Wonder at his hue men displayed,
set in his semblance seen;
he fared as a giant were made,
and over all deepest green.
In 2017, David Lowery wrote and directed “A Ghost Story,” one of the most beautiful and infuriating films I’ve seen. The cinematography was exquisite and it presented some interesting themes and concepts. It was also excruciating to sit through. When the first trailer for “The Green Knight” dropped, I was immediately intrigued. But how well would Lowery‘s style and prose mesh with a 14th Century Middle-English Arthurian Poem?
The tale of “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” was written by an unknown author, and only a single original manuscript has ever been found. It wasn’t until the 19th century that it was translated into modern English, with J. R. R. Tolkien contributing a well-respected version in 1925. Sir Gawain is the son of Morgause, making him King Arthur’s nephew. In many versions, Gawain is a Knight of the Round Table and is often described as one of Arthur’s most trusted friends. In this adaptation, however, he is a young man, full of frivolous vigor. He rubs shoulders with living legends but has no stories of honor or valor of his own.
During a Christmas celebration in Camelot, the massive, tree-like Green Knight (Ralph Ineson) rides his horse up into the midst of King Arthur’s court. His appearance is intimidating but as he explains, he’s not there for a battle, but instead offers a game to the bravest man there. Whoever challenges to him a duel, if they are able to land a blow, he will gift them his exquisite battle axe. In return, after exactly one year has passed, the challenger shall travel north to his Green Chapel and receive the same blow from him. Gawain (Dev Patel) eagerly accepts the challenge and is successful in landing a strike, although one he is not keen to receive.
The next year passes quickly. His popularity grows rapidly, but his maturity does not. Soon it’s time for him to complete his side of the agreement, which he undertakes reluctantly. He yearns to be a respected, chivalrous knight known for his bravery, but it’s not something that comes naturally to him. This journey, which takes up the latter two-thirds of the movie begins to blur the lines between reality and fantasy. Each encounter on this odyssey is another challenge to his character. With every individual he meets, he questions if it is friend, foe, or another temptation to what remains of his virtue. One act of kindness that turns out poorly tempts him to withhold his kindness from another. There is a constant struggle between his desire to be an honorable knight and his nagging self-preservation. In a sense, “The Green Knight” is a coming-of-age story told in shades of grey. It dives into the complexities of “doing the right thing” even if it could lead to your death. Is an adult life worth living if you can’t live with the choices you made to ensure that life?
Bolstering this well-woven tale is an incredible production design. At first glance, everything just looks really, really cool. Even though it’s just being watched on screen, there is a tactile feeling to the visuals. You can feel the heft of the well-worn green axe. You can feel the wool threads that make up the sash of protection. Like everything else in this movie, if you dig deeper you can find clues that tie back to the old prose. Pentagrams decorate Arthur’s chamber and Gawain’s shield. It might seem an odd symbol to appear in a scene taking place on Christmas day, amongst those who at one time searched for the Holy Grail. The first appearance of the word “pentacle” in the English language occurred in “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” According to Wikipedia, “From lines 640 to 654, the five points of the pentangle relate directly to Gawain in five ways: five senses, his five fingers, his faith found in the five wounds of Christ, the five joys of Mary (whose face was on the inside of the shield) and finally friendship, fraternity, purity, politeness, and pity (traits that Gawain possessed around others)”
Without a doubt, “The Green Knight” will garner multiple award nominations at the end of the year. It is a masterpiece that keeps giving the deeper you dig and a perfect example of how a film adaptation of a literary classic can enhance the written word.
The Green Knight