It’s Christmas and Gawain isn’t a knight. He’s sitting amongst them at the Round Table, drinking, making merry, but he isn’t a knight. When his uncle, the king, tells Gawain to sit by his side, Gawain protests that it isn’t his place, but still, he joins them. He takes a seat alongside King Arthur and Queen Guinevere, a pair with legends that drape over them, heavy as chains.
“You tell me a story of yourself, so that I might know thee,” the king says. Gawain protests he has none. “Yet,” the queen says—a promise, sure, that one day he will have a story to tell, but it’s also a threat, that “yet.” Going out in search of a story always comes with a cost. What lengths will he go to, what will he lose, to earn his spot at that table filled with legends? What will it take for him not to, as the queen exerts, take his place among them idly?
The Green Knight is David Lowery’s lush, loose adaptation of the 14th century poem, “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” The film takes a number of liberties with its source material, including the de-knighting of its central character, Gawain, played by a perfectly cast Dev Patel. Patel manages to layer his Gawain with a veneer of roguishness and bravado, cut through by his desire to be more, his fear that he won’t ever be, and the insecurity of knowing that better men than him have faced the trials of that impossible kingdom. In this version, he’s young and dumb and has a lot to learn about the film’s central question, how one lives with honor in a world that demands everything but. This early in the story, all Gawain knows is that the king has requested a story of him, of which he has none to offer, and then their Christmas celebration is interrupted.
Enter the Green Knight, riding a horse and carrying a barbed branch of holly and an axe. The Green Knight is like an ancient tree, his skin moss-green and heavy with bark, every movement an earthquake through the room’s stone floor. He’s come to offer a challenge: “Let whichever of your knights is boldest of blood and wildest of heart step forth, take up arms, and try with honor to land a blow against me.” Whoever lands the blow will receive his axe as well as “glory and riches,” so long as, in a year’s time, they travel to the Green Chapel and allow him to strike them in return.
The knights of the round table cower; no one steps up; the silence is palpable. This is Gawain’s chance. The King loans him his sword—King Arthur’s sword! The Green Knight kneels, bares his bark-thick neck, and Gawain makes a choice. He could nick the Green Knight’s arm, sure, but look at that neck, tempting, there for the taking, ready-made glory. He swings.
In her preface to Grief Lessons: Four Plays by Euripedes, Anne Carson writes: “Myths are stories about people who become too big for their lives temporarily, so that they crash into other lives or brush against gods.” She continues: “In crisis their souls are visible.”
This is the story of Gawain: crashing through in-progress myths that don’t belong to him, brushing against gods. This is the story of Gawain, stumbling through the forest, his soul bared, searching: For himself, sure, but most importantly, for his legend.
I couldn’t get enough King Arthur when I was growing up. I read every retelling I could get my hands on. Marion Zimmer Bradley. T.H. White. Mary Stewart. I wanted to be a member of court; I wanted to gossip about Guinevere and Lancelot over goblets of wine; I wanted to ride off into battle and draw my sword and then return home, bloodied and victorious.
No matter what slant a new telling took, the stories always felt the same to me. They felt like wandering into a dense, jungle-green forest, sticky with magic; like holding a long, clicking string of beads, each made from a different stone; like getting caught, ankle-deep, in a bog, while the shadow of a beast prowls the perimeter; like drinking too much mead and listening to a stranger speak in tongues.
Which is how it felt to watch The Green Knight for the first time, like being welcomed into a world filled with contradictions and only a little concerned with adhering to its story’s spine. Lowery is purposeful with the way he defamiliarizes the often familiar bones of this story—he never names the king and the queen as Arthur and Guinevere, or the powerful sorceress, Morgan le Fay, Gawain’s mother in the movie but traditionally his aunt. It’s all a reshuffling, an obfuscation. Lowery has lifted out what doesn’t feel necessary, conflated what doesn’t need to be distinct, and subbed in scenes from other books.
The film is divided up into chapters—“The Christmas Court,” “A Kindness,” and “A Meeting With St. Winifred,” to name a few—each of which feels like their own distinct short story. There’s the story about the thieves, guarding a battlefield congested with dead bodies. The story of a woman who’s lost her head in the bottom of a spring, killed by a wandering man. The story of giants, strolling past as if taking a detour from an adjacent Welsh text. The story of a lord and lady, waiting for Gawain in their far-flung manor, eager to serve him his final test before he reaches the Green Chapel.
Throughout, the film is filled with echoes. There’s the axe that’s stolen and then found, the girdle that’s lost and then regifted. One head lost; one head threatened. Two portraits taken. Two women with the same face. Two women wearing blindfolds. We joke about coincidences and encounters such as these being signs we’re living in a simulation. For Gawain, that joke isn’t far from the truth.
This is all Gawain’s mother’s fault. On the evening of Christmas, while the king and queen and the knights and her son gathered around the round table, she gathered with three fellow enchantresses and summoned the Green Knight. Her motives are never explained. She wants to test her son’s virtue, maybe. She wants to give him a legend worthy of knighthood, probably. But the journey will be dangerous—he might lose his head—and she doesn’t want to let him leave without some sort of protection. Just in case. So she gifts him with a green girdle which, she tells him, will protect him from harm, so long as he never takes it off. Of course, he can’t know that this girdle is part of the challenge, too: a double-edged sword.
The Green Knight set the stakes and the King provided the sword, sure, but all of that was engineered by a woman. And it was a woman, Guinevere, who set the terms for Gawain’s participation: to earn his seat at that table. Turns out, men are mostly tertiary to Gawain’s quest. It’s the women who influence him, who try him, who warn him, who scare him. The St. Winifreds, with their detached heads and slippery accusations; the giants, bouldering past, mountain-sized babies suckling at their breasts. Bigger than life, existing beyond the bounds of his story.
It’s the women, too, who are given the monologues that ask the questions Gawain isn’t yet wise enough to know to ask. The two I’m thinking about, in particular, come from two women who share a face—Essel, the sex worker Gawain is sleeping with, and the lady of the manor, both played by Alicia Vikander.
Before the year has passed and before it’s time for him to venture out, Essel tells him to stay. She likes his head where it is, she says. But he made a covenant and, as a man who would like to become a knight, at this point in his journey, his idea of honor is a small, fixed thing. “This is how silly men perish,” Essel says, to which he counters, “Or how brave men become great.”
“Why greatness?” she asks. “Why is goodness not enough?”
But the question comes from a sex worker he refuses to make his lady. It’s not enough to offset the quest set by the intimidating Green Knight and the expectation from his uncle, the king, that Gawain set himself apart. He shrugs off her question. The question of goodness doesn’t bother him. What he wants is knighthood. He wants a seat at that table and poems written in his honor.
Later, Gawain ensconced in the manor with the lord and the lady, the lady asks: Why is the Green Knight green? Why not blue or red? Gawain offers, “because he is not of this earth,” and the lady counters: “But green is the color of earth, of living things, of life.” What follows is a treatise on the color green, a color used in decorations, in dye, but also the color of infestation, creeping rot. “When it blooms beneath our skin, we bleed it out.”
This, in contrast to red, the color of lust. “But green is what lust leaves behind, in heart, in womb. Green is what is left when ardor fades, when passion dies.”
This, coming from the woman who’s been placed in that manor, with that face, just before the Green Chapel, to act as temptation for Gawain, to test the limits of his honor. The next day, she’ll come to his room, offering up a green girdle to replace the one he’d lost (perhaps the same green girdle, with that blindfolded woman hovering in the corner of the room, her blindfold reminiscent of the same one his mother had worn at the beginning of it all), but with a cost. She’ll say, “Do you believe in magic?” and he’ll say yes and she’ll withhold the girdle until he’s allowed her to pleasure him. The lust, red, withers; she presses green into his palm.
Now, though, in that shadowy, candlelit room, she asks, “And what do you hope to gain from facing all of this, this hue?”
Gawain gives the same answer he gave Essel, before his journey began. Honor, he says. He’s facing the Green Knight to prove his honor. Even as he wears that green girdle tight around his waist. Despite the way he earned it back.
If you’ve read the short story, “The Husband Stitch,” by Carmen Maria Machado, inspired by the children’s horror story, “The Green Ribbon,” then you thought about that green ribbon when Gawain tied the green girdle tight around his waist with the assurance that, so long as that girdle stayed knotted around him, he would stay safe and whole; so long as it never came untied, he wouldn’t lose his head.
The set up in “The Husband Stitch” is the same, but different. The main character has a green ribbon tied around her neck that she can never remove, and then she falls in love with a boy. “There are two rules: he cannot finish inside of me, and he cannot touch my ribbon.” But he can’t let it go. They marry; they’re happy. Still, being male, he wants to do the thing he’s been forbidden from. He wants to untie that ribbon. The more she tells him he can’t, the more he insists: But I’d like to.
From the end of that story, once the woman has been exhausted of excuses, pushed until there’s nothing left to push against:
If you are reading this story out loud, you may be wondering if that place my ribbon protected was wet with blood and openings, or smooth and neutered like the nexus between the legs of a doll. I’m afraid I can’t tell you, because I don’t know. For these questions and others, and their lack of resolution, I am sorry.
There’s that question: What happens on the other side of untying this length of green fabric that’s been protecting me all this time? It’s an upending, a ceding of control. An acceptance that, likely, there won’t be anything on the other side, only darkness and the quiet knowledge that at least there’s nothing else that could be asked of you; you’ve given everything; now you’re left with the unknown.
It’s no surprise that The Green Knight recalls so many other works; it wears its influences and references on its sleeve, especially those engaged, at least in part, with the act of myth-making. Lowery has explicitly cited The Passion of Joan of Arc and Bram Stoker’s Dracula as inspiration. There’s “The Husband Stitch,” of course, but then there’s also Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, Kirsten Dunst flitting through the palace like a flighty, indulgent girl to Dev Patel’s unknightly debauchery. In both Marie Antoinette and The Green Knight, their sort-of-heroes have their wings clipped and, after their selfishness, extravagance, they’re left huddling among family as their subjects batter at the door, yelling to be let in, demanding their rulers’ heads.
While writing this piece, I found myself continually returning to Anne Carson’s Red Doc>, a sort-of sequel to her masterful novel-in-verse, Autobiography of Red. Both center on a smaller character from Greek mythology, a red, winged monster. In the sequel, this red monster reunites with his one-time lover; they’ve aged, but feelings are still feelings. They’re still myths, set adrift among humans, “brushing against gods.”
The line I keep returning to isn’t even from the text of Red Doc>, but from Anne Carson’s summation of the book’s project, included on the jacket copy: “To live past the end of your myth is a perilous thing.”
That’s all Gawain wants, after all. He doesn’t want to lose his head. He just wants to see himself become a legend. He’s conflated having honor with being worthy of myths, when they rarely have anything to do with one another. Right now, he doesn’t yet understand honor to be a quiet, lifelong pursuit, but a moment of triumph. He wants to see himself triumph, which he can’t do that as skeleton compost, disposed of at the base of a mossy, stilled tree.
If I’m being honest, I can’t remember how any of those King Arthur books ended. I’m not sure any of them did. In my memory, each book leads easily into the next and then the next—an endless saga without finite conclusions so much as periodic, moral resolutions that come undone in the next installation. The story of Gawain is perhaps unique in that it is a one-off with an ending; the story is his search for his story; once he finds it, that story’s over. Which begs the question: What would a happy ending look like for him? (Not including the one from the lady of the manor.)
The fox, Gawain’s loyal companion since early in his journey, doesn’t think he’ll find it in the chapel. It rounds on him, just as he’s about to cross the stream toward the Green Chapel, and, for the first time, speaks. “Go that way and your doom is at hand,” the Fox says in a gravely, growling voice that recalls that of his mother, maybe. “You will find no mercy. No happy end.” The Fox tells him that there’s no shame in turning away—in fact, there would be honor in it. More honor than in continuing forward, still wearing that green girdle. “Come, come home,” the Fox says. Here, offering another version of what honor might mean: choosing to live for the sake of those who love him, instead of dying just to keep his word.
But Gawain ignores the warning, the entreaty. He’s come this far and the suggestion that he stop after all he’s been through is infuriating. Gawain swings his axe at the Fox, startling it away into the forest, and continues on. When he reaches the Green Chapel, he kneels on a stone step furred with moss and waits. The Green Knight hasn’t woken up yet. He still has time with his body, his head. It’s a moment of rest, gone too soon, when the Green Knight cracks awake.
But when it’s time for Gawain to kneel before the Green Knight, Gawain flinches. The Green Knight chides him, he’s had a year to find his courage. Gawain asks for a moment, and then another. “Is this really all there is?” he wonders. He takes a deep breath, nods, and the Green Knight—stealing the movie with his incredible lines—says, “Then I shall get to hacking.”
But Gawain can’t go through with it. He flees. His girdle has kept its promise—on a technicality.
The years blend together. Gawain returns to court. He’s knighted by Arthur, ascends to the throne, has his and Essel’s newborn child stolen out of her arms, marries another. The years thread gray through his hair. The kingdom goes to war. His son is killed. The kingdom falls. His subjects turn on him. He hides in the throne room, on that same throne he sat beside so many years before, discussing legends. He’s lost—ruined—everything, and for what?
There’s no way forward. Still terrified, he unties his sash. His head rolls.
But this isn’t his happy ending. It isn’t an ending at all. That is the vision of the life he might live with the girdle still safe and tight around his waist. A life without honor. A thin life, easily corrupted. He snaps out of the vision, only to find himself still kneeling in the Green Chapel, the sinews of his neck still attaching his head to his shoulders.
As the lady of the manor said, all those hours ago—“Moss shall cover your tombstone, and as the sun rises, green shall spread over all, in all its shades and hues.” The green would overtake everything, “all you hold dear will succumb to it. Your skin, your bones. Your virtue.”
Gawain still has time to do this moment on his own terms. “Wait,” he says. He unties the sash and drops it on the rocks. “Now I’m ready.” He’s seen the future. He’s seen what it is to live without honor. He’s scared still, of course, but he won’t run.
The Green Knight kneels, runs his thumb along Gawain’s cheek. “Well done,” he says with that voice deeper than the Earth’s crust, “my brave knight.”
This, the first beat in Gawain’s happy ending: Gawain the knight.
“Now,” the Green Knight says. “Off with your head.”
This, the second beat: Sir Gawain without a head.