Movie vs Myth: The Green Knight
Released in 2021 and staring Dev Patel as Gawain, a knight of the round table and King Arthur’s nephew, ‘The Green Knight’ is a direct adaptation of the popular myth of ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.’ In the legend, Sir Gawain enters a challenge with a mysterious knight, only to find himself walking to his death. The legend first appeared in the 14th Century, though the original author is unknown. It fell out of the public consciousness for a while, before seeing a revival in popularity during the 19th century.
In the earlier legend, the story tells of a giant knight with green hair, green skin, green clothes, and green horse, who arrived unannounced at King Arthur’s halls. He declares that he has not come to quarrel with the knights, baring a holly branch to show he comes in peace, and proposes a game. He will remain still while one of the knights strikes at him. In return, one year and one day hence, the knight will come to the Green Knight’s halls and remain still while the Green Knight returns the blow. Young Sir Gawain, known for his chivalry and valour, stood and accepted the challenge. Using the axe that the Green Knight had provided, Sir Gawain chopped the knight’s head off.
While Sir Gawain may have thought that this would put an end to the matter, he was deeply mistaken. The Green Knight got back to his feet, lifted his head and instructed Sir Gawain to remember their meeting in a year. Then the Green Knight left.
Shortly before their designating meeting time, Sir Gawain set out on a journey to find the home of the Green Knight. On his way he fought bandits and monsters, before eventually seeking refuge in the home a Lord. The Lord was Sir Bertilak de Hautdesert and he lived only a short ride from the Green Knight’s meeting place, inviting Sir Gawain to stay with him and his lady wife until the time came for Sir Gawain to meet his fate.
In the days that Sir Gawain is staying with the couple, Sir Bertilak proposed a game. He would go on a hunt each day and bring Sir Gawain his spoils. In return Sir Gawain would give Sir Bertilak whatever he had been given that day. Sir Gawain, who has clearly not learned his lesson, agrees to the challenge.
On the first two days of the challenge, Sir Gawain was approached by Lady Bertilak and refused her advantages, accepting only a kiss. On each day when Sir Bertilak returned, Sir Gawain kissed him. On the third day, however, the wife also gave him a green girdle which she claimed would make him impervious to all harm. Believing that this was the only thing that would save him from certain death, Sir Gawain gave the Lord another kiss, and nothing else. The next day he rode out to meet the Green Knight.
The Green Knight arrived and raised his blade, though Sir Gawain flinched away before it could land. The Green Knight chided him, and Sir Gawain said that he would not flinch a second time. The second blow fell but missed. The Green Knight chided Sir Gawain for being dishonest. He informed Sir Gawain that he was in fact Lord Bertilak, having been turned into the Green Knight by Morgan Le Fay – a sorceress and frequent antagonist in Arthurian legends. The Green Knight knew about the girdle that Sir Gawain wore, having sent his wife to attempt to seduce the young knight. Chastised, Sir Gawain removed the girdle and the Green Knight swung. This time the blow landed, leaving only a small nick. The Green Knight said that in rejecting his wife’s advances and being truthful two days of three, Sir Gawain had shown that he was almost entirely an honourable man. The injury represented the moment that Sir Gawain’s honour faltered. It scarred, leaving a permanent reminder of what had happened.
In its essence, the legend of ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’ tells of a young man who is honourable and virtuous, but whose virtue faltered for a moment in the face of (apparent) certain death. The Gawain of 2021’s ‘The Green Knight’ could not be more different at the beginning of his story, as we are first introduced to him in a brothel, where it is made clear that he is a regular customer. The film seems determined to contradict each of Sir Gawain’s virtues in their reimagining of the character. In addition to his visit to the brothel, Gawain lies about attending mass – where the Sir Gawain of legend was a devout catholic. It is also made clear that though Gawain is one of King Arthur’s knights through virtue of their shared blood, he has yet to achieve any of the great deeds of Arthur’s other knights. He consequently jumps at the chance to prove himself when the Green Knight appears.
In the film the Green Knight’s appearance is far more sinister than in the legend. Though he too carries a holly branch, a supposed symbol of peace, his entrance is ominous, and he delivers his challenge by using the voice of the queen – who is rendered unconscious by the magic. He is also, notably, not particularly green. Rather than an ordinary (if large) man with green skin, the film’s Green Knight is instead depicted as a dryad-like man, part human and part tree. Though it differs from the original myth, there are many interpretations of ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’ which believe that the Green Knight represents pagan religions, and pagan gods – in particular the Green Man. The Green Man is a British fertility or nature spirit associated with wilderness, vegetation and rebirth, usually depicted as a man’s face made of, or surrounded by leaves, branches and vegetation. The film’s depiction of the Green Knight would therefore lend itself to this interpretation of them myth.
Gawain is devastated to realise that the Green Knight lives, and terrified of meeting him in a year. He spends the following year drinking, spending time with his lover (though refusing to marry her) and getting into bar fights with men who accuse his mother of witchcraft. It does however seem that the men were truthful in their accusations – before he leaves, Gawain’s mother gives him a green sash which she claims will protect him from all harm.
Eventually, it is revealed that it was in fact Gawain’s mother who sent the Green Knight, and she appears multiple times throughout Gawain’s journey (though sometimes ambiguously). The implication is that (although never named in the film) Gawain’s mother is Morgan Le Fay Her motives are seemingly to force her son to behave with honour and achieve greatness, while the motivations of the legendary Morgan Le Fay were to cause trouble for the knights and frighten Queen Guinevere. Morgan Le Fay was Arthur’s sister, and so her sons were King Arthur’s nephews, Gawain however was not one of them. He was instead the son of Arthur’s other sister, Morgause.
Unlike the legend, the film ‘The Green Knight’ takes as much interest in Gawain’s journey as it does his destination. It follows Gawain as he encounters bandits (promptly losing both his green sash, and his horse), befriends a somewhat magical fox, encounters giants and reluctantly helps the ghost of a young lady find peace, before finally collapsing at the home of Lord Bertilak and his wife.
It is significant that, although Gawain is seeking honour, unlike the Sir Gawain of legend, it is not something that he is thought to already have. Therefore, while Gawain has pinned his hopes on one great honourable deed (meeting the Green Knight and taking the blow) his actions throughout the story are dishonourable. When he first meets the bandits, he believes them to be scavengers and asks for directions. He then has to be asked multiple times to repay them for their help. When he meets the fox, he initially throws rocks to chase it off. When he helps the spirit of the girl who first asks what she will give him in return, and only assists when she rebukes him for it.
Consequently, Gawain’s actions in Sir Bertilak’s home are far less virtuous than the Sir Gawain of legend. He refuses the Lord’s challenge and accepts far more than a kiss from Lady Bertilak. During the scene he notices that the belt she is wearing is the same sash that his mother gave him for protection. As in the legend, the lady tells him that it is enchanted, and will protect him from harm. She encourages him to take it if he wants it and Gawain does so, only for her to immediately rebuke him as being no knight. As he leaves, Gawain is met by Sir Bertilak, who once again gives Gawain a chance to accept the challenge and give the Lord what he was given while in his home. Gawain again refuses, and the Lord kisses Gawain, making it clear that he is aware what happened in the house. Gawain ignores the opportunity to give up the sash, and leaves.
Upon reaching the meeting place, Gawain seems content to face the Green Knight. When the Green Knight raises his axe however Gawain, as in the legend, flinches. He does so twice, despondently asking if this is all there is. Unlike the glory that Gawain perhaps expected to feel in keeping his oath, it is clear that he feels only fear, regret, and sorrow. The Green Knight asks what else there should be, and Gawain is given a vision of what his life would be if he fled. The life he saw was filled with joy and sorrow, protected as he was by the green sash, however there was a hollowness to it the shame clearly following Gawain throughout his life. Despite him having more years this future Gawain’s life ended exactly the same way his meeting with the Green Knight would – with a beheading.
The film posits the questions of whether it is better to live a longer life with less fear and less honour, or to live a shorter life and die afraid, but with honour. Gawain ultimately choses the latter, calling for the knight to stop, and removing his green sash before the third blow. Ultimately the film does not answer its own question on which is the better choice. It ends before the Knight’s final blow, and it is never revealed whether Gawain is rewarded with his life, or with an honourable death.
Both versions of the story explore the idea of a flawed hero. The legend of ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’ tells the story of an honourable man who has one moment of weakness, when he thinks that he is going to die. ‘The Green Knight’ however tells the opposite story. Gawain is so focused on one grand moment of honour, that he ignores every opportunity to make the virtuous choice on his journey.
Arthurian legends have a long history of being told and retold and adapted to better suit their audience with ‘The Green Knight’ being another addition to this fine history. Though the film is undoubtedly a bleaker retelling of the story, it creates a character that the audience can emphasise with – a man who deeply wishes for honour and greater purpose in life, while at the same time rejecting and ignoring every opportunity to better himself. It is not in the grand gestures, the film seems to say, that a man becomes a hero, but instead the choices they make each day. Though Gawain fails this test again and again throughout the film in the end he does remove the green sash, choosing an honourable death over a dishonourable life – even if the film leaves it to the watcher to decide if that was the right choice or not.