A Gawain for All Seasons

SAYING IT IN LARGE TEXT: I 100% REVEAL THE ENDING OF THIS MOVIE IN THIS ESSAY. If you’ve seen it or that doesn’t bother you (it is a good movie worth watching), read on.

Here’s the thing about Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: every version depicts an imagined past. The original, written in the early fourteenth century by an anonymous poet, was set in the dreamy chivalric past of Arthurian legend, which came to England via France and Germany with a basis in Wales and Ireland. The poem’s first translation into modern English in 1839 emphasized an idealized English history.

But that’s not to say that every version doesn’t take into account the culture of its day. The original certainly reflected the piety and chivalric goals of the fourteenth century. Its readers would have been looking to it for just such lessons, according to J. R. R. Tolkien: “They were apt to read poems for what they could get out them of sentence, as they said, of instruction for themselves and their times.” As a contemporary of Tolkien’s put it, “The rise of English nationalism under Edward III must have been an important factor in [the creation of England-based Arthurian myths in the fourteenth century]. There is evidence that Edward deliberately strove to rehabilitate chivalry and knighthood. The Arthurian legend provided England with a ready-made aristocratic myth of its past glories.”

The poem’s translation and revival in the nineteenth century reflected a wish for the entire world to behave with the same couth and manners as white Victorian Englishmen, and those Englishmen were expected to be more like chivalric knights. The same year that Gawain was translated and widely published, forty Victorian gentlemen got together for something they called the Eglinton Tournament. They wore medieval suits of armor that were too small for them and brought massive fake courts to a massive fake joust. This being England, it began to rain buckets, and these ill-prepared Arthurian cosplayers slogged through the mud in their costumes to find shelter.

So what, then, does the Gawain in David Lowery’s movie The Green Knight (2021) have to say about our own time?

I’m not here to argue that the movie should have adhered to the original text. That’s never the point of a film adaptation of any movie, though we usually prefer that the main themes and beats remain intact. It’s more interesting to look at the choices made by the director, the actors, the costumers, and the crew to create the movie that we are given in 2021 based on a 700-year-old poem that was translated to modern English about 150 years ago.

If I have to point out something that I expected to see in the movie and did not, it would be the over-the-top material lushness. The Green Knight is described at length upon his entrance as being entirely green with long, flowing hair and beard and jewels, jewels, jewels. Gawain’s armor is lavish, Arthur’s court and the Christmas meal they enjoy are sumptuous, the castle where Gawain ends up before reaching the green chapel is filled with holiday partygoers and feasts. This movie, however, has a small cast with rather subdued costuming, so much so that Gawain’s golden cloak stands out like a yellow warbler in a dead hedgerow in every shot. It seems, according to an interview director Lowery did with Vanity Fair, that this was largely due to budgetary constraints, which I can respect. That in itself might be an aspect of the Gawain we’re being given this time around: do the best you can with what you have in these unprecedented times.

Like most fantasy stories (and science fiction, and horror, and most genres, really), Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is not about the historical aspects of a particular time. Just like Ray Bradbury’s stories are never just about Mars. These stories comment on their cultures by exploring what is admirable – piety, chivalry, upholding one’s end of a bargain (Gawain) – and what is not – breaking a bargain to save yourself, bewitching a man to humiliate your half-brother and his wife (Arthur).

In the fourteenth-century poem of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Gawain arrives at the castle in the north, near the end of his journey to find the Green Knight, to much acclaim. When they realize who he is, they are all honored to be in the presence of such a knight, and they go on about his reputation. Gawain feels he has to live up to the reputation that has clearly preceded him, even among people who live very far from his home court and have never met him.

In the movie, Gawain is not yet a knight and has no reputation to speak of, even within Arthur’s court. He’s not even mentioned in the film’s title. He says himself that he has no story. And so he rides off in search of one. Here, I believe, is the nut of the twenty-first-century Gawain: he believes that if he accomplishes this one task, he will be a man of honor forever more. Just show up and let the Green Knight attempt to lop off his head – his mother having already given him the talismanic sash with her lifesaving magic woven into it – and he will have achieved honor. It’s analogous to thinking “If I lose ten pounds…” or “If I moved to another city…” or “Once the kids leave home…” No one act makes you a different person. It’s a series of choices and acts that create new channels. We all spend decades, even lifetimes, creating the canyons that are our lives. Our brains create neural pathways to make selecting our usual choices easier. Deciding to make new choices – create new neural pathways – carve a new channel for the rivers of our lives to flow down – takes more than one act. Even a big act, like using metaphorical dynamite to start that new channel, or submitting our bare necks to the blade of a green knight’s axe, must be followed by more choices in the new channel. The new neural pathways must be created. Gawain cannot do this one thing and expect to be honorable. He must continue making honorable choices. This is the part we in the twenty-first century seem to struggle with.

Tolkien asks in a lecture on the poem, “What would have happened, if Gawain had not passed the test?” The movie gives us that “what if” scenario. Between the second and third blows of the Green Knight’s axe, Gawain sees his future flash before his eyes, and it is not honorable. He becomes king and abandons the mother of his child. He marries for political gain. He makes one shitty choice after another until his head falls off.

In the fourteenth century Gawain truly is chaste and chivalrous. Everyone seems to think he takes it too far, however. Courts at both ends of his journey find his strict adherence to pure chivalric codes literally laughable, though they commend his effort. Arthur’s court in particular seems to be glad they don’t hold themselves to the same standard. The realize perfection is an ineffable goal, not an achievable end, so you might as well drink up.

The readers of the poem when it was composed would have recognized this. The characters were intended to be both models for chivalric behavior and figures to be laughed at, and with. This duality—and humor—is entirely missing from both the movie and the Victorian versions of these Arthurian tales. The Victorians leaned very hard into Gawain’s purity, while the film is more concerned with his striving to be a better man.

This is where the poem and the film overlap a little. A modern reader and viewer can recognize both the earlier Gawain’s discomfort with his reputation and the modern Gawain’s desire to fulfill his expectations for himself. In the original, he is so perfect and chivalrous as to be unrelatable; in the film, he’s so relatable as to be almost unlikeable in his imperfections.

It’s impossible to speak of this moment in time without acknowledging the influence of COVID-19. Lowery’s film was shot prior to the pandemic lockdowns, but the great pause that began in March 2020, which led to an uncertain release date or even knowing when movie theaters might open again, gave Lowery time to recut the movie. He even changed the ending.

Anthony Lane wrote in the New Yorker, “The destabilization here goes beyond suspense, beyond not knowing what Gawain will do when confronted with temptation. In this more profoundly disorienting—and modern—version of romance, we don’t know, at any given moment, what the protagonist should do.”

And that’s been the pandemic in a nutshell, hasn’t it: deciding moment to moment what we should do. What’s safe? What’s honorable? What’s best for ourselves and our communities? The original ending of the film was decisive, where the recut ending is as ambiguous as it gets with an abrupt cut to black and questions left unanswered. This echoes our pandemic experiences, where there are no clear-cut answers to any questions, from the smallest “Is there toilet paper at the store today?” to the largest “Why is this disease happening to humanity in this way at this time?”

Where earlier versions of Gawain pointed to chivalry, perfection, and purity, Lowery’s twenty-first-century Gawain is trying to become honorable in a world that isn’t sure what exactly honor should be.