The Green Knight on screen: what can we expect from the retelling of an Arthurian epic?
This summer sees the release of a bold new take on the Arthurian epic Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a c14th-century poem of chivalry, honour and temptation. Find out all you need to know about the film here…
A flash of steel. The sickening crunch of a sword shredding through flesh and bone. The thud as a head hits the floor. Silence. And then… the sound, not unlike trees creaking in the wind, that signifies a headless body rising off the floor.
This is the moment that sets in the motion the main arc of The Green Knight, the soon-to-be-released fantasy epic from entertainment company A24 that’s rooted in Arthurian lore. It’s the story of Sir Gawain, a knight of the Round Table, and based on the medieval romance poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which is believed to have been written in the 14th century – though no one knows by whom.
What’s the plot of The Green Knight?
Despite being a summer blockbuster, The Green Knight is a Christmas story. It’s New Year in Camelot, and King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table are celebrating, when an unexpected visitor comes knocking. The titular Green Knight burst into the hall.
He is a giant of a man with green clothes and emerald skin who, in the trailers, is akin to a wooden White Walker from Game of Thrones, or a rather small Ent of Middle Earth – a fitting resemblance, seeing as The Lord of the Rings author JRR Tolkien once translated the original text of Sir Gawain.
Gawain is the headstrong, reckless and libidinous nephew of King Arthur, who at the start of the film is pained by the fact he has no heroic tales of his own tell. “Yet,” retorts King Arthur’s queen, Guinevere.
The Green Knight provides Gawain with his opportunity. He and Gawain engage in a challenge that sees Gawain seemingly behead the giant. But the story, of course, doesn’t end there, and once he rises from the floor, the Green Knight challenges Gawain to seek him out, one year hence. And so begins Gawain’s quest – plagued variously by ghosts, giants, thieves and a talking fox – to find the ‘Green Chapel’, his foe, and perhaps himself.
A timely story of chivalry?
“The concept of chivalry in relation to a young person figuring out what type of man he’s going to be was the root of this story for me,” writes director David Lowery.
“The subject is present in the original text but it’s something that makes this story incredibly timely. Gawain is on an epic quest towards realising the value of personal integrity.”
Chivalry runs deep here. “Honour. That is why a knight does what he does,” intones Gawain at the end of the trailer. There may be some truth to that – look out for historian Helen Carr’s piece for HistoryExtra in late July on why Sir Gawain and the Green Knight might be considered an ode (or perhaps a eulogy) to the cult of chivalry in medieval England.
The Green Knight release date: when will The Green Knight be in cinemas?
The Green Knight releases in the US on Friday 30 July 2021. It will be released simultaneous in cinemas and on Amazon Prime in the UK a week later on Friday 24 September 2021.
The Green Knight cast: who stars in The Green Knight?
Dev Patel plays the lead role of Sir Gawain, nephew to Sean Harris’s King Arthur, while Kate Dickie play Queen Guinevere. An unrecognisable Ralph Ineson takes on the role of the antagonistic Green Knight.
The role of Morgan Le Fay is played by Sarita Choudhury. In this telling, she is Gawain’s mother – a deviation from the original tale, in which she is his aunt.
Joel Edgerton plays a mystery lord, and Alicia Vikander takes the dual roles of a mystery lady and Gawain’s lover, Essel.
The Green Knight trailer
There are now two trailers for the film, and they show a world that is tonally darker and more ephemeral than the upbeat tale of the mystery medieval poet.
This content was first published by HistoryExtra in 2021
Enhance the festive season with a subscription to BBC History Magazine + David Mitchell's latest masterpiece UNRULY - signed and hardback!
As a print subscriber you will also get FREE access to HistoryExtra.com worth £34.99