover your tombstone, and as the sun rises, green shall spread over all…This verdigris will overtake your swords and your coins and your battlements and, try as you might, all you hold dear will succumb to it. Your skin. Your bones. Your virtue.”

This speech describes the reality we find at the Green Chapel: an edifice once dedicated to the worship of the Christian God, now a monument to the irresistible power of the green world to spread over all. It contextualizes the skeleton motif running through the film, and ultimately shapes the meaning of the ambiguous final scene.

* * *

In substance if not in tone, Lady Bertilak’s speech overlaps substantially with the existential monologue in Lowery’s A Ghost Story. In that film, a character the credits call “Prognosticator” reduces a party to silence as he speaks with slightly inebriated eloquence about the implications of loss of faith in God and the apparent futility of the pursuit of meaning in view of the forces of time, death, and cosmic finality.

The lady’s prognostications, viewed in intertextual dialogue with the Prognosticator’s speech, cover essentially the same empirical realities—but with serene acceptance rather than bleak hopelessness. For her, the inevitable triumph of natural forces over human efforts at self-preservation, and by implication the ultimate extinction of the human race, is not soul-crushing; it’s simply the way things are. 

Note that the death sentence for humanity includes virtue. There’s no thought here that virtue transcends mortality and death; while the lady does not, like the Prognosticator, explicitly affirm atheism, she implicitly dismisses Christian hope in a life to come. If the Prognosticator’s monologue could be said to articulate a conflicted or despairing secular humanism, Lady Bertilak’s monologue expresses what might be called a serene posthumanism.15 

Lady Bertilak’s monologue follows closely on remarks from her husband about the walls of a man’s home as a refuge from the senselessness of the world—remarks that converge intriguingly with the poem’s contrasting motifs of the indoor and outdoor worlds. Out of doors, traveling in winter, the poet’s Gawain faces harsh conditions, danger, and suffering, but indoors there is festivity and celebration in honor of the birth of Christ and the New Year. In the film, the indoor/outdoor antithesis proposed by Bertilak is undermined by his wife’s monologue: The walls of a man’s home cannot be the refuge he speaks of, surrounded and unremittingly assailed as they are by the green world, to which they will eventually succumb.

Perhaps that’s why the indoor-world festivity and cheer occupying stanza after stanza in the poem are pointedly absent in the film, which is never anything but bleak. (The film’s Bertilak explicitly acknowledges the absence of celebration to greet Gawain, explaining the circumstances of the emptiness of his castle, while Morgan might as well be speaking for Lowery when she tells her son she has “no guts for merriment.”) Just as A Ghost Story’s Prognosticator brought the party to a halt with his nihilistic reflections, so Lady Bertilak’s posthuman prognostications leave humans with little to celebrate.

Fitt 3: Sir Gawain and Greatness vs. Goodness

Along with the green monologue, the other moment when the film’s ideas come into sharpest focus is the final scene, the denouement of a dreamlike chapter widely noted for its overt dependence upon The Last Temptation of Christ. A full accounting of this scene, though, requires some groundwork.

Last Temptation echoes start early in the film, with Gawain’s discomfort over the will of the royal father-figure, Arthur, regarding Gawain’s status as heir presumptive. “Is it wrong to want greatness for you?” Arthur gently presses Gawain, but Gawain isn’t sure he’s meant for greatness. He would rather spend his days drinking and sleeping with Essel than challenge himself to earn his place among the “legends” of the Round Table, or even fulfill the requirements to become a knight.

In fact, Gawain is a slacker, a failson coasting on the privileges of high birth. Yet when Arthur asks him at the Christmas gathering for a tale about himself, “that I might know thee,” Gawain isn’t entirely comfortable admitting that he has none—or, as Guinevere amends with an intimidating smile, none yet. Gawain won’t be allowed to remain a slacker if his aunt has anything to say about it!

Nor, perhaps, if his mother has anything to say about it.

* * *

In the poem, Morgan summons the Green Knight to test Arthur’s men and also, we are told, to frighten Guinevere to death.16 Recasting Morgan as Gawain’s mother naturally entails rethinking her motives. Why would she wish to set her son on this course? We might speculate that she didn’t foresee her son being the one to respond to the Knight’s challenge, but the notion that she is testing Arthur’s men finds no support here. She may wish, then, to give her slacker son a push out the door, perhaps putting him on a path that would distinguish him among Arthur’s knights, better positioning him as a worthy heir to the throne. “Do not waste this” are her last words to Gawain before his departure.

Whatever Morgan’s motives, shame and a half-formed wish to take the first steps toward honor lead to Gawain’s impulsive acceptance of the Green Knight’s challenge, which he doesn’t understand as well as he thinks—and which differs notably from the challenge in the source material.

The poet’s Green Knight offers his axe to any challenger and promises to remain still and accept a blow, provided that, one year later, the challenger will likewise accept a return blow unchecked.

In the film, the Knight promises to award his axe only to a challenger who first succeeds in landing a blow. Although he does remain still after the challenge is accepted, even kneeling to accept the blow—a pose he pointedly does not adopt in the poem—he didn’t say in advance that he would. On the other hand, he does promise that, upon the return of the axe to him one year later, he will “let me strike him in return, be it a scratch on the cheek or a cut in the throat.”

This novel promise of reciprocity offers the film’s Gawain, had he the wit and nerve to exploit it, a way to save both honor and life. The Knight has practically told him what to do: If he scratches the Knight, the Knight will scratch him back. Merely by accepting the challenge, he has saved the honor of Arthur’s court; by playing the game wittily (“It is only a game,” Arthur whispers), he could escape liability of fatal consequences.

But Gawain—unnerved by taking center stage, overeager to prove himself, baffled by his opponent’s unexpected lack of resistance, and unsettled by the thought of striking a blow against a passive opponent—doesn’t see this option. He goes full beheading game, needlessly setting himself up for a deadly return blow.

* * *

In addition to the overt hopes of Arthur and the enigmatic designs of his mother, a third person has wishes in connection with Gawain: his lover Essel, whom he pays for her services but with whom he seems to have an emotional bond. As time goes by and it sinks in that Gawain really is expected to go in search of the Green Chapel, Essel bitterly protests that this is how silly men perish. “Or how brave men become great,” Gawain counters with more hope than conviction.

“Why greatness?” Essel retorts. “Why is goodness not enough?”

In the wrenching exchange that follows, Essel dares to express a wistful longing to be not just Gawain’s plaything but his lady—to share his life, not just his bed and his gold. This suggestion offers a third possible path: neither the life of a great man at court nor that of a wastrel, but that of an ordinary man living honorably with his wife. Essel even goes so far as to act out Gawain’s response, with earnest playfulness putting honorable words in his mouth—which only makes Gawain’s tongue-tied silence more crushingly humiliating to the despondent Essel.

The notion of an ordinary, non-great life is implicitly revisited later in the castle of Bertilak, who agnostically questions Gawain about the honor he says he wants, and believes he will win, by keeping his rendezvous with the Green Knight. “You do this one thing, you return home a changed man, an honorable man, just like that?…I wish I could see the new you,” Bertilak says playfully, adding, “Perhaps we will miss our old friend.”

Two significant things happen at Bertilak’s castle, and they happen at the same time: Bertilak’s wife gives Gawain a magical sash or girdle that she says has the power to protect the wearer from harm, and a sexual act takes place between them.

A quick review of the poem’s version of these events will be helpful here.

* * *

In the poem, while waiting at Bertilak’s castle for his appointment with the Green Knight, Gawain agrees to a second “game,” this one with Bertilak. For three days, Gawain will rest in the castle while Bertilak goes hunting, and each evening Bertilak will present Gawain with whatever he brings back, while Gawain will give Bertilak whatever gift comes to him at the castle—an “exchange of winnings.”

Each day, Bertilak’s wife tries to seduce Gawain, whose difficulty stems from conflicting obligations under the overarching ideal of trawthe or “troth”—a complex term, with no exact equivalent in modern English, evoking ideas of truth, faith, fidelity, and honesty, among others.

Troth means, among other things, that one’s word is one’s bond. According to English scholar J.A. Burrows’ classic study A Reading of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, troth for Gawain means that the “games” to which he agreed, first with the Green Knight and then with Bertilak, are games-in-earnest, committing his whole being. Troth also means that any sexual activity with Bertilak’s wife would be not only the sin of adultery but also a betrayal of his loyalty to his lord-host as well as a violation of his obligations under the exchange-of-winnings game. At the same time, any failure in his knightly courtesy or duty of obedience to his lady-hostess by flatly refusing her, shaming her, or ascribing evil to her would also be a failure of troth.

This titillating setup obliges Gawain to draw on all his wiles, contriving to parry Lady Bertilak’s advances, pretending to misunderstand her intentions, and otherwise managing to accept no more than six kisses, each of which he dutifully repays to the apparently astonished Bertilak. On the last day, though, the lady urges Gawain to accept a silk girdle or sash that she says has the magical power to protect the wearer from deadly harm. This temptation is too great for Gawain, and he withholds this last winning from his host—a seemingly small lapse (or is it?) for which the Green Knight, after feinting twice without landing a blow, gives Gawain a slight scratch on the neck.

In the poem, Gawain’s mysterious antagonist is ultimately revealed to be Bertilak in disguise, and the whole double test is ascribed to Morgan le Fay (seen at Bertilak’s castle in the guise of a crone)—a pro forma “explanation” that doesn’t fully account for the mysterious figure of the Green Knight, or, for that matter, the motives of Bertilak and his wife. Although the moral significance of Gawain’s failure is ambiguous and much debated, the bottom line seems to be that Gawain’s virtue, while not perfect, is still of a high caliber and worth emulating—a verdict confirmed by Gawain’s fellow knights, who proceed to wear sashes in solidarity with Gawain and as a token of the importance of honesty.

Fitt 4: Sir Gawain and the Last Temptation

Lowery’s reworking of these events begins before Gawain leaves Camelot, with a magical protective girdle woven by Morgan’s coven and given to him by his mother—an innovation following, presumably, from her maternal concern for her son.17 Strangely, though, that silk sash is the first thing taken from Gawain by the Saxon bandits—almost as if they know of its powers, since they don’t touch his cloak or boots or other attire. There’s also a hint that they may know about his quest, but nothing comes from any of this. The girdle that Bertilak’s wife later offers to Gawain is either an exact duplicate of the one his mother gave him or the same one. Also, the resemblance of Bertilak’s wife to Essel isn’t lost on Gawain; she, too, is either an exact duplicate or Essel herself in some enchanted state.

There is a crone at Bertilak’s castle, blindfolded and presumably blind, who never speaks. The source material (and the blindfold) lead us to link her to Morgan, though she’s not played by Choudhury and is never identified as the same character. Likewise, Bertilak and the Green Knight are played by different actors (Edgerton and Ineson) and are never connected. The film leaves the motives and role of Bertilak and his wife a complete mystery without even a pro forma explanation.

The poem’s repeated seduction scenes and multiple kisses are conflated into a single awkward kiss on the cheek and a coercive bedroom scene in which an assertive Lady Bertilak offers an uncomfortable Gawain the magic girdle while also possibly either (the interaction is somewhat unclear) manually pleasuring him or prodding him to pleasure himself—the icky result being that Gawain somehow winds up clutching both the girdle and a handful of semen.

* * *

What does it mean that the lady then rebukes Gawain with the words “You are no knight?” Does she indict his unchastity? The fact that he allowed himself to be passively seduced instead of taking the initiative?

The truth, alas, is that The Green Knight offers no real sense of a code or standard by which “knightly” behavior can be judged. There’s quite a bit of talk about “honor,” but little sense of what that entails. Chivalry, courtesy, modesty and so forth are never mentioned. Virtue in general is mentioned a few times, but which virtues are expected of a knight is never set forth. Even when Guinevere talks about the “five virtues of a knight” in connection with the five-by-five-fold significance of the pentangle, the five-pointed star on Gawain’s shield that in the poem symbolizes the perfection to which Gawain aspires, we never learn what the “five virtues” are!18

From a couple of occasions when Gawain is reproached, we might gather that a knight is expected to be generous (“A knight like you could spare a wretch like me just a small, small act of kindness,” the scavenger admonishes while still pretending to be friendly) and respectful of women (“Do not touch me—a knight should know better,” says Winifred when Gawain, wondering if she is tangible, puts out a tentative hand toward her). We might eke an allusion to courtesy from Lady Bertilak’s “Should not a knight offer a lady a kiss in thanks?”

Lowery gestures here and there at notions of knightly behavior, but develops none of them in any way that might illuminate Gawain’s behavior for good or ill.

* * *

In shame and humiliation, Gawain flees Bertilak’s castle a day early. His flight is briefly checked by Bertilak himself, who sternly asks whether his guest has anything to give him, and responds to Gawain’s denials by ostensibly claiming Gawain’s “winnings” with a firm, non-consensual kiss on the lips. It’s a mark of Lowery’s indifference to the “exchange of winnings” game that his Gawain has kissed Bertilak’s wife before the game was proposed or agreed to—and on the cheek—while she didn’t kiss him at all.19 The question of the girdle aside, there is no accounting (mercifully, in my view!) for Lady Bertilak’s other “gift” to Gawain.

Bertilak then produces his own “winnings” from the forest: a fox that has been Gawain’s companion through many of his adventures. Instead of killing it, Bertilak releases it, leaving “him to nature.” For various reasons (the similar color of the fox’s orange coat and Gawain’s mantle; images in Bertilak’s castle; the way Bertilak releases it in the act of allowing Gawain to depart; and, crucially, thematic links in the poem) the fox often seems to be a reflection of Gawain himself. Just before Gawain’s arrival at the Green Chapel, though, the fox turns and speaks to him, exhorting him to avoid the Chapel at all costs and darkly warning that he will find no mercy. “Come home with me,” the fox begs, perhaps an indication that Morgan addresses Gawain through the fox.20

Ignoring the fox, Gawain presses on to the Green Chapel, where he finds his fearful opponent sitting immobile on a dais, apparently dormant—indeed, having been motionless for so long that vines have begun to envelop him as well as his stone surroundings. Laying the axe on the stairs of the dais, Gawain sits on the ground, gazing uncertainly at his unresponsive adversary. In what seems an almost comic anticlimax, hours pass and darkness falls.

Suspense grows again with the first rays of dawn, and the Green Knight stirs. Seeing Gawain, he inquires if it is Christmas. Told that it is, he rises (shrugging off the vines), takes up the axe, and prepares to complete the game. Kneeling before the Green Knight as the Knight knelt before him (again, a posture not found in the poem, though the poem’s Gawain does bend over and bow his head), Gawain intends to go through with it—but he can’t help flinching twice just before the blow falls. Finally, after making one final effort to steel himself, he loses his nerve entirely and, babbling an apology, bolts from the Chapel.

* * *

Inexplicably, his stolen horse is waiting outside the Chapel to bear Gawain home to Camelot. There, he is reunited with Essel and knighted by an ailing King Arthur, who then presses Excalibur for the second time into Gawain’s still-hesitant hands. When Arthur dies, Gawain reigns in his stead.

Essel bears a son, but, to her lifelong despair, in a final appalling subversion of her forlorn hopes, the newborn child is ripped from her arms, with a small heap of coins left as final insulting payment for her services. Gawain goes on to make a more suitable match, and his queen bears him a daughter. Gawain’s life, though, becomes as bitter as Essel’s. His son is killed in battle. He is hated by his subjects and beset by his enemies. At last, in despair, his world collapsing around him, he removes the girdle he has worn all these years—and his head topples off his shoulders and rolls onto the floor.

Then, suddenly, he’s back in the Chapel again, as if none of it ever happened.

With new resolve he bows his head to accept the blow, but calls one last halt—this time to remove the girdle. Now he’s finally ready. “Well done, my brave knight,” the Green Knight warmly praises him. Drawing his finger across Gawain’s throat, he adds, “Now, off with your head”—and there it ends.

* * *

The prolonged, dreamlike sequence in The Last Temptation of Christ between Jesus’ crucifixion and his death on the cross—in which he seems to come down from the cross, gets married, has children, and grows old before realizing it wasn’t meant to be this way and finding himself back on the cross—is often described as a “dream sequence” or “vision.”

It’s natural, likewise, to interpret Gawain’s life in Camelot between his arrival at the Green Chapel and the unseen final swing of the axe—a sequence overtly modeled on Last Temptation—as a dream or vision of what would happen, or might happen, if he fled the Chapel. (Enhancing the dreamlike quality of this sequence, there is no dialogue in these scenes.) Complicating the dream interpretation, though, is a post-credits sequence depicting a young girl picking up a crown from the floor and putting it on her head. This is most naturally understood as Gawain’s crown—and Gawain’s daughter—and seems to suggest that the King Gawain sequence, including his uncanny decapitation on the throne, really happened.

The riddle of this climactic sequence is, significantly, not unprecedented in the film. Much earlier, following the robbery sequence, is a similar conceit in which time seems to roll backwards: A powerful, enigmatic shot shows us Gawain, left bound on the forest floor by his attackers. The camera slowly turns away from Gawain, rotating 360 degrees clockwise and returning to find our protagonist not only dead but skeletonized. Then, pushing in, the camera rotates back 360 degrees counter-clockwise—and there is Gawain alive again, struggling with his bonds and eventually freeing himself.

Among possible interpretations of this cryptic time-bending shot, Alissa Wilkinson, in her invaluable Vox explainer, offers the following: Perhaps Gawain simply died, and all his subsequent adventures are merely legends invented in his honor. Perhaps the shot imaginatively depicts Gawain contemplating his mortality before freeing himself. Or perhaps he died but was somehow restored by the healing spring of St. Winifred.

* * *

Lowery apparently intends for this puzzle, like the King Gawain sequence, to resist clear answers. (I’m not sure even he has a canonical explanation for what happens.) Given that, I think the reading that best accounts for all the data is this: It’s not either/or, but both/and.

The contradictory sequences depict divergent outcomes that I propose are best viewed as equally real and true. Gawain dies in the forest and he frees himself; he runs away from the Green Knight and he stays to accept the swing of the axe. Were this vocabulary not more evocative of science fiction than swords and sorcery, I might say that The Green Knight juxtaposes different continuities in a shifting multiverse of alternate realities. Still, something like that seems to me the most reasonable way to view the apparent contradictions.

On this approach, perhaps one way to answer the inevitable question “Does the Green Knight decapitate Gawain or show him mercy?” is that, since the film doesn’t answer the question, both outcomes are equally real. But I think The Green Knight leans toward decapitation. Lowery has also made remarks leaning the same way, but I think it’s in the film itself.

The poet’s Green Knight sets no limits one way or the other on how gravely he will injure his challenger, but the film’s Green Knight specifically vows from the outset to “return what was given me.” At the Chapel he alludes to this vow, asking Gawain, “Do you recall where you cut me?” Nothing we’ve seen holds out the slightest hope of mercy. (The warning of the fox points in the opposite direction, especially if it comes from Morgan.)

For what it’s worth, the puppet shows that depict Gawain decapitating the Green Knight with his own axe also portray the Knight decapitating Gawain. This isn’t necessarily proof that this happens; after all, the puppeteers got the axe thing wrong. But the axe thing reflects the poem—the established legend—and Gawain’s decapitation doesn’t. This at least invites the supposition that Gawain’s decapitation, if it’s not the legend, reflects what really happened in the world of the film.

That Bertilak releases the fox rather than killing it might anticipate an act of mercy, if Bertilak and the Green Knight, as in the poem, were one and the same. But Lowery gives us no clear reason to make that identification.21

If I had to make a case for mercy, I would propose that Gawain possibly deserves to keep his head for his one noble act—restoring Winifred’s head to her—which, after all, merited the recovery of the stolen axe (without which, it might be argued, the Knight would have nothing to decapitate Gawain in the first place).

Lowery gives us no reason to think the Green Knight cares about such things. But it’s all I’ve got.

Perhaps the most telling rebuttal to the more hopeful reading of the ending is the simple question: What then? What possibility of a better life awaits Gawain of which he is capable? The idea of a good life with Essel is the most hopeful thought, but at every turn the film tells us that while Gawain may be fond of her, he does not love her; he seems incapable of love.22 Whatever personal growth or epiphany he may have achieved by the end, it is a solitary achievement within himself. He is now ready to die; we are offered no hope that he is ready to live.

Fitt 5: Sir Gawain and the Accolade

One revealing way to approach the question of Gawain’s fate is to consider the significance of his removal of the girdle in the Green Chapel. It’s a kind of triumph, even in the Green Knight’s eyes. But what kind of triumph is it?

We must resist any inclination to interpret this action in the moral framework of the poem. For the poet’s Gawain, giving up the girdle, like facing the Knight in the first place, is an obligation of troth under the terms of his two “games.” The film, though, doesn’t care about the games, nor about the poem’s ideals of troth, courtesy, chastity, and knightly virtue.

In the poem, the girdle becomes a token of Gawain’s dishonesty regarding the terms of the exchange-of-winnings game. In the film, the girdle is a token of Gawain’s fear of death: the same fear that initially prompts him to distrust the girdle and run away, leading to the King Gawain sequence. From that point on, in the logic of The Green Knight, he’s on borrowed time—his head already forfeit, kept on his shoulders solely by the magic girdle. When, overcome by ennui or despair, he finally removes it, his head immediately rolls off.

Gawain’s triumph in the end, then, is simply that he accepts the inevitability of death, or is even ready to welcome it. It’s not the triumph that Arthur or Morgan wanted for Gawain, and certainly not the humbler triumph that Essel longed for. It’s not a matter of greatness or even goodness. It is, rather, a matter of coming to terms with the inevitable triumph of the green world.

The final piece of the puzzle may be the Green Knight’s closing words of praise for Gawain. Consider the following apparently unrelated details, all pointedly at odds with the poem:

  • Gawain decapitates the Green Knight, not with his own axe, but with Arthur’s sword (the same sword that, in the King Gawain sequence, Arthur uses to knight him).
  • Gawain flees Bertilak’s castle a day early and winds up spending an entire night in the Green Chapel—which, unlike the grotto in the poem, is, or was, a real chapel.
  • Gawain, in the last shot, does not merely bow, but kneels before the Green Knight.
  • Gawain, at the end of the film, is not a knight and (outside the ambiguous King Gawain sequence) never has been, despite suggestions that he should be by now.

Now, reconsider the Green Knight’s last words to Gawain, the film’s last line of dialogue: “Well done, my brave knight. Now, off with your head.”

* * *

The ritual act by which one becomes a knight is called an accolade, a term that also means an expression of praise. Immediately before the accolade, the candidate keeps an all-night vigil in a chapel. In the accolade ritual, of course, the candidate kneels before the celebrant, who lightly taps him on each shoulder with a sword. In the film, Gawain has used a sword—the instrument of accolade—to behead the kneeling Knight. Now, having kept an all-night vigil in a chapel, he kneels before the Green Knight with his axe, the weapon that the film itself repeatedly reminds us Gawain is understood (outside of what the film itself shows us) to have used to decapitate the Knight.

By welcoming death, Gawain has become worthy in his antagonist’s eyes—worthy, I submit, of accolade in both senses of the term, including induction into knighthood. Yet what the Green Knight holds is not a sword, and the knighthood he confers is not that of Camelot and the Round Table. It has nothing to do with notions of troth, honor, or virtue, all of which will succumb in the end to the green world that he represents.

What the Green Knight confers can only be the sort of “knighthood” that he himself possesses, in the “order” of the green world. Gawain no longer belongs to Camelot, to Arthur, Morgan, or Essel. He belongs to the green world, to the Green Knight himself (“my brave knight”).

To return to the film’s Last Temptation paradigm, Gawain is initially defined by his diffidence regarding the will of the kingly father-figure, Arthur. In the end, though, Gawain’s Last Temptation breakthrough involves submission not to Arthur, but to the Green Knight.

Because of the altered terms of the beheading game, Gawain’s quest left him lugging the immense axe on his shoulder through the wild lands of Logres, not unlike Christ carrying his cross. It isn’t Arthur’s burden Gawain carries, just as it isn’t Arthur’s will to which he ultimately submits. In the end the Green Knight supplants Arthur as Gawain’s father-figure, and he, not Arthur, acclaims the triumphant Gawain of the last shot as “my brave knight.”

“Now, off with your head.” Gawain kneels before the Knight, ready for his final accolade, but it will not come with the harmless tapping of a sword.

* * *

The first time The Last Temptation of Christ (a film I cordially abhor) came to mind while watching The Green Knight, it was not, to put it mildly, a welcome thought. But Jesus, in Christian belief, is God incarnate, while Gawain is a fictional character with no fixed identity even in traditional materials, where he can be anything from the pinnacle of knighthood—even the Grail hero—to a hotheaded bully or an outright villain. The Last Temptation of Christ is, as even screenwriter Paul Schrader has acknowledged, literally blasphemous, but, while some Arthurian enthusiasts might hyperbolically describe The Green Knight’s revisionism as “blasphemy,” that’s not how I roll.

Having written at such length about The Green Knight, I can’t deny that Lowery’s vision has moved me. There are images here that I find powerful: naked, serenely enigmatic Attack on Titan-esque giants; a God’s-eye shot of Gawain in a four-poster bed draped with curtains; the blood-red underwater scenes of Gawain swimming in the spring looking for Winifred’s head.23

Although I cited the St. Winifred episode as the most explicit evidence of the film’s non-Christian outlook, it’s probably my favorite sequence, as much because it’s such a deep cut into Gawain scholarship and Christian piety as because it’s Gawain’s one chance to be noble in a film that, this episode aside, has no clear notion what nobility might be. But I’m also moved by the emotional truth of Gawain’s worst moments, particularly in regard to poor Essel: his appalling silence when she dares to fantasize about sitting at his side as his lady; and, most horrific of all, taking the child she bears him in the King Gawain sequence and dropping a handful of coins on the bloodstained birthing bed.

I’m more than open to The Green Knight’s cross-examinations of the legend of Christian Camelot and “Arthurian exceptionalism.” Making Morgan into Gawain’s mother, though, creates more problems than it solves. Her role in the poem may verge into deus ex machina, but the ambiguity of her motives is one thing as Arthur’s enigmatic antagonist and another entirely as Gawain’s mother.

The idea of a mother trying to prod her slacker son onto the path of success is an interesting one, but surely she could have found some way less dangerous than involving the Green Knight. If the crone at Bertilak’s castle is Morgan, what is Gawain’s mother’s interest in subjecting her son to sexual mind games? Here, above all, The Green Knight seems less enigmatic than incoherent.

The Saxon bandits, as well as Bertilak and his wife, all seem to know too much, but there’s no indication why. It’s possible to imagine all of them as agents of Morgan—or manifestations of the Green Knight—though I can’t see that either reading illuminates much. St. Winifred and the naked giants, on the other hand, seem to stand outside the traps laid for Gawain.

As a lover of the source material, what I find most disappointing about The Green Knight, along with the lack of a clear standard of knightly behavior, is the complete hash it makes of the seduction theme, which has none of the drama, appeal, or wit of the poem’s bedroom scenes. Whatever chemistry exists between Gawain and Essel in Camelot evaporates completely in Bertilak’s castle. There’s no moral conflict because Gawain cares nothing about chastity, piety, or courtesy, nor has the film established any particular interest in wedding vows.24

* * *

What ultimately puts The Green Knight beyond the pale, for me, is the posthumanism of Lady Bertilak’s monologue and how her speech helps to shape and determine the meaning of the ending in what I can only consider a nihilistic direction.

The idea of final defeat, in an imaginative context, can be moving to me, if it is faced with human solidarity and mutual affirmation. In the tragic worldview of the Germanic and Norse heroic tradition, everything succumbs in the end to time, change, and death—but the heroic code of men like Beowulf and Hrothgar binds them together by ties of loyalty and honor to affirm human value, and values, in defiance of a hostile cosmos. “The giants will beat the gods in the end, but I am on the side of the gods” is how C.S. Lewis paraphrased the Norse form of this heroic defiance.

Gawain finds peace not in solidarity with other humans and defiance of the green world—neither in greatness and honor in Arthur’s court, nor in goodness in a life with Essel—but in serene and solitary submission to the inevitable.

Honor, loyalty, and the other ideals of the Round Table are merely a highfalutin mask—an iron halo—camouflaging brutality and ruthlessness. The strong do what they can, and the weak (the Saxons, Winifred, and above all Essel) suffer what they must. If there is a higher truth than this, a better way of life, it is nowhere to be seen.

Gawain lays down his head in the end, not because he has learned that courage in the face of death is part of a life well lived, but because the idea of a life well lived no longer has meaning to him. I can’t say this isn’t a valid Gawain, but it’s not a Gawain whose “triumph” I can cheer.

“Christ is born.” To me, that means everything—or nothing. A film that raises that question is not obliged to answer it, but The Green Knight, though it comes at it indirectly, does have an answer. For me, it’s the wrong one.

  1. Copies of Bernard O’Donoghue’s modern English rendering of the poem, with a forward by Lowery, were handed out at critics’ screenings—an additional indication that the filmmaker welcomes responses to the film informed by familiarity with the poem. Strikingly, Lowery’s forward opens with an admission that a line in the film about making improvements to other people’s stories is his own semi-hubristic, semi-confessional commentary on the thrills and perils of revisionism in adaptation!
  2. It’s striking that we first see this sunburst crown on Gawain, whose strength and prowess in some legends (though not in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight) waxes and wanes with the rising and setting of the sun (a mythic echo, possibly, of some forgotten Celtic solar deity).
  3. The scandalous sin most associated with the fall of Camelot, Guinevere’s prolonged adulterous affair with Lancelot, is invoked only in the subtlest of allusions: When Arthur invites Gawain to sit in the empty seat beside him, noting that its owner is away and the time of his return is unknown, Guinevere lowers her eyes and bows her head. It may or may not be significant that when Arthur lies dying with Guinevere at his side, while their hands are clasped, each is upside down to the other—that is, their heads are each at the other’s feet.
  4. Harris’ Arthur may not be in his dotage, but he certainly isn’t fresh from recently dispatching nearly 1,000 men on the battlefield.
  5. This introductory portrayal of Gawain as habitually indifferent to Mass, even on Christmas Day, offers the strongest possible contrast to his traditional characterization in the chivalric romances, where an eagerness for the Mass is one of his defining traits. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, he attends Mass practically every chance he gets, except on the morning of his rendezvous with the Green Knight, when he opts for confession instead. In the film, after a kiss of greeting, Morgan notes acidly that Gawain smells like he’s been “drinking the sacrament all night.” This exchange initially scans as a conventionally pious mother scolding her dissolute son, but appears in a wholly different light once it becomes clear that Gawain’s mother is a literal witch.
  6. Consider, for example, an early sequence in Camelot intercutting between a bishop intoning the Salve Regina in Latin (significantly, a Marian prayer) and the three women who form Morgan’s coven chanting softly as they weave a magical girdle that Morgan will give to Gawain to protect him from harm.
  7. That the Green Knight’s axe is with Gawain to be stolen is one of the film’s notable departures from the poem, in which the Green Knight took the axe with him along with his head. The film changes the Knight’s challenge so that Gawain must first strike him with another weapon in order to “win” the axe, which must then be returned to the Knight a year later for the return blow. This alteration is significant for a number of reasons that will emerge later.
  8. There’s an echo of the inverted Madonna and Child image in a shot in which Gawain’s image, projected through a pinhole, is seen upside down—an odd scene depicting an early form of photography—likewise suggesting the film’s iconoclastic portrait of Gawain. Still later, that photo-image appears again, right side up, in King Gawain’s court, though there is no obvious way to account for its presence there.
  9. That the Virgin Mary intercedes for the faithful on earth is virtually a plot point in the poem. In the crucial act, Gawain’s virtues are repeatedly tested by a beautiful lady who tries to seduce him—and, while Gawain succeeds in courteously sidestepping the lady’s overtures, the poet tells us that things would have gone differently for him if not for Mary’s protection.
  10. Significantly, bones and skeletons are a notable recurring theme in the film.
  11. Lowery’s father, who died just before The Green Knight opened, taught theology for 27 years at the University of Dallas, a conservative Catholic university. He is remembered, in the words of a university obituary, “for his deep appreciation of Catholic theological tradition.” In 2017, Lowery told Interview magazine that while he no longer believes in an afterlife, paradoxically he does still believe in ghosts.
  12. Winifred even seems to be aware of her cult among the living, judging from her question to Gawain asking if he’s heard of her.
  13. Reinforcing this connection, the scavenger, in the act of robbing Gawain, ironically or metaphorically identifies the forest around them with the Green Chapel Gawain seeks. The forest ”is” the Green Chapel; that is, it is the abode of the Green Knight, a sanctuary of the natural forces that in the end will consume all human beings and all their works.
  14. Names like Arthur, Guinevere, and Morgan are never mentioned, and the credits list them only as King, Queen, Mother, etc. Merlin, briefly glimpsed, is credited as Magician, and Camelot and Excalibur are never named as such. For convenience’s sake I use the traditional names, including Bertilak.
  15. For what it’s worth, Lowery said in a 2021 Vanity Fair interview that the lady’s speech represents his own views, and that while her words “may sound terrible,” he finds “great comfort” in their “beautiful inevitability.”
  16. It may be a nod to this latter motive that when the Green Knight arrives, his challenge comes in the form of an enchanted missive that, when opened by Guinevere, takes possession of her and compels her, robot-like, to read the challenge in the Knight’s own guttural voice. After this frightening possession, Guinevere collapses on her throne, not dead but certainly traumatized.
  17. It seems that, although Morgan summoned the Green Knight, he is not her creature and she can’t control him.
  18. The five virtues may be variously rendered in modern English as: magnanimity or generosity; loyalty or companionableness; purity or chastity; courtesy or courtly manners; and compassion or piety (the Middle English word here is ambiguous). The other four fives are a somewhat motley assortment: The poet tells us that Gawain put his trust in the five wounds of Christ and drew courage from the five joys of Mary (the Annunciation, the Nativity, the Epiphany, the Resurrection, and the Assumption of Mary). There are also perfections relating to one’s five fingers and five senses.
  19. More glaring still, Gawain’s kiss was elicited a sign of his thanks for Lady Bertilak’s gift of a book to him—yet the book itself seems to have no significance in the exchange of winnings, even though Lowery shows it in closeup just before Bertilak proposes the game!
  20. If the fox’s warning does come from Morgan, this raises new questions. Will the girdle not protect Gawain after all? If not, why did she give it to him in the first place, and apparently go to great lengths to replace it after it was stolen? Perhaps the fox is Gawain after all—his id, or something.
  21. A baffling line from St. Winifred almost forbids us to identify the Green Knight with Bertilak: Her last words to Gawain are “The Green Knight is someone you know.” But Gawain doesn’t know Bertilak; he won’t meet him for some time. Yet who else could he be? Parallels with Arthur could almost lead me to consider him as a possibility, but of course Arthur is in the room when the Green Knight appears, and clearly has no idea who or what he is.
  22. Gawain twice as much as tells Essel’s alter ego, Lady Bertilak, that he doesn’t love Essel. First he denies that the sleigh bell given to him by Essel as as a token for his trip is a love token; and when she persists, “Surely a knight knows something of love,” Gawain protests, entirely plausibly, that he doesn’t. Even outside Gawain and Essel’s relationship, the idea of love finds little purchase in the film. Arthur dies holding Guinevere’s hand, but her downward glance at Arthur’s mention of the empty seat at his side is enough to raise the question how much love is in this marriage. Bertilak and his wife might as well not be married for all the sense we get of their relationship.
  23. The intense red in this sequence is a welcome relief from the film’s orange-and-teal color scheme, though it’s jarring when Lady Bertilak talks in her green monologue about red as “the color of lust” and seeking red—an idea nowhere evident in the film’s color design. There’s no red in any of Gawain’s scenes with Essel, including the sex scenes, nor in any of his interactions with Lady Bertilak, including the “seduction” scene. Red, instead, seems to be associated with the uncanny; there’s a bit of red light when Morgan begins her conjuring and on Merlin when he magically probes the Green Knight and gives Arthur a silent head shake of warning. It is a dominant color only in Winifred’s spring, where lust is surely very far from Gawain’s mind. Red and green appear in pointed contrast in a single shot, immediately after Gawain’s first encounter with the Green Knight, where the Knight’s axe, laid on the floor, causes weeds to sprout between the flagstones, contrasting with the red wine spilled by Gawain.
  24. It is fair to note that Gawain’s discomfort over sexual impropriety with Bertilak’s wife has a partial analogue in the St. Winifred episode. Exhausted, Gawain finds an abandoned house with a bed and falls asleep, but awakens to find Winifred asking him why he’s in her bed. Not yet perceiving anything uncanny about the encounter, Gawain leaps up in alarm and makes to depart immediately, apologizing profusely and disclaiming any intention of offending her. Gawain may not care about chastity or marriage, but he has at least some reticence about being alone in bedrooms with women who are not Essel.
  1. Thank you for an excellent essay. This reminds me why you’re my favorite movie critic. I was intrigued by this film but now I think I’ll pass. Since you mentioned that “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” which I have never heard of until this movie, is your favorite literary work, I’m now considering reading it. Again, thank you. God bless you, good sir!

    1. Thanks so much for your kind words, Chris!

      For what it’s worth, while it would be hard to overstate my love of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (or the geekiness with which I have pored over critical analysis of it), I’m not sure I would say it’s my favorite literary work — though I can see how I gave you that impression.

      While there is no body of literature I love more than Arthuriana, there are individual works I love as much as, or more than, any individual Arthurian work. The Lord of the Rings, for example.

  2. That was excellent, thank you. I felt there was a definite satanic subversion blighting this portrayal of the wonderful legend. You helped me voice what was bothering me!

    1. Thanks for reading, jo. I’m grateful for your appreciative comments, and glad I could pick out what bothered you about the film. That’s why I felt driven to write at such length about it!

      It is definitely fair, in my view, to say the film offers a subversive take on its source material. I would characterize this subversion as materialistic and even nihilistic, but “satanic,” in my view, is too harsh, and even too religious, a designation.

      Perhaps it would be satanic if the story ended with King Gawain clinging ferociously to power even as the world went to hell around him! In contrast with that possibility, there is definitely, in the end, a stab at some kind of peace. I don’t think it is successful. But it’s very far, I think, from anything I would call satanic.

  3. Hello Steven,

    and wow. I have just now come across The Green Knight, and have been somewhat puzzled by a near-unanimous praise of the film. For one, it doesn’t FEEL that great, and I find gut reactions the most precise when appraising a work of art.

    Then again, I understand how enigmas wrapped inside scrupulous art direction can win the hearts of intellectuals. Tellingly, general audience seem a lot less convinced with mr. Lowery’s work.

    And this is where I stumbled upon your superb analysis. Finding it, reading it and getting acquainted with you through it, was well worth the two hours spent on said film, which was not given when the credits rolled.

    With a truly Christian capacity for gratitude on display, your meticulous analysis convinced me to give mr. Lowery more credit. It is truly a work of not just film craftsmanship, but of art. Then again, art doesn’t pardon a film, if anything it invites higher scrutiny.

    I am a lot less diligent and whole lotta more ferocious, so for me it was about several minutes in, round table scene on screen, that it started to feel I’m in for a disappointment. It feels like mr. Lowery is again bringing his untreated depression, like in A Ghost Story, masquerading it for profundity. A tradition I abhor, which includes some of film’s amazing geniuses like Ingmar Bergman or Andrei Tarkovsky.

    It is that depression, hugely narcissistic as well, that I think bereaves The Green Knight of a satisfying finale, however bleak the author might have wanted it. For I think art is a path of soul transferred to celluloid or CMOS, and paths that mr. Lowery take should lead him through the trials of his own pain and into the truth, and into the light, not self-important existentialistic despair. That truth, had mr. Lowery found it, would have given Gawain’s story a climax worthy of the film’s visual splendor.

    I do not see mr. Lowery as my fellow, but I wish him luck. In you I know see a brother. It is a pleasure to know you.

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