Tailored to Our Time, but “The Green Knight” Is Still Worth It

August 6, 2021

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It feels good to be back at the movies, and it feels particularly good to see a visual spectacle as rich as The Green Knight, David Lowery’s new interpretation of the fourteenth-century Middle English poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The vibe is part Excalibur, part Terry Gilliam, and part Wes Anderson—an offbeat adventure unlike anything I have seen recently. For those who have not read the poem, which is chockablock with Catholic imagery and prescriptive of Christian virtue, I recommend you pick it up in conjunction with watching what Lowery does with it. J.R.R. Tolkien’s translation is a particular gem that anyone can enjoy, but there are straightforward prose renderings of it too. I am currently thumbing through the Penguin Classics’ verse translation by Brian Stone, which I used as an undergraduate.

The Green Knight stars Dev Patel as Sir Gawain, the nephew of King Arthur and son of Morgan Le Fay, and it tells a hero’s tale for our day–that is, an age full of comic book superheroes, but largely bereft of everyday men of honor. The Gawain of 2021 differs from the medieval original in more ways than we can count, and that is the whole point.

When we meet Sir Gawain, he is a reckless, womanizing Mama’s boy—a bro. He wakes up in a brothel on Christmas Day, and he shuffles off shoeless to attend Mass with his mistress. Gawain’s sorceress mother is amused, joking that her son smells as if he has been drinking Our Lord’s blood all night. Later, when King Arthur asks Gawain to share a story, his story, he has none to tell. Then enters the Green Knight, here depicted as a strange tree-man, an embodiment of nature, whose appearance in the original poem is one of the most memorably descriptive scenes in all medieval literature. Gawain rashly accepts the Knight’s challenge to strike him, resulting in his obligation to receive the same blow the next Christmas in the Knight’s chapel. Gawain carouses for most of the next year before finally setting off to face his fate. He wears his mother’s enchanted girdle of protection, and he tries to psych himself up with words that do not define any reality we have seen him living so far: “Honor. That is why a knight does what he does.”

Gawain, played brilliantly throughout by Patel, seems at times more like a character in a role-playing game than a Christian warrior of old. We follow his quest through a beautiful, desolate landscape, which poses challenges reminiscent of a Legend of Zelda campaign. There is some good CGI to boot, including a host of androgynous giants, a ghost woman, and a talking fox, as well as the Green Knight himself. 

Gawain bears the famous Pentangle, but it seems to signify a channel for his mother’s magical control rather than the “endless knot” of Solomon that animates the original Gawain in true devotion. The original Gawain lives freely for the true honor of serving the Lord and our Blessed Mother. The anonymous poet writes, “All his trust on earth was in the five wounds which came to Christ on the Cross, as the Creed tells. . . . His prowess all depended on the five pure Joys that the holy Queen of Heaven had of her Child.” This modern knight is bound in ways he does not understand, grasping to make meaning out of absurdity.

Tolkien believed the significance of the whole story was found in the aftermath of Gawain’s time at the castle of a mysterious lord and lady—a sequence that occupies a large chunk of the film. In the original verses, Gawain resists the lady’s sexual temptation, but he hurries to Confession afterward anyway, purifying himself completely before finally facing the Green Knight’s justice, which is transformed into Christ’s mercy. All of this plays out differently in the film, with the Confession sequence missing entirely. Today’s man, bereft of grace, has only two choices in the end: flee justice, and by doing so abuse others with his worldly power, or divest himself of his privilege and sacrifice his ambitions, perhaps even his vocation entirely. The final scene of the film (the very final scene after the credits) seems to imply that it is time for men to climb down from their thrones and give the matriarchy a try.

For Catholics, and for any admirer of the traditional Christian virtues celebrated by the medieval poem, The Green Knight film paints a disturbing picture. We believe heroism is the courage to receive divine help, which restores our fallen nature, thereby nurturing charity for the sake of the vulnerable. In Lowery’s universe, however, there is just the cold axe-blade of reparation. Or perhaps even of karma. We who believe in a God of grace should be spurred on by the film to teach character and expect to see better men again one day. But when we have seen such catastrophic failures of our elites in recent decades, we can hardly be expected to assume the chivalric vision of the original poem will automatically inspire the masses in this generation.

In the meantime, we can appreciate the film’s extraordinary aesthetic, as well as affirm some of its obvious themes: accepting permanent consequences to rash actions, the final victory of humility over pride, and forgoing destructive luxuries of power and prestige for the sake of others’ flourishing. Daniel Hart’s soundtrack is outstanding, as are the performances of everyone in the cast. We can also celebrate the fact that the climax of the film, like the poem, occurs in the house of God, a Christian chapel, albeit one that is crumbling and almost overrun by the nature that came before it. The poet concludes: “Such exploits, I’ll be sworn, have happened here of yore. Now Christ with his crown of thorn brings us his bliss evermore!”

This version of Sir Gawain’s story may be tailored to the times, but Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. Check out The Green Knight.

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