In the 14th-century Arthurian story, the Green Knight comes riding into the great hall at Camelot during extended Christmas-New Year celebrations and challenges any of the knights of the Round Table to take a blow at him with the great axe he carries in one hand – on condition that one year later, the Green Knight will return the blow at the place called the Green Chapel. Only Sir Gawain, Arthur’s nephew, (and let’s get this straight now: it’s pronounced GOW-in) accepts the challenge and beheads the Green Knight with one mighty swing.
The Green Knight, however, remains “horsed” and, reaching down, retrieves his severed head and rides away.
A year later, Gawain must set off to fulfill his part of the pledge.
And that’s the general outline of writer-director David Lowrey’s new R-rated film, The Green Knight. But the original story was very much an exposition of the Christian ideal of knighthood – its virtues and trials – and Gawain is shown to be an exemplar of the chivalric ideal. Mr. Lowrey’s movie is very much not Christian. In fact, it’s modernist and cynical.
Lowrey’s is a Gawain for our time. He’s not yet the knight, as he is in the original tale, and he seems to step forward to accept the Green Knight’s challenge in desperate hopes of winning his spurs and impressing his uncle, the king.
Christmastide upon the land, Gawain (Dev Patel) must demonstrate his courage and honor, as “un chevalier sans peur et sans reproche.” Except he is full of fear (peur) because he’s a dissolute drunk, and many do reproach him, not least he himself.
J.R.R. Tolkien translated the Middle English original, retaining much of its Chaucerian flavor. (Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was contemporary with The Canterbury Tales.) A new edition of Tolkien’s translation was released this summer. Tolkien describes Sir Gawain as “a fairytale for adults” and a parable of “Christian knighthood.”
Indeed, to read Tolkien’s introduction to Gawain – if you believe the great scholar a more reliable authority – is to reject all but entirely Mr. Lowrey’s understanding, his pandering to contemporary tastes.
For instance, with regard to Gawain’s attitude towards women, Tolkien writes that he took delight in their company, was sensitive to their beauty, and “enjoyed ‘the polished play of converse with them.’” But Gawain is also pious, devoted to Our Lady, and that in the major crisis he faces – indeed, a sexual crisis – Gawain shows “absolute worldly ‘courtesy,’ that is complete obedience to the will of the sovereign lady, [while] rejecting it in favour of virtue.”
This is not what happens in the movie. The Gawain of the original tale feels shame, despite the fact that he has not actually fornicated, simply because he feels temptation. His standard is derived from Matthew 5:28: “But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
I’ll not criticize the cast of The Green Knight, who simply do what the writer-director has instructed. London-born Dev Patel, whose heritage is Gujarati (the Indian ethnic group with a unique Indo-Aryan language) might have excited Tolkien’s interest for linguistic reasons, but the creative casting may well have baffled him. I enjoyed it, along with Sarita Choudhury as his pushy, sorceress mother (who summons the Green Knight). The Swedish actress Alicia Vikander plays Gawain’s love interest, Essel, and also the Lady temptress he meets on this journey.
In that confrontation, Gawain ejaculates. I don’t mean he “blurts out” words of protest when the Lady of the castle comes to his bedroom. You know what I mean. Mr. Lowrey shows this – the semen anyway. And absolutely nothing could be further from the truth of the original poem, in which the chaste Gawain goes immediately to the castle chapel, finds a priest, makes a confession, and receives absolution, which as the original puts it, “made him a safe and as clean as for Doom’s Day indeed, were it due on the morrow.”
Is the Gawain of the late 14th century simply too good to be true? Or is the Gawain of the 21st century a reflection of a culture in denial that we are sinners in need of the redemption we should seek most assiduously? Mr. Lowrey’s notion seems to be that no man could resist the likes of Alicia Vikander if she crawled into bed beside him.
The film itself is dark and humorless in every way: morally, emotionally, and visually, suggesting William Manchester’s view of the Middle Ages as, in the title of his interesting book, A World Lit Only by Fire. But Mr. Manchester would have admitted there was sunshine then, even in midwinter.
Not only does Mr. Lowrey like darkness; he likes silence too. People stare at one another, not speaking. The forest primeval is all but lifeless.
One understands that Gawain is on a perilous quest, which will take him through that forest to a far castle and its mysterious inhabitants (the Lady and her husband, played by Joel Edgerton), and along the way to face thieves and a headless woman and a talking fox, and, finally, to the confrontation with the Green Knight (Ralph Ineson).
I came away from the movie wishing its source was a heretofore undiscovered play by Shakespeare – something elegant like The Tempest or A Midsummer Night’s Dream: comedy not tragedy.
Instead, the final meeting between Gawain and the Green knight is an occasion for a prolepsis: Gawain imagines how not fulfilling his pledge to the Knight will bring him great honors. . .and great misery. Mr. Lowrey fails to give us the more inspiring and remarkable ending of the original, or even to get right the identity of the Green Knight or the true test he laid for Gawain.
Mr. Lowrey might have noted the quotation that ends the original poem, referencing Christ’s sacrifice: Hony soyt qui mal pence. “Shamed be whoever thinks ill of it.”
You may also enjoy:
Brad’s Knights of the Round Table
And these thoughts on chivalry:
Edmund Burke’s Chivalry is Gone
G.K. Chesterton’s On Chivalry
C.S. Lewis’ Chivalry