The Green Knight

The Green Knight ★★★★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

Well done, my brave knight. Now off with your head.

In many ways, this is a much darker Arthurian legend. Where once the Round Table was a place of jovial celebration, here, the lighting is dark and the mood feels somber. Arthur, far from the shining hero of legend, is aged and in decline - and with him, one senses, the age of heroes. And Sir Gawain in this version is no Sir at all, but a man with no claim but a relation to a withered Arthur, who aspires to knighthood. In the poem, he's renowned for his virtue, but in this, he appears plain. Though, does this make him ultimately less honorable... or more so?

The deus ex machina that explains the Green Knight's challenge in the poem is as contrived and abrupt as it is, ultimately, thematically purposeless. Here, a vague and implausible scheme by Morgan le Fay is replaced with a more interesting and personal culprit: Gawain's own mother. The purpose of her putting her son to this test is unclear, but it certainly leaves some interesting layers to unpeel.

It's difficult to say what the desired outcome actually was. On the one hand, she gifts him the enchanted girdle when he sets out on his quest (this is later stolen by the bandits, but reappears when it's gifted him by the Lady, in line with its origin in the poem; the presence of the blindfolded old woman in this scene suggests obvious interference by Gawain's mother). This would seem to suggest that she had hoped he would survive the journey; after all, she gave him the very means to do so. At the same time, passing this test at all would necessitate allowing himself to die. Did she want him to take the honorable path, or the sensible one?

On the subject of Gawain's honor though, there are some interesting differences between this and the source material (perhaps more than shall be mentioned here). All of his encounters on his journey, prior to reaching the house of the Lord and Lady, are new to this adaptation. The first, with the bandits, seems almost to be the most cynical. The chapter is titled "A Kindness", and yet Gawain's kindness toward the stranger ends up costing him. This could be interpreted as a way of presenting the chivalric code of honor as not fully compatible with some of the muddier morals of the real world - at the same time, however, I don't feel the movie entirely rejects them. All the same, the honorable path is a hard one.

One of the more beguiling scenes on first watch - and unquestionably one of the most visually breathtaking in the film - is the sequence featuring the valley of giants. Gawain asks for passage across the valley on the shoulder of the giantess, but the fox seems to rebuff her (what follows is strange wailing, the significance of which I don't entirely grasp). My take on this exchange is a fairly simple one: this is Gawain's journey, and he must make it on his own. There can be no shortcuts. He must make his own way, become his own legend, not standing on the shoulders of giants.

Then we get to the part which features prominently in the poem, with the Lord and Lady of the castle. Like the original, they make a deal that whatever the Lord gets on his hunt he shall give to Gawain, and whatever Gawain gets that day, he shall give to the Lord. Interestingly, all three days in the poem, Gawain does dutifully give him the kisses which he received from the man's wife - seemingly more honorable than the film counterpart, although he does choose to keep the source of the kisses secret. The new Gawain, from this sequence, would seem to be less honorable, given that he runs off in a panic when he gets something he isn't willing to part with (the girdle).

But then, at last, we come to the Green Chapel, where things get most interesting.

In the poem, we're given the reveal that the Lord was in fact the Green Knight disguised. Gawain keeps his enchanted girdle on, and the Green Knight, knowingly, gives him only a relatively small nick on his neck, and bids him be on his way. Of course, Gawain is ashamed for having cheated his way out of their agreement. In the end, though, the story, the Green Knight, Arthur and his Round Table - are all uniformly forgiving of Gawain. While Gawain keeps the girdle as a "sign of [his] sinfulness", he's reassured that there is no great dishonor in doing the dishonorable thing as he did, when his reason was simply a desire to keep living. (While Gawain sees his girdle as a mark of shame, the rest of the knights adopt girdles in solidarity, as a badge of honor)

Of course, things go differently here.

He faces similar trepidation to his predecessor in accepting his fate, and this is followed by an extended sequence in which he imagines himself giving in to cowardice, running away, and living out the remainder of his life. The life he imagines ends up not going so well, nor how he might have, well, imagined it.

Unlike the poem, he does the honorable thing; he removes the girdle and accepts his fate. In a sense, he manages to achieve a higher level of honor than the original, and attains, in his final moment, that knightly perfection so long dreamed of. But... this is about much more than merely honor.

When Gawain flinches, the Green Knight tells him he had a year to build his courage. Gawain tells him, "One year or a hundred, it would make no difference". And it's here we see the true theme of the story: the fear of death. The inevitable is coming, but no matter how much time one is given to prepare for it, you can never be certain you won't flinch when the time finally comes, when the cold steel is at your neck.

In perhaps the most coldly sardonic exchange, Gawain, almost confused, asks before meeting his fate, "Is this really all there is?" The Green Knight, seeming to match that confusion, responds, "What else would there be?" Death is so absolute, so final, that surely there must be some kind of fanfare, some grandiosity to it, especially one so honorable, so noble as this. But when the time comes, there is no grand climax. No satisfying closure. There is simply your neck, and the blade of the inescapable, and then...

Cut to green.

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