Grappling with the Green Knight: David Lowery's The Green Knight
Reviewed by:Kevin J. Harty, La Salle University
An initial voice-over promises us a tale, and students of Chaucer know that good medieval tales contain both sentence and solaas, so does David Lowery’s mesmerizing, multi-layered adaptation of what is arguably the finest romance from medieval England, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
In Lowery’s film, simply called The Green Knight, we meet a young Gawain (Dev Patel) on Christmas morn fresh from the brothel and on his way to mass at the castle—presumably Camelot. The film never tells us that the King (Sean Harris) is Arthur, that his sister (Sarita Choudhury) is Morgan Le Fay, or that his Queen (Kate Dickie) is Guinevere—but it is easy enough to infer so, and it ultimately makes no difference one way or another if we are indeed in Camelot. The film is a coming-of-age story of Gawain, a child of privilege—he is nephew to this king and son to this king’s sister—who has yet to perform any deeds of derring-do. At best, he seems to manage trips to the brothel, where he loses his boots (and more), and to the tavern, where he brawls rather than battles. He is not yet a knight, nor does he seem to be anyone’s squire. At the film’s beginning, we would then seem to have Gawain the Slacker.
While the court is set to celebrate Christmas, vestiges of the old pagan religion survive, often thanks to the practices of the women of the court. There is a version of a roundtable, around which sit knights who, we are told, are living legends. While Gawain sits in their company, he is more at home with his brothel and tavern friends, especially his bedmate, Essel (Alicia Vikander), who craves more respectability than her social station will ever allow. Whether Gawain is in love or simply in lust with her is not always clear.
Heirless, the King looks with affection on his nephew, hoping for great promise from him, but, again, Gawain has no tales yet to tell. It is a time of peace, though hard-won peace, as the King boasts of his slaughter of the Saxons—later we see a vast battlefield littered with rotting corpses—thanks to the efforts of his brothers in arms. But the feast requires a tale—we have come a long way, yet are back to where we started, a pattern of interlacement that Lowery repeats throughout his film. And Gawain has no tale to tell, though, as in the poem, something even better than a tale, a game, will soon present itself when a huge Green Knight (Ralph Ineson), looking somewhat like a gigantic version of Groot from the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise, barges into the court and proposes a game of exchanges—tit-for-tat: someone chops off my head, and, in a year, I chop off theirs. Those knights of legend want no part of the bargain, but, surprisingly (perhaps even to himself), Gawain accepts the challenge and decapitates the verdant visitor with the King’s sword (Excalibur?). The visitor promptly retrieves his head, reminds all present of what is to happen at the Green Chapel in a year, and rides off leaving his massive green axe behind. With feasting set to commence, the King reminds Gawain that what has just happened “is only a game.”
But homo ludens is nothing if not complicated. Gawain spends much of the ensuing year in the brothel or in the tavern, though two Punch and Judy shows remind everyone what awaits him. As in the poem, Gawain is suitably armed, with the Queen chanting the passage about the five fives as he dons a coat of chainmail, a Bishop (Donncha Crowley) blessing his shield bearing an inner image of the Virgin, a pentangle—previously seen hanging conspicuously around the King’s neck—affixed to the other side, and a green sash—the first of two—given to him by his mother to protect him from harm. Somewhat incongruously, Gawain even poses for his portrait, profile right in a ludicrous stance of a victor returning from the wars—the painter, further complicating the anachronism, is an unidentified woman.
Suitably accoutered, Gawain sets out on his journey to the Green Chapel passing through a countryside littered with dead corpses—perhaps those of Saxons earlier killed by the King to achieve peace at any cost. That journey contains four encounters. The first is with a Scavenger (Barry Keoghan), who alternately taunts and guides Gawain, and eventually betrays him after asking for “a little kindness” for supposedly pointing him in the direction of the Green Chapel. Their encounter represents the second exchange in the film, both anticipating further ones and raising a question about whether gifts are ever given freely, or only with the hope of receiving something in return. The Scavenger and his companions ambush Gawain, steal his horse, break his shield, ride off with the great green battle axe and the green sash, and leave him bound and gagged on the floor of the forest. In a frenzy, thanks to a quick 360o camera pan, Gawain imagines his corpse rotting away months later in the forest. But Gawain’s sword is still to hand, and he manages to cut the ropes that bind him and free himself.
Gawain then encounters a red fox, an animal rich in symbolism in the medieval bestiary and crucial to the original poem, who becomes his vulpine sidekick, as he journeys on, next encountering a race of giants—digital special effects are de rigueur in action-adventure films, after all—and finally a woman named Winifred (Erin Kellyman), who has lost her head. The original poem simply notes in passing that Gawain’s passage to the Green Castle takes him near Holyhead, site of St. Winifred’s Well.
Winifred may have been a 7th century Welsh “honorary martyr.” Legend and later medieval vitae have it that she refused the advances of a suitor, choosing instead to become a nun. Enraged, the suitor cut off her head which fell into a spring or well that became a source of miraculous healings. Winifred’s head was, however, quickly restored to its rightful place by St. Beuno, who also called down God’s justice on the suitor who was in turn just as quickly swallowed up by the earth. Winifred then lived a happy conventual life, establishing several monastic communities for women. Wells associated with her cult can still be found today in Shropshire and Cheshire.
Winifred’s presence in the film is appropriate because of her beheading (hers is the second decapitation tale in the film), because of the price she is willing to pay to maintain her chastity (Gawain has already given his away rather cheaply, and will do so again), and because of an exchange she has with Gawain when she asks him to retrieve her head from the spring and he asks what she will give him in return. Gawain has yet to sort out the difference between being selfish and being selfless.
Nearly at his wit’s end, Gawain stumbles upon a castle where he is welcomed by a gracious Lord (Joel Edgerton), his equally gracious Lady (Alicia Vikander, who, in an interesting case of double casting, also plays Essel), and an unidentified Blindfolded Woman (Helena Browne), who like all the film’s women is more prescient than her blindfold should allow. Events play out at the castle in a pattern familiar enough to those who have read the poem. The Lord of the castle hunts and promises to exchange whatever his trophy is with Gawain’s, as the Lady of the castle hunts Gawain. The Lord produces a dead wild boar and the red fox in a sack; Gawain offers a kiss, though he has also had from the Lady of the castle a second protective green sash and a masturbatory ejaculation that proves he is “no knight.” Embarrassed and ashamed, Gawain flees the safety of the castle—castles have never been all that safe here or earlier in the film—and reaches the Green Chapel where Lowery offers viewers two possible outcomes for Gawain’s encounter with his green nemesis, after the fox, instead of a servant from the castle as in the poem, offers him a coward’s way out of his bargain with the Green Knight.
In the poem, Gawain flinches, but eventually submits to the axe. In the film, Gawain (or so it would at first seem) repeatedly refuses the blow and runs away returning to the now-ailing King’s court—there is a suggestion here in Lowery’s film of a parallel to the plight of the Fisher King in the Grail legend—only to succeed him to the throne, have a son by Essel, abandon her, marry a Princess (Megan Tieran) who bears him only daughters, renew the King’s wars, suffer utter defeat, and sit on his throne as his castle’s walls collapse around him.
In an alternate ending, Gawain is initially hesitant, but submits, only to be spared by the Green Knight as the credits roll. By posing two very different outcomes, Lowery suggests that Gawain has a clear choice to make, and that choices have consequences. In a pattern that we have seen him follow before, Gawain can be selfish, and the consequences will be disastrous for more than himself, or he can be selfless, and he can save himself and presumably prove that he has grown up. In the film’s opening scene in the brothel, someone calls out “you a knight yet?”
Lowery has then made a film that is less in keeping with the plot of the poem and more with its themes, and, as such, it succeeds in ways that the two previous film adaptations of the poem failed. Stephen Weeks’ 1973 Gawain and the Green Knight is perhaps most memorable for Murray Head (remember him?) as Gawain’s terrible hairdo; Weeks’ 1983 remake, Sword of the Valiant, for its iridescent Green Knight played by, of all people, Sean Connery.
More importantly, Lowery has given us a Gawain for today. As Kaufman and Sturtevant convincingly argue in their The Devil’s Historian, extremists of various stripes consistently abuse the medieval past, recreating a Middle Ages that never was to suit their agendas. Gawain may indeed represent the flower of knighthood, but such flowers are often depicted as blonde and blue-eyed, or some other markedly Caucasian variation thereof, to shore up fictional ideas of Anglo-Saxon racial purity and superiority. When I saw Lowery’s film, I was also treated to a trailer for The Last Duel, a film based on the last trial by combat fought in France in 1386, starring the all-American duo of Matt Damon and Ben Affleck (who has subsequently been replaced by Adam Driver). Medieval knights don’t come much more red, white, and blue than they do. But Lowery has made some bold casting choices, especially for Gawain and his Mother. Neither plays easily into any political miscasting of the medieval.
Some critics in the trades and dailies seemed hard pressed to know how to react to Lowery’s film, often comparing it to other medieval or Arthurian films. In the New York Times, A.O. Scott, for instance, situated The Green Knight, somewhat incongruously, between The Seventh Seal and Monty Python and the Holy Grail. If Lowery’s film has any connections with earlier attempts to bring the medieval to the screen, it would be with Ridley Scott’s 2010 Robin Hood, which attempted to show how a yoeman archer might have become Robin Hood, and with Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, which attempted to show how an orphaned grifter might have become King Arthur. But Lowery’s film is much better than either of these two films in exploring how the storied Gawain did, or did not, rightfully become so storied, and how the Middle Ages were anything but a perverted fairy tale establishing Anglo-Saxon racial superiority.
Lowery’s film also earns points for its strong depiction of women. The Mother—be she Morgan Le Fay or not—is clearly empowered by the vestiges of the old pagan ways. And the Lady of the castle is not only a temptress playing out her role in what is “only a game,” but also an accomplished scholar. She owns an impressive library of manuscripts. She can read and write, and even compose—indeed, she literally composes one chapter in the tale of Gawain when he sexually assaults him, proving he is “no knight.” She also produces a second portrait of Gawain—anachronistically with what is in essence a camera obscura—which hangs scowling behind him in the less than noble alternate ending Lowery first posits for Gawain’s quest.
Technically, Lowery’s film is flawless. The cinematography is breath- taking. The sound and music—a blend of medieval and post-modern—are first-rate. Location shots in Ireland use landscapes and multiple sites in Wicklow and Tipperary, where the 12th century Cahir Castle serves as the location of the King’s court—as it did for John Boorman in his 1981 film Excalibur. Arthurians may continue to debate whether there are indeed any good Arthurian films, or, if there are, which are their favorites. Elsewhere, I have argued that there are indeed good Arthurian films, and I have readily added David Lowery’s The Green Knight, telling as it does a tale of Gawain full of both sentence and solaas, to my list of such films.
Kevin J. Harty
The Green Knight, David Lowery: director/writer/editor, photography by Andrew Droz Palermo, design by Jade Healy, costumes by Malgosia Turzanska, music by Daniel Hart. A24 Films, 2021. 140 minutes.