In “The Green Knight”, chivalry was still dead
‘Sir Gwain and the Green Knight’, the beloved 14th century poem, begins during Christmas time at King Arthur’s court, when a giant spinach-colored man walks into the banquet hall with a proposal. . He will accept any hit from one of Arthur’s knights if, in a year and a day, that knight comes to his house, the Green Chapel, and receives a hit in return. Arthur wants to take up the challenge, but his nephew Gauvain intercedes. “I am the weakest, I know, and the weakest in mind,” he says, “so my life would be the least loss.” (It’s politeness; Gauvain thirsts for adventure and glory.) Suddenly, Gauvain beheads the giant, who calmly raises his head and leaves: see you in a year.
The following winter, Gauvain, lavishly armed, sets out in search of the Green Chapel. Finally, half-dead of cold and hunger, he arrives in a castle – “It sparkled and shone through mighty oaks” – where a stately host and his beautiful wife shower him with comfort. The host, too, has a proposal. During the day, he will hunt while Gauvain is resting; in the evening, he will give Gauvain the booty from the hunt, and Gauvain will give him everything he has won at the castle. The next morning, the host’s wife slips into Gauvain’s apartments. “You are welcome in my body,” she whispers. He parries her advances but accepts her kiss, and plants his on the lord during the exchange of the night. This happens two more times; the last time, the lady also offers a magic belt, which would make her wearer invincible. Gauvain, unhappily thinking of his date, keeps the present. The next day, he goes to the chapel, where the green knight swings his ax, brushing Gauvain’s neck. It is for retaining the belt, the knight explodes, revealing himself as the host. “You like to be alive. I don’t blame you! Gauvain, torn with remorse, drapes the belt over his shoulder – “a sign of my sin” – and returns home as a wiser and truer knight.
Only the widest outlines of this impenetrable poem can be seen in “The Green Knight”, a haunting (and even more impenetrable) new film directed by David Lowery (“A Ghost Story”, “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints”) . An obvious departure is the undoing – I think this is the most accurate term – of the character of Gauvain. In the text we meet our fully formed hero, already the flower of chivalry. “As much pearls outweigh peas in value, so much Gwain compares to other good knights,” says one character. He is chaste, but possesses the manners of a consummate courteous lover. By contrast, the film’s Gawain, played with charming incorrigibility and loose limbs by Dev Patel, is untested, unknown, and a bit of a dud. He refuses to make his beloved, Essel, an honest woman and he displays none of the martial power or verbal eloquence of the source character. (“You’re not very good at questions,” the host teases.) When robbers intercept him on his journey to the Green Chapel, this Gwain wonders if he’s even a knight.
This is a question that would appear, in the poem, to be ridiculous. The original character feels governed by his social role, shaped in every stroke and gesture by the values of the warrior elite. Gauvain de Lowery is looking for a more individual code, if he is looking for a code at all. “The honor,” he said to the host uncertainly, “is part of the life I want.
A Gauvain who hasn’t fully embraced chivalry – who seems poised at the start of an ambiguous bildungsroman – is an unrecognizable Gauvain, and the reverberations of his apostasy transform history. Much of the original drama stemmed from a situation in which a flawless hero had to navigate conflicting rules. Gauvain was required both to obey the lady’s wishes and to honor his host. He needed to keep his pact with the monster and, simultaneously, escape death. (Being dead is incompatible with acting in a chivalrous romance.) But the film’s Gauvain is already ambivalent about his calling. It’s unclear what tests he might be facing might prove. Essel’s introduction becomes one more step towards a disorderly interiority: if Gwain succumbs to the charms of his host’s wife, he would betray not an ideal but a specific woman, with whom he has a complex and troubled relationship. (Significantly, Gauvain did not make a formal vow to Essel, as he owed to male figures such as the knight and the host.)
That Gwain is, at best, a curious chivalrous – in a way, he himself is a “green” warrior – reflects the perspective of the film itself. This is another tectonic change. The unknown author of the poem, who appears to have been a devout Christian, offers a religious critique of the novel genre, but respectfully, in the terms of the genre. Lowery’s challenge is less courteous, presenting courtesy as manipulation, a cover for cruelty and deception. There is little gallantry in this Camelot. The men of the Round Table, rather than welcoming the Green Knight to their feast, as in the text, immediately draw their swords. Sean Harris’ Arthur, weakened by years of moral compromise, boasts of making the Saxons “bow their heads like babies”. (Later, the camera mournfully sweeps across the killing fields.) The worm groans with exquisite pleasures – “double portions” of meat and drink, soft music, splendid clothing – in a vibrant defense of the world the chivalry has built. But the film’s palette, at least on the inside, is drab and uninviting. There are goats, manure, widespread hostility to showers. Compared to the content of the poem, civilization seems both more fragile and less worthy to fight.
And yet, the film seems to enshrine certain human values. When Gauvain tells Essel that he is going to the Green Chapel in search of “greatness”, she replies: “Why is kindness not enough? Kindness seems to overlap with aspects of chivalry: keeping your word, providing for the vulnerable, helping the lost. Still, the film’s broader moral vision remains to be gained. If Gauvain ends his turn in a nihilistic game, is it heroic or foolish? Would it be smart or a sin to use magic to save your own life? We do not know what a happy resolution would look like for our hero – who could end up knight, king or dead -. The destabilization here goes beyond the suspense, beyond not knowing what Gauvain will do in the face of temptation. In this more deeply disorienting and modern take on romance, we don’t know, at some point, what the protagonist should do.
In the absence of an external and structuring ethic, “The Green Knight” plunges into psychological fantasia. Interestingly, this maintains the faith with the text, which is also a hybrid, layering the conventions of French and English courts on a deep vein of Celtic myth. A mysterious lyricism surfaces in the poem’s descriptions of natural, rather than artificial beauty: “But then autumn comes to harden the grain, / to warn it to ripen before winter.” / Its drought swirls the dust / and throws it high on the surface of the earth. It is this register that the film, with its catchy choral soundtrack and its cascades of mystical light, seems to want to exploit. The central act of the film unfolds a sequence of wonderful encounters of Lowery’s own invention. There are androgynous singing giants and a talking fox. Visual fragments swim together in a sweet prophetic confusion. I was not thinking of chivalrous romance but of another medieval form, the dreamlike vision, in which meaning is suspended and meaning comes in flashes.
This world can be ruled by laws, but they are not the laws of man. For proof, look no further than the color green, which, according to the host’s wife, played with icy goal by Alicia Vikander, is a shade of growth and decadence, of what persists “when passion dies. “. The film is concerned with the literal remains – corpses and skeletons – not as symbols of finality but as heralds of an essential porosity between the realms of the living and the dead. When Gwain is attacked and tied up by thieves, the camera slowly traverses the forest before landing on a bundle of bones covered with rags. There’s an upside-down sweep, and our hero is back, freeing himself from his bonds. One senses here a flirtation with horror, and the same somber sublimity resides in the poem itself, which, beneath its richness and manners, is extremely metallic. (We do not forget the stanza in which Gwain, awaiting his fate at the Chapel, hears a supernatural howl: the grinding of an ax.) Both versions emphasize the terrors one encounters outside – and , also, inside, when one thinks is safe – part of the thrill, of wholeness, of being alive.
If it is a profession, it is not the kind that the chivalrous code, with its games and its gentlemen’s agreement, is supposed to welcome. Lowery seems eager to dispel the frivolous counterparts that define romance as a form. During the film’s eerie, curvy midsection, Gawain stumbles upon a young woman, Winifred, who has lost her mind. (A Welsh saint by that name was beheaded in the 7th century.) She begs the knight to help her find him. He seems ready to accept, then, as if remembering her lines, wonders what she will give him in return. “Why would you ask me that?” She replies. “Why would you want already ask me that? It’s hard not to think, while watching the scene, of the etymological link between “question” and “quest”, and to conclude that Lowery is trying, even gallantly, to revive the second with the first.