There is nothing out there quite like The Green Knight. Directed by David Lowery (A Ghost Story, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) and starring Dev Patel (Lion, The Personal History of David Copperfield), it adapts the 14th century poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, whose author remains anonymous. The story follows Gawain (Patel), the roguish nephew of King Arthur who longs to become a knight, but whose reckless response to a mysterious stranger’s ‘friendly’ game takes him on a quest that could claim more he is willing to give. The film has been praised for its stunning visuals, bold reworking of the story, and for Dev Patel’s scintillating turn as a honourless knight searching for virtue. From Lowery’s tactful, attentive direction to Malgosia Turzanska’s bewitching costumes and Andrew Droz Palmero’s hypnotic cinematography, the film itself is a mesmerising meditation on what it means to truly earn the thing you search for. That’s not to say it’s perfect: some critics have found it to be frustratingly opaque and self-indulgent. Others have argued that it’s a bad adaptation which omits the poem’s fun, satirical, and queer aspects, though Jude Ellison S. Doyle makes a persuasive counter-argument that this Gawain is closeted rather than straight-washed.*
This post has its origins in a Cardiff BookTalk discussion in December 2021, hosted by Dr Anna Mercer and featuring guest speakers Dr Usha Vishnuvajjala, Dr Sabina Rahman, and Professor Tison Pugh. To have such a fascinating film dissected by such brilliant scholars is a rare privilege, and it was especially thrilling to hear the speakers discuss duality within the film, as it’s a theme which hews close to my heart. While watching the film, I started thinking of the Green Knight as Gawain’s double, both symbolically and literally. It’s a thought which has haunted me almost as relentlessly as the film has, making the writing of this post something of an exorcism. My reaction to it was visceral, if not immediate. It is an oozing, spooling thought of a story; a slouching towards Bethlehem with no softening prophecy. This is a film that isn’t afraid of waiting: surreal and sensual, it courts silence, romances absence; not darkness visible, but silence audible. I watched that film with my whole body… I was the sash around his waist.
The story of the film is simultaneously simple and intricate. On Christmas Day, a mysterious stranger known only as the Green Knight (Ralph Ineson) arrives at the castle and proposes a ‘friendly Christmas game’: he calls on one of the assembled to strike a blow on him, and to one year later seek him out, so that the Green Knight can strike him an identical blow in return. Gawain, directionless but obliquely yearning for honour, takes up the challenge and, recklessly, decapitates the Green Knight – only for the Knight to pick up his head, remind Gawain of his promise, and leave. Gawain spends most of his borrowed time revelling, before finally embarking on his quest; a quest that will take him on a journey through both a decaying Camelot and his own fragmenting psyche.
It is a film defined by, and indeed predicated on, tensions: between Christianity and paganism, men and women, nobles and peasants, gifts and spoils, red and green. Professor Tison Pugh highlights the way in which the the film establishes itself as Mediaeval text while disavowing it at the same, shifting into multiple genres, including the pornographic.** The casting of Dev Patel itself plays with metatextual tensions: Preeti Chhibber suggests that it goes beyond representation, and Konstantina Buhalis argues that it invites parallels with both the British occupation of India and its attempts to force Christianity in the Crusades. Dr Sabina Rahman observes how Arthur’s assertions of utopianism are refuted by the ‘grim reality of conquest’.** This also speaks, she argues, to the romanticisation of a militaristic, Mediaeval masculinity which the film purposefully destabilises. Acolytes of Horror characterises this as an ‘uncanny masculinity’ which Gawain performs and ultimately conforms to.***
Gawain is the heir to this ‘masculinised’ empire in more ways than one. Imperialism is decay. It is dishonour on an immense scale. Honour – which the film seems to characterise as both ‘courage’ and ‘goodness’ – has left this land. At the start, Gawain is quite literally sleeping through imperialism, snoring as a castle burns in the background. It reminded me of Landscape with the Fall of Icarus by Pieter Bruegel the Elder: the event is tiny in the frame, almost tangential; the fire of imperialism burns in miniature as ordinary life carries on, until it can no longer be ignored. Notably, it is Essel, a peasant woman, who awakens him from imperialism’s dream. Arthur, meanwhile, is deploying some MAGA-esque Mediaeval rhetoric, claiming this grey and withered husk is instead a green and pleasant land to be proud of. Dr Usha Vishnuvajjala suggests the fact that Gawain (in flash forward) can live a long life all while actually ‘dead’ and being kept alive by the girdle, underscores the depiction of Arthurian Britain existing in decay.** While the unnamed King and Queen (Sean Harris and Kate Dickie) can only be Arthur and Guinevere, they are no longer legends but rotting monarchs presiding over a festering Camelot. Their crowns are rusted haloes; they might have been angels once, but their better selves have corroded. Gawain, too, is wasting away by wasting his potential.
And then, as the Lady says, in comes green.
The Green Knight is an avatar of instability and otherness; an ethereal figure of arboreal decadence, he is bold and vibrant while Camelot is grey and withering. Perhaps he comes from a time in which nature flourishes, and is respected and tended once more. He also embodies a paradox, representing green as rot but also vitality, disrupting rule, order, and expectation in Arthur’s court. He even disrupts identity. Gawain is one of the few characters who is given a ‘Christian’ name in the film. The others are known simply by the roles they occupy. This is a society which erodes individuality: in Camelot, you are what you can offer. It is notable, then, that Gawain himself is excised from the title – or is he? While there is a literal ‘Green Knight’ as identified in the film, Gawain too is a ‘green’ knight: an inexperienced warrior at the start of his chivalric journey; naïve, gullible, and easily deceived. The original title of the poem, ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’, delineates between the two characters (though perhaps as much as Dr Jekyll is from Mr Hyde), but here the title recalibrates their dynamic: they either substituted or subsumed; erased or combined, intertwined and, potentially, inextricable.
It’s a significant choice to make, especially given that the film never reveals the Green Knight’s ‘hidden’ identity as the poem does. In the original, he is unveiled as Lord Bertilak, the character played by Joel Edgerton, in disguise and under the command of Morgan le Fay. This character is seemingly portrayed here as Gawain’s Mother (Sarita Choudhury), though she is never named; in contrast, it is Morgause (another of Arthur’s half-siblings), who is Gawain’s mother in the original. In adaptation, then, some characters appear spliced, like Morgan/Morgause, while others are sliced in two, like Lord Bertilak and the Green Knight. While they may still be one and the same, this does not appear to be the case here, as the Knight is never ‘unmasked’. Perhaps the Green Knight is simply the Green Knight: the film’s riff on the Green Man, the Pagan god of nature and rebirth. Perhaps not. I will return to the ‘not’ in a little while.
The most evident use of the double in the film is through the Doppelgänger motif of Gawain’s lovers, both of whom are played by the same actress: Alicia Vikander. The Lady is a ‘perfect’ version of Essel, who possess both the mien of the woman Gawain loves and the status that would make her a suitable bride for a king’s nephew. But it is all surface. While Essel loves Gawain unreservedly, the Lady’s ‘love’ is nothing but conditional, bordering on coercive. And there’s something Freudian about the fact that the green girdle, into which the Lady weaves enchantments to protect Gawain and which plays a significant role in their sex scene, is identical to the one made by Gawain’s mother. Even the girdle is a double.
The girdle is the intersection between temporalities. It is catalyst of two ruptures in time: first, when it is stolen by the scavengers , and second, when Gawain runs from the Chapel with it still around his waist. Even the events are doubled; the flash forwards suggest two possible eventualities, and it remains ambiguous as to which (if any) come to pass. Even catharsis is ultimately withheld: the film ends abruptly after the Knight’s final line to Gawain, ‘Off with your head’, tantalising closure. It could indicate a fulfilment of the bargain, Gawain beheaded. Maybe it means the Gawain that once was is gone; he has moved beyond pride and arrogance, and is now steered by his heart. But I think it’s playfully literal, especially given Ineson’s affectionate line delivery: Gawain can leave the Chapel intact and live his life. We do not know if Gawain became the cruel king we glimpsed (essentially becoming the crumbling Arthur), or that he’ll become a king at all. The audience knows that the Arthurian dynasty, if there ever was such a thing, did not last. In a film so concerned with cyclicity, the post-credits scene, of a child (presumably Gawain and Essel’s daughter) picking up the crown, might be just another alternate future, one where the cycle continues. Perhaps it is equating monarchism with immaturity, or that monarchy is a memory and a crown little more now than a toy.
The fox has been cited by some reviewers as a sly reference to Lars von Trier’s Antichrist (2009), and given Lowery’s arthouse credentials, that’s entirely possible – but it reminded me more of the fox in The Golden Bird, a fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm (aka “things will not go well with you”) which has so much in common with this film, it makes me wonder if Lowery is familiar with it too. It centres on a young prince who is good at heart but who makes the wrong choice at almost every crossroad but the last. It, too, features a talking fox who guides the hero and warns him against danger and foolishness. The hero in both, sometimes heeds the fox and sometimes doesn’t. And in the fairy tale, the fox asks the prince for something in return for all his help; an exchange, which is so central to The Green Knight. Like many fairy tales (Rumpelstiltskin particularly comes to mind), The Golden Bird can be viewed psychoanalytically: we are both the prince and the fox, ever oscillating between our gut and our glory.
The fox in the film guides us to this tale just as he guides Gawain through his quest. Green is the sash and green is the Knight; the colour connects them, meaning that Gawain carries the Knight with him in the form of the girdle, his promise made manifest. In Christian theology, bodies reflect the state of the soul, Dr Eleanor Janega notes, and the neck represents the will – in this case, the will to be courageous, meaning Gawain’s cowardice is embodied in his eventual decapitation. If the external reflects the internal, then for me the Green Knight’s body reflects the decaying state of Gawain’s soul. Not only this, but it is the Green Knight who embodies Gawain’s future self; the self as other. Arthur says to Gawain of the Knight, ‘You must seek him out’, but it is himself that he must truly seek. Winifred tells Gawain, ‘the Green Knight is someone you know’, but Gawain does not grapple with the question of the Knight’s identity. Perhaps it does not matter, maybe he doesn’t care; but what if he already knows the answer? In the flash forward, when he finally removes the girdle, his head falls off, as if the sash was the only thing suturing the mortal wound of the axe. (This is also foreshadowed by Winifred, when Gawain tells her, ‘Your head is on your neck’, and she replies, ‘It might look like it is, but it is not’). Gawain now has the same wound he gave the Knight. He has become him – exactly as the cyclical motif of the film has foreshadowed. As I read it, once Gawain loses his head, he transforms into the Green Knight, as the Lady predicted: the verdigris has indeed overtaken him, and his skin and bones have succumbed to it. His body is his own mossy tomb.
As summer’s blooms shrivel beneath winter’s frost, so too did Gawain become the Green Knight. Time brings both the red and green of which the Lady speaks, just as the Knight is both life and death to Gawain. When Arthur calls Gawain to sit at his side, he replies, ‘it is not my place’. Arthur says, ‘No. Then let it be, today. Its owner is away. Who knows when he will return?’ This establishes Gawain as the lesser of two; someone who takes the place of an honourable man without earning it. This is what drives him when he runs from the Chapel, and in all the dishonour that follows. Honour is something that is earned by giving everything and expecting nothing; it is selflessness incarnate. It cannot be exchanged. But fear can – and fear, not purpose, is what drives Gawain. His existential dread that this is ‘all there is’, prompts him to flee. It is only when he relinquishes his fear, removes his only protection, that he finally earns honour.
The Green Knight says to Gawain during their first meeting, ‘I will return what was given to me, and then, in trust and friendship, we shall part’. What was given to him, I suggest, is a second chance. This is the film’s ultimate cycle. Knight!Gawain has lived that horrific future and has returned to help himself make the right choice. Only once Gawain realizes that a life of selfishness is more dreadful to him than the nothingness he once feared, does he tell the Knight he is ready, and take off the girdle. For me, this means the cycle has ended. Whether the Knight is Gawain, or another poor soul who lost his way, and wanted to save another from his fate it doesn’t matter. Because whether you are searching for purpose, honour, or renown, you are always fighting yourself. You are your greatest opponent. There are external foes who will slow you down, make you doubt yourself, even harm you – individually and institutionally. But the battle of life is fought against, and eventually alongside, yourself. It is a synthesis that is achieved only when you allow vulnerability to be your strength. You give yourself a second chance. We all must find purpose before the green claims us. Except this time, by the final moments, green no longer feels like rot, but rebirth.
I leave this post, as the film leaves us, on a precipice. The film stands in the shadow of John Boorman’s Excalibur perhaps more than any other predecessor. Critic Adam Nayman argues that while Boorman ‘managed to fuse despair with idealism’, Lowery succeeds only in the former. I would respectfully disagree. The film leaves us on the precipice of hope, teetering over the edge. It is the steadying hand that stops you toppling over the brink – but it leaves you to find your footing.
*While it’s a shame that they don’t adapt the queer/polyamorous aspects of the poem, Gawain’s rejection of the Lord’s advances seemed to me more a product of his guilt at how he acted with the Lady, than a straightforward ‘no homo’ moment. It also suggests he has not yet learned honour, because he does not fulfil his end of the bargain, i.e. to give the Lord what he has gained that day.
**Cardiff BookTalk: The Green Knight, 8 December 2021 (Zoom Webinar)
*** It is also interesting that the exchanges in the film largely take place between men – i.e. phrased in terms of ‘I do this and you do that’/‘I’ll give you this, and you give me that’, like the Lord and Gawain, Gawain and the Knight, Gawain and Arthur, Gawain and the scavenger. Exchanges between men and women are more complex, one-sided, or selfless – e.g. Gawain’s mother gives him the sash and tells him he will come home unhurt and with his ‘head held high’. Essel gives her love to Gawain freely, though she longs for marriage – but has no leverage with which to demand an ‘exchange’. The Lady and Gawain engage in a sexual exchange of sorts, but the power dynamics are uneven. And when Gawain asks for something in return for fetching Winifred’s head, she is shocked: ‘why would you ask me that?’