Why the Green Knight is so brilliant… because, I’ve heard it from four or five people that it isn’t. That it’s nonsensical, and confusing, and a fever dream within a fever dream. Which, it is, but it is still brilliant, and it is still worth your time. I believe The Green Knight is only in theaters currently, but it is definitely worth venturing out to take it in on the big screen. I was blow away by the cinematography shown there, and loved every shot. Still trying to figure out how half of the movie was made. But I know some of you that saw it don’t know what you just witnessed. So, let’s do this, I’ll place the trailer here, as a blocking wall to the spoilers below. If you haven’t seen it yet, watch the trailer, then head off to your local cinema to check it out. Then, once you’ve watched, join us further down the page to see if you tracked the movie from start to finish.
The Green Knight Walkthrough
You will be forgiven if among the vaunted knights of King Arthur’s Round Table, you were not familiar with Sir Gawain’s story with the Green Knight. The story was written some 700 years ago, in the 14th century, and it is a mythical tale filled with weird, amazing, and sexually thrilling tellings. It is a story with truly relevant modern day applications, and one that should be a cautionary tale to everyone that listens to it. If you’d like to join along with the A24 movie version and read the story for yourself, you can do so right here. It’s a quick fifty some pages, and well worth the read if not to just shed insights on the movie itself. Like, here’s a small thing… the King at the beginning of the movie? In the credits, he is just listed as “The King.” But, uh, which King is that do you reckon? Right, that was King Arthur. I mean, sure, but, that was not clear, like at all. I mean, did you catch that? Did anyone say, well hey, Art? And his wife? You know, The Queen? That would be Queen Guinevere ostensibly? Yeah. Makes sense. And yet, while watching the movie, zero of those thoughts hit my head until I began reading the story proper.
As the movie opens, it immediately introduces Gawain as a bit of a slacker. An impetuous teen. A boy that sleeps in, and flirts around with a woman. Gawain is a knight, but he’s a knight without any great story, or great legends that proceed him. And the rest of the Round Table? They are accomplished demi-gods. But who is this Gawain fellow? No one. He rolls around in the hay, he gets up late, he may or may not go to church. At the outset, we are given a no one. He is nobody. And this section of story, is all made up – like whole cloth. It isn’t there in the story. But this fundamentally gives us something to juxtapose against. To compare and contrast. It allows us to really see where he comes from and where he goes to across the telling of the story. (If anywhere that is.)
Then the celebration of Christmas Day. The knights all assemble with Arthur and Guinevere to celebrate. To drink, to meat (no, that is not a misspelling – it’s how the story characterizes the celebration. They are all standing around waiting for the meat. I kid you not. Anyway.) to merry. But, in the middle of said celebration – walks the Green Knight. In the story, it characterizes the Green Knight as sort of a massive, man, with a barrel of a chest. But green throughout… and mossy. But a man none the less. In the movie’s version, it likens the knight to sort of a Green Groot. A driftwood head, and green body. Which, was an interesting choice to go the thoroughly mythological route with it. But why not? It is a myth after all.
And the Green Knight sets out the challenge. And let’s be clear about the Fytte the First, and the Fytte the Second. These “battles” are not battles. The Green Knight shows up, and says, come, cut my head off. Then, in a years time, come find me at my green chapel to receive the return blow. Wait, what? You kill me today. And I’ll kill you exactly one year from now… if you are man enough. And when Gawain takes up the challenge, you would have thought that the knight the lesser had already won the day! Woot!! The battle is afoot! Gawain lops the Green Knight’s head off in one clean blow. And the knight picks up his head, and laughs his way out of the hall, as the onlookers guffaw. But it was an amazing blow that Gawain hammered the knight with. So there’s that! Did you see it? Hahahaha. Then, quickly, the calendar flips, and the year goes by. And soon it is time for Gawain to venture out and find his foe.
And on his journey, he has a few run ins along the way. Right out of the gate, he is met by a helpful friend, giving him directions to the Green Chapel… but soon after, Gawain realizes, this helpful friend turns out to be a scavenger. Played by Barry Keoghan – who was epic in the film The Killing of a Sacred Deer, fantastic in American Animals, etc etc. Definitely one of my favorite actors today. The scavenger plays as if he will help, but soon after, Gawain is set upon by the scavenger and his friends, and all of his knightly things are stolen. His horse, his chain-mail, his axe that he received from the Green Knight. It is a pretty awful start to his knightly journey. Then later, he’s met by an apparition who has lost her head. He leaps into a nearby lake and retrieves it for her. Nice! A great detail for the story!! SCRIBE WRITE IT DOWN! hahaha.
After that, Gawain takes shelter from the rain in a castle. Wherein, he is met by The Lord, and his lady Essel (played by the immortal Alicia Vikander – Ex Machina man, Ex Machina!). But it is obvious from the start that the two of them are both attempting to undo him in pretty much any way they can. Oh, and there is also a blindfolded old woman there too? Who is she?? She follows the duo around everywhere they go. Is it an evil portent? It’s not like we need any hints as to what this wonder twin duo are up to. That’s for sure.
Eventually, while the Lord is out hunting for his new guest at the house, Essel hits on him. Now, we have to back up. There is a really significant difference between the story and the movie. We’ll get into this a lot more at the end here, but suffice it to say that there is no woman back home for Gawain in the story. Knights of the Round Table are supposed to be chaste, you know… celibate. It is actually such an important detail that when the movie opens with Gawain rolling in the hay with Helen, I was a bit blown away by it. Wait, what? Huh?
So, in the movie, Gawain has a girl back home, and his mother has given him a belt, with a sort of talisman in it… to ward off death. But, now, this Essel temptress, she is offering Gawain her own belt. In the story, Essel wants to kiss Gawain, but Gawain – rightly, refuses the glorious temptress. This is the temptation – THIS is the challenge. Not the knight at the chapel! He tells the woman, nope, nope nope… BUT, you are pretty. So congrats on that. She says, give me a token? A glove? He says, no way. We can’t be a thing… so forget it. She offers him this radiant like, gold and red ring, and he’s like… woah! Way too much… I’m supposed to be poor and all that. Then she says… and this is dodgy as all get out… what if I give you this green lace from my bodice? It will protect you from death. Gawain sees that and is like, 100%, I’ll take it. I need all the help from death I can get right now. Especially seeing as though I’m about to go have my head cut off by the Green Knight. (By the way, I was ten years old when I realized what Love-Lace was…) But the thing you have to let go of, is the idea that the battles are the battles in King Arthur’s stories. Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table are all about moral virtue. SIN. Righteousness. They are stories of the Christian walk… like literally. Being blameless in God’s eyes. (Which is hilarious seeing as though that’s impossible, and wasn’t meant to be possible. But theology is really beside the point here. And yet, it is extraordinarily important to understand the intent of the story’s origins. We’ll get back to this part, I promise.)
The key here though is that we have two different love-laces going on here. We have one given to him by his mother, and we have one given to him by Essel. And in the original story, this one failure is his only real screw up. And it informs the story’s ending. Regardless, in the movie, both The Lord, and Essel hit on Gawain. They definitely gave it all they had, that’s for sure. But in the story, Gawain blessed the house as he left, and didn’t think anything untoward had really happened there.
Gawain heads off with a heavy mind, oppressed by the coming day and his near certain death. And when Gawain finds the chapel, he sees that the Knight is sleeping… awaiting his encounter with the Gawain. I will mention that there was one section in the movie (I can’t really remember exactly where it was… there were people sitting directly behind me, which means I couldn’t exactly take notes during the movie. Not used to being back in the theater again!) where it hinted that Gawain and the Green Knight were one in the same. That the battle he was to have with the Green Knight was an internal struggle. Which, is a really interesting take on this encounter. He is going into the chapel (coincidence?) to have his head lopped off by himself… hrm…
Regardless, the Knight says… alright, let’s do this, and he goes to kill Gawain, but Gawain runs. Literally, gets up and hightails it. And the rest of the movie sort of happens in a fast forward blur. He heads quickly back home, and is knighted. King Arthur eventually dies, and Gawain becomes the king after him as his successor. Helen has a child, but he takes the child from her, leaves her with money for the child, and he ends up marrying another woman as an alliance? (Who was she? I mean literally, who is that actor? I couldn’t place but felt like I should have known who she was.) He then goes on to lead men into war, and he watches as his men die. And as he and his men begin to lose the war, it comes to his gates. Then he is alone as he waits for the invaders to charge through his doors. And as the doors open, he pulls off the green lace, and as he does, his head falls off. WHAT? (Shhh, calm yourself, it’ll make sense soon enough.)
But then he snaps back to the Green Knight. He never ran away from him. He didn’t flee, he just thought through the logical consequences of running from this obligation of his. This life debt he has to pay. But then this time, he tells the Green Knight that he is ready. And the Green Knight smiles into the camera and says, “Well, then, off with your head…” The end.
What Happened At The End of The Green Knight?
“Look, Taylor is it? Good, Taylor, I don’t care about the morality of Gawain. I don’t care about the intent of the story written 700 years ago. I literally don’t. My wife asked me to watch this stupid film, and all I want to know is this simple question. Did Gawain live, or did he die, at the end of this infernal movie?”
“Well, thank you for your brutal honesty Señor Cinema… let’s see if we can get you a quick answer and then let you go. That way we can actually get back to discussing the stuff that really matters.”
“Did he live?”
“Oh, well, if you read the story, it will give you a clear…”
“No. I’m not reading anything. I already skimmed way too much of this stupid post hoping to just glance at a phrase that said, ‘Gawain survived his encounter with the knight…’ but so far nothing. So? Did he?”
“Well, based on the story… DO NOT INTERRUPT ME AGAIN… I would argue he probably survived. Gawain’s major sin in the story (and the movie) was his kissing Essel, and taking her memento.”
“THAT WAS NOT HIS FAULT.”
“Look, mister Captain America, you can go back to your Marvel universe where you are clearly more comfortable.” It is because of this fault of his, this one fault… the Green Knight scratched his neck, and didn’t sever his head.
“First I menaced you merrily with a pure feint, and gave the no blow; which was but justice, considering the covenant we made on the first night, and which though held with me trustily; for truly all the gain though gave me as a good man should. The second feint this morning sir, I proffered the, because though didst kiss my fair wife and didst hand the kisses over to me; for these two occasions I gave thee here but two bare feints without harm. A true man truly restores; such an one need dread no harm. At the third time thou didst fail; and so take the that tap.
“For it is my weed that thou wearest, that same woven girdle. Mine own wife gave it thee, I know well, forsooth. Now know I well thy kisses, and thy virtues also. And as for the wooing of my wife, I managed it myself. I sent her to try thee, and truly it seems to me thou art the most faultless of hero that ever went on foot. As a pearl is of greater price than white peas, so is Gawain, in good faith, compared with other gay knights. But in this case, sir, you lacked little, and loyalty failed you. But that was for no amorous work, nor wooing either, but because ye loved your life, –the less I blame you.”
“Dude! He said ‘gay knights’! They’re gay! Hah!”
“Sir, you are a truly abhorrent author’s conceit. And have really outstayed your welcome!”
“No need to get grumpy about it. Sheesh.”
Apparently, the Green Knight was playing Gawain all along. He placed his own wife, Essel, in his path, and tried to derail him morally and completely. And while Gawain shouldn’t have kissed her, or taken the memento from her, he did pass the challenge. And as a result… for the rest of his life he never took the girdle off again for as long as he lived. So, yes. Gawain survived the ending of the movie. And yes, we can know that with pretty clear assurance.
Thoughts on The Green Knight
Modern culture sees celibacy as a sign of insanity. Or weakness. The really strong men among us will sow their wild oats. They will plow the fields… and toil the soil. Cough. And so the modern screenplay authors muddied this story, and gave Gawain a girl that he couldn’t be unfaithful with. That then gives the modern audience a frame of reference they can relate to. He can’t be unfaithful to Helen! Instead of thinking that it was his being unfaithful to himself. That can’t be a thing. Or worse, 700 years ago, to imagine that it was a moral failing to have sex outside of marriage.. WHAT? WHAT IS THAT? And to think that his sleeping with her would have been a significant enough sin in and of itself to disqualify him, and to forfeit his head. That would just not make ANY sense to modern day audiences. But that is what the story was saying. But the story itself even addresses this exact detail:
“Quoth the lady to the hero: “Ye deserve blame if ye love not her who is so near you, — of all creatures in the world most wounded in heart; — unless indeed ye have a sweetheart, a dearer being, that pleases you better, and ye have plighted faith so firmly to that gentle one that ye care not to loosen it. — Verily now that is what I believe, and I pray you that you tell me truly; for all the loves in the world deny not the truth with guile.”
The Green Knight’s wife says to Gawain, look, do not turn me down here… well, unless you have a girl back home. That would make sense. You want to be true to her. That’s fair. But he didn’t have a girl back home. And his response was, “I have none, and none will I have.” Wait, what? Then she kissed him and faded away having been bested. He was morally true. He was morally right. Modern society, modern morés cannot comprehend this at all.
But the most important point the movie worked hard to dissect was this idea of goodness, and greatness. As Gawain was leaving the castle, we watch as he struggles with the fact that he is not a great knight. It terrible for him to contemplate. The other knights of the round table are great. Gawain though? Not at all. He was dying for a great story, which is why he accepted the Green Knight’s challenge. But it goes horribly from the start. Robbed, naked and embarrassed, ridiculed, this is not a story of greatness in the least. He’s wet, cold and hungry, desperate from the help of strangers. But in the movie’s version of events, we watch what happens in his life if he flees the axe and chases after greatness. A love is disavowed, wars and pillages are sought, men die, and he is left alone as he dies in his own castle. That is not real greatness… what with his giving up on being good. And at the end of the story, Gawain doesn’t flinch, and receives his just reward for kissing the Green Knight’s wife. (Uh, wait, can we talk about Gawain’s ejaculating on the girdle? Because, uh, where I come from that is just as much sex as going all in. “I DID NOT HAVE SEX WITH THAT WOMAN, MONICA LEWINSKY!” You know? No, I’m letting that go as one more modern day aberration.)
There is a difference between being good, and being great. And we should keep this in mind. That being morally good is important. That drawing our strength from a deeper power beyond ourselves is critical to our deeper success. 3,200 words. Dang. Guess I enjoyed the ins and outs of this one more than I realized!
But the brilliance (see, I can’t even stop talking, that was supposed to be the end in the previous paragraph) of the Arthurian legends is that it is a discussion of the moral struggle. The mortal life, walked, and the precarious chasms that assail us at any given moment in time. Sure, maybe the moral chasm that assailed you today wasn’t The Green Knight’s wife sicc’d on you from afar. Or maybe it was. Who knows. But every day presents us with a new challenge, and new moral dilemma that is a heat seeking missile aimed at our Achilles heel. Right? This life is hard. And I actually have not a single right to say that this life is hard. I’m so freaking soft compared to so many of you. Assailed by violence, death, disease, temptations, the likes of which I will never be challenged with. And yet, everyone’s life is hard. We all have our struggles that we have to overcome day after day. We are in need of an intervention from a savior. This much is true. And with that, I’m going to stop. Thanks for reading all the way to the end of this prolific vomit of a post.
Edited by: CY