Pete Whitehead reviews The Green Knight, directed by David Lowery and starring Dev Patel. 06/10/2021
The original manuscript of Gawain and the Green Knight exists in just one copy – Cotton Nero a.x, in the British Library. Like Beowulf, or the first autobiography in English, The Book of Margery Kempe, there’s only one. Had that copy of each of them been lost, or burned, or ruined, then that would have been it. We might have heard of them – they might have turned up as titles in old records, or a few seventeenth–century pamphlets here and there, but we’d have no clue what it was really about.
I was lucky enough, a few years ago, to study medieval manuscripts. There’s something genuinely quite magical about them, these books that have been passed on for five or six hundred years. When you work with them, you see the humanity on the page – doodles, corrections, weird snails that no one understands, or scribes doing their best to write around holes in the parchment. You think about all the people who, throughout the years, made little decisions – the right decisions – so that you can read this beautiful book.
It’s that fragility that was on my mind as I sat down to watch David Lowery’s The Green Knight, starring Dev Patel. Patel carries the film brilliantly. His performance as the young and unproven Gawain is remarkable, aided by both the cast and the setting, which is simply stunning, drawing you in throughout. The original poem tells us quite evocatively that: ‘For werre wrathed hym not so much, þat wynter was wors’ (And the wars were one thing, but winter was worse.)  This winter is brought to life brilliantly – without question, The Green Knight is one of the most visually engaging, beautifully–shot films I have seen this decade. See it in the cinema if you can. The mix of CGI and studio effects, combined with the overall visual tenor of the film, serve to get to the weirdness of the Gawain–poet’s original work, the pastoral beauty and folk–horror dread of the landscape.
There are more subtle, but equally lovely, nods to the source here, too. Much will be made by those in the field of medieval ecocriticism about the brilliant speech about the power of green, for instance, and the use of the ‘turn’, panning the camera around 360 degrees in a circle is a wonderfully inventive visual way of representing the medieval conception of the ‘wheel of fortune‘.
But Lowery’s vision of The Green Knight it is not a faithful retelling of the original. Certainly, the overall structure is much the same: a large green knight arrives at King Arthur’s court, and offers a ‘game’ – he will be struck, and reply one year hence with the same blow. Gawain decapitates the knight, only for him to get up and ride away. The following year, Gawain must seek him out.
Where Lowery chooses to place emphasis, however, changes the tenor of the story. More than that, whole scenes and characters are added, others played down and changed. There’s nothing wrong with this, of course. Stories are made to be changed. But just as fascinating as Lowery’s depictions and additions to the film’s physical landscape is his interpretation of its moral landscape.
Gawain performs goodness. When it is time to be a hero, and slay the Green Knight, he leaps over the table, and demands a sword. He’s happy to do the right thing for plaudits, and plaudits he gets – the film shows various ‘Punch and Judy’ style puppet shows about him, and Arthur’s court greets his actions with rapturous applause. Little has changed, in this regard. We think of goodness, too, as something to be ‘performed’. One of the defining tropes of contemporary narratives is our postmodern confessionals – a character will admit to wrongdoing, say that they know how and why what they are doing is wrong. They will explain how bad they feel about it. Then they will continue to do it. If you feel sufficiently bad about something, in a very generalised way, that is penance enough.
Gawain, before choosing to sexually engage with a married woman, declares that he knows he shouldn’t. He declares how bad he will feel, how it will go against his code of ethics. He does it anyway. But none of his ‘moral self–actualisation’ matters against a broader and sincerely held moral framework: she looks down at him, and informs him ‘you are no knight.’ When we do think about moral transformation, it is usually One Big Gesture – the romantic scene at the end of a movie, the moment in which a character chooses to be good.
The Green Knight’s arrival, or perhaps the culmination of the beheading game, could well be seen as one of those moments. Gawain thinks that how he responds to the game offered by the Green Knight is this moment, the moment that will define him as a hero, an honourable man, a knight.
Is that truly all it takes?
A Lord questions Gawain similarly: ‘…and this is all it takes for that part [honour] to be had? You do this one thing, you return home a changed man, an honourable man, just like that?’
It’s in answering that question that Lowery’s additions shine. The original poem glosses over what happens between Gawain leaving Arthur’s side and arriving at Bertilak’s castle – ‘So mony mervayl bi mount ther the mon fyndes, / Hit were to tore for to telle of the tenthe dole’ (So many marvels among the mountains / It’s too hard to tell even a tenth of them.)  In the original, the moral universe is one rooted in Christianity and chivalry, and the tension between these form the basis of the poem’s primary moral struggle. Gawain is caught between the duties of honour and virtue – his honour as a Knight compels him, for instance, to kiss a maiden – but his virtue as a Christian compels him to not engage with a married woman. Lowery chooses to de–emphasise the Lord’s castle – which is the site of the poem’s primary moral struggle – and emphasise the journey, locating Gawain’s moral struggle in those scenes instead.
What is Lowery trying to tell us with these scenes?
In The Green Knight, Gawain’s journey is marked by multiple moments where he is alone, and faced with moral choices. In those small and private moments, Gawain fails morally every single time. He lacks the moral courage to tell his lover his intentions – offering her money, but never fidelity or truth. He allows the love token she gives him to be dismissed as ‘nothing’. When asked to assist St. Winifred, his first response is to ask what’s in it for him before helping. He intends to shorten his journey by – quite literally – standing on the shoulders of giants. He lies to the Lord whose house he stays in, breaking the rules of yet another game. It’s only at the end that he realises the consequences of such a life, as he sees what might be if he does not change.
Lowery moves away from the moral universe of the original, and reframes it as a more modern parable: that living well isn’t a single act. It’s what we do in the shadows, what we do in our routine and mundane lives. It’s what we do when no–one is watching. It’s what you do when you’re at home after an awful, sweaty commute, and you’ve both had a terrible day at work and are tired and ratty and no one wants to do the washing up. It’s the choices we make when we’re asked to help someone, as Gawain is, and there is no–one around to give us plaudits or reward.
Moral life would be easier if it was like Gawain’s vision of the world – if we had a set amount of time, knew on what date we’d be tested, and had time and space to gather our thoughts and steel ourselves, and then go out and do the right thing. But life isn’t like that – few of us will be judged on how we make one big decision, and it’s not how we should measure the utility of our moral frameworks. Indeed, one of the final shots sees the Green Knight turn into Arthur, then Gawain’s mother, then Gawain. Our own Green Knights are all around us, and we need not quest to find them.
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