“I don’t have a story,” says Gawain—not yet Sir Gawain, as he’s not yet a knight—at the beginning of The Green Knight, David Lowery’s new film based on the late 14th-century Middle English poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.* The point of the film is to give him one, and if that story hews pretty closely to the “Hero’s Journey” formulated by the late folklorist Joseph Campbell and deeply beloved by Hollywood screenwriters ever since George Lucas dreamed up Luke Skywalker, it also brings a more somber and mature tone to what’s become a movie cliché.
Both Lowery’s film and the original poem, whose author is unknown, are about what makes a knight—that is, a man, or more specifically, a gentleman. The poem readily lends itself to Campbell’s formulas, which is not surprising, given that it inspired them. Lowery mostly follows a Campbellian interpretation of the tale: that is, treating it as a story of personal growth. His film takes place in a nearly empty, wintery landscape in which Gawain (Dev Patel) encounters solitary figures or groups of three. The exception is Camelot itself, a crowded, bustling, eventful town where Gawain drinks and dallies with a young woman of unclear social status and inexplicably cropped hair (Alicia Vikander). But he can’t become a true hero until he can get away from all those people.
When the Round Table’s Christmas feast is disrupted by the arrival of the uncanny Green Knight, with his challenge of an exchange of blows, Gawain, in order to prove himself and to acquire a story worthy of a king, volunteers. (In the original poem, as well as the rest of the Arthurian tradition, Gawain is never described as in line for the throne, but Lowry introduces the idea that Arthur is considering him as a potential heir.) Gawain lops off the Green Knight’s head, but the Knight simply picks it up and rides off, mua-ha-ha-ing, reminding Gawain that in a year’s time he must present himself at a place called the Green Chapel to receive a reciprocal blow.
The poem passes over Gawain’s adventures on this journey pretty quickly, explaining (in Simon Armitage’s excellent translation) “So momentous are his travels among the mountains/to tell just a tenth would be a tall order.” This is annoying, given how many words the Gawain poet is willing to lavish on such subjects as people’s outfits. Who devotes over a hundred lines to how Gawain was kitted out for his journey, while spending only a line or two on the hero’s encounters with giants, wolves, and “wodwos,” unclothed, hair-covered wild men who live in the forest? Lowery, no fool, shows us the giants and expands on the poem by having his Gawain duped by a band of motley brigands who steal his faithful steed Gringolet. He also comes to the aid of the sad ghost of St. Winifred (a Welsh martyr) by retrieving her skull from the bottom of a spring. These exploits impart appropriately chivalric lessons: Gawain learns that there is no point in trusting men without honor, and also that he is wrong to ask for a favor from Winifred in exchange for helping her.
Finally, Gawain arrives at the castle of Bertilak de Hautdesert. His experiences there take up the entire third “fit,” or part, of the poem. His host proposes yet another trading “game”: He’ll go out hunting, and whatever he obtains while doing so he will exchange for whatever Gawain gets by hanging around the castle all day. In the poem, long and vivid passages of hunting alternate with scenes of Gawain fending off the advances of Bertilak’s wife. He accepts the occasional kiss, which he duly passes on to Bertilak, making this interlude seem, to the contemporary reader, like an encounter with a couple of scheming swingers. Lowery’s film de-emphasizes the game in favor of a lengthy speech by the lady of the castle (also played by Vikander) about the color green and what it stands for: decay, time, life, and death. She gives Gawain a green girdle, or sash, that he refuses—until he learns that it is enchanted and will protect him from any harm. He does not then pass the sash to Bertilak, cheating in the game.
Gawain’s final encounter with the Green Knight in the leafy grotto of his chapel serves, in Lowery’s telling, as the plot development Campbell labeled “the Abyss.” The hero confronts a father figure of terrifying power and achieves transcendence via “an abandonment of the attachment to ego itself.” Lowery’s Gawain contemplates simply refusing to honor his promise to allow the Green Knight a free blow, then pictures the arc of his future life as king, but also as man whose cowardice and refusal to fully commit himself leads him to fail and disappoint everyone close to him. By surrendering his last defense, the enchanted sash, Gawain becomes a true adult.
Lowery underlines this interpretation by implying that it is Gawain’s concerned mother, Morgause (Sarita Choudhury), who has used her magical powers to summon the Green Knight to the court to engage Gawain in the test that will force him to grow up. In the poem, it is her sister, Gawain’s aunt, the sorceress Morgan le Fay, who is ultimately revealed as the instigator of Gawain’s adventures, mostly in service of “mischief.” Morgan, an amoral fairy, is also skeptical of the ethos of chivalry. She is always trying to undermine the chivalric project that is the Round Table and inject chaos into Britain. Like Campbell, Lowry views Gawain’s quest as fundamentally psychological, but the poem and the culture that produced it was far more interested in the social impact of the lessons Gawain learns.
To see this, it helps to understand chivalry not as an elaborate and arbitrary code of behavior, but as a romantic ideology designed to turn a squabbling collection of local warlords into something closer to a kingdom or nation. Without chivalry, knights are just strongmen, forever jostling for position and pursuing revenge. Chivalry—in theory, at least—urged them to redirect their strength toward helping the weak, defending the faith, and honoring the kinds of promises and commitments that bind a larger and more peaceful society together, from coming to the aid of allies to abiding by the terms of treaties and trade agreements. (This is one reason why trades feature so often in the story.) When Gawain declares that “honor” obliges him to deliver himself up to the Green Knight and a likely death, it’s easy for someone who lives in a modern state dominated by the rule of law to view this as foolish, outmoded vainglory. To us, it seems ridiculous that he would sacrifice himself for such a thing. But in medieval Europe, honor was often all that stood between a fragile order and bloody chaos. This is not to say that feudal Europe ever constituted a “safe” place to live, especially for the peasant classes, but it was nevertheless better than a condition of perpetual local warfare.
What did chivalry offer knights in exchange for giving up doing pretty much whatever they had the might to get away with? Status was one of the primary incentives. Observing the code of behavior known as courtesy demonstrated that a man was a member of the courtly or noble class, superior to mere commoners and churls, like the treacherous bandits who rob Gawain in Lowery’s film. In the poem, Gawain excels at the finer forms of courtesy. He is particularly adept at talking with ladies, a skill—one just as important in chivalry as prowess at arms—put to the test at Bertilak’s castle, where he must find a way to rebuff the lady of the house without offending her, to avoid the dishonor of violating Bertilak’s hospitality. Lowery’s Gawain is a bit of a fuckboy, who strings along his commoner girlfriend and carouses in taverns, and it makes little sense that he’d balk at this opportunity, but the Gawain of the poem is no less a knight for being a master of manners.
One popular interpretation of the poem views the Green Knight as a personification of nature; in addition to being the color of plants, he shares their ability to survive even after you cut off their heads. His “chapel” is little better than a hole in the ground. Gawain must travel north to find him, into regions associated in British folklore with primitive wilderness, compared to the “civilized” south. The implication is that the young knight has become a bit too sophisticated, and needs to renew his relationship to the root of knighthood’s power: masculine violence and force, but also a wildness felt to be at the heart of Britishness. A medieval king might not want his knights to be fighting all the time, especially with each other, but he wanted them to be up to the job when deployed into the battle.
Nevertheless, it is no feat of arms that earns Gawain his renown. The unknown poet who chose him as a subject describes, in the entire story, exactly one blow struck by the knight the one at the beginning against the unresisting Green Knight—a gimme. It is Gawain’s fidelity to his word and his tact, not his combat prowess, that are tested. These are social virtues, and they are enough to earn him the other great incentive that chivalry offered medieval knights: fame, praise, respect. In short, a story.
Correction, July 30, 2021: This piece originally misspelled David Lowery’s last name.