The Green Knight

August 9, 2021

Seventeen months, almost to the day, since my last time in a movie theater, I finally made it back. How was it? Well, I rented out a whole theater along with 15 friends, all vaxxed, which made it economical and relatively safe and a whole lot of fun.

And I’m very, very glad this is the film I went back for. It’s gorgeous, haunting, strange, arresting, with an immersive soundtrack that’s half traditional song and half weird ambient. All great. If you have a chance to safely see this on the big screen, it’s worth it.

This is based on the 14th century English poem “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” which is my very favorite piece of medieval literature. I spent a whole semester in grad school on this poem, so I wasn’t going to miss the movie. So, how was it?

I have to tell you, this is a really great adaptation, faithful to both the plot, content, and tone of the original. Whoever would have thought?

The best medieval literature hits this intersection of pagan folklore, Christian theology, and classical aesthetic. The world of the medieval story is full of signs and wonders that must be taken for what they are, but also represent much more:  God and truth and faith and love and sex and honor. I think “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” hits that intersection better than just about anything, and the film does too.

The film gets all the iconic moments just right. The Green Knight’s entry into Arthur’s hall, the beheading and aftermath—absolutely perfect. The arrival at the castle by the Green Chapel and the dubious shenanigans there—also just about perfect. This is one of those cases where I’m sitting in the theater thinking, are they actually doing this? Are they going to go there? Please don’t pull the punch, don’t pull the punch…. The film goes there and does not pull the punch. It’s spooky and weird and uncomfortable—just like the poem! It’s great!

One of the things I love about the poem is it’s a little bit subversive—it pushes back against a lot of Arthurian lore about chivalry and honor and larger-than-life everything. It’s a smaller story. A Christmas story. And its basic message is:  Look, kid, it’s okay to be afraid. It’s okay to make mistakes. Maybe these chivalric ideals that are driving you aren’t realistic and don’t actually work all that well in the real world. Maybe step back and let yourself be human.

The movie gets most of that, giving us a flawed hero who gets in way over his head, but at the end he’s learned the lessons he was meant to and comes away understanding that heart and honesty are more important than external ideas about honor. The poem (I think, anyway) is affirming and uplifting. The film doesn’t quite get there but it gets close.

There’s a bit at the end where I almost checked out, where it took a turn into grimdark and tragedy and despair—but then I realized, this isn’t real. Gawain has been moving through liminal worlds full of signs and lessons, and this is one too. And we come back from that brink, ending with a Gawain who’s come out the other side a better person.

I also love that the movie doesn’t explain itself. I’ve gotten so used to movies where the characters all stand around explaining things to each other, and here’s a movie where nothing is explained, it all just happens, yet is clear and enthralling, and yes, more like this, please.

Almost from the start, this reminded me of The Seventh Seal, which is one of my favorite movies. Antonius and Gawain both move through haunted landscapes and encounter scenes that shock them, that they are helpless to influence. Or their influence seems so small they have to wonder if it’s even worthwhile. There’s little they can do but move on. These are films that use their modern artistic cinematic languages and sensibilities to immerse us in the strange dream worlds of their medieval milieus.

Watching both these movies feels like reading a medieval text, full of beauty and oddness and symbolism and meaning. They reward your attention.

One Response to “The Green Knight”

  1. Michelle Garcia Says:

    I love the Green Knight tale because it was the journey through the forest to the underworld and back. Gawain is my favorite warrior king with Arthur. I also love the Loathly Damsel poem. You get more of the underground women ‘s movement. Chivalry still favored the male. Bless Eleanor of Aquitaine for not only being well read , but also loving a good story.
    Be well.


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