Watch The Green Knight: But Read this First
One of those "every man should watch" type beats.
The Green Knight hit theaters late last summer, met with some praise and probably more question marks. I was a huge fan. I’ve done a lot of thinking about this movie - and since it’s now streamable on Hulu I’ve been able to rip a rewatch. You should too. It’s on Showtime this weekend at 7:00 (does anyone have those channels anymore?) But yo, read this first. This movie is super heady, and this will help.
I’ll save the praise for all things A24 and dive right in.
Anything Arthur strikes a chord. The Green Knight immediately leans into its audiences’ at least lukewarm familiarity with its source material (read for some context). The first sequence, an aged, blazing Gawain upon his crumbling throne, presents a frame story: “What happens next is the tale of Gawain - take heed.” This does more than set the tone. It enters into conversation with the legend itself, as if this is the new, improved, and most accurate version of the tale, and not something tossed from a Chaucerian rumor mill.
Chapter One: Family Matters
The premise is simple.
Gawain is King Arthur’s popular yet unproven nephew. These truths are discussed between the two, more so the younger making a promise than acknowledging a debt to be paid. One Christmas morn, a cryptic, looming, somehow ancient figure, The Green Knight, appears before the Round Table to present a fateful proposal:
“Won’t someone from King Arthur’s court engage with him in a duel? And should that knight land a blow upon him, will that knight then ride out to meet the same blow that he had delivered?”
Translation: fight me bro. If you beat my ass, come back to my house next year and I’ll beat yours.
I said it was simple - that doesn’t mean it’s normal.
For the audience, we see that Gawain’s mother summoned the Green Knight in a ritual performed, notably, unbeknownst to the protagonist. His mother’s role in the Gawain’s emergence as a tragic hero provides a critical lens by which to examine the film.
For Gawain, what the Green Knight wants and where he comes from be unimportant. Eager to prove himself, and notably, purposefully, seated beside the King, Gawain steps to the plate. The Green Knight lays down his mossy Great Axe. Gawain draws iron. The Green Knight takes a knee. Bewildered, Gawain clangs his sword, twirls around, gets dramatic. He’d like a better fight than this. This is his moment - and his opponent is suggests a forfeit? Unfortunate, really. After an awkward silence, Gawain - his reputation never been so inspected - has to follow through. Your name and your word mean everything in 5th century Britain. An oft inserted truth throughout TGK.
Off with his head.
From the get go, Gawain lacks agency. The two choices made in this sequence- to first pick up the sword, and then to deliver the blow - were decided before Gawain spoke or swung. Before the King and his company, all of whom are aware of his verdancy, Gawain must rise to meet the challenge. The members of the crowd become co-signers, their presence providing a necessary sense of accountability for Gawain. It’s easy to act Knightly when all who count are watching.
After being decapitated, the visitor’s head lets out a deep laugh. His headless body scoops its head by the scalp and rides off. The timer starts. Tick-tock.
Chapter Two: Uphill
The year on standby winds quickly for Gawain. No egg smoothies or Siberian mountain runs. He instead profits from public opinion, the townsfolk telling the legend of The Green Knight, Gawain, and his battle with the foreign foe.
There is an accurate emptiness to Gawain’s rise to fame. What has he done that another would not? Half-assed compliance - obedience, really - is Gawain’s sole chivalrous trait. Away from the crowds, Gawain comes to terms with the need to fulfill his promise. Without rising to meet the Christmas figure, Gawain’s legacy would continue to build from a moment not entirely his own. Something unfinished.
The film does well to provide Gawain with some outs. He’s tempted to leave the Knight life behind with the peasant Essel, who he at least seems to love. Even there, commitment makes Gawain uncomfortable. At all junctures, he has no interest in being beholden. Whether it be his “royal” destiny to meet the Green Knight, or a more carnal fate to stay with the woman who loves him, he doesn’t want to make a decision. In fact, when asked if he would take Essel to be his lady, Gawain does not speak at all. Again, Gawain’s lack of agency, whether it be his choice or not, becomes a recurring theme in TGK.
Gawain is knighted by a feeble King Arthur, barely able to place his sword on each shoulder (I’d assume it was Excalliber but the film does a great job not referring to Arthur as Arthur, Guinivere as Guinivere, and Merlin as Merlin). Under overcast skies, armed with the moss covered Great Axe, and to the tune of little local fanfare, Gawain rides the road north to meet his fate. It seems as if Camelot has already forgotten Gawain’s heroics - now they want Act II. Is he gonna get it, or not? On (or, off…) with it!
As with any quest, the road is lined with trials of self discovery. Crossing a fresh battlefield, Gawain meets a surly scavenger pilfering arrows and other bloodied rubbish from fallen soldiers. I’d imagine this is in some ways like being approached by a homeless person in New York City - if it’s your first rodeo, you cough up some change. How are you? What else do you need? Would you like something to eat? Only to be marginally disappointed to have your food denied, and request for change up-charged. In the same way, Gawain entertains the scavenger. Tells him about the quest to the green chapel to meet the Green Knight.
The scavenger gives his local directions. “Green chapel? Oh yeah. Right on through there. Follow the stream.” Pretty casual about the whole thing. Then, the kicker: “And could you spare some change?”
Gawain throws a few pieces of coin his way and rides into the forrest. When he’s intercepted by the scavenger’s companions shortly thereafter, he can’t act surprised. Conned and outmanned, Gawain submits, loses his horse, clothing, his girdle and his axe. He finds himself bound beneath a tree, watching the three bandits rip through is luggage for spare parts.
This sequence delivers a necessary humility for an otherwise silver spooned hero. It’s notably unfair what happens to Gawain, his good tithings traded for his full monty, before his eyes and against his will. Down to his skivvies, and perhaps his last breaths, Gawain squirms for survival, eventually breaking loose from his captures and seeking refuge and his lost Great Axe in the forrest.
The naive Gawain’s first taste of the real world yields two lessons that are surface level, but true. 1) Life is not fair and 2) don’t trust strangers. In a beautiful merge of form and function, Gawain’s lessons increase in weight and depth as the journey progresses. The deeper he dives in to his quest, the more we unpack his subconscious.
Chapter Three: The Women in the Woods
It’s important to recognize that in the source material, and the Arthurian genre at large, women are typically static. Women are treated as a singular entity, existing as a boundary for the predominantly male protagonists to exist within.
The Green Knight does work to deconstruct these narratives, providing Essel, Guinivere, Morgan la Fey and others with power. When confronted, their council is considered in earnest, each dynamic in their perspective. That is to say, not all women are the same. A low bar, but a win for TGK.
What requires deeper reading is Morgan la Fey’s motivations. Performing a ritual behind the scenes, her magic summons the Green Knight on that fateful Christmas mourn. Before he departs, Morgan gifts Gawain a protective green girdle, promising Gawain that so long as he wears it, he will be protected. Hmm.
You wonder if she knew the details of the arrangement with the Green Knight. Or that Gawain would be the one to step into the circle.
Does she then know that Gawain then will die? Why present him with the girdle then? A false sense of security to ensure Gawain will fulfill his destiny? Or is there truly magic there, should Gawain choose to believe in it?
What dubious roles parents play in the evolution and fulfillment of their children’s dreams.
Still, mama can’t leave baby out to dry. Early in Gawain’s travels be befriends a fox. It becomes clear that Morgan has in part manifested herself through the fox, as both guide and companion.
Is Morgan a helicopter parent? Afraid to let the world get the best of her beloved Gawain.
Be careful what you wish for, mama.
Gawain encounters an enchanted cottage, housing the soul of a young woman, Winifred, who, ironically, was also once decapitated. Gawain must retrieve Winifred’s missing skull, which rests at the bottom of a nearby lake.
The parallels between Arthur and Gawain are not necessarily examined in the film but anyone familiar with the source material would immediately recognize the similarities to Arthur’s search for Excallibur via the Lady of the Lake, oft considered Arthur’s rite of passage in assuming his place as rightful heir to the throne. Here, Gawain is instead proving something to himself. However, he is again assigned a task by someone else. This is not something Gawain chooses for himself.
It’s pretty spooky - but the task proves to be light work and Gawain is rewarded at first light the following morning: The Great Axe has been returned. His mission continues.
This sequence restores the sense of justice eschewed upon entering the woods. Normalcy restored; Good deeds have been rewarded. This reminds us that The Green Knight, although subversive in style, still belongs to the common tropes implicit in its genre. The continuity allows the film to be consistent with the promise from the opening sequence; this is the tale of the Green Knight.
Gawain witnesses giants migrating through a valley. They are all female mothers. Some critics claim this scene (and others) are hallucinations. I’m taking it at face value.
Gawain notably asks the giants to carry him north. As a giant reaches for him, his fox companion (who, again, I believe represents Morgan, his mother) howls a song whose pitch is matched by the mothers. I believe this scene is included in order to illustrate Gawain’s attachment to mother figures, which in turn can be interpreted to reflect his verdant immaturity. The fox’s song works in two ways: 1) Her song is the same of all the migrating mothers, hoping to guide their children to their destiny and 2) Another similar understanding between parents, this journey is between her and Gawain - other parents begone.
The women in The Green Knight play a key role in understanding Gawain’s growth within the film. In their presence, Gawain yields to their power. Whether that be a result of his hunger or lust is case by case.
Chapter Four: The Castle
Okay so let’s recap. Who is Gawain and what has he learned so far? Gawain’s lost and found ego brings him down to earth, but beyond that he still hasn’t proven much. His appointment with the Green Knight looms large, but he seems no more ready for the encounter than he was to start his odyssey, much less a year ago.
The Lord and the Lady. The gregarious Lord of the castle near the Green Chapel meets Gawain as if he’s been expecting him. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight the Lord of the castle is actually the Green Knight - but here he only offers directions to the castle and heads off to hunt. His Lady, double cast with Essel, is the most transparent character in the film, perhaps a result of the other women leading up to that moment.
I’ll cut to the good part. The Lady makes her advances while the Lord is out hunting. Nice. While the dog’s away and all that. Where it really gets interesting: the Lady produces an eerily similar (if not, the same) green girle for Gawain. Gawain and green girdles man. This guy.
What happens next can only be defined as hardcore soft porn. The Lady persists that Gawain take it. Do you want it Gawain? I know you want it. Just take it. It’s yours. You know you want it.
It’s all pretty steamy, and then…
It gets creamy.
The Lady scolds Gawain.
“You’re no Knight.”
Post-nut clarity never hit so hard. Again made aware of his humanity, our green knight’s shawl feels more like a jizz rag than a cape.
Chapter Five: The Green Chapel
The Green Knight sounds like a cathedral. Its words and its sonics emphasize the baked in Christian symbols. It can be a little epic. But again the commitment to the genre becomes a valuable asset in building a consistent tone throughout the film.
So many times it’s been said that what we do when no one’s watching defines our character. It can be fascinatingly difficult to do what’s difficult. Especially if we have a way out.
Into the Green Chapel Gawain goes. He waits. He waits some more - maybe he’s hopeful he won’t wake up? Another forfeit. What would that do for you? The things you’d think about, a sleepover in the house of destiny.
Night falls. In the morning the Green Knight awakes.
They cut to the chase. Such is life on Christmas morning, opening presents and all that. Gawain assumes his position. Twice he dodges the blow - would you too, not flinch? No matter how long you’d had to process the result. For once you, and you alone, are truly confronted with that which is difficult. Finally, the choice is yours, and yours alone.
At this point, Gawain has a vision in which he sees himself running from the chapel, returning to Camelot a hero. This is of course a lie. Over the course of the rest of his life, his legend grew with more and more speculation. He knew he was not worthy - eventually losing all fame and credibility within his kingdom. Gawain’s vision provides a carousel for our themes in less than five minutes. Gawain’s dependence on his mother (the girdle), the emptiness of legacy without truth, his own mortality and fear of abandonment.
What kind of man do you want to be? Someone who stays true to his morals and is remembered for doing so? Someone who lives for the shine and the shame of fame without true action? Someone who takes the girdle and spumps on his stomach in private?
Then, it’s off with his head.
Gawain does what few can. He followed through on his promise. He kept his word. Facing fate, Gawain stood (rather, kneeled) there and took what was coming.
Could you stare down the barrel and accept the truth in your heart?
Would you too, not flinch?