When I made plans earlier this week to go see The Green Knight, I thought it would be interesting to revisit the original 14th-century poem on which this movie is based. I’d read the poem in college (it was the first text on the syllabus in my very first literature class), but not since. All I could remember was that Gawain was duty-bound to meet the Green Knight, a formidable opponent who would surely kill him.
That much is accurate, but there’s more to it, of course. Gawain first encounters the Green Knight during a Christmas feast in King Arthur’s court, where the Green Knight enters and proposes a game in which one of Arthur’s knights will get a chance to deal him a blow, and then, on the next New Year’s Day, the Arthurian knight will visit the Green Knight, who will then return the blow. Gawain agrees to the game and proceeds to cut of the Green Knight’s head. The Green Knight survives, picks up his head, and goes on his way, and Gawain is now bound to receive the same blow a year later.
When Gawain, now doomed, goes in search of the Green Knight, he comes to a castle and is warmly welcomed by the lord and lady and a mysterious older woman. The lord challenges Gawain to an exchange of gifts. He will go hunting each day and give Gawain what he catches, and Gawain will give the lord any gifts he receives from the lady of the castle. The lady attempts each day to seduce Gawain, but he accepts only a kiss. And then, on the final day before he must leave, she gives him a green belt, which she says will protect him from harm. Gawain tells the lord of the kisses but not of the belt and goes off to fight the Green Knight.
The movie, written and edited by David Lowery and starring Dev Patel, follows this same general outline as regards the Green Knight, but a lot more happens, and the ending is entirely different. Most of the changes are expansions on the story, showing various adventures Gawain has on his way to meet the Green Knight. He gets robbed, helps St. Winifred retrieve her head, makes friends with a fox, unsuccessfully tries to catch a ride on a giant’s shoulder, and then finally ends up at the castle, is tempted, takes a belt, and leaves. The movie is episodic and strange, and I enjoyed the weirdness. The giants were maybe a little too much, but I think that had as much to do with their appearance as anything else. They looked too other-worldly and alien, like something out of science fiction, rather than earthy and fantastical, like everything else in the movie.
The real departure happens in the encounter with the Green Knight, and it builds somewhat on how Gawain himself is different in movie than in the poem. In the poem, he is a seasoned knight, but in the movie, he’s not. In fact, it seems that the whole thing with the Green Knight is concocted by his mother (apparently Morgan Le Fay) as a way for him to prove himself. She gives him a belt for protection before he leaves on his ill-fated quest, but it is stolen early on, only to reappear at the castle. What role Morgan Le Fay plays in the events at the castle is never made clear (if indeed she plays any role in those events in the film).
In both instances, Gawain’s desire to preserve his life, through wearing the belt and through flinching before the Knight’s blow, potentially prevents him from doing the honorable thing and keeping his promise, to the Green Knight and to the lord of the castle. Being willing to give up his life is, in both stories, the honorable thing. But the movie expands on his fear in ways that I found stunning. The final moments of the movie were especially gutsy and unnerving. I couldn’t quite believe it ended where it did!
It was fun to revisit the poem, and to be immersed in the weirdness of Gawain’s world. This kind of weird, highly visual, meandering story is the sort of thing I have a hard time paying attention to on my little TV at home but usually enjoy on the big screen. So, for that reason, I’ve glad to have the option available once again.