Image Credit: A24
David Lowery’s The Green Knight is a remarkable high fantasy, cinematic recount of the anonymously authored 14th-century chivalric poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. It seems remarkably faithful within the context of similar adaptations, which have characters named ‘Gawain’ and ‘the Green Knight’, yet almost none of the original story’s major beats. What makes Lowery’s film all the more outstanding among other sword-and-sorcery genre works is the insertion of Arthurian legend into a horror-filled thrill that, at times, seems weighted with emotional investment, which Thomas Malory himself could never manage.
Simply put, Lowery was charged with a significantly difficult task, since the roots of oral storytelling and Arthurian legend rely heavily on symbolism, which could have produced an oppressively dense re-telling. Something that perfectly balances motifs and symbols with great character exposition would perhaps be The Lord of the Rings trilogy. The characters are compelling and don't just feel like they exist and act for the sake of some greater motif or theme, yet they all feel encompassed in some grand quasi-religious narrative, one that alludes to and drops subtle symbols of power, corruption, sin, and redemption. Renowned and cherished in his own right, director Peter Jackson helped to balance the rather transcendental and archetypal nature of old European myth set by Tolkien with a more human element. And ever since then fantasy has struggled to find its footing within that spectrum.
However, Lowery’s The Green Knight successfully grapples with the narrative visualisations ingrained in the original text and presents itself as a film of pure poetry; beautiful and perfectly legible. Instead of bombarding the viewer with the translation of such a rich text, Lowery shapes his characters as catalysts for the story’s overall symbology. In a sense, the film sets itself up to expand beyond the poem to show audiences the consequences of ‘stolen valour’ and the weakness of simply protecting one’s own honour rather than committing honourable actions proactively.
The poem’s vague description of Gawain’s ‘long and interesting journey’ before he arrives at his first destination is further elaborated in the bulk of the film adaptation. As the screen began to fill with thieves, ghosts, and giants, I felt the story remove itself further from the original as it went on. Yet, what some critics of the film seemed to miss in criticising this particular aspect was that the ethical threading of the tale is what most profoundly resembles the 14th-century manuscript.
The Green Knight’s ancient story is wrangled onto the screen as Gawain (Dev Patel), a soon-to-be-knight, musters up the courage to stand up against The Green Knight (Ralph Ineson). It is this meeting and Gawain’s subsequent journey to the Green Chapel which provides the backbone to the fable, as Gawain is trialled and tested for his chivalric stamina along the way. The backdrop for their first encounter is Christmas morning, when the Green Knight barges into Arthur’s court unannounced, and poses a challenge to whoever may be worthy of tackling it: whoever is able to strike him will win his green axe. The catch, however, is that if any knight steps up to prove himself, he will have to travel to the Green Chapel one year hence and receive a blow as part of an equal exchange. Gawain takes it upon himself to decapitate the knight – yet the latter is far from being defeated, as ultimately lifting his severed head, he reminds Gawain of the bargain and rides off from the castle. Here begins our quest.
As Gawain encounters ghosts, giants, thieves, and schemers, the structural arc reveals to us that each lesson or trial he faces along the way shows maturation but not mastery. Hence, it is effectively existential, to the point at which certain allusions and motifs are given meanings consisting of additional metaphysical properties. We see this in the ‘green’ vs. ‘red’ trope – both of these could be read in certain ways, yet the greatest effect it has on The Green Knight’s cinematic landscape is that of environmental contamination due to human intervention and/or vice. This isn’t necessarily an aspect that scholars study in terms of the original poem, but it certainly, as critics David M. Perry and Matthew Gabriele have noted, conducts “a medieval approach to ‘modern’ problems”, such as climate change (Smithsonian Magazine).
The Green Knight is ultimately one of the strongest, visually brilliant films we could’ve had the pleasure of watching this year. It has the power to send viewers reaching back for the source text, yet there is nothing that beats a visionary work of poetry in its most literal sense.
Editor's Note: The Green Knight is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video