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Upon Seeing “The Green Knight”

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Warning: THERE WILL BE SPOILERS BELOW

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As a medievalist, my focus is theology. I have never had any particular interest in Arthurian literature, so I will admit to having not read the original story since Middle School. My comments here are about the movie – the dvd isn’t available for pre order yet (not that I can find) or I would link to it here. I definitely want to add it to my collection! My husband and I saw it tonight and I just got back so you’re getting my stream of consciousness thoughts on this first viewing. 

The use of color in the movie made me cry. It’s absolutely beautiful. There’s also a conversation happening with the shifting tones of Gawain’s cloak, which starts out as a rich, yellow ochre and at times, as he picks up a fox traveling companion, shifts to a subtle saffron now and again, the exact shade of the fox’s fur.  I think this happens whenever Gawain has followed the fox into somewhere particularly eldritch and magical and is no longer moving in the mundane world alone. Likewise, the landscape is so stark and empty, yet magical and frightening. There’s a conversation there, especially when this is contrasted with the vibrant color always encircling Gawain. 

The walking giants show a world passing away and that’s what is so potent about this story the way it was originally written and the way it’s visualized here: it captures that sense of one world passing into memory, and another being built atop its echoes: Polytheisms, indigenous Paganisms were passing away, blending, shifting, syncretizing  – sometimes forcibly so –and a new religion was taking root but had not yet fully done so. That is a potent underlying theme in this vision. 

Fathers are important. One of the first things that I picked up on is that in this iteration, Gawain has no father present, nor any male role model. He’s not unkind. In fact, he’s a confused but largely kindhearted young man. He’s not unloved. He has a mother who loves him dearly and an erstwhile partner. But there’s no father figure present (something the King actually laments at one point: that he was not there as Gawain, his nephew was growing up) and it shows in the uncertainty that plagues Gawain throughout the film. He doesn’t know himself but moreover doesn’t trust himself. He doesn’t think he is worth anything (again, this comes out when Arthur invites him to take a seat at the royal table). He had the beauty and benefit of a mother’s love but there was no comparable male figure to show him how to be a man. (His mother is awesome, by the way: a seeress and sorcerous who, with her magic, sets all this in motion to give her son a chance to find himself. In the end he does, but it takes male figures: Arthur, the Lord of the Castle of distractions, the Green Knight himself to show him how to do this). 

The fox was my favorite part. It reminded me in personality of my cat Elena. 

Gawain went on a quest. The purpose of a quest is the honing of a man. The purpose of a quest is facing challenges and finding one’s honor and courage. Gawain wanted to become a knight. He’s challenged on this in the Castle of distractions. The Lord of the castle asked him, “is it just one and done? You’re knighted and then you’re a new person and that’s it?” and Gawain (a little slow on the uptake) says, “yes.” But that’s not it, as he finds out. Honor, the making of character, the making of a man (or a woman) is not ever defined by one instance. It’s making the right choices again and again and again, sometimes under horrible circumstances. It’s a never-ending process. 

Gawain is challenged at every turn: to look beyond pleasure and carnal enjoyment, to do the right thing without expectation of reward, to act with integrity even in the face of fear and death, to focus, to be courageous, to keep his word, and most of all to make the hardest choices of all. 

SERIOUS SPOILER FOLLOWS

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When he is kneeling before Green Knight, he flinches several times when the knight goes to strike. We see him running out of the cave, saying he’s sorry but he can’t do it. Then we see him being knighted, becoming Arthur’s heir, discarding his low born lover after taking their child from her (the worst scene in the movie in my opinion), marrying a princess, waging war, losing his son in war and seeing what kind of hard, pitiless man he will become if he goes home on the wings of stolen valor, instead of earning it rightly (even though earning it means pain, scars, and maybe even death). There’s an earlier flash when he is bound, having been overtaken by brigands and we see a skeletal body garbed just like him. The meaning is clear: you have a choice to give up or fight and use your mind and persevere. He meets that challenge. We find out at the end, that the horrible, brutal, merciless, cold, stone hearted man he has become at the end was a vision given to him by the Green Knight, conjured up by his mother a year earlier: this is what you will become if you don’t make the right choices. Choose. It’s up to you and every one of them counts; and in the end, Gawain faces the Green Knight realizing it is better to die a good, honorable man than live without manhood. 

Dev Patel is absolutely amazing in this role (the entire cast is amazing). He plays a Gawain who is insecure, who wants to be a good man but has no idea how and often feels hopeless and worthless. There’s a confused vulnerability there (which makes the contrast with the king he becomes in the alternate future vision all the more compelling), as though he can almost grasp the lesson but then is wrong again and again, screwing up again and again, until finally he learns to trust himself and makes his final choice, a good choice, and in doing so becomes the man he has always wished to be. 

As an aside, there were two other couples in the theater. I had almost as much enjoyment watching their confusion at the end, as I did watching the movie. They had zero idea what was happening at the end. It’s a type of story-telling we don’t see very often anymore (and the pacing was at once fast and very slow) because no one is reading the Classics of ancient and medieval literature anymore. There are a thousand layers to this story, and a thousand tips for moving in a world that is as much spirit as corporeal force. 

Best lines: 

When Arthur asks Gawain to tell him a story of Gawain’s accomplishments in the beginning, the young man says, “I have nothing to tell.” And the Queen interjects, “Yet.” 

Yes, exactly: yet. That tells you there, the type of journey this will be. (Also, as an aside, the Queen is arrayed like a votive image of the Madonna – one at Koln Cathedral in particular comes to mind – with her entire dress covered in Milagros). 

Finally, during one of his challenges, Gawain says to St. Winifred (who has asked him to help her find her head, which was tossed in a spring): are you real or a spirit?

St. W.: Is there a difference? I need my head. 

I gave a little cheer.