A Knight Yule Remember: The Green Knight Makes the Cut

A brief look through time at Sir Gawain, and some insight into the new film by David Lowery.
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I’ve made it no secret that Gawain is my guy. In fact, my gateway into Arthuriana was a paper on the changing face of Sir Gawain my freshman year of college. I went deep into the annals of Welsh lore, through the French texts, past Malory’s evil incarnation, and to modern tales to trace his meandering movement from favored nephew to sometime side-note to bigger characters like Lancelot, Percival, and Galahad. By the time I finished my Masters degree, my knowledge of Arthuriana was far wider than Gawain, but it wouldn’t have begun without that spark. For a good overview, check out this paper by Susan Rojas.

So when I heard there was going to be a take on the poem “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”–a text I was quite familiar with not just because of school, but because Tolkien had done quite a bit of scholarly work on the piece as well–I was intrigued. When I heard Dev Patel was cast in the lead role, well, I was really paying attention.

To say that I’ve been disappointed by Arthurian adaptations in the last twenty years is an understatement. I have endured through the atrocity of First Knight, King Arthur, and, most recently and most painfully, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. Though many (mainly men) have asked me, “Oh! But Excalibur!” Sorry, folks. It never worked for me. Having read The Once and Future King prior to seeing Excalibur, all pales. My favorite King Arthur films to date are Disney’s The Sword in the Stone and Camelot, and no, I’m not even kidding. I will take awkward Franco Nero as Lancelot over any of those other films any day because Richard Harris and Vanessa Redgrave are such inspired casting I can’t stand it.

Gawain, though. He’s an intriguing character to go after. Early Arthurian heroes from the Welsh sources were much like super heroes, and Gawain was big time. As Arthur’s nephew, he held a very important place of honor–in many Celtic societies, the place of a nephew was even more of a bond than a son, especially one’s nephew through a sister. This was common in fosterage motifs we see in myths, like in that of Cuhullain which shares a lot of DNA with Gawain. Some early stories have his strength tied to the sun: he is strongest when it’s at its peak, hearkening back to pre-Christian traditions.

Lady Bertilak temps Gawain – Cotton Nero A. x, f. 129 – 1400-1410

Even in The Canterbury Tales, we have a riff on a very well-known Gawain story in the Wife of Bath’s tale. Though he is not named directly, audiences (Arthuriana was big time during Chaucer’s day) would have likely known precisely who they were talking about. The “loathly lady” motif is common, and The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Lady Ragnelle is essentially the same tale. The Wife of Bath is a bit more brutal, as his story begins with a rape, and I often wonder if that is why he goes unnamed. Still, my point, is that his stories were widely known and his position as Arthur’s nephew and favorite knight uncontested until that French guy showed up.

It’s hard to say when and who Gawain really is, though, as he’s changed so many times during the last thousand years. I chose, in Queen of None, to mostly go the route of Geoffrey of Monmouth, with some other influences sprinkled in: Gawain is the son of Lot of Orkney (Lothian, in some versions) and Anna Pendragon, Arthur’s sister. He’s a bit of a brute, a ginger giant, and makes some Very Bad Decisions. But he’s also a kid and the product of his time. In Queen of Fury, he gets his own POV, and he’s a very different sort of person. So, I’ve been up to my neck (HAHAHAHAHA) in Gawain research lately.

The Green Knight Rides

David Lowery makes a different choice with Gawain, but it is a very medieval one: Gawain is far more of an Everyman than I expected in the film–the Everyman is a common archetype in medieval storytelling (coming from morality plays), so it sits just fine with me.

This Gawain is Arthur’s nephew, but it is clear from the moment we begin that Camelot is in decline. There are immediate hints of the Fisher King: the gathered knights (we never get their names, alas) are grizzled, grim, and another generation or two away from the young, lusty Gawain. In fact, hardly any of the characters get names at any point in the film at all. You get the sense that the glory days of the realm are at their end. The lighting is incredible.

And immediately, we’re introduced to the pentagram/pentacle, which is essential in the poem and in medieval and Celtic mythology. It’s on jewelry, on the stones in Arthur’s hall. Lowery also connects it to the queen’s Marian prayers, as well, a little more specifically than in the poem, in a really nifty sequence as Gawain sets out on his journey.

This is when I knew we were in good hands. Lowery has read the poem. He knows the poem. He knows the time. There are plenty of liberties taken–this is a film, I never expect “authenticity” in a genre that in itself is a constantly shifting body of work–but it is his interpretation. This is the most Arthurian of Arthurian practices: making the story your own. That’s how Arthuriana has survived for centuries: adapting, shifting, changing. (For a gorgeous recent retelling, be certain to check out Tracy Deonn’s Legendborn).

Gawain’s mother is also essential to this story, and as you can imagine for a writer who just published a whole book about her, that had me breathless in my seat. I won’t go into too many details, but Sarita Choudhury brought all the Anna Pendragon energy I have ever wanted. If Queen of None ever gets film rights, she’d be incredible.

But what about the film? Here’s my thoughts for you.

Medieval Weird was Weird Before Weird Was Weird: Here’s What to Look For

A24 Studios’ – The Green Knight

First, you need to understand that”Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” is a strange poem, but it’s far from the only strange poem of the age. The medieval mind is a mystery, even to those who spend their lifetimes studying it. I’ve been asked so many times why I spend time reading old tomes, but really, it’s because medieval literature is weird and wild and absolutely unpredictable. Every re-imagination takes you in a new direction. It’s funny and wonderfully human. Whether it’s about “thikke” ladies, fighting snails, or having visions of lactating Mother Mary, there’s no end of new material.

So buckle in, gird yourself, and prepare.

  • Don’t go in expecting a regular chivalric adventure. Don’t expect things to make a ton of sense. This film has a lot more DNA with cult 70s cinema and movies like Pan’s Labyrinth than it does with what you’re used to with Arthurian films. It’s supposed to mess with your head a bit.
  • It’s as much of a critique about quest narratives as it is a quest narrative. Meta, yo. That’s the beauty of it, however. I’ve always wondered how people can look uncritically at the Arthurian canon. I mean: EVERYTHING falls apart. It’s about entropy, a golden age to a near dystopia in a generation. This is not sunshine and rainbows, friends. This movie, thankfully, gets that, where so many others simply haven’t. Chivalry sucks, actually.
  • It’s a Christmas movie! And way better of an argument than Die Hard.
  • There is no “era”. It’s vaguely medieval, but then some sets are out of that time, even. No spoilers, but it’s supposed to feel disjointed.
  • Dev Patel. Enough said. Lord.
  • The color schemes and art bits are taken directly from medieval sources. I think I spied the Luttrell Psalter, but I can’t be sure (it’s my favorite). Pay attention to the use of light and shadow!
  • The costumes! Oh, that velvet cloak. Keep an eye on out Twitter because I’m going to go into more depth there, but yellow velvet was SUCH an inspired choice. And that crepe taffeta? That pressed linen? THOSE CROWNS. I want to watch the film again just to focus on the clothing, because as cool as some of the effects were (given the budget, super rad) it was the costumes and textiles that stole the show for me.
  • It’s an impression of the poem, not the poem itself. It’s a take on the poem, but it isn’t the poem. An interpretation–like I said before, it’s what Arthuriana does best. In this case, it’s as much about the visuals and emotions as it is about the plot. Medieval poetry and prose was highly metaphorical, symbolic, allegorical. Everything is something else.
  • Like a poem, it’s an art piece. This is not the high fantasy world of Arthur you want, you know, Game of Thrones style. It’s a glimpse through a warped window.
  • It’s truly remarkable and absolutely worth seeing in a theater if it’s safe and within your capacity to do so.

My minor quibbles (and minor spoilers) below:

CAN NO ONE PRONOUNCE GAWAIN’S NAME CORRECTLY? Garwin? GaWAYN? It’s GAH-win. Lord.

Someday. Someday we’re going to have named women in an Arthurian film. Gawain’s mother is in the film, as I mentioned, but she’s billed as… Mother. He may also have sisters? Maybe? It was odd to have him divested from his brothers, but that’s fine. I just… agh. I wanted to know if his mother was Anna, Morgause, Morgain, or even Gwyar (an older source)? NERD NEEDS TO KNOW.

RELATED. I wanted to know which knights were which! COME ON. I am an Arthur nerd, throw me a Bedivere or a Bors or even a Kay! I’m that desperate I’d take a Kay.

Seriously. Does no one train kids at Camelot? Has stuff gotten so bad that dude doesn’t know how to build a fire or which mushrooms to avoid? Yikes.

It was cool that we had Dev Patel and Sarita Choudhury, but outside of them, it was a very, very white film. Given that we have knights of color all throughout the canon, seemed a bit weird to me. Palomydes? Morien? Safir? Anyone?

I hate puppets.

Enough with the blind/mute creepy people. Ugh. (H/T @Snarkbat)

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  1. Thank you for that shout out to the shining film that is Camelot. This nerd spent all of junior high listening to (and singing along with) the soundtrack. Nobody else in my school had a clue what it was. Richard Harris as King Arthur? Lord. I wanted him to be my boyfriend.

    1. I’m not usually an Arthur stan, but he had such joy and vulnerability — he just made me love him! I fell in love with it in college. Played the VHS from the library to death. LOL!

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