“Whilst we’re off looking for red, in comes green…”
A knight errant (or should that be apparent) dives into a lake on an errand given by a sainted spirit; as he is consumed by the dark water, it turns from blood-red to a star-filled night sky. Later he poses for a portrait (in fact a photograph) for a Lady Temptress; as the image gradually emerges out of the inky black, he is seen surrounded by stars. This same wild-hearted wannabe knight is given two identical protective belts: green (of the earth) and flecked with gold (of the stars). Perhaps this combination of the earth and the heavens is what gives this belt its strength, its power? And his eventual crown will have the rays of the sun extending from its headband. So why is young Gawain, King Arthur’s nephew (played here by Dev Patel), who has mostly been ignored until he volunteers for a foolhardy quest, portrayed as a celestial being several times in David Lowery’s adaptation of The Green Knight?
For people of the Middle Ages, the stars offered comfort and order—they were reliable and predictable in a chaotic, often profoundly dangerous world. When Gawain is aligned with the stars, it suggests that he represents order and control being brought to his foe—the Green Knight (Ralph Ineson)—who is of an unruly and earthly nature. But does the control come from Gawain? Or is he the one being manipulated by outside forces? He has the expectations of his uncle King (Sean Harris) and he has the secret machinations of his witchy mother (Sarita Choudhury), who pulls his puppet strings. On his arduous journey he is given challenges, warnings, temptations, pushed and pulled in many directions, but in the end chooses his own fate.
If the Green Knight thus represents earth and nature, Lowery does not present this as a pretty or peaceful thing—instead it is virulent and violent, a rot that spreads, an evergreen force conquering life and ravaging time. The most indelible moment in a film marked by memorable shots and sounds is Gawain gagged and bound by forest scavengers. The camera whirls and circles—swooping away from a living, breathing being, towards a skeleton, then reversing back to life again. The sounds of death become overwhelming—wind whistling, flies buzzing, crows cawing and fighting over carrion. “Green shall spread over all… try as you might, all you hold dear will succumb to it. Your skin, your bones, your virtue” as the Lady says. So even if Gawain chooses life at the end, death will inevitably come “creeping up the cobbles”—it comes for us all and we are all destined to be forgotten, no trace of us will remain, nature will reclaim us. “She’ll suck em in and tuck em tight.”
This is why legend and legacy have importance in this world—it comes from a desire for longevity, to give life meaning by having tales told about us after death. Problems can come when stories and myths are already circulating during our lifetimes, however. We don’t know what is real, what is to be trusted. The boy (Barry Keoghan) scavenging bodies on the battlefield says “the king they say, they say the king killed 960 all on his lonesome,” but we have seen the aged Arthur with our own eyes at this point and thus know this to be unreliable rumor. One could argue the entire plot is sparked by Arthur’s need for a good story—”Who can regale me and my Queen with some myth or canto of thine own purport?”—and then enters the Green Knight with his “friendly Christmas game.” Gawain volunteers because he has “no tale to tell” and hopes to live up to the “legends” he sees around his uncle’s round table.
Gawain’s encounter with Winifred (Erin Kellyman) reinforces the fact that reality and fiction are blurred in this world. She asks if Gawain has heard of her. He has not—perhaps only men like Arthur and Gawain get to have their names spread across the land, reminding us that history is selective and subjective. When Gawain reasonably finds her head… upon her shoulders, she responds with “it might look like it is, but it is not”—a warning that we should not believe our own eyes, as even they can lie. Gawain asks her “are you real or are you spirit?” and she responds with “what is the difference?” This was a world wherein religion, magic, and astrology were as real as any other aspect of life.
During his stay with the Lord (Joel Edgerton) and Lady (Alicia Vikander), the Lady tells him in the library “they’re tales I’ve heard, songs that have been sung to me. I write them down—and don’t tell anyone this—when I see room for improvements: I make them.” An audacious line in the film adaptation of one of the most famous and studied works in the English language. This is a wink from Lowery to the audience, but also a reminder how our history and traditions have been told over time: with constant adaptation. The entire final act is Gawain wrestling control of his fate, his story, and the stories that will be told after he is gone.
The other aspect in The Green Knight that has us questioning everything we’re seeing and hearing is a blurring of identities, the most obvious of which being Alicia Vikander playing two roles: Essel (Gawain’s mistress, a prostitute) and the Lady Temptress. In the original story, Morgan le Fay is Gawain’s aunt, but here she appears to be his mother and (although played by a different actress) to also embody the mute, blind crone who resides with the Lord and Lady. When the Green Knight delivers his letter to the court, Guinevere (Kate Dickie) reads it, speaking with two voices. When Gawain’s companion, the fox, finally speaks, he also seems to use a combination of voices – possibly his uncle and mother? And Winifred’s head warns Gawain “the Green Knight is someone you know”—reinforced when his face briefly flashes through all of the main characters (including Gawain himself) in the dappled light of the Green Chapel at film’s end. The rigid medieval worldview is constantly challenged by Lowery—everyone and everything, chiefly Gawain himself, is more complex than this world can cope with.
Gawain does not neatly fit into this black-and-white world of extreme dichotomies. He is morally complex and flawed; he fails to uphold pretty much every one of the five knightly virtues, is upfront about this from the start—“I fear I’m not meant for greatness”—and admits his cowardice to the Green Knight at the end. He can’t even say “honor” convincingly to the Lord, lacking conviction and any sense of forging his own path. So is shown in the use of fire and water from the very start—in the first image of Gawain we see his head burst into flame, a neat parallel with his head popping off his shoulders and rolling onto the floor at the end. Then a random fire starts on a rooftop, just outside the brothel window, where Gawain sleeps obliviously. The fire is a sign of the unpredictability of medieval life, which could turn catastrophic or deadly at any moment—viewed as the whim of God or the course of the stars. Gawain sleeping through it shows that he ignores warning signs from the off, something he later does more blatantly with the (fire-colored) fox. Gawain (not the fire) is then doused with water by Essel to awaken and he proceeds to spend much of the film wet for one reason or another. When he returns home in the epilogue, his mother washes him—cleansing him of his sins in a baptismal ritual. Arthur first loans, then bequeaths Excalibur to Gawain, which of course came from the Lady in the Lake.
Gawain being aligned with water shows him as being out-of-step with the fire of the world around him, just as him being depicted as a celestial being puts him at odds with the earth-bound Green Knight. Gawain doesn’t fit the mold that those around him try forcing him into, attempts to become who they want generally breeding disaster. One of Gawain’s first lines is “I’ve got lots of time… I’m not ready yet.” His last lines are “Now I’m ready. I’m ready now.” Only upon seeing his “future” does Gawain accept the present and finally gain control of destiny. He can accept death on his own terms. Lowery presents a much more complicated and frequently unlikeable version of Gawain than the original poem. But this Gawain is an Everyman, not some virtuous and chivalric knight; he could be any one of us. And his journey is as messy and frustrating as the average life—full of pit stops, false starts, u-turns, and side quests. Perhaps we only need to make the best of this journey on our way to the Green Chapel.
The Green Knight is now in theaters and arrives on VOD today.