When I was growing up, I wanted, among many things, to be a knight. I daydreamed about fighting dragons, saving princesses and a suit of armor shining in the sun. In Texas, too, cowboys were contemporary knights, full of chivalric “ma’am” behavior and great acts of derring-do, and so I disdained the role of robber in childhood games. ‘Sir Vyasar’ didn’t have the exact ring I wanted to it, though – I had never seen a brown knight. I was full of Prince Valiant comics and Redwall on PBS. I wanted to be Lancelot, Galahad, Martin the Warrior, Ector or any one of a thousand ruddy-cheeked princes I worshipped.
I remember reading Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in high school, maybe writing a book report or doing a presentation on it at some point, but the story disappeared from my consciousness as my own knightly ambitions waned. But when I watched the trailer for David Lowery’s The Green Knight earlier this year, I ran out to the rare books’ store in south Austin and found the same copy of the Arthurian poem we used in high school. I had to reread it, I had to understand what I was about to watch, because what I had seen was a jumble of confusing images, Dev Patel’s face, and ominous music.
But it was beautiful, in a strange way. And I suppose ‘strange’ is one of the best ways to explain this movie. Lowery’s eye wanders over a foggy, wooded Britain, cold and wet and wild. Any parts of the landscape inhabited by humans appears in ruins, abandoned, or, as is the case with Camelot, so over-teeming with life that even a member of the royal family like Gawain struggles to make his way through the streets. This is not high, courtly drama, with plate mail glistening in the sun and banners flapping in the breeze. This is a grittier, dirtier world, where chain-link shirts are scratchy and heavy, where light is scarce and shelter scarcer. And it is in this world Gawain walks, the legendary hero of the Round Table.
Bear in mind, reader, the last time I’d seen Gawain on the screen was Monty Python’s Quest for the Holy Grail, where Terry Gilliam flounders, red-faced and overly-concerned with chastity, over the course of the film. So I was completely unprepared to see the man wake up in a brothel, carouse and revel with drink and luxury, and cavort in many behaviors society doesn’t deem fitting for a knight.
Then again, as the movie constantly reminds us, he’s not a knight. And yet, upon beheading the Green Knight, his legend grows to such heights that people begin to assume it about him. Strange, to see the un-chaste, non-knight, strewn with such titles and lofty labels. I think my earliest criticism of the movie was thinking it asked too much of the viewer, demanding they read the original story before watching this modern adaptation.
And then of course, I remembered what an allegory is. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, at its core level, is an allegorical tale. It is laden with imagery, of the chivalrous code, of nature, of moral lessons and coded phrases, all piled on top of a fairly simple story. So when I began to treat the movie as an allegory as well, I found myself enjoying it more. To be frank, I should have picked up on that earlier – Gawain has an encounter with literal giants creating a causeway, the least subtle reference to Ireland I’ve ever seen. Allegories are supposed to be strange, beautiful landscape pieces. And yes, Lowery does hit us over the head with it in a few places, with some choice monologues about overwhelming verdigris and empty battlefields. A24, as an entertainment company, certainly doesn’t shy away from the conceptual, or dare I say, the highbrow, in their movies. It all makes a certain amount of sense, then, that The Green Knight not be what anyone expects it to be, but rather something revealing about our own world.
To understand the allegory, I want to return to the source text, briefly. You don’t have to run out and buy your own copy, just understand this – the 14th century text is telling a story about nature and man’s relationship with it. The Green Knight is a figure of natural power and wonder, a symbol of all the mystery of the earth. His regenerative ability is like that of the plants we harvest, his manners are unrefined and wild like the beasts we hunt, and his abode, the Green Chapel, is a place abandoned by man, reclaimed by snaking vines and lichen, but no less holy for it. In keeping his compact with the Green Knight, Gawain upholds man’s sacred bargain with nature, giving and taking in equal measure, “returning the blow that was struck.” The poem is the author warning the reader about this deal, this compact. Honor your land, they say, and you will bring honor to yourself.
Now, let us turn to the film. We’re a long time removed from the 14th century. Climate change, ecological disasters, holes in the ozone layer – our natural world looks unrecognizable to one of Chaucer’s contemporaries. Lowery, too, knows this, so his Green Knight is a far cry from the original. Fecundity and wildness still make their appearance in the movie, but they appear out of control, imbalanced. And Gawain suffers for it, for his late nights at the brothel and his overindulging in drink. As a protagonist, he is decidedly green – an entirely intentional parallel to his rival, be assured – no action hero or quick-thinking rogue. Gawain blindly trusts the bandit who leads him to the stream, in spite of his obvious greed and uncertainty with the directions. Even at the start of the story, he challenges the Green Knight and has to borrow a sword. He’s untried, untested, hungry for honor and power. As he uses the legend of his triumph over the Green Knight to rise in power, so does Lowery tell us we are abusing our compact with nature. As he flees from fulfilling his bargain at the edge of the Knight’s axe, so is our terror of wildness mirrored in his flight. It’s not about climate change or the whaling industry or deforestation – it’s all of it, our reckless abuse and mismanagement of our world that can only result in our death and downfall. Thus it is – “off with your head.”
I know, I pressed the “English Lit 101” pedal a little too hard there. But allegorical movies are supposed to get our gears turning, make us think and reflect more upon what we’ve seen. They can be heavy-handed, overbearing and confusing, undoubtedly, but if The Green Knight is all of these, it is also beautiful. Hold on to that. It makes me long for another trip to England’s countryside, to see white cliffs and fields of clover. It reminds me of a summer spent in Wales, stepping over castles every square mile. It makes me want to get outside and ramble, put a stick between my legs and call it my trusted steed, pretend to be a knight all over again.