September 28, 2023

The Subversive Morality of David Lowery’s The Green Knight

Kenny Kidd '22

This summer, audiences were treated to an ambitious retelling of the most famous Arthurian legend put to pen and paper. The Green Knight, starring Dev Patel as Sir Gawain and Ralph Ineson as The Green Knight, is a retelling of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a poem of anonymous authorship which tells the story of Sir Gawain, who accepts the challenge of a mysterious green knight who interrupts the Knights of the Round Table’s Christmas festivities to play a game. Any knight brave enough has one chance to cut off the green knight’s head, on the condition that one year from that day, the knight returns the sword-stroke blow for blow. Sir Gawain strikes, cleaving the knight’s head clean off his shoulders, but the knight promptly lifts his head from the ground and reminds Sir Gawain that one year from today, he must find the Knight and have the same blow returned to him.

The film opened to favorable reviews from critics—it currently has an 88% on Rotten Tomatoes and a consensus stating that it “honors and deconstructs its source material in equal measure, producing an absorbing adventure that casts a fantastical spell.” General audience reaction has been mixed, however, with many people praising the film’s breathtaking cinematography, creative storytelling, and melancholic, reflective tone, while others criticize the film for being difficult to follow, meandering, and lacking in energy. My purpose here is less to say how I felt about the movie (in short, I think it’s a masterpiece and one of the best fantasy movies since The Lord of the Rings), but to analyze the meaning of the ending, which has caused a lot of debate. The rest of this article will be spoiler-heavy, so please don’t read until you’ve seen the film, unless you have no genuine interest in it whatsoever!

Before I get into the ending, I need to address the myriad changes this adaptation made from the Medieval poem, which contribute to the power of the film’s final scene. In the original romantic poem, Sir Gawain is as noble a knight as ever one could be—he is courteous, courageous, disciplined, and single-mindedly concerned with his honor, which he preserves at all costs. His choice to accept the green knight’s challenge is done out of a sense of duty to King Arthur’s court and the honor he wishes to preserve. His behavior throughout the majority the poem is exemplary of the dashing, ethically sound, romantic knight figure you might expect. In the film, however, our first glimpse of Sir Gawain is of him waking up hungover in a brothel, rushing back to Camelot for the evening’s feast. His choice to accept the knight’s challenge comes off as a frat boy’s accepting a dare, and his behavior for much of the film is that of an immature, arrogant, pleasure-seeking,  self-centered man.

Now, for the ending. In the original poem, Sir Gawain finds the green knight and is ultimately unable to accept the blow from him out of fear and a desire for self-preservation. He attempts to cheat, wearing a girdle given to him earlier in the story that is said to keep its wearer from harm. The green knight is aware of this, and so he leaves Sir Gawain with a scar to remind him of his cowardice and his inability to remain true to his word. For the rest of his life, Sir Gawain is doomed to wear this scar and chooses to wear the girdle as a reminder of his deception and lack of chivalry when his life was threatened. This stands in sharp contrast to the film, wherein Sir Gawain lives the majority of the film’s runtime as a deceitful, immature young man, but has vastly different encounter with the knight.

Initially, it seems that Gawain runs away before the blow can land, fleeing back to the safety of his life and receiving glory and lordship for his valiance in living up to his word. The audience is treated to a montage of the remainder of his life, showing the birth and death of his son, his conquests in battle, and eventually the ransacking of his castle. As this montage ends, the scene shifts back to Gawain on his knees in front of the green knight. He asks the knight to wait, takes off his girdle of invincibility, and then says “Now I’m ready.” The green knight proceeds to lift his axe, and the film cuts to credits before we see whether Sir Gawain lives or dies.

This caused a great deal of frustration for many, but frankly, it is of far less importance than the choice he makes right before the film’s conclusion. Sir Gawain, a man who has spent his whole life chasing pleasure and breaking his word to those who were hospitable to him, foresees what his life would look like were he to continue in his ways and break his word to the Knight. He sees a life filled with glory, honor, and wealth: all of which will eventually leave him. So instead, he chooses the honorable path, where he fulfills his word and allows the knight to return the blow, knowingly dying in the process. To Gawain, a life without honor, integrity, and a clear conscience is not worth living, and he chooses an honorable death over a dishonorable life.

It’s striking that this is how Lowery chose to tell the story of Sir Gawain in 2021, where cynicism  has become the norm. Although the virtues of kindness and honesty are still put into practice, we constantly see the effects of powerful people lying and maximizing what is in their own interest, leaving others to struggle while they live a luxurious life. In a world where it’s easy to scoff at ideas of morality in the cruel reality of day-to-day suffering—what relevance does the concept of chivalry have for impoverished people? Instead of feeding into this cynicism, Lowery chooses to invert the entire character arc of Sir Gawain, starting him from a place of vice and ending him in a place of integrity and honor, which may very well take his life. It’s a bold, beautiful choice, inspiring hope or a desire for goodness in someone, and one I’m very grateful he chose to make.

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