By Danièle Cybulskie
For many years, medievalists have gone to the movies with the expectation that their beloved stories will be given only lip service in favour of directorial changes meant to pander to a modern audience. With The Green Knight, they are in for a surprise. Instead of sacrificing its fourteenth-century source entirely, this movie is jaw-droppingly faithful to many detailed moments from the poem, to the point at which some modern movie-goers may find it perplexing. At the same time, it also makes fundamental, and predictable, changes to the central character and story that hardcore Gawain fans likely won’t appreciate. The result is a movie that falls somewhere between a medieval tale and modern art film, and may therefore be one of the first that is more beloved by medieval scholars than by the box office.
The original poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight centres around – not surprisingly – Sir Gawain, Arthur’s nephew and a knight of perfect chivalry. Gawain is an established figure at the Round Table, with a spotless reputation for all things knightly: generosity, courtesy, and above all, courage. So, when he breaks a pact with his host in order to save his own life, Gawain is devastated. He’s learned that no matter how perfect he has tried to be throughout his life, when it came time to lay down his life voluntarily, he was a coward.
By contrast, the opening scene of The Green Knight finds Gawain drunk in a brothel on Christmas morning, in the tradition of so many medieval movies and television shows in the last few years. This Gawain is not a knight – as he often reminds us – and holds almost none of the knightly qualities of his medieval namesake. The quest that he sets out upon is meant to test his mettle; to see whether he can rise to the challenge and face both danger and certain death with courage.
The original contest still makes up the main plot of the film: a mysterious green knight enters Arthur’s hall at Christmas (not New Year’s this time), and challenges a worthy knight to strike one blow, which is to be returned in one year’s time. Gawain steps up and beheads the green knight, sealing his own fate. When the year is almost up, Gawain sets off to find The Green Chapel and submit to his own beheading.
The anonymous poet describes Gawain’s journey as being long and full of adventures which he chooses not to relate, and this is a natural place for the film to expand and fill in the blank. Cinematic Gawain meets mysterious people and creatures in a series of adventures which medievalists will appreciate in its many gestures at medieval literature, from memento mori moments and bonding with animals, to an encounter with an established medieval saint. He also spends a lot of time being cold and wet in a harsh landscape, which is both textbook movie medievalism, but also appropriate for this particular journey.
And then the moment comes that all fans of the poem are waiting for: Gawain reaches a mysterious castle with a mysterious host and a mysterious lady. Will he succumb to her wiles? Will he fulfill his promise to his host? To answer these questions would be too much of a spoiler here, so suffice it to say that those elements do show up in the movie and they are pivotal, although I think the editing here may make what is a straightforward plot device in the poem (the kissing bit) a little murky for those modern viewers who haven’t read it.
On the plus side for medievalists is the fine and faithful detail to the poem – everything from the green knight showing up with a holly branch in his hand, to the horse being called Gringolet, to the orchestrations of Morgan le Fay (in this film, she is Gawain’s mother, not his aunt). I even made a joke going in about the pentangle on Gawain’s shield, something explained at length in the poem that I was completely sure would never make the film. And yet, there it was: a shield with a pentangle on the front, and the Virgin Mary painted on the inside – and even an explanation of the manifold virtues related to the number five! Undergraduates will have a field day with a choice moment in which the mysterious lady muses about why the green knight is green, and what it might symbolize.
But it’s here in the musing that modern audiences will likely get lost. The Green Knight has many long, long artistic shots and philosophical speeches, and many moments where Gawain is simply alone in the landscape. Although Dev Patel has a captivating presence and really lives the role, there are many points where he is (rightly) just giving us suffering. Since the title holds the word “knight” in it, and it’s a medieval movie, modern audiences may easily go into it expecting massive battles and not a man’s internal struggle. While the characters in the poem have many happy moments, the film has a very typical “medieval” joylessness, and without epic battles, it’s hard to say if modern audiences will be willing to suffer with Gawain for the long haul.
Overall, The Green Knight will give medievalists at least one line on their bingo cards: low lighting; environmental misery; a brothel; drunkenness and brawling; cold, arranged marriages; unnecessary cruelty, and so on. On the other hand, this is such an in-depth love letter to a medieval poem and to its director’s specific vision of the Middle Ages that it might alienate modern audiences, even as it makes some major changes to character and plot to accommodate them. While modern viewers may wonder when the action will begin, medievalists will want to watch again for the little moments like the one in which Gawain browses some manuscripts that contain images of the planetary spheres, or reads a little bit of Middle English aloud.
While it’s not likely to be a blockbuster with its slow pace and artistic choices, The Green Knight is the first in a long time that medievalists will appreciate for its sometimes fierce loyalty to the source material, even if this version of Gawain is not the one we love and are familiar with. Bring with you the mental flexibility you need to enjoy Arthurian literature, major motion pictures, and art house films all in one, and you’ll find much to talk about with fellow medievalists at the next pub night.
As a writer, professor, TEDx speaker, and podcaster, Danièle has been making the Middle Ages fun, entertaining, and accessible for over a decade. You can learn more about Danièle and her latest work on her website, or follow her on Twitter @5MinMedievalist
Top Image: Photo by Eric Zachanowich