History & Film | Poem to Film: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
WRITTEN BY BETHANY LATHAM
For this issue’s History & Film, I’d ask you to cast your mind back to high school, possibly college. Do you find in its recesses the medieval poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight? I don’t remember when I first read it; it seems likely it was my freshman year of university in an English Literature course. I do remember being intrigued by it, enjoying the bob and wheel. If your mind draws a blank, the tale goes something like this. Celebrating Christmas and the New Year, King Arthur holds a round of feasting and jousting, “right ripe revel and reckless mirth.” Everyone is happy, life is good, ’tis a joyous season. Arthur, his knights, lords, and ladies, sit down to a feast, and into the celebrations trots the Green Knight:
there hales in at the hall door a dreadful man,
the most in the world’s mould of measure high,
from the nape to the waist so swart and so thick,
and his loins and his limbs so long and so great
half giant on earth I think now that he was;
but the most of man anyway I mean him to be,
and that the finest in his greatness that might ride,
for of back and breast though his body was strong,
both his belly and waist were worthily small,
and his features all followed his form made
Wonder at his hue men displayed,
set in his semblance seen;
he fared as a giant were made,
and over all deepest green.
I admit, the first time I read this and the further description of the knight’s green clothes and shiny green locks, I pictured nothing so much as the Jolly Green Giant. Even the knight’s magnificent horse is green. It’s generally agreed that, interesting coloration aside, the material point is that “no man might his mighty blows survive.” What is it this green interloper wants, exactly? He craves a “Christmas gift” – a friendly “game.” (I don’t think his definition of this word and mine are the same.) He carries an enormous green axe; he will trade blows with any man “bold of blood and hot-brained in his head” enough to bear the challenge. The Green Knight will allow his opponent the first strike with the axe and take his in return a twelvemonth hence. Arthur leaps to his feet, ready to accept the contest himself. Before he can do so, Sir Gawain begs that the “mêlée be mine.”
Gawain is young and courageous, but he fears he has nothing to recommend him save that he’s Arthur’s nephew; his adventures up to this point have been practically nil, and Arthur does love a good tale of adventure. Gawain wishes to prove himself, and rather than strike a glancing blow as befits a “game,” he beheads the knight. Contest over…or not. The Green Knight nonchalantly picks up his head, lets Gawain know that he looks forward to meeting him again at his abode, the Green Chapel, in a year. Cheerful exit. Yikes.
Gawain, being the embodiment of chivalry, honors his side of the bargain. Before the year is out, he sets off to find the Green Chapel and meet his fate. The quest is fraught with wolves, bears, giants, even dragons. He takes shelter at a castle along the way belonging to Lord Bertilak de Hautdesert, who shows him every courtesy and seems to delight in mirth and hijinks. He’s also quite helpful: he knows the location of the Green Chapel, and it’s only two miles away. He also proposes a game – whatever he acquires hunting in the wood will be Gawain’s; whatever Gawain acquires in the castle he must then exchange with Bertilak. It might be a good time to mention the lady of the castle, who surpasses even that high bar of Arthurian beauty, Guinevere. She offers her body to Gawain who, chivalrously, declines, but he does accept a kiss out of “courtesy” when Lady Bertilak insists. Gawain dutifully returns this kiss to the lord of the manor in exchange for the fruits of his hunt. The scene repeats itself the next day. The third day, Lady Bertilak visits him again, and he accepts a love-token from her – a green silk belt. She assures him this magical belt will protect him from all harm, which should come in handy, given what he’s about to face. Kisses he had no compunction about returning to the lord of the manor, but this belt goes unmentioned to his generous host. Thus attired, Gawain travels to the Green Chapel, and there he offers his neck to the Green Knight. The knight strikes two feinting blows, and finally a real one – yet he only nicks the noble Gawain’s neck. The first two feints were for the kisses Gawain honestly exchanged; the blood spilled was due to the magical belt withheld. The Green Knight is actually the enchanted Lord Bertilak, and his wife’s conduct was a test. Gawain is adjudged the “most faultless man that was ever afoot”…with the exception of his accepting the belt. Gawain burns with shame at this failure, but the Green Knight assures him that he has done penance at the point of a blade and is entirely absolved. In a somewhat abrupt twist, he lets Gawain know that the entire “game” was the work of the enchantress (and Gawain’s aunt) Morgan le Fay. Her goal: causing Guinevere to drop-dead from fright at the Green Knight’s appearance in Camelot. Gawain returns home, entirely honest with Arthur and the court about all events, even his shame.
So this is the original. When I first saw the trailers for the recent film version of The Green Knight, I was intrigued. The knight himself (a CGIed Ralph Ineson) looked nothing like the description – more than anything, he reminded me of one of Tolkien’s Ents, not green, the trunk of a tree brought to life. Nature turns ambulatory, the sound effects provide even the cracking of bark as he moves. Not true to the poem, but fascinating. Arthur (Sean Harris) and even Guinevere (Kate Dickie) also bore little resemblance to their poetic selves who were “fair folk in their first age still,” and he “so joyous a youth, and somewhat boyish.” Arthur had been transformed into a sad, sickly old king who wishes to accept the Green Knight’s challenge but is too frail. He and Guinevere are shown lying at opposite ends of the same bed, seemingly too drained even to stay upright. A court at its most exuberant peak thus morphs into one sliding headlong into the trough of decay. And what of Gawain (Dev Patel)? First glimpses of this knight so courteous and chaste are of him in a brothel. Ah, Hollywood, so true to form. Anything aspirational must be tarnished and then destroyed in favor of…what, exactly? Nihilism? Gawain’s name doesn’t appear in the title of the film, and at its beginning, he isn’t a knight. I quickly realized that, to enjoy the film – and it does have its moments of beauty and uniqueness – I would need to let go of my attachment to the original material. Or, put another way, consider the film on its own merits in an attempt to understand the choices made. The very first of these, as Patel put it, was “How do we make this guy [Gawain] more likeable?”1 Someone who holds himself to a high standard and exhibits shame at moral failure is unrelatable. Patel’s solution: throw out honor and courage, anything historically considered virtuous. “I fear I’m not meant for greatness,” a worried Gawain complains to his concubine. Now you have a Gawain like you’ve never seen him before: inherently weak. That’s likeable, right?
Gawain may be the largest divergence, but in looking for others, the women stand out front and center. The original tale is fairly short on female presence; the lady of the manor is the only one with any real word count. The women are essentially lumped as one into the “Eve made me screw everything up” category: “But it is no wonder for a fool to run mad and through wiles of woman be won to sorrow,” the poem sagely intones, after a list of such wily temptresses (eg, Delilah). Morgan le Fay is no temptress; the poem describes her (less than chivalrously) as “short and thick, her buttocks big and broad.” I’ve always felt that dropping in Morgan le Fay at the end as impetus for all that went before, with her motivations being so petty, felt a bit tacked on. Perhaps the filmmakers did as well, because there are some interesting choices made with regard to this particular aspect of the tale. Morgan le Fay (Sarita Choudhury) is no longer Gawain’s aunt; she’s his mother. She sets all these events in motion with her witchcraft for the same reason modern parents pray their 30-year-old gets a job and moves out of their basement: she wants her wastrel, layabout son to act like an adult and make something of himself. We also see the addition of more female characters of import. Guinevere is given a stronger role, and Gawain is given a lover, Essel (Alicia Vikander) who serves as foil to illustrate exactly what a selfish ass Gawain can be. Vikander does double-duty here as the lady of the manor and, of course, Gawain’s conduct with her is far less chaste than in the poem (prepare yourself for close-ups of bodily fluids). Perhaps one of the most interesting additions is Winifred (Erin Kellyman), a ghostly young woman Gawain encounters on his quest to find the Green Chapel. This character, while absent from the poem, is found in other historical sources; she’s based on the 7th-century Welsh martyr Saint Winifred. Winifred wished to remain a virgin and become a nun; her suitor beheaded her for it. (Do we begin to see a theme?) Her head fell into a spring, and when retrieved and returned to her body, she came back to life. The ghost seeks Gawain’s help in fishing her head out of the spring, but in true film Gawain fashion, he wants to know what she will give him in return before he agrees to complete this task. She chastises him roundly, attempting to show him the error of quid pro quo and viewing women as sex objects. He learns his lessons poorly.
There are other lessons the film attempts to teach: characters are inserted to make sure the audience realizes that, while the Arthur of legend may be portrayed as a noble ruler, his throne floats upon an ocean of violence and blood. Gawain comes across a scavenger (a blithely unhinged Barry Keoghan) in a field of bodies. The scavenger waxes cheerfully poetic on the ceaseless slaughter for which Arthur and his knights bear responsibility. In short: war is bad. And men (for it is only men who bear the blame for everything here) are bad for waging it, since it’s primarily the little guy who suffers. There’s no equality of any kind, in death or dinner placement – Arthur’s knights don’t even sit at a round table; it’s C-shaped with Arthur’s precedence obvious in the center.
One critic called the film a “waking dream,”2 but it’s more accurate to say watching this film feels like a fever-dream, surreal visions drifting in and out of mist, bodies decaying and reconstituting, characters looming from darkened interiors, crowns aflame like a saint’s halo. Imagery is arresting but frequently opaque; it can help if one is familiar with the original source material in some cases, since explication won’t be forthcoming. But there is also much in this film, plot-wise, that has been switched around or simply doesn’t exist in the poem (though some can be found in other medieval sources). Just because the imagery is dense doesn’t mean it isn’t stunning; this can be a mesmerizing film, visually and aurally. The soundtrack and sound effects are crisp and add a sense of motion. In contrast, the film sometimes feels so caught up in its own visual metaphors that it forgets the most important part of “motion picture” – moving. This tendency to linger is sometimes a feature, sometimes a bug. It’s the type of film that critics love and a typical audience outside the arthouse will probably pan from lack of patience. One critic called it an adaptation of the poem into “a form both intelligible and peculiar.”2 Another noted “what a strange and peculiarly powerful film this is.”³ The repetition of that adjective, peculiar, is apt. When considered on its own, outside its source material, it is odd yet frequently beautiful. Its ultimate message, on the other hand – that in this day and age, even mythical heroes must be retconned out of existence – not so much.
Translation Note: Passages quoted from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight use A.S. Kline’s modern translation of the 14th-century original.
- Alicia Grauso. “Dev Patel Interview: The Green Knight.” Screen Rant, 26 July 2021. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4jp70ofxjSo
- Ryan Gilbey. “David Lowery’s The Green Knight Feels Like a Waking Dream.” The New Statesman, 29 September 2021. https://www.newstatesman.com/culture/film/2021/09/the-green-knight-dev-patel-david-lowery-gawain-review
- Mark Kermode. “The Green Knight review – A Rich and Wild Fantasy”. The Guardian. 26 September 2021. https://www.theguardian.com/film/2021/sep/26/the-green-knight-review-david-lowery-dev-patel-gawain
ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR: Bethany Latham is HNR‘s Managing Editor.
Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 98 (November 2021)