It feels good to be back at the movies, and it feels particularly good to see a visual spectacle as rich as The Green Knight, David Lowery’s new interpretation of the fourteenth-century Middle English poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The vibe is part Excalibur, part Terry Gilliam, and part Wes Anderson—an offbeat adventure unlike anything I have seen recently. For those who have not read the poem, which is chockablock with Catholic imagery and prescriptive of Christian virtue, I recommend you pick it up in conjunction with watching what Lowery does with it. J.R.R. Tolkien’s translation is a particular gem that anyone can enjoy, but there are straightforward prose renderings of it too. I am currently thumbing through the Penguin Classics’ verse translation by Brian Stone, which I used as an undergraduate.
The Green Knight stars Dev Patel as Sir Gawain, the nephew of King Arthur and son of Morgan Le Fay, and it tells a hero’s tale for our day–that is, an age full of comic book superheroes, but largely bereft of everyday men of honor. The Gawain of 2021 differs from the medieval original in more ways than we can count, and that is the whole point.
When we meet Sir Gawain, he is a reckless, womanizing Mama’s boy—a bro. He wakes up in a brothel on Christmas Day, and he shuffles off shoeless to attend Mass with his mistress. Gawain’s sorceress mother is amused, joking that her son smells as if he has been drinking Our Lord’s blood all night. Later, when King Arthur asks Gawain to share a story, his story, he has none to tell. Then enters the Green Knight, here depicted as a strange tree-man, an embodiment of nature, whose appearance in the original poem is one of the most memorably descriptive scenes in all medieval literature. Gawain rashly accepts the Knight’s challenge to strike him, resulting in his obligation to receive the same blow the next Christmas in the Knight’s chapel. Gawain carouses for most of the next year before finally setting off to face his fate. He wears his mother’s enchanted girdle of protection, and he tries to psych himself up with words that do not define any reality we have seen him living so far: “Honor. That is why a knight does what he does.”