“An intoxicating triumph true to the grandeur of the poem”: a historian’s review of The Green Knight

Haunting, mystical and moral, David Lowery’s medieval fantasy adventure The Green Knight is a precis of the power of 14th century storytelling. Writing for HistoryExtra, historian Helen Carr explores the dreamlike world of this adaptation of the epic poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and what it can tell us about chivalry and circularity in the Middle Ages

Dev Patel stars as Sir Gawain in The Green Knight an adaptation of the Arthurian romance Sir Gawain and The Green Knight

This article contains spoilers for The Green Knight. Not watched the film yet? Read our Green Knight preview instead.

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Much like those who gathered to hear the original poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight orated, viewers of The Green Knight are taken on a mythical journey across a land of giants, spirits and talking creatures. At the heart of the movie is Dev Patel as would-be knight Gawain, who embarks upon a quest to achieve honour and prestige, but sees his valour challenged by lust, cowardice and wretchedness.

As in the original poem, the movie opens at Christmas. The court, presumably Camelot, rises to attend mass before the celebrations can commence. The young Gawain wakes having been drinking the previous night, unclean, stinking of alcohol and looking every part the common trope of the ‘prodigal nobleman’ character, yet to find himself and his true purpose.

Gawain attends Christmas celebrations in the great hall of King Arthur (played by Sean Harris) and is seated at the Round Table amongst “legends” of men who have all fought for his uncle, the king. He rues how he has no tales of heroism of his own, to which the queen adds: “Yet.”

Members of the court and community have Welsh and northwest England accents. There have been many suggestions about the origins of Arthur, including one that he was from Wales – take that Lowery perpetuates throughout the course of the movie. It is possible that the director is also nodding to the supposed Cheshire origin of the anonymous poet who wrote Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

The severity of knighthood

It becomes clear from the outset that Gawain is yet to prove himself as a true knight, but when the strange Green Knight rides into the hall, he is presented with an opportunity. Gawain takes up the Knight’s Yuletide challenge — a beheading game — and strikes off the Knight’s head in one swing of Arthur’s sword, surely the legendary Excalibur.

Far from dead, however, the mysterious Green Knight stands up, retrieves his head and commands Gawain to meet him “one year hence” at the Green Chapel, where he will return the blow.

The Green Knight shows his severed – and still talking – head to King Arthur in this illustration of the beginning of the 14th century legend of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
The Green Knight shows his severed – and still talking – head to King Arthur in this illustration of the beginning of the 14th century legend of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

This scene is true to the poem, but furthermore encapsulates 14th-century attitudes to martial and chivalric law. Knighthood was no empty ceremony and young noblemen, like Gawain, sought out opportunity to prove themselves as knights of the realm, most frequently through crusading. Henry Bolingbroke (later Henry IV), for example, took part in a crusade in Lithuania with the crusading Teutonic Order of Knights.

Though Gawain’s quest is mystical, it speaks of the same type of crusade a nobleman might attempt, for the ultimate quest is for “honour”. As Dev Patel’s Gawain puts it: “That is why a knight does what he does.”

The wheel keeps turning

The year passes depicted by an illustrated turning wheel showing the four seasons. This wheel or circular theme pervades the movie, from the costume, such as the striking design of the king’s crown, to the landscape. It is a creative and thoughtful acknowledgment of medieval life.

Circularity was a common theme in the Middle Ages, an age dictated by the repetitive cycle of time. This was ritualised through dance and liturgical practice, and realised through seasonal change with farming and produce. As the wheel spins through the seasons, Gawain comes closer to his fate. As Christmas nears, he sets off to seek out the chapel where he will meet the Green Knight again.

  • Read more: The Mills & Boon of the Middle Ages? Unpicking the mysteries of medieval romances

Gawain quickly finds danger as he rides through the mud-soaked battlefield. He meets a scavenger manically scouring for loot, who tricks Gawain by sending him into the forest, where he mugs him and takes his belongings.

Thieves and outlaws were commonplace in medieval society and could be merciless. The 15th-century English mystic Margery Kempe, wrote of the danger of thieves on the pilgrim road to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, and the Edward, the Black Prince’s men were set upon and murdered in their sleep by a party of bandits in France.

In The Green Knight, Gawain’s fate at the hands of the thieves is an accurate representation of the dangers of travelling alone, even more so as a rich nobleman – low hanging fruit for a thief or outlaw.

Gawain, stripped of his possessions and horse, continues his quest and stumbles across an abandoned house in the woods, barely visible in the blackness of the night. This scene references one of the most macabre, harrowing tales of the Middle Ages: the origin story of Saint Winifred.

Saint Winifred and the well

His rest in the house is interrupted by an eldritch lady in white called Winifred. She claims to have lost her head and asks Gawain to retrieve it for her from a pond or ‘well’. She tells Gawain of her plight, of being beheaded by a man after he tried to rape her, and her head thrown into the well. She aches for its return from the watery grave.

The tragic story of Saint Winifred was celebrated around the 12th century in Wales, when, according to legend, the daughter of a Welsh nobleman was beheaded by her betrothed when she decided to become a nun. In the original legend, Saint Beuno restored Winifred’s head, but here we see two legends joined as it is Gawain who tenderly lays her skull with her corpse.

The death-life sequence continues as Gawain finds shelter at the grand home of a lord (Joel Edgerton). There, his alluring and mystical wife (Alicia Vikander) romantically tempts Gawain and delivers a speech about the colour green: the colour of nature, which will grow in abundance with no remorse. It will grow from graves and will cover and conceal tombs over time. Green shows no kindness or morality as its expansive life conceals death and humanity.

The outcome of Lowery’s narrative, though deviating from the original, powerfully encapsulates medieval conceptions of chivalry and morality. Visually, the movie is an intoxicating triumph that is true to the grandeur and intense imagination of the original poem, but despite its mysticism The Green Knight speaks truths about the 14th century and the world in which Gawain was conceived.

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The Green Knight is now showing in cinemas and is available to stream on Amazon Prime