The Medieval world is the world of legends; and the term, ‘Medieval legends’ conjures up chivalrous tales related to King Arthur and the valiant Knights of his Round Table at his castle and court, Camelot. The legend of ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is one such legend celebrated in the late fourteenth-century eponymous chivalric romance written by an anonymous poet. David Lowrey’s 2021 film, The Green Knight, is the latest cinematic rendition of that legend.
The Green Knight takes its viewers’ familiarity with the chivalrous world of the Arthurian legends (without which a comprehensive appreciation of the narrative of the film remains considerably deficient) for granted. The Arthurian legends emerged in the background of the invasion of Britain by the barbaric North European Germanic people also known as the Teutonic people from present-day Germany and Denmark in the fifth century. The invaders comprised the warlike tribes, namely, Angles, Saxons, and Jutes. Even though the Britons fought the invaders fiercely and defeated them at the Battle of Mons Badonicus, the latter proved rather invincible. Vanquishing the natives, the invaders settled in Britain, and eventually developed a common cultural identity for themselves as Anglo-Saxons.
The only recorded mention of the British victory over the Germanic tribes is found in the sixth-century Latin book, De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain) written by Gildas the Wise, a British monk. For reasons unknown, Gildas does not talk about the person who led the British to victory. The absence of the name of the war hero gave rise to the possibility for the birth of the legends of King Arthur.
Apart from Gildas’ reference to the battle of Mons Badonicus and some hints about the times in the surviving Anglo-Saxon poetry of this period, there is no written record of the history of this period of Britain. Six centuries after the Anglo-Saxon invasion, in 1130, blending poetry and myths, Geoffrey of Monmouth, the Bishop of St. Asaph, wrote in Latin a chronicle, The History of the Kings of Britain, which compensated for the absence of the official historical record of the times of the Anglo-Saxon invasion.
Legends related to the British king, Arthur, who is believed to have headed the defense of Britain against the invading Anglo-Saxons forms the heart of this chronicle. In 1155, Wace, a French poet, translated the chronicle into French. Wace introduced the legends of Excalibur (Arthur’s sword), Camelot (Arthur’s castle and court), Merlin (Arthur’s wizard), and the renowned Round Table into the Legends of Arthur.
Based on Wace’s translation of the chronicle, another twelfth-century French poet, Cretien De Troyes, wrote a series of romances that not only enhanced the Arthurian legends but also expanded their popularity further. Mixing adventure with romance and love, Troyes introduced stories of individual knights, stories of the Holy Grail, and stories of romance and love into the body of the Arthurian legends. As the Arthurian legends began gaining increasing popularity, they began to be translated into several languages. In the fifteenth century, Thomas Malory, an English writer and compiler, put these Arthurian legends together in Le Morte d’Arthur (The Death of Arthur) laying the foundation for most of the modern accounts of King Arthur and the Knights of his Round Table.
Whether Arthur was a historical figure or not is difficult to ascertain. However, as we know him today, Arthur emerged from the Arthurian legends (referred to as The Matter of Britain) celebrated in Medieval Celtic folklore and poetry. The Matter of Britain is one among the three ‘Matters’ dealing with Medieval European history, the other two being The Matter of France and The Matter of Rome.
Arthur and his knights assembled at Camelot’s Round Table, a symbol of the equality of all at the table. These knights bound by the code of chivalry were an order in the service of Arthur, entrusted with the mission of fighting every form of injustice and evil, ensuring peace in the kingdom, leading the quest for the Holy Grail, and so on. Legends related to each of these knights are also part of the Arthurian legends. Sir Gawain is one of Arthur’s famous knights; and the fourteenth-century poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, celebrates a legend related to Sir Gawain. Lowrey’s film, The Green Knight, is his cinematic rendition of the legend.
Departing significantly from its literary original with the filmmaker’s poetic license, The Green Knight has King Arthur (Sean Harris) at his Round Table with his queen, Guinevere (Kate Dickie), and his knights for a Christmas feast. Through her magical charms, Morgan le Fay (Sarita Choudhury), the sister of Arthur and the mother of the yet-to-be knighted Gawain (Dev Patel), sets the sequence of events in the narrative in motion by summoning a mysterious green-coloured Knight (Ralph Ineson) to the banquet hall. The Green Knight challenges the knights in the hall to a friendly Christmas game at which the daring volunteer will be allowed to strike one blow at him on the condition that the former be allowed to return the blow on the following year at the Green Chapel with the green axe that he will leave behind with the daring knight as a gift. Gawain, the hitherto purposeless and directionless young nephew of Arthur who has not yet undertaken a quest to prove his chivalry and valour to become a knight, steps forward accepting the challenge and strikes a blow with Arthur’s Excalibur at the Green Knights neck cutting his head off. To everyone’s dismay, the Green Knight gets up, picks up his severed head, reminds Gawain to honour the agreement, gets on his horse, and rides off.
As the appointed time to honour the agreement comes closer, Gawain sets out in search of the Green Knight, his destiny, to the Green Chapel with the green axe. His valiant quest for and encounter with the Green Knight should qualify him to attain the status of a chivalrous and heroic knight. As he embarks on his perilous journey towards the Green Chapel, he treads the road of many trials during which he is tested and found wanting in the virtues expected of a knight – piety, friendship, generosity, courtesy, and chastity. He is found wanting in other associated virtues as well.
The film’s beginning with Gawain’s waking up in a brothel on Christmas morning announces him as a man devoid of religious piety. As he embarks on his quest, his total disregard for the children on the road who call out to him offering him a sword and wishing him good luck manifests his unfriendly demeanor. His negligence in rewarding the battlefield scavenger (Barry Keoghan) who shows him the direction towards his destination underlines his lack of compassion, sympathy, and generosity towards the poor and his lack of courtesy. This lack of courtesy will make him fall asleep in the bed of young Winifred in an abandoned cottage until he is awakened by her ghost. Winifred’s soul cannot attain peace until her severed head lost in the nearby spring is rejoined with her body. Gawain fails further in courtesy, sympathy, compassion, and honour as he asks Winifred what she would give him in return for retrieving her head from the spring. At the tail end of his journey, as he takes shelter in a castle, he trades his chastity for an object of self-preservation — a green girdle. After making a pact with the lord (Joel Edgerton) of the castle that he would exchange with the lord whatever he earns in the castle for whatever the lord obtains hunting in the wild, he refuses to part with the green girdle that the lady (Alicia Vikander) of the castle gives him as a reward for yielding to her seductive advances.
Gawain’s bravery is tested when the fox (a metaphor of Gawain himself on the one hand and the temptation from the lady on the other hand) he befriends on his journey urges him to abandon his quest. Though he overcomes the temptation, towards the end, he almost gives in as he is about to face the axe of the Green Knight. His act of facing the Green Knight surreptitiously wearing the magical green girdle that will protect him from any possible harm is an act of cowardice and deceit not expected of a knight of honour. It is his ultimate failure at the test of his character.
As Gawain waits for the fatal blow from the Green Knight in great fear, he has a vision of what his future would be if he survives the fatal blow by means of deceit. The vision depicts Gawain returning to Camelot to receive a hero’s welcome, inheriting the throne of Arthur, marrying a woman he does not love, using Essel (Alicia Vikander), his lower-class lover of the days before he set out on his knightly quest as an object of his physical passion only to abandon her later, taking his son born to Essel away from her, losing his son in a battle, himself living a life of disgrace marked by guilt, shame, ignominy, disaffection, and meanness only to lose his head at the end. As his vision comes to an end with the loss of his head, he overcomes his fear of mortality, takes off the girdle, and faces the Green Knight’s axe at which the Green Knight tells him, “Well done … my brave knight. Now … little knight, off with your head.”
If a bildungsroman, a coming-of-age film, depicts the development of the mind and character, or in other words, the psychological and moral development of a protagonist from childhood to youth to adulthood to maturity, The Green Knight has it all. It depicts a thoroughly flawed Gawain attaining certain traits of character that qualify him for his destiny, knighthood. Set in the medieval world of chivalry, Gawain’s tale tells us our tale — the tale of what we are and what we can be.