“Green is what is left.”
The first time I encountered Sir Gawain was in a children’s puzzle book, which worked like a Where’s Waldo? except you had to find things like eggs, swords, and severed heads. Things every child enjoys looking for apparently. I had a whole collection of Usborne Fantasy Adventure books, but King Arthur’s Knight Quest was my favourite, because you are tasked with rescuing Camelot’s greatest heroes, so each page takes you into a different Arthurian legend. It’s a quest for both the reader and the Knights of Camelot, because their success is reliant on you finding all of the objects and turning the page.
You play as an unseen character, and whatever is on the page is what they are seeing, mid action. I learned two things from this book. First, I am terrible at finding things, even now, when I pulled up the book, I had to check the answer page at the back to find almost everything. Second, Knights need help, arguably more help than I needed because while I couldn’t find a random object, they couldn’t find their own heads, as I learned with Sir Gawain. The page depicts our group of adventures coiling in horror at the sinister Green Knight, who holds a threatening finger to his throat and carries a massive blade. You are tasked with finding Sir Gawain’s head (spoilers, it’s on fire in the crucible) and limp body, along with a green belt to hold his head on. This was my introduction to Sir Gawain: a man who lost his head and needed someone to find it for him. He doesn’t literally loose his head in the Arthurian legend, but as I eventually learned, he does in a metaphoric sense, especially in the 2021 adaptation.
The story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is about chivalry, about doing something that is absolutely going to kill you but doing it anyway because it is the honourable thing to do. It begins with a great Christmas feast at Camelot, whose merriment is suddenly interrupted by a terrifying Green Knight, who enters the hall and challenges a “bold” (286) man to strike him with his axe, and then have that strike returned one year hence. Gawain steps forward and chops off the Green Knight’s head, but to everyone’s surprise, the Green Knight rises, picks up his head, and tells Gawain to meet him in one year at Green Chapel. A year passes, and Gawain sets out on his adventure, eventually landing at a Lord Bertilak’s home where he rests. Bertilak challenges Gawain, claiming that he will give Gawain the best of his daily hunt if Gawain gives him whatever he receives while staying at this house. Gawain thinks this is strange but agrees until the Lady of the house gives him two kisses on his first two days, and then a green belt that will make him impervious on the third. Gawain kisses the Lord both days, but doesn’t give him the belt on the third, instead wearing it to meet the Green Knight so he will not be harmed.
The Green Knight strikes two times, without ever hitting Gawain, and then grazes his neck the third time because Gawain did not give Bertilak the belt, but that is sort of understandable. It’s revealed that the Green Knight is actually a cursed Bertilak and that this whole encounter was a test by Morgan le Fay for Arthur and his chivalrous court. Gawain should have given up the belt because getting his head chopped off was the due price, and the right thing to do. Of course, he was never in any actual danger, but he didn’t know that, and should have acted with courage and faced up to what he agreed to a year prior.
There are several similar beheading stories from this era of literature, one being the Middle Irish tale of Bricriu’s Feast where a giant challenges three knights to cut of his head so he may return the strike. There is also the much later Alvin Schwartz story called “The Girl with the Green Ribbon”, where it’s revealed that untying a ribbon around a young woman’s neck will suddenly behead her, which isn’t an influence on the original Gawain story, but possibly on this later film iteration. It’s important to note that the original Gawain tale is written as though it’s being told, returning to the oratory nature of these stories. The author acts as a conscious adaptor here, noting things like “I know of” (24), “who I heard is” (26), and “So listen a little while to my tale if you will| and I’ll tell it as it’s told in the town where it trips from the tongue” (30-32). This style tries to add some authenticity to the story, as if it isn’t something the author has just invented, but in fact comes with an established oratory tradition of being told around firesides and such. It doesn’t matter here if the Gawain story was invented by the author or just being recorded, what’s important is that the author is deliberately trying to replicate other legendary, oratory, and old tales that remain historically and thematically relevant.
“Let me tell you instead a new tale.”
The 2021 adaptation, titled just The Green Knight, follows the text’s spoken style during one conversation between Gawain and the strange Lady. Gawain finds himself in a great library and has never seen so many books before, many of which, as the Lady explains, are written by her. She writes down the stories she hears, much like the author of the original text. This claim makes both the Lady and the writer less of an author/creator and more of an interpreter or witness. I note this because it sets an interesting contrast between the Lady’s house and Camelot, as the author of the original text uses this ‘witness’ position to illustrate that Camelot is long gone, and that these stories are all that are left. The author didn’t personally witness these events, nor meet any of these figures, he noticed the way the story spread across multiple generations and decided to write it down. There is always this distance between the author and Gawain’s story, as he often describes that he just heard these things, so you can’t really argue with him. It’s almost like gossip. The Lady writes things down as well, meaning that her household is distant from Camelot, which you can tell just stylistically. Camelot is cold both in colour and atmosphere, it’s not the bright and happy space we see in the text. The Lady’s castle is bright and clean, even a different architectural style than Camelot, suggesting that the two are in somewhat opposition or at least distanced from one another in more than just a literal sense.
We see this attention to adaptation throughout David Lowery’s film, as there are several scenes which reference that this story is an adaptation of an adaptation, as the original author wanted his work to be seen as an adaptation of this oratory tradition. Take the title card, “Sir Gawain and…”; it briefly appears early on, but isn’t the name of the film, as that cuts out Sir Gawain and is just called The Green Knight. The title card flashes between different fonts, colours, and adornment, suggesting that this is a story that can be told several ways, and that we are just hearing one of them. The film is interested in Gawain making his own story, because for most of the film he doesn’t know who he is, and when he tries to draft a chivalrous story for himself, he largely fails. We see this at the beginning of the film, when Gawain sits beside his Uncle, King Arthur, who notes, “I recognize but I do not know thee”, which is true for both this story and Gawain. The audience can recognize Gawain and these events just from their basic knowledge of King Arthur, but this version of Gawain is new, and we are only just getting to know him as a character.
One way the film establishes that it is a conscious adaptation is by refusing to name legendary figures. Gawain is one of the only characters who is named, as King Arthur is just called the King, Guinevere Queen, and Lord Bertilak just Lord. One might assume that this reduces their character, but the opposite is true. These characters have stepped aside so that Gawain can take center stage, something that Gawain is terrified of. I will expand on this shortly, but the film is about Gawain failing to be chivalrous, failing to take responsibility in his own life, even though everyone he meets tries to accommodate him. They give him this room and he does nothing with it, and so you as a viewer are left watching this terrible ‘Knight’ amongst icons like King Arthur. It also means that these characters’ intentions become more clouded, which isn’t the case in the original text. There, the encounter is some convoluted test by Morgan le Fay, but here, it’s a test by Gawain’s unnamed mother and possibly Arthur himself.
Gawain’s mother in the text is Arthur’s half-sister Morgause, but most people forget that Arthur had multiple half-sisters, and not just Morgan le Fay. By refusing to name her, the film implies that Gawain’s mother is Morgan le Fay, because she is shown doing magic and Morgan le Fay is well-known. This changes the story, because before it was just Gawain’s Aunt interfering with Camelot, but now it’s his mother, who cares for him and has clearly set up this quest to test him. It’s why every time Gawain messes up, and looses something important, that object magically returns to him in some form. This nameless state also allows characters to move around, so Essel transforms into the strange Lady just as the Lord turns into the Green Knight, although that is only confirmed original text. Morgan le Fay is the old woman that Gawain encounters, but in the film, her role, identity, and intentions feel more sinister because the ending is so ambiguous. It makes everything and everyone feel altered, like they all might be in on the test somehow, and that Gawain’s behaviour towards each will impact his broader journey. Speaking of names, Gawain is not called Sir Gawain, except by people taunting him, like the peasants at a bar or the Lady teasing him about his great quest. He is just Gawain, and the film makes it clear that he doesn’t deserve to be called a Knight, until the last few moments of the film. It doesn’t hand this title to him as the text does, which again, is called Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
“Was it not a game?”
“Perhaps. But it is not complete.”
The original text ends with this Latin quote: “Hony soyt qui mal pence” which translates to “Shame be to the man who has evil in his mind” or “Shamed be whoever thinks bad of it”. This is the motto of the Order of the Garter, a group established around 1350 that is associated with Gawain and chivalry. By referencing this group at the end of the text, the author (or at least a later publisher) is informing the reader that Gawain remains important and relevant to their world, as are the struggles Gawain undertakes. It also, however, acts as a commentary on chivalry, which is a huge theme in the 2021 adaptation. I spent some time explaining chivalry in my previous post on Arthurian cinema, but I will expand it here, prefacing first that it is a complex thing that many people disagree about. I am also no expert on Arthurian lore and chivalry beyond cinema, I am a novice if anything. That said, it’s essentially an old set of often unspoken laws on how nobility, particularly men, should govern themselves. Two crucial aspects here is that it’s for nobles, or rich people who could get away with anything and often did/do, and that it was self-governed, so who knows if it was actually implemented to the same extent as literature suggests. Self-governed or at least socially governed, so you couldn’t kill or humiliate a person in public and expect everyone to be cool with it. Let’s just say they were guidelines, but not in literature.
Arthurian heroes are the ideal examples of chivalry, the kind that every subsequent noble is supposed to model themselves after. It’s why the term chivalry appears throughout history, even now, as each generation has redefined what that means based on a very loose image of Camelot. It had a huge uptake in the Romantic period, for instance, which was obsessed with Arthurian lore and used that lore to say something about mass industrialization and the downfall of nature.
Chivalry focuses on honour and morality, tied together with manners, but its more than just acting a certain way because that is proper. Take the Latin quote above, the “Shamed be whoever thinks bad of it”, because true chivalry should be an impulse, when one’s head and heart are aligned so the person doesn’t even consider of doing something unchivalrous. It’s extremely strict in literature, but also rarely defined, it’s just assumed that the reader will recognize that the character’s behaviour is inherently chivalrous. Its roots are Christian, but it eventually moved somewhat away from that and just became about morals. Again, it is difficult to define, because every age has a different opinion, but the terms that most often appear with it are honesty, loyalty, valour, and honour. The Queen in the film mentions that there are five different virtues for a knight, one for each finger, but they essentially boil down to those four terms, at least for this discussion. Chivalry also frequently ties in with courtly love, with is different than normal love because it comes with a bunch of fun rules about what is appropriate. We see some of that through Gawain’s interactions with Essel and the strange Lady, and his disrespect to each.
Green Knight opens with an image of chivalry, just to introduce this world before we even meet Gawain. The visuals in this film are searing, especially its first shot of a crown lowering onto Gawain’s head and setting him on fire. It takes the ‘heavy wears the crown’ to a whole new level, but it’s unclear if the fire is a punishment, if Gawain is unfit to wear the crown and so it destroys him, or if this is some divine vision. It’s accompanied by this speech about how the story you are about to hear is not about Arthur, or even about this wonderous world. It’s about an old story, one “Forever set, in heart, in stone, like all great myths of old”, which suggests that there is something inevitable about this tale, something that even the characters cannot change because even here, before the film has begun telling the story, it is set in stone. The monologue also mentions Arthur without naming him, noting, “of all who reigned o’er, none had renown like the boy who pulled sword from stone, but this is not that king”, which sets an interesting comparison. For those unfamiliar, Arthur is able to pull Excalibur out of the stone because he is the true King of England, he is destined to rule both by bloodline and divine will. The monologue is essentially noting that this cannot be said of our story, where there is no divine show, no unquestionable moment that proves that Gawain is a fit person. Whereas Arthur was always meant to be King, to pull sword from stone, his successor Gawain has no such claim, and so this is a different kind of story.
Following this fiery King shot, we see some livestock in a courtyard, and behind, a fire starting in a nearby window. Soon the entire roof is engulfed with black smoke, and although we can hear shouting, the sleeping man by the livestock doesn’t rise to help. Soon after, a man and woman rush into the courtyard through a gate, checking behind as they do, and the man helps the woman up onto a horse and leads them away. It’s unclear if the couple has anything to do with the fire – did they set it or escape from it? – but we do get this chivalrous image of a man helping a woman with her horse, amongst this unchivalrous scene of farm animals and fire. The man is running away, he isn’t helping with the fire, he is almost abducting the woman. Amongst them are these fighting animals, who are stuck in the courtyard should the fire spread. We eventually pan back to meet Gawain, who is sleeping through the fire, and in fact, the fire is never mentioned again. So, why include this scene? I think it’s meant to be Gawain’s dream, and also a reflection of the current state of Camelot, which is falling apart. When you turn to the text, it’s clear that this is a reference to the Trojan war, which is how the author opens their tale.
The very first line in the text is “Once the siege and assault of Troy had ceased,| with the city a smoke-heap of cinders and ash,| the traitor who contrived such betrayal there| was tried for his treachery” (1-4), the traitor being Aeneas (and Antenor), who escapes Troy and later founds Rome as Romulus and Remus’ ancestor, and possibly King Arthur’s ancestor. Let’s suppose that this vision of Camelot, the ash filled one in the shot, is Troy, the product of Aeneas. In this case, you could either read the man escaping with the woman and horse as either Aeneas fleeing a crumbling city for a better life, or, and my personal favourite, you could read it as a reference to Paris kidnapping Helen, the incident which starts the Trojan war, the fire that has just started behind. The Trojan war was incidentally brought about because a bunch of Kings and Lords made an oath, years prior to Helen’s kidnapping, and were forced to uphold that oath and go to war, the chivalrous thing to do. Paris and Gawain are similar, as Paris is a selfish figure who starts a massive 10-year war because he feels entitled to the most beautiful woman in the world, even though she is married. Gawain is also an entitled and selfish figure, one who acts chivalrous, but only when it benefits him. Beyond that reading, we just see Gawain ignoring a huge issue that is happening right outside his window. His kingdom is on fire, and he doesn’t care, it seems like no one does. This is our introduction to Gawain, but also to Camelot, and its not the glistening vision we typically see in Arthur movies. This place is supposed to be a utopia, not a dirty and sad place where nobility shirk their responsibility and spend their nights in brothels and lie to their mother.
Gawain’s first line in the film, after we pan from this courtyard, is “I am not ready yet”, and there is a selfishness to that, but also an acknowledgment. Gawain is largely burdened by himself; everyone around him is supportive, giving him plenty of opportunities to talk about himself or to do something helpful. Gawain has fallen back on this “I am not ready” claim so that he never has to do anything that challenges him. Other people do things for him, and the only time he rises to a challenge, he misinterprets it and lets his ego get the better of him, striking an unarmed man who he had no quarrel with. There are consequences to that, those which Gawain is desperate to avoid.
Before I expand on Gawain fears around chivalry, it’s useful to note the major difference between the text and 2021 film. The most notable contrast is Camelot’s age in the film, as the Camelot featured in the original tale is quite young, in fact, it’s described as having, “the most chivalrous and courteous knights known to Christendom” (51) and “fair folk in their first age” (54). That is not what we see in The Green Knight, as the King is soon on his deathbed along with the Queen. We also get a different version of the round table, one that has an opening that the Green Knight strolls through. That defeats the point of the round table, as it’s not supposed to have any hierarchy, which isn’t the case in this horseshoe shape. The King and Queen are also placed away from the table, up on a slight platform that Gawain has to be invited to. There is order here, Gawain is not even seated at the round table at the beginning of the feast, because he is not a knight.
As the King explains, spilt blood is different from blood relation, it’s more complicated, and thus so is Gawain. Gawain is Arthur’s only heir, he has no children of his own, and none of these knights have the right to rule. Only Gawain does, and unlike these knights, he has no chivalry, and so this test is essentially Arthur trying desperately to make Gawain rise to responsibility so he can be a fit ruler. I described this in my previous post, but Camelot’s health is directly tied to Arthur’s health, both physical and moral, which is why it’s such a utopic place. The land is only as good as its ruler, so as Arthur crumbles, so does it. It’s up to Gawain to determine what Camelot will become once Arthur is gone, so those are the stakes.
For the sake of my argument, I am going to structure the rest of my discussion using these chivalrous terms to illustrate just how badly Gawain fails each category, and what that eventually means for the end of the film. The terms again are honesty, loyalty, valour, and honour, each of which appear in Lowery’s film. I will also state here that although Gawain fails to be chivalrous for most of the film, that doesn’t mean he is unsympathetic. He is a relatable Arthurian figure, but that presents an issue. These were figures one was meant to hold themselves to, not already be. The film is criticizing Gawain, and attempting to show that Gawain has to change, not just for himself but everyone, even the audience. He eventually reaches that change in the last few moments of the film, and that is meant to be the takeaway.
Gawain lies throughout the film but never about anything major. He will either warp the truth, refuse to answer, or will just leave out information. It’s something a child would do if they didn’t want to get caught lying. It’s not a lie if they don’t say anything. We see this early on when Gawain returns home on Christmas morning and lies to his mother, telling her he has been at mass, to which she replies, “all night?”. After getting called out, Gawain just stops talking, so he doesn’t have to lie further. It’s noteworthy that most of Gawain lies are to stop people from thinking he is unvirtuous, but it never works. His mother knows he has been at a brothel all night, just as later when Gawain lies about his identity while drinking at a pub, the commoners know he is Gawain and keep teasing him about it until he starts a fight. Later still, when on his quest, Gawain lies to the Scavenger, noting “I’m not a knight” even though he is wandering around with a horse, shield, and axe on a quest with King Arthur’s blessing. He is a Knight, technically speaking, just one without honour who cannot even admit to this definition, let alone live up to it.
In an earlier conversation with the King, Gawain cannot think of a single thing about himself to entertain the King and Queen, which they both excuse, noting that he hasn’t had the chance to prove himself on a quest. He is supposed to be a knight, but he isn’t, and so he keeps producing little lies to avoid conversations, which actually just makes him more unchivalrous. Honesty is a crucial principle of chivalry, as a true chivalrous person should never lie about anything, largely because they shouldn’t have anything to lie about to begin with. Gawain is self-serving, and the largest example of that is his keeping the belt rather than giving it to the Lord, as he agreed to. It goes beyond that however, like his encounter with St. Winifred, who incidentally, does not appear in the original story.
Gawain’s reaction to seeing her for the first time is to reach out and try and touch her, to which Winifred recoils and notes, “a knight should know better”. Her horrific story embodies the most important reason for chivalry, the need to govern male nobility to protect everyone else. A Lord, as she calls him, versus calling him a Knight, tried to assault her, and when she drove him away, he returned and cut off her head. When she asks Gawain to dive into a spring and find her head, she notes, “Perhaps he was thee”, as technically Gawain has already beheaded someone and tried to touch her. It’s an uncomfortable overlap, because although Gawain has not done anything as sinister as this Lord, the fact that this comparison can be made is troubling. It alone suggests that Gawain is not worthy, and that is abundantly clear when he asks Winifred what she will give him if he finds her head. Asking this is unacceptable, it breaks chivalry, just as this horrible Lord once did. Gawain is asking for something when he should be asking for nothing. This relates more to honour, which I will get into, but here, it suggests that Gawain is a careless person who knows what chivalry is, but forgets and must be reminded of it, or he just lies after to avoid responsibility. Look at the way he emerges from the water with Winifred’s skull, he actually breaks the jaw by slamming the skull onto the rocky ground as he pulls himself up. He is a careless and unthinking noble for most of the film.
Gawain owes loyalty to multiple people, first his King, then his mother, and finally his lover, Essel. In trying to be a loyal and chivalrous knight, the person Arthur and his mother want him to be, Gawain betrays Essel in a brutal way. During his vision of returning to Camelot and running away from the Green Knight, Gawain impregnates Essel, and rather than marrying her, he takes their child moments after he is born and throws some money on Essel’s bed. It might be the worst act he perpetrates in the entire film, and no one can stop him, not even his mother, who looks deeply concerned as this happens. When we first meet Essel, Gawain is trying to give her money because she works at the brothel, but she refuses to take it, because she wants to be in a relationship with Gawain. She outright says this right before he leaves, asking him if he will make her a proper lady. He doesn’t lie, he just doesn’t reply, and it’s heartbreaking. Essel later reappears as the Lady who temps Gawain, apparently having become a Lady on her own. Gawain betrays Essel in this sequence, as he lets the Lady take away the little bell that Essel gave him. When he returns and throws this money on the bed, he is doing more than just stealing their child, he is insulting her in a horrific fashion, degrading their entire relationship. But that is not the only disloyal act Gawain perpetrates, he is also disloyal to the game between him and the Green Knight. He is told repeatedly that this is all a game, but he doesn’t want to play along even though he agreed to the terms. He gives up the quest several times, even telling Winifred, when he arrives, that he is going home.
Gawain is also disloyal to the chivalrous tenets, forgetting some of the basics within the first hours of his quest. When he comes across a warzone, and meets a young man who is currently looting, he trusts him and falls right into his trap. Looting the dead, the nameless, is one of the worst things you can do. The Scavenger is actually wearing their rings around his neck like trophies. You can’t trust anything he says because he is the definition of unchivalrous, taking from those who cannot speak back. And yet Gawain falls for it, immediately, because although he is not doing the same, he understands that these bodies aren’t using their belongings anymore, and that there is this practical need that chivalry doesn’t address. Even here, however, when Gawain is leaving, he forgets to tip the Scavenger, again having to be reminded of the proper thing to do. I will say, listening to a looter is a terrible idea, and tipping is not going to do much for your chivalrous image, but Gawain is so far gone on his quest within the first day or so that there is no way he can win. If this encounter is the first test, he has failed. He fails again when the Scavenger and friends tie him up, and he begins shouting repeatedly that he isn’t a knight, just shirking any responsibility the moment things get difficult.
Many of these chivalry terms sort of blend together, so valour needs a little extra explanation. Valour is essentially courage in battle, which Gawain has little of, as previously suggested. He runs away from the Green Knight, but even before that, he flees from the Lord’s house when confronted by the Lady. He sees the aftermath of violence, for the most part, rarely the act of. He sees a dead battleground, a tied-up skeleton, a ghostly woman, even the Lord’s game has already been killed and prepped for Gawain. He avoids violence, so he is unprepared when he arrives at the Green Chapel. The only real violence in the film is Gawain decapitating the Green Knight, and that violence repairs itself. You might say that Gawain passes through the aftermath of things, so when he eventually comes to his own inevitable aftermath, he can’t face it. We get two versions of Green Chapel, and it’s left ambiguous what actually happens. The first is that Gawain flinches a few times and then runs away, unable to pay what he agreed to. He returns to Camelot as a defeated and unworthy man, and that reflects in the eventual destruction of Camelot. The second outcome is that Gawain has seen this vision of what could happen, and decides to do the right thing, the chivalrous thing, even though it would likely kill him. That courage or valour is only found in these final moments, as before, Gawain has shirked it.
During his stay at the Lord and Lady’s castle, Gawain notices an older woman with a blindfold. She never speaks, is never addressed nor explained, and it almost seems like Gawain is the only person who can see her. One night, the woman approaches him silently, and lightly touches his head, then touches her heart before leaving the room. Gawain doesn’t understand this moment, but it’s meant as a warning about chivalry, specifically honour. The mind and heart must be united, act together rather than one leading the other. Gawain is constantly insecure and always asking the wrong question. Take his brief encounter with the giants, as his first impulse is to ask if they will let him ride on their shoulders. He realizes this was a mistake as one giant begins to reach for him, possibly to hurt him. Right before it reaches him, however, the fox (Gawain’s mother) jumps forward, snarling, and the giant backs away.
We see this situation played several ways in the film, as Gawain typically asks for unchivalrous things, like asking Winifred what she will give him in return, or takes things that he shouldn’t, even if they are offered. The head and heart motion signals what chivalry should be, what Gawain needs to learn, which is that chivalry must be an impulse. One should never have to be reminded to be chivalrous, because it should be so engrained in the person that they don’t have to consider it, their mind and heart work together. Gawain must be reminded of everything and saved by his mother, so although he often tries to be chivalrous, it’s not his true nature. He is only chivalrous when he remembers to be, like the Scavenger having to ask for a tip, the Lord having to ask Gawain what he received at his home, it goes on.
Gawain knows what chivalry looks like, and knows that it’s important, but there is a disconnect between him and the Arthurian heroes that we typically read, where the texts rarely define what chivalry is because their heroes’ behaviour function as this informal definition. It might be natural for someone like King Arthur, but not to Gawain. A good visual example of this is when the Green Knight first appears at court, and hands the King a sealed envelope. The King examines it, but before he can open it, the Queen takes it from him and opens it herself. There is this silent exchange between the two of them, where the King is reluctant to open the letter, and the Queen volunteers to do it, as though she is more able. There is a cracking sound when the seal is broken and the Queen speaks with multiple voices as she reads, as though possessed, eventually collapsing when she has finished. The implication is that once a letter is open, it must be read. You can’t just open a letter and then walk away, which is why the King is reticent to open it himself. It’s almost like a miniature version of what Gawain is about to undertake, because he ‘opens the letter’ by chopping off the Green Knight’s head, and now he has follow what comes next, ‘the reading’, however painful that might be. The Queen and King consider before they ‘open the letter’, whereas Gawain literally jumps over the round table, with zero hesitation, to challenge the Green Knight. Gawain is not thinking clearly, not thinking about consequences, he is just thinking about glory, his only impulse.
“I see legends.”
“Do not take your place amongst them idly.”
This leads to a question I have been asking myself ever since I first read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: why does Gawain chop off the Green Knight’s head? He has heard the Green Knight’s conditions, and knows that the blow will be returned one year hence, so why does he chop off the head instead of just grazing the neck, something anyone could survive? The Green Knight never outright declares that they must decapitate him, as even in the text, he says “to strike me one stroke and be struck in return…I’ll kneel, bare my neck and take the first knock” (287-290), which could be anything. Gawain makes the first choice, and the rest of the narrative acts as the consequence to that reckless choice. The Green Knight’s statement, “I will return what was given to me”, becomes a recurring theme in the story and film, and of chivalry in general. In a Christian sense, it’s what all chivalrous nobles agree to, to give back the life they have received in honorable deeds.
Keep in mind, Gawain receives multiple gifts in the film, but now he isn’t in control of this transaction, which makes him nervous. Before he either received a gift for doing something noble, like his axe after retrieving Winifred’s head, or was just offered a gift in return for something from him, like the Lord offering game in return for whatever Gawain had received. Now, he is already given the gift- decapitation- which puts him at the Green Knight’s will, not his own. Gawain also volunteers even though he does not fit what the Green Knight calls for. The Green Knight asks for the “boldest of blood and wildest of heart”, neither of which fit Gawain. Arthur might have bold blood, but Gawain hasn’t inherited it, and he is certainly not wild enough. As he is about to enter the Green Chapel, the fox, his mother, tells him that the Green Knight is wild like her, and Gawain isn’t prepared. Perhaps this changes by the end of the film, but not when Gawain first agrees to the Green Knight’s conditions, back when he thought being reckless was the same as being brave or honourable.
Gawain is repeatedly asked during this challenge scene if he knows what he is doing, only to prove the that he doesn’t. The King hands Excalibur to him, it’s the ultimate symbol of chivalry and honour, only to have him desecrate it by beheading an unarmed man. It’s not honourable to strike a still man, let alone one who has not attacked you first. Gawain can’t back down from the challenge now that he has agreed to it, but he still recognizes that there is something morally wrong with the situation. He hesitates, shouting at the Green Knight, asking him to stand up and face him properly. When he doesn’t, Gawain acts shamefully, cutting off the head of a man who is not even looking at him, as the Green Knight has turned his head to expose neck. As Gawain hands Excalibur back to the King, the King says nothing, as Gawain has just failed his first test, but the King cannot outright say that, so his face is a mix of shame and concern. One of the reasons Gawain forgets to be honourable is because he has mixed the term honour with greatness, meaning that he is busy focusing on legacy instead of the immediate choices which lead to that. There are two conversations which set this up, his discussion with the King and with Essel. Before he leaves, Gawain chats with the King, who asks, “Is it wrong to want greatness for you?”, and then shortly after, Essel asks him, “Why greatness? Why isn’t goodness enough?”. Gawain knows that he has been given everything and still finds himself asking for more, and so there is this desperate effort to try and make something worthy of those circumstances. That is certainly relatable, but again, being relatable is not typical of Arthurian heroes.
Gawain has tremendous responsibility, he is being given Camelot, and all the chivalry that place comes with, but by his own words, he isn’t ready. Unfortunately, that’s not an option and the quest is equal parts test and a training exercise, as it’s the first time he has been ‘on his own’ to see if he can be chivalrous. It’s only in the film’s last moments that Gawain is actually prepared, having thought about what could happen if he were to run away, what his actions would do to everyone else. For context, Gawain arrives at Green Chapel shortly after fleeing the castle and embarrassing himself. The Lady comes to him in the morning and shows him the belt that he lost, the one his mother made to protect him. He thoughtlessly takes the belt from her rather than receiving it as a gift and allows himself to be seduced, by a married woman, both of which are failures. The Lady looks at him with distain, noting “You are no knight”, which multiple people, including himself, have already asked during this quest. Before it was largely a question, now, by this phrasing, it’s a statement. Gawain is not a knight, and that terrifies him.
The Green Knight later asks Gawain, as he raises his axe, “Are you ready?”, to which Gawain’s first response is no. He runs away, stays a coward but stays alive, but is it worth it? He continues to take things from people, like taking his son from Essel, then taking that son for granted and sending him to war, and ultimately treating life like this game, one where he can just run away when it gets too difficult. This is even foreshadowed earlier in his final encounter with the Lord, where he flees both the Lord and the game caught by the Lord, implying that he will shortly abandon his game with the Green Knight. There is a connection between the two types of game in the film, but they stand in opposition. One is hunted wildlife; the other is a chivalrous choice. There is respect and importance to each exchange, but whereas one is to possess, the other is to accept something out of your control. Gawain eventually abandons his family by removing the green belt which severs his head, a moment which suggests that the Green Knight’s cut has always been there, the price and shame left a mark. But then he returns to the chapel, having had this vision, and can choose to either run or stay, and he chooses to stay, finally doing the honourable thing.
Camelot films often focus on succession, whether that is King Arthur claiming his right to be King by pulling sword from stone, or the succession of Camelot, what happens to that utopia after Arthur dies. The Green Knight is about succession, of the royal family, of chivalry, and of the land itself. Arthur and Gawain’s mother set this test to see if Gawain rises to the challenge and is worthy enough to be King, and in the vision we see that he is not, but there is nothing anyone can do about that. It’s unclear why the King dies in this vision, we just know that he is old and weak, not the brave King Arthur that appears in the original text. Arthur and Camelot are connected, so if Camelot is suffering, so is it’s King, and vice versa. The Camelot we see in the film is decaying, there are wars being fought just on the outskirts of the city, but we don’t even know what they are being fought for. Whatever Camelot represents for chivalry is dying, and so Gawain running away from the Green Knight is a death blow for Arthur and the Kingdom, which explains why he dies shortly after Gawain’s return. Because Gawain is unchivalrous, Camelot falls, which is what happens in most literature, because no King after Arthur embodies that level of chivalry again.
However, the film ends on a slightly optimistic note, because Gawain chooses to stay and do the honourable thing, to finish what he started. He survives in the original story and returns home to celebrate, but the film ends right before the Green Knight swings, so we don’t know if Gawain survives, and that is crucial. The ambiguity here is important because it makes Gawain’s choice chivalrous, rather than just momentarily chivalrous. He doesn’t know if he will survive, and neither do we, which makes his choice to stay more important than his return and victory. It also means that Camelot may recover to some extent because the next in line did the right thing. Or it could mean that Gawain is the final chivalrous person, and so his head being chopped off means the death of chivalry. I think it’s probably the former, meant as a commentary on self-sacrifice.
There is a seeping foe in The Green Knight, this terrifying and inevitable force, more powerful than chivalry or Camelot: the green. Today we associate the colour green with greed, the ‘green eyed monster’ and money. That’s not the case in The Green Knight, where it stands for something beyond our control. Nature is invading Camelot, we see this early on as Gawain passes a warzone where the dead soldiers have been abandoned, unburied and unnamed. When Gawain asks the Scavenger about the bodies, he replies that the bodies will eventually be covered by the earth, so it doesn’t matter what you do with them now. Nature is inescapable, it swallows life without any ceremony or meaning, and there is nothing you can do about. I know this is slightly off topic, but it reminds me of a concept introduced in Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (1968) which was vaguely adapted into Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982). The book takes place in this apocalyptic aftermath, where people are still around, but most of the earth is abandoned and has fallen to chaos, which the book calls kipple, which is a form of entropy. It’s the idea that when you leave things, when you stop trying to control an area, chaos sweeps in and consumes everything. It’s terrifying because it is beyond you, and the moment you relinquish control it just floods in. Kipple, that chaotic decay, is happening to Camelot, but the film represents it as this old versus new dynamic. The new being Arthur and Christianity, the old being Gawain’s mother, magic, and nature.
Take the Green Chapel, a place that by name was a Christian space, but has been swallowed by nature. It’s crumbling, but there is still life in it, just not human life. The text’s version of the Green Knight looks quite different than what we see on the screen, as he is like a tree in the film, he even sounds like one when he moves. He too has been overwhelmed by nature, and whatever human features he had, as this Lord, are now more tree than human. He is thus the ultimate combination of the two, even by his name, the Green (nature) Knight (man). But there is still this commentary on Christianity, as both text and film feature a decayed Chapel, a corrupted Knight, and Christmas. The Green Knight first appears on Christmas Day, and a year later Gawain meets him at the Green Chapel. Incidentally, Gawain begins the film by lying to his mother about attending mass on Christmas, and so his arrival at Green Chapel a year later signals newfound responsibility. Now it’s up to Gawain to either accepts this responsibility or flee.
Christmas is about birth, but it takes place in the middle of a bleak season, as spring hasn’t happened yet, but a new year is about to dawn. For the Christians, it’s the day Christ was born, not reborn like at Easter, and so it’s a day to celebrate investments, if anything. One celebrates what has already been and what might become, hoping that the new year will be bright and bountiful. By that logic, Christmas is a sort of limbo holiday, stuck between past and possible future. That future is not certain, given how difficult and harsh winter can be. It forces a person to examine whatever investments they’ve made during the year, like hoping the harvest will be enough to survive until Spring. Arthur and Gawain’s mother are doing much the same by considering what Gawain will become in the future, as Arthur is growing increasingly weak. It’s why Arthur has suddenly become interested in Gawain, having apparently ignored him for most of his upbringing. They are all stuck in this strange middle place between planting and harvest, where everything is ambiguous, and so Arthur and Gawain’s mother turn to what they have already sowed: Christianity and the old ways.
As Gawain leaves Camelot, however, its snowy winter disappears and becomes green. Not spring, not summer, just cold green that encompasses and overwhelms each of the Christian icons Gawain encounters. The film sets up this comparison when Arthur presents Gawain with a blessed shield, which depicts the Virgin Mary, while his Mother gives him a green belt with runes, and the Green Knight gives him his axe. The shield gets broken almost immediately, and the belt and axe are stolen, but notably, are returned whereas the shield stays broken. The implication is that these old-world tools are stronger, or at least more undeniable than new tools. They will literally outlive whatever Christian meaning Arthur ascribes, like the shield, working in a more mysterious way that Gawain doesn’t understand. Gawain, incidentally, should not need a shield because of the game he is playing. While Arthur is preoccupied with what King will come after him, Gawain’s mother worries about what will come after us, beyond one person. It’s why Camelot and its main players go unnamed, because everything is in such upheaval that it could be in any era, these could be any figures. Rather than giving them the legendary status that comes with these names, the film itself seem unsure of where they belong and who they are, simply because Gawain (who has name) hasn’t determined his path amongst this chaos. It’s noteworthy that Gawain actually passes two battle sites at the beginning of his journey, as before he finds the literal warzone, he passes a group of men who are cutting down trees. The men are trying to clear the area, to build something, but as Gawain goes on to discover, the green can never be defeated, it’s just something you delay. It’s interesting that the film’s posters and DVD cover are all in red and gold, rather than green, suggesting that these colours represent Gawain, and what he eventually overcomes.
“What Else Ought There Be?”
This very conversation comes up during Gawain’s stay at the Lord’s castle, where the Lady asks, “But why Green?”, why is the Green Knight green? Gawain replies, “Because he is not of this earth”, and then we get this amazing monologue about how the very opposite is true. The Lady first responds, “But green is the colour of earth, of living things, of life”, to which Gawain notes, “and of rot”, but fails to realize that rot is life. The Lady goes on, noting, “We deck our halls with it and dye our linens. But should it come creeping up the cobbles, we scrub it out, fast as we can”, because we like green, but only under our control, not as this inevitable force just waiting for us to die. Rot is not up to us, and so neither is life, or as the Lady describes, “we stamp it out, we spread ourselves atop it and smother it beneath our bellies, but it comes back”, it begins “creeping in around the edges” no matter how hard we try to scatter it. Whereas red is the colour of lust and warmth, the things we look for and find comfort in, green is what we all become when we die, when the cities are abandoned, and our stories are forgotten. “Whilst we’re off looking for red, in comes green”, just waiting. Gawain is surprised by this when he arrives at Green Chapel and sees the Green Knight raise his axe, asking “is this really all there is?”. It seems so simple, cause and effect, but for some reason, Gawain assumed there would be a trick, that he would survive even though he agreed to clear terms. It’s not complicated, even chivalry should feel like an impulse, just not to Gawain.
Gawain crosses or drinks water right before his encounters, almost as though he is baptizing himself, in fact, he often only sees the encounter after he does, like the water is refreshing his gaze. When we first meet him, he is woken up with a bucket of water, then later he douses himself in water before noticing the King is watching him. On his quest, Gawain drinks from a creek right before he is robbed and then again drinks before seeing Winifred’s house. He also submerges in water to find Winifred’s head, and rows across it to find the Green Chapel. Refreshed and newly baptized, much like the holy water spritzed onto his shield, Gawain continues to fail. I mention this because the holy water is followed by the ringing of a bell, the two go together, and we only hear a bell at the very end of the film, right as it cuts from Gawain and the Green Knight. The toll of the bell represents order, which has been restored by Gawain staying. Essel gives him a bell before he leaves, and is often shown wearing bells, although they don’t ring during this final vision where Gawain runs away. In fact, there is almost no speech in this entire vision, just singing and Essel’s cries. It’s as though no one can talk to him, whether out of shame, or because Gawain is still incapable of thinking of others’ perspectives and just sees what things would look like and feel for him. When the vision ends, and he is back at Green Chapel, he finally takes responsibility, knowing what that means. The Green Knight pauses, noting, “Well done, my brave knight”, and it’s the first time Gawain has earned that name.
The final line in the film is “Now, off with your head”, which is again very ambiguous. Is it literal or metaphoric, representing that Gawain’s mind has radically changed, or is it even a joke, because in the text, the Green Knight just grazes his neck and teases him? That ambiguity is important, much like an earlier conversation between Gawain and Winifred, where he asks, “Are you real or are you spirit?”, and she replies, “What’s the difference? I just need my head”. There is a practicality to that, it says something about this ending. It doesn’t matter which way you read the ending, you could even read that this vision isn’t a vision, it actually happens, and Gawain’s return is the only vision, having done these horrible things and then finally pulling off the belt to accept responsibility. What’s practical, the “I just need my head” sentiment, is that order is eventually restored, payment received, and that is all that should matter. That is especially true when we see the words “The Green Knight” carved into the landscape as this bell tolls, and then in the last few seconds, begin to shift, as though nature is covering up the words, much like the footprints the Lady describes in her monologue about green.
Gawain will disappear eventually, as will the story, even written down. His error is that he assumes that everyone was helping him because he was meant to be this great knight and ruler, but their efforts had little to do with him. He was beside the point, what continues after him is the point. The green will continue. We see that in the brief after credits shot where a young girl, possibly Gawain’s daughter, plays with a crown and then puts it on her head. The game continues beyond Gawain, as now she is playing with responsibility. This challenge to be chivalrous will always need to be addressed. Unlike Gawain, however, the crown doesn’t immediately set her on fire as it does in the film’s opening, suggesting that this lineage is safe, at least for now. Either that, or the crown has lost some of its mystic qualities, and has dwindled into some idle plaything, reserved solely for the Arthurian story, not reality. I don’t think that’s the case, however, I think instead, the film is asserting that Gawain’s struggles, the ones he selfishly inflicted on others for the entire story, exist beyond him, they exist in others, and this conversation on chivalry and lineage continues without him.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. “Middle English Literature in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 9.1, 2013, p.p. 135-188.