And wonder, dread and war
have lingered in that land
where loss and love in turn
have held the upper hand.
— from “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”
(trans. Simon Armitage)
Despite its canonical status, the long medieval poem “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” is a veritable mixed-bag: its structural sophistication (relative, at least, to other chivalric romances of the period) and genuine charm cannot fully subvert the archaic nature of its plot, characters and symbolism; and, like pretty much every work of surviving early world literature, its importance lies mainly in foundational aspects rather than real artistic quality, which would become more available to writers with the advent of modernity. However, it is certainly an odd tale, and underneath its whimsies one senses something grimmer at play. A danger, even: fatal dismembering contests, the body-horror of the headless, talking warrior, the strange, clandestine games officiated by personages hidden from Gawain’s knowledge, his impotent, not-very-knightly raging at the end, and so on. Plus, the homoerotic subtext in the Gawain-Lord Bertilak interactions point to some authorial mischief, I suspect, although this cannot be proven with any strong degree of accuracy. The story’s opacity, due to historical distance and the anonymity of the poet, simultaneously gestures at these mysteries whilst disclosing them from further scrutiny.
Of course, this has not stopped intense interest in its contents after the re-discovery of the poem’s single surviving manuscript in the early nineteenth century, culminating in reams of academic treatises (thus buttressing its position in the Western canon), a famous translation by J.R.R. Tolkien, and several adaptations into other mediums – with its most recent entry in cinema via writer-director David Lowery’s The Green Knight (2021).
Lowery is a filmmaker best known for his ventures in independent cinema, most notably with Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (2013) and A Ghost Story (2017). An indie darling, and A24’s newest enfant terrible, the adaptation did not seem to be the likely next step in his growing oeuvre, but a confessed love of the medieval poem and an admiration for the fantasy genre, in general, compelled David Lowery to bring the story to the big screen, resulting in, well – a veritable mixed-bag. And should that be surprising? Engaging with early art has its trapdoors, which all-too-easily spring open under those who seek to retroactively insert modern sensibilities into, say, the early sagas of Homer and the Nordic skalds, or the Biblical tales and Gilgamesh’s epic, and so on. “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” is more recent than those works, to be sure, but fiefdoms are a bygone state-of-affairs, Arthur and his Round Table are lost to the mists between verifiable history and sheer conjecture, and chivalry is, in fact, quite dead, with its attendant rituals and customs seen as outmoded, at best, and bizarre, at worst.
A straightforward adaptation adhering to every detail in the original poem would only highlight the great gulf of years and societal shifts separating us from the Gawain poet, so some changes are, of course, necessary. The success of one’s adaptation would rely on the nature of these changes, and, I argue, in one’s attempt to bring the poem’s queerer mysteries to the fore. After all, “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” did not survive the centuries principally for its entertainment value (it’s there but serves as mere window-dressing – the poet even crams the bulk of Gawain’s journey, where he fights beasts and giants, into a stanza or two); what has preserved and distinguished the story resides in its odd fixations. The Green Knight, in particular, is given rather extreme focus. By the end, he, along with his coterie, seems to overshadow Gawain, who is given something of a dressing-down as his famed honor is subjected to examination. Lord Bertilak/The Green Knight actually comes away as the poem’s most interesting character, not so much because his interior life is complex, but due to his very inscrutability, and the strange depths implied therein, even if the poet forces him to unravel the “grand plan” to Gawain in the Green Chapel, thus robbing the story of much of its intrigue.
It’s curious, then, why David Lowery chooses to hyper-focus on Gawain, with the Green Knight as a mere stand-in for Gawain’s own struggles; opting, instead, to shove the strange figure into its most obvious interpretation: The Green Knight becomes less of an agent with his own schemes than a symbol of nature, and of inhumanity (in the Robinson Jeffers sense) more specifically, which Gawain must confront/contend with. As for Gawain, his struggles differ drastically from the original poem, which hews closer to Arthurian tradition and makes very little effort to peer into the layers of his psyche. In the film, Lowery strips Gawain of his fame and standing within Arthur’s court, reducing him to a young man of no renown who accepts the Green Knight’s challenge as a way to prove himself. The story becomes a more head-on critique of Gawain’s honor (or, in the film’s case, his desire to win it) and of man’s…what? Inferiority to nature? His hubris in the attempt to overpower it, to stave off the fact of his mortality?
All of these things and more, as David Lowery clearly latches onto the poem’s many suggestions about these issues, making the points more obviously to soothe 21st century audiences into recognition. Throw in some gorgeous visuals, surrealistic escapades, mumbled, enigmatic dialogue, and a young, attractive actor (Dev Patel, whose star is in ascent) in the lead role – this is, after all, an A24 film – and it becomes clear that Lowery’s adaptation succeeds in creating an aesthetic of profundity, but falls shy of striking the actual mark. For in his attempt to plumb the source material’s depths (and it’s to his credit that he does), he ends up simplifying its mysteries into a typical Hero’s Journey arc, too invested in making the story palatable to modern cineastes than doing something truly innovative with the text.
Now, it is by no means a bad movie, and before I am accused of contrariness, since most aggregator sites give the film a positive score (though it’s worth nothing that its critic-to-audience ratio on Rotten Tomatoes is strikingly lopsided), I will state that the film has a lot going for it. Andrew Droz Palermo’s cinematography can be brilliant, especially with its play/contrast of color, and the Green Knight (Ralph Ineson) is a stupendous creation worthy of his depiction in the poem. The acting is generally good: Dev Patel is convincing as both a tyrant and a wastrel, and Alicia Vikander does effective double work as Gawain’s lowborn lover, Essel, and Lady Bertilak. The secondary/tertiary characters are all well-acted, with Joel Edgerton’s Lord Bertilak and Sean Harris’s sickly King Arthur (so sickly that his raspy pronouncements can be difficult to understand) as clear standouts. David Lowery’s editing is also quite effective, as he propels much of the story without the help of dialogue, especially in the final act’s condensation of a life. The set production is astoundingly detailed, and with the help of Palermo’s work really contributes to the dark, rough-hewn yet majestic medieval fantasy aura.
On a sheer technical level, there is much to recommend. It is on the level of narrative depth that the movie falls short of excellence, much less greatness. Take Gawain, for example, since he is the lynchpin on which the film either fails or succeeds: in the beginning, he is a cad, desirous of a place in his uncle’s court, but content with carousing and taking advantage of Essel’s affections – the antithesis of the original Gawain, traditionally the Round Table’s most virtuous member. The arrival of the Green Knight, and his subsequent challenge, gives him the chance to prove his worth and fulfill his end of the bargain, which he does, after much fretting. Much is made of Gawain’s lack of honor, and David Lowery is clearly critiquing his ambitions, while the original poem takes chivalric code as a given and is more forgiving of Gawain’s “faults” by the end. Lady Bertilak’s monologue is a paean to nature’s power as well as a ridicule of Gawain’s quest – their final encounter, in which he spills his seed at her coaxing, portrays his (i.e. man’s) inability to live up to his own ideals. That all of this is laid out without the slightest hint of subtlety points to the archetypal nature of the film, and for all the focus on Gawain, he is still not a very interesting character.
The various chapters in which, supposedly, valuable lessons are learned so that the tale culminates in Gawain’s acceptance of death under the Green Knight’s axe occur rather matter-of-factly, without much reaction on his end, so much so that the viewer must simply assume character growth where it is otherwise absent. He spends the majority of the film as a cad and in the Bertilak castle, where, in the original poem, Gawain’s honor is put under duress, he pathetically capitulates to Lady Bertilak’s ministrations in the space of, what, two days, and one actual conversation between the two? All the coy tit-for-tat in the poem becomes Patel and Vikander making sexy eyes at each other, resulting in, weirdly enough, probably the film’s most surprising image: Gawain’s semen squelching around his new girdle. Granted, the original Gawain was even more archetypical (as well as childish, albeit less intentionally), but switching one archetype for another that is only slightly more complex is hardly an improvement. And what exactly is the totalizing theme, the quest underneath the quest, that Lowery strives to deliver?
As he kneels to the Green Knight, Gawain projects an imagined future in which he flees his end of the bargain and returns to Camelot with his head on his shoulders, and the green girdle still about his waist. Arthur dies, and Gawain assumes the throne. He bears a child with Essel only to rob him from her, abandoning her to marry nobility, instead. Events progress with the air of inevitability: his dependence on the green girdle, which renders him safe from physical harm, turns him despotic, severe. His son dies in battle – avoidable, one notes, if his father had passed down the marvelous gift to his progeny. Camelot is besieged, and the vision ends with Gawain finally divesting himself of the girdle as the keep’s door is battered down. At this point, the girdle is an intestine, and the motion of him pulling it out of his abdomen at the same time beheads him, thus completing the Green Knight’s game.
The lesson is that avoidance of death leads only to death, and the lack of this realization breeds cowardice and hard-heartedness, rather than honor. And honor, at least in Gawain’s immature conception of it, is simply a way to bypass this realization, and is more about inflating the ego than wisdom. Fair enough, but not exactly Ingmar Bergman, is it? Granted, any film reduced to its “main theme” robs it of its particularities, but the film never really gets more complex than that. The vision, while well-edited, is of such magnitude and specificity it is difficult to argue how, exactly, Gawain is capable of this level of introspection after displaying almost zero growth over the course of the film. The answer is that the audience must simply assume he is, for it services the plot’s denouement, and signs off its themes with a grandiose flourish. However, an astute viewer realizes that David Lowery exchanges one morality play for another – not always a bad thing, of course, when dealt with properly.
Speaking of Bergman, the Swedish auteur had a similar treatment of these themes with his 1957 classic The Seventh Seal, another medieval fable about a knight’s inability to come to terms with his own mortality. A huge difference between that film and this one is that Bergman’s had a sense of humor, and let’s face it: for all its striking visuals, is there anything in David Lowery’s film that can match the iconic image of Max von Sydow playing chess with Death, or the darkly hilarious scene of Death cutting down the tree while the actor atop it pleads for his life? The Green Knight traffics in curt, enigmatic dialogue pregnant with implied meaning – as if too afraid to verbalize any of its thematic undercurrent. The conversations beat-around-the-bush constantly. Sometimes, they are none too subtle (Lord Bertilak teasing Gawain’s honor) in their implications, or are just weird/useless, like Gawain’s encounter with nude female giants, a scene with awesome trailer potential but not much else beyond that.
One of the staler aspects of “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” is its closing stanzas, when, as previously mentioned, the Green Knight unveils himself as Lord Bertilak to a humiliated Gawain. This, in itself, is not wholly bad, but the reveal of Morgan Le Fay pulling the strings all along in an effort to – of all things – scare Lady Guinevere to death just deflates the well-built tension of the preceding drama, as it comes out of nowhere to a reader unfamiliar with the Arthurian cycle. It is telling that Lowery, in his, decides to recast Le Fay as Gawain’s mother (Sarita Choudhury), who calls upon the Green Knight to – of all things – get her son a promotion, as well as to get him to mature. On one level, this ties Le Fay closer to the actual narrative, rather than suddenly shoving her in at the end. Yet, she quickly recedes into the background, and when one realizes that Gawain’s pseudo-epic quest across the ancient British countryside is almost entirely motivated by his mother’s desire for her son to straighten out his act, its overtures towards profundity ring hollow.
In the end, one has to wonder why David Lowery felt compelled to re-tell/re-envision this medieval story in the way that he did. Yes, his on-the-record reasons (in the many press interviews released prior to and shortly after the film’s release) make sense, and it is not totally fair to critique an artist’s work on the basis of his motivations, but when it all amounts to the mere re-glossing of a myth, and the blunt tradeoff of didacticisms, the long ages separating the late medieval era from the 21st century seem even longer, and the inherent strangeness of the poem decidedly less evergreen.
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If you enjoyed this piece, check out the automachination YouTube channel and the ArtiFact Podcast. Recent episodes include an interview with singer Eva Schubert on writing good songs, a philosophical look at kitsch, aesthetics, and NFTs with UK painter Ethan Pinch, and a long discussion on Edward P. Jones’s classic short story collection, “Lost in the City”.
More from Ezekiel Yu: Analysis: Marina Tsvetaeva’s “In Praise of the Rich”, Dual Doldrums: “Office Space” (1999) vs. “Clockwatchers” (1997), Analysis: Wallace Stevens’s “Man Carrying Thing”, The Grace of Spectacle: On Ridley Scott’s “Kingdom of Heaven” (2005)