J. R. R. Tolkien considered Sir Gawain and the Green Knight one of the greatest works of medieval English literature, an example of “literary alchemy,” “when old deep-rooted stories are rehandled by a real poet with an imagination of his own.” It goes without saying that the anonymous author of the poem was one such “real poet.” David Lowery, who wrote and directed its latest film adaptation, The Green Knight, is another.
Some critics have bemoaned the film's departures from its source material. But such criticism misapprehends the nature of adaptation, which requires interpreting and resituating a work of art. In this case, a quest narrative that cleverly subverted conventions to interrogate the values of its fourteenth-century audience must itself be subverted, even deconstructed, in order to effect an analogous interrogation today. The moral heart of the poem is what matters most, and Lowery keeps it beating through defamiliarization.
Whereas the poem depicts King Arthur's court at the height of its power, the film opens on a Camelot whose glories have dimmed. Arthur (Sean Harris) and Guinevere (Kate Dickie), both aged and homely, preside over a Christmas feast shared by their equally exhausted knights. As in the poem, Arthur desires to hear some great story before he eats. Gawain (Dev Patel), when asked for a story of himself, has none to share. The great battles have all been fought; the Saxons are well underfoot. As a result, Lowery's Gawain is a layabout who skips Mass to carouse with his peasant lover, who lives in a house of ill repute.
These changes speak to an American context in which young men are aloof and unstoried. Our nation's decline is everywhere apparent, but perhaps nowhere more so than in the vast armada of failsons foundering on the reefs of recession, spiritual vapidity, neutering feminism, deconstructed national myths, therapeutic culture that pathologizes anyone unsuitable to the information economy, and the endless anesthesia of pornography, pot, and video games. Lowery was born in 1980, but he understands the plight of Millennials and Zoomers, and what it portends for those unwilling to content themselves with Call of Duty campaigns: The yearning for a story of one's own will eventually produce action.
One need not discern echoes of Weimar in the thuggery of Antifa and the Proud Boys to know that much of that action will not be virtuous. We are in dire need of public grapplings with the nature of virtue, and models thereof. Lowery seems to intuit with Tolkien that there is “no better medium for moral teaching than the good fairy-story.” Hence this resituation of Gawain and its lessons.
The essentials of the original story are still there. The Green Knight comes to Camelot and challenges someone to land a blow on him, one that he will return in a year's time. Gawain accepts and cuts off the knight's head, but this does not kill the interloper. One year later, Gawain must journey to the knight's Green Chapel and fulfill his promise, on his honor as a knight (in the film, an aspiring knight).
The poem exposes where chivalric codes of courtesy conflict with the moral order established by God, and ridicules those who make idols of merely contingent norms. If Lowery had mapped its lessons directly onto our anti-culture, the results would be farcical, nullifying essential elements of the fairy-story, and thus also the lessons themselves, which are inextricable from their genre.
To preserve those elements, Lowery deemphasizes courtesy. The third canto, in which Gawain undergoes his three temptations at the castle of Lord Bertilak (Joel Edgerton) and his Lady (Alicia Vikander), is much condensed. As in the poem, the Lady makes advances; she gives Gawain an embroidered girdle that she says will protect him from harm, and kisses him while he lies in bed. In the film, however, their exchange is so sexually charged that Gawain ejaculates onto the girdle. Whereas in the poem the girdle symbolizes to Gawain his failures of chivalric courtesy, the film bestows a symbolic weight more comprehensible to contemporary audiences: the dishonor and moral pollution of adultery.
The film's closing sequence is worth considering at length. Gawain goes to the Green Chapel as promised, wearing the magic girdle. As in the poem, he flinches as the Green Knight attempts to deliver the first blow, and is chastised. But then the film departs radically from the text. Before the next blow, Gawain asks,
“Is this really all there is?”
“What else ought there be?” says the Green Knight.
Gawain gives no answer, though it's clear he expects some grand meaning to come and drive away the sheer absurdity of it all. And it does, though not in the way he or the audience expects: He receives a vision of who he will become if he chooses dishonor in this moment. He is knighted and declared Arthur's heir, but he proves to be a heartless ruler and the kingdom falls to war and ruin. In the end, alone as Camelot is sacked, he removes the magic girdle—and his head topples from his neck.
Gawain is so disgusted by the vision that he removes the girdle and casts it aside, thereby honoring the original terms of the game. “There,” he says. “Now I'm ready.”
“Well done, my brave knight,” says the Green Knight. “Now . . . off with your head.”
The film concludes with that line and the Green Knight's wry smile. It's tempting to read this truncation of the story as an exercise in nihilism. If both honor and dishonor end in death, what meaning can be extracted from Gawain's trials? But this is a misreading.
In the beginning of the film, Gawain, having no story to tell Arthur, accepts the Green Knight's challenge in order to write a story for himself. But the moment the Green Knight proves unharmed by the beheading, it is clear to Gawain that he is not in control of his story, that he has stumbled into an order larger than himself. In the film's ending, Gawain accepts that he did not write his own story, did not choose the givens of his existence; by removing the protective girdle and offering his neck, he chooses to embrace those givens, to live that story as his own, and thereby participate in a transcendent moral order.
Gawain's choice repudiates our modern understanding of authenticity, under which he would have lived out the vision and transvalued his cowardice and dishonor into virtues. Such “authenticity” actually leads to its opposite: enslavement. Lowery captures this when the Lady “paints” Gawain using a primitive method of photography. The resulting portrait—dark and nubilous despite its photorealism—reappears in Gawain's vision, representing the version of Gawain he will become if he fornicates with the Lady or reneges on his covenant with the Green Knight by keeping the girdle on—the version, in effect, created by the Lady's will.
In the end, The Green Knight's message is one my own generation desperately needs: Self-creation is slavery, but freedom and wonder await those who embrace their role in a story far greater than any they could have written for themselves.
Justin Lee teaches undergraduate writing at the University of California, Irvine.
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