Some Notes on Gawain
How the Big Screen celebrates—and distorts—the vivid weirdness of the medieval imagination.
Note: SPOILERS AHEAD
for those who care about such things.
(The movie may have been out for only two weeks but the Arthurian legends hit newsstands going on a millennia ago. The statute of limitations is up.)
This week I went to see The Green Knight, my first time back in a theater since the end of the world. Haunting the movie theater circuit was the staple of my peripatetic life in New York, and the city’s embarrassment of riches on that score is one of the things I have missed; fortunately there are moving screens even in the most isolated and debased of imperial outposts. And since I haven’t really seen a film until I’ve struggled to organize some thoughts on it, here they are.
For those who didn’t deal with the tedium of grade school prison via Arthurian escapism, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a 14th Century side-quest of Sir Gawain, one of the knights of King Arthur’s Round Table. Indeed, he is known to be the most perfect of all knights (this is important later). I will send you to Wikipedia for the full synopsis if you don’t know it. But the main thing here is that Gawain is a young, untested adventurer who finds himself (as we all have once or twice, surely) in a situation where he is bound by oath to allow a mysterious giant, the Green Knight, to give him one uncontested blow of his axe.
Throughout the story this is understood, by the reader and by Gawain, to mean certain death. Gawain nonetheless marches toward the Green Knight’s lair beset by danger, doubt, cowardice, and temptation. In the original fable, once Gawain’s mettle has been tested, the Green Knight impishly gives him a mere nick on the neck and sends him on his way back to Camelot.
The film, however, at least gestures towards something a bit darker than that; though I think to the extent that it does it actually weakens the original plot’s surprising moral and thematic complexity.
To begin with the many great things—there is so much to love here, above all the film’s daring aesthetic strangeness. Daring, because it allows itself to inhabit some of the true weirdness of the medieval imagination, not the sanitized, flattened versions we usually get in either Ye Olde Heroic Epics or in Python-esque parody.
Here kings and knights and ladies are not (or not only) upright defenders of the moral order or naive romantics, but ambivalent, alloyed figures with obscure motivations. Chivalric ideals of honor, bravery, duty, love, and purity are revealed not as absolutes, but as fraught negotiations with one’s own shadow. The borders of duty must be determined and defended in the dark, surrounded by the overwhelming stench of death and fear, rather than calmly defined in the rational, civilized banter of the Round Table. Director David Lowery’s Arthurian universe is one vision of what a world never “disenchanted” would really look like. That is, bizarre and often terrifying. Full of miracles and intercessory angels, yes—but also full of demons, of floating decapitated heads, of loping, keening, inexplicable giants, of shimmering castles that loom over the surface of the earth, dissolving and re-apparating in turn. Of prayers that are efficacious but dark magic that is equally so, and of magicians that answer to the sovereignty of the King and His good order even as they at times manipulate and undermine it for their own ends. Of visions and prophecies, of time that backtracks and skips forward, of unexpected oaths, too-lightly entered, that carry mortal ramifications.
It also gets at the medievals’ allegiance to the grotesque and the goth. We see throughout the jarring amalgams of Catholic piety and pagan sorcery, the paeans to the Blessed Virgin alongside the clutching of protective runes. Everywhere there is the medieval acceptance—verging on celebration—of decay and death, from Roman ruins to speaking skulls. It’s an aesthetic posture that is the natural outgrowth of a civilization founded on the defeat of death via death, a civilization thus obsessed with relics and remains, one which venerated the implements and detritus of death, above all the Cross, as a wondrous sign of the ultimate cosmic inversion.
Meanwhile, the film’s palette is at once beautiful, soothing, and foreboding, narrowly earthy but wonderfully rich. Intricacies of dark, mossy greens transition into deep blues, overlaid with the glowing ochres of Gawain’s golden cloak, a tawny magical fox, the omnipresent hearth embers, the slant sun of the late-autumn landscapes. Combined with the low budget and effective use of arresting low-tech effects, it’s a reminder that film as a medium is still capable of so much, and that any boring filmmaking is just our own damn fault.
I’ve tried not to read many reviews before writing, though one complaint I have seen is that TGK is too winding and digressive. I find this a risible criticism. (Scholarly interpretations of the Arthurian cycle have at times suffered from a similar philistinism, from the Middle English compiling of the legends, Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, to modern versions that seek to streamline and rationalize the rambling tales.) The side-quests and digressions are so obviously the point of the whole thing; this is like complaining Arabian Nights has too many subplots. This is SparkNotes Brain, and it’s often terminal. But then, I’ve never understood the mania for tightly-plotted film; while I enjoy a good fast pace, the films I truly love, return to, get lost in, are precisely those that immerse you in a world, not those that impart a plot as quickly as possible; and the experience of being-in-worlds, as anyone who has been alive can tell you, is a digressive, winding thing. A filmmaker can make an immersive world that is immersively ugly and boring—and even that might be meta-aesthetically worthwhile—but Gawain’s world is emphatically neither ugly nor boring.
So, so many filmmakers move heaven and earth to create a beautiful scene, and then cut away from it after a half-second. “Gotta get to the next plot beat!” No. Let us experience it, marinate in it, live in this wonderful world you’ve created for a while! TGK resists this insanity, in a way that is nonetheless more mainstream-friendly than other art-house lingerers (e.g. Malick).
Then there’s the sheer overwhelming feminine power of Alicia Vikander’s temptress, Lady Bertilak, sent to seduce Gawain from his errand. Everything on screen these days is, of course, full of obligatory horniness, but it’s all so tiresomely rote and bloodless. It’s hard to remember the last time I watched something that allowed me to believe the characters, even in their most explicit portrayals of lust, felt anything other than boredom and revulsion for each other and for their own bodies. They are all beautiful people, sure, but seem, like some mirror-world instantiation of Blade Runner 2049’s Joi, to be merely holographic projections of desire. If you were to reach to touch them, your hand would pass through; if you were to lean in to smell them, you would encounter only an antiseptic void.
Vikander’s Lady Bertilak is the real thing; real seduction, real desire, real danger. And, as is often the case, her power is communicated not by sexual acts but through the play of unexpected intimacies, quotidian moments deepened into delirious fantasy by the smallest gestures: standing a step too close in a hidden corner, the gleam in her portraitist’s eye, the mischievous revelation of some morsel of forbidden knowledge.
Which brings us to the point of the original hero-fable. Our Gawain is being tested. But the fable reveals the complexity and sophistication of the chivalric moral imagination, which we too often misinterpret and simplify. The point is not that Gawain passes the test—or even that he fails, learns something, and then passes the test. The point is, he just fails the test. As we all would, and do. He breaks his oath and takes something he shouldn’t—the green sash—from the Lady, believing it will save his life1. The climax of this “Christmas Game”2 comes when Gawain arrives at the Green Chapel, admits his mistake, and throws himself at the mercy of the Green Knight’s axe, finally accepting his fate.
But once Gawain truly encounters and accepts his weakness, the Knight is satisfied, and the sentence of death is waived. Here Gawain’s status as a penitent, standing in for all of us, becomes explicit. He has, as it were, confessed and repented of his sins and, kneeling before the altar, received absolution, with his minor wound given as penance.
Most critically, his confrontation with himself initiates Gawain into a deeper honesty, frees him from a false self-image as the “perfect knight,” and allows him to take his rightful place at the Round Table as a mature man: one who knows failure and knows his limits.
The film, however, largely undermines that original reading. It emphasizes the underside of the hero’s journey, and, even more radically, questions if such a thing has any meaning at all. Dev Patel’s Gawain is portrayed less as a perfect knight and more as a failson, drinking and screwing his way through life. Instead of offering growth, his journey seems to cast doubt on the very idea of it.
Lord Bertilak articulates this cynical view of virtue, sarcastically asking Garwain if he really expects his quest to make him a new man. He mocks the idea of throwing one’s life away for honor, and Gawain, instead of rising to the defense of his chivalric code, falteringly mumbles a weak reply.
And Lady Bertilak, speaking we surmise as a symbolic representative of implacable Nature which seeks to humiliate the knights in their vainglorious attempts to uphold order, turns the knife further. “You are no knight,” she tells Gawain after seducing him, voicing a much harsher judgment of his mistakes than even King Arthur would make3. Her verdict represents a version of the world in which our struggles are not ultimately benevolent, pushing us to be better, but intrinsically malevolent, hoping to trip us up and condemn us once and for all. This antagonism is Satan in the garden, not Jacob wrestling with the angel.
Accordingly, though the film’s ending is left ambiguous, it strongly suggests that Gawain is in fact killed by the Green Knight. At the very least, the most affirming part of the original tale—in which Gawain is welcomed back to the Round Table and all the knights adopt green sashes in solidarity with him—is excised. Instead, the final scenes are of Gawain immersed in an apocalyptic vision of what will happen if he abandons his oath and runs away: he will become king but ultimately betray those that love him as he watches his glory crumble into tragedy, isolation, and wartime defeat. In contrast with that Dickens-esque vision of a ghastly future, heroic death suddenly appears more palatable.
So we are left with the nagging uncertainty: does he in fact die for his mistakes? Has this universe in fact been purged of forgiveness and redemption and solidarity? Or, perhaps, is Gawain, in this telling, not a penitent but himself a Christ figure—absorbing unto himself the mortal consequences in order to spare the rest of the kingdom from the chaos that would flow from his cowardice? And if so, how does this alter the meaning of the fact that he appears to have been put up to this—framed, one might say—by the machinations of his own mother, the sorceress Morgan le Fay, who we learn is behind the Green Knight’s challenge?
A tale in which Gawain really does lose his head would invert most existing interpretations, though it would strengthen some others, notably those that emphasize the Green Knight as the avatar of a vengeful and unconquerable Nature. It would also bolster those who want to claim the narrative as a subversive neo-pagan critique of Christian hegemony. His mother’s deadly treachery would certainly put a new and dark spin on the archetype of the Blessed Mother, whose icon the camera lingers upon throughout, and which we last see on the face of Gawain’s shield, broken and abandoned on the forest floor.
In any case, I gather that this choice is meant to make the ending edgier, more ambivalent—yet another “gritty reboot” for our oh-so-sophisticated age. But I would argue it achieves rather the opposite. It turns an unexpectedly rich story of playful violence, anxious anticipation, cowardice, deception, courage, repentance, forgiveness, acceptance, and spiritual integration into a straightforward formula of blind necessity: make a bad oath, try to wiggle out, fail, die.
Instead of deepening the character of Gawain’s mother, it boxes her into a more one-dimensional villainy, rather than the markedly ambiguous mix of devotion, ambition, and malice she represents in the Arthurian cycle. In place of a creative tension between Nature and Civilization, it goes all in on the sovereignty of Nature, a sort of Robinson Jeffers-esque rejection of human significance and volition. Despite the many virtues of the film, this feels like obfuscation for the sake of it, and, worse, obfuscation with the paradoxical effect of smoothing out much of the moral complexity and mysterious depth of a magnificently weird classic.
A persuasive reading of Gawain’s true “sin” is that the green sash—which promises to protect its bearer from harm—represents an inability to trust in God. Gawain takes the sash in order to remain master of his fate, a rejection of God's will. He ultimately relinquishes the sash and his own mania for control, thus re-establishing communion with God.
But another important layer to his seduction by Lady Bertilak is that according to the chivalric code itself he is being put in an impossible position: he cannot take the sash without betraying his oath, but he cannot refuse the sash without offending a lady (not allowed). That life is full of impossible situations—even for the Perfect Knight—is perhaps an under-appreciated lesson of folklore.
The Green Knight arrives at Camelot during Christmastide festivities and Gawain leaves on his quest the following All Saints Day, seemingly a further thematic development of the struggle to place chaotic pagan nature within the liturgical structure of the calendar.
Much to the contrary: In the fable, the Green Knight responds to Gawain’s shame with encouraging mirth, assuring him he is still the greatest knight, and the Round Table welcomes him home.