I have recently watched The Green Knight and I have some thoughts about it. Watch the movie or read the wiki, I’m not going to do a full plot summary, spoiler alert, etc.
My first thought concerns the protagonist Sir Gawain, who is played by actor Dev Patel. I am not particularly miffed about a pajeet playing a medieval knight: there are plenty of historical examples of Kings using foreign men as body guards, such as Frederick II of the Holy Roman Empire using Saracen has his personal body guard as they were exempt from excommunication from the Church. However Sir Gawain is presented as a blood relative to King Arthur in the movie, his nephew through his half-sister Morgause (who is played by a pajeet as well) which makes it increasingly difficult to suspend disbelief. However, the pajeet Morgause is made out to be this Romani Gypsy who practices witchcraft, so I guess it squares the circle and makes me a believer again. Hey, if they are good enough for Hitler, its good enough for me.
One of the issues with a retelling of these older stories is the diversification of the cast, the other is denigration of the values that lead to the establishment of and the virtues extolled by such stories. As Sir Gawain travels to the Green Chapel to uphold his end of the bargain he is beset by a series of challenges that are meant affirm his knightly virtues. However, Gawain fails every single test presented to him: he has no generosity for the wayward traveler, no courtesy for Winifred, no chasity with the Lady, no fellowship with the Lord, and certainly demonstrates no piety throughout the movie. I was initially wary of Sir Gawain being presented as a drunken, cowardly womanizer who repeatedly stumbles through every hurdle as a way to mock the virtues and values held by those of the Past, a foreign land full of strange and backwards customs, as we moderns are wont to do. Yet Gawain’s almost incessant failures heightens the contrast with the ending.
Long story short, Sir Gawain is presented with a vision of his craven escape from his beheading by the Green Knight: he returns to the Court, knighted, inherits the throne, has a bastard child and casts away his lover, unlovingly marries for diplomatic reasons, has his son die in battle, castigated by his subjects, and eventually commits suicide (in a way) as his throne room is sieged by a foreign army. An ignoble beginning, middle, and end for Sir Gawain if he were to shirk his end of the bargain with the Green Knight. After flinching several times and glimpsing into his future, Gawain decides to truly uphold his end of the deal. He tosses aside the magical girdle that is said to protect him from all bodily harm and offers his neck to the Green Knight, he kneels, smirks, gestures his finger across Gawain’s cheek, and says something to the effect of “very brave young knight, now off with your head” before the movie cuts to black.
In my mind, the open-ended closing allows us three different interpretations:
The first, most boring, gay, and audience-probable one, is that Sir Gawain proves his courage by fully honoring the game and in doing so is spared by the Green Knight and is allowed to go about his merry way back to the Court. In the Arthurian Legend, it is true that Gawain is spared by the Green Knight, who revels himself to be Lord, Bertilak de Hautdesert. The two embrace, as the game itself was all a trial to test the knightly virtues of those at the Court. Yet, in the Legend, Gawain never takes off his magical sash, nor does he sleep with the Lord’s lady as he does in the movie (among many other things), which leads to the second interpretation…
Gawain actually dies. By casting aside the magical girdle that protects him, he shuffles off his mortal coil. He realizes the path that lays before him if he were to return to the Court and decides against it, as he would only bring shame and destruction to the Kingdom. This ending has much more meaning than that of the first, as the consequences of Gawain’s actions are much more severe and unalterable. This end is reminiscent of Ajax throwing himself on his sword or of Socrates drinking the hemlock, rescuing one’s self from utter shame by bringing death upon himself while simultaneously facing that same death calmly. In accepting his death, Sir Gawain will not be remembered for his unvirtuous life (or apocalyptic future) but for his honorable ending. While the bones rot, his reputation will be lustrous and undying.
The third interpretation is that Gawain dies, but the death is a spiritual one. By casting aside the magical (pagan) talisman, Gawain is deciding to unyoke himself from his follies and all of the sins and shortcomings of the flesh. In this last, greatest, instance of virtue, of piety, Gawain is saved by Christ who pays all of his earthly debts. While Christianity is given barely parting glances in the movie, it is an Arthurian Legend. This is an ending that I don’t think the creators of the movie would give much credence, as they wouldn’t do for the second interpretation as well, but it is the one that is most likely given the source material.
I liked the movie. Good actors, nice aesthetics, and most importantly, it gives us something to talk about.