Reviews in the Nick of Time: The Green Knight

by wjw on August 13, 2021

The Green Knight is a film that makes absolutely no sense, but the nifty thing is that it makes no sense in exactly the way that medieval romance made no sense. The characters live in a liminal world. Miracles happen all the time, sorcery is common, magical objects clutter every cupboard, prophetic dreams descend on people without warning, and none of it is explained, it just happens. King Arthur sits with his knights at the Round Table every New Year and waits for a miracle to occur, and a miracle always occurs!

Yah, you are welcome to interpret it all, if you like. A Christian interpretation is possibly even intended, usually with heavy moralizing about sex and chivalry and fighting for truth and justice, but there is so much pagan stuff in the stories that it somewhat undercuts the Christian message, assuming that message was there in the first place. (What is the Holy Grail but a later version of the Cauldron of Rebirth, aka the Black Cauldron? Or maybe it’s the Cauldron of Ceridwen. [The Celts had a lot of cauldrons.])

Gawain’s shield has the Virgin Mary on one side, and a pentangle on the other. We see a contradiction where the medieval mind might have seen complementary forces at work.

Any allegorical or symbolic interpretation of the story is going to be provisional. I mean, they’re still arguing about the meaning of the green girdle after six hundred years. None of this is going to get settled anytime soon.

(Full disclosure: I have not read the source material. But I can Wikipedia! And I’m familiar with a lot of other medieval stuff, so there! I’ll have you know I’ve read the entire Faerie Queene, which I was pleased to discover was more fun than I expected. Go Britomart!)

The Green Knight of the film would seem to be Gawain himself, who isn’t yet a knight, and who’s so new he hasn’t got any stories to tell at the Round Table. No problem!—his mother turns to sorcery to cook up adventure for him. (Though nameless in the film, Gawain’s mother [according to later tradition] was Queen Morgause of Orkney, who was the older sister of Morgan le Fay. In the film Morgause seems to have picked up some of her sister’s witchy habits.)

Unless Gawain’s Mum intended for her offspring to repeatedly have the shit kicked out of him, she somewhat overdid the sorcery. Gawain is beaten, robbed, haunted by the ghost of St. Winifred, encounters a talking fox, is seduced by a chatelaine [at the behest of Morgan le Fay), and is otherwise knocked around, tied up, starved, and frozen. He pretty much remains a chump. He does remain focused on his quest, but maybe it’s because he can’t think of an alternative.

This quest might be intended as a test of Gawain’s character, to find out if he’s worthy to survive his encounter with the other Green Knight, the wooden one, who would seem to be a version of the Green Man. Except Gawain fails a lot of the tests, and he’s far from the noble, chivalrous knight that should be effortlessly galloping through the story. He’s much more a real knight of the middle ages than a figure of romance, though an uncommonly incompetent one.

At one point we’re told that the whole story is a plot by Morgan le Fay to scare Guinevere to death. So why isn’t Guinevere the one who gets kicked around? It makes no sense, but in a thoroughly medieval way.

We are told repeatedly that the quest is a game, and in the original poem the game is resolved happily, and everybody got to have Christmas. Seen as a Christmas story, the poem is a pleasant diversion, complete with beheadings. (Beheading games are a tradition in Celtic literature— nothing makes a Celtic warrior more happy than a sack full of heads.)

But the film pulls up short of the happy ending, and in fact really doesn’t have an ending at all. Gawain completes his arc, but the story doesn’t. The film stops on a rather ominous note, but doesn’t resolve. The viewer is left to envision whatever ending he wants. I can understand why the writer/director wanted to avoid an ending full of Christian moralizing, but still, after two hours of murky action, I felt I deserved a little more than what I got.

I must admit that the film rather tried my patience. The pacing was very slow, and much of the film took place in the dark. My eyes grew tired of peering into the shadows to make out the action. This I assume was deliberate, since a lot of the imagery that was actually visible was stunning.

And it was very difficult to hear. In many scenes the characters seemed to be speaking just out of earshot. I assume this also was deliberate on the part of director David Lowery— he wanted us to peer into the darkness to make out something murky, and to strain our hearing in hopes of getting some exposition (which we don’t get). Maybe he just wanted us to pay attention. Be that as it may, I’ll look forward to seeing the film again with subtitles.

If you’re not familiar with medieval literature, I’m not sure what the film has to offer beyond some really stunning cinematography (and some impressive music, which I haven’t mentioned). It has the absolute virtue of being unlike any other film, ever— the whole time I was watching, I kept thinking, “I’ve never seen anything like this before! Or this! Or this!”

Of course this was alternating with “What just happened? What just happened? What just happened?” Questions that never quite got answered.

It was a film that I figured was intended for someone just like me, but apparently it wasn’t, though it came close. If you think it might be a film for someone just like you, you might be right, and you might get to have Christmas all over again.

(Very sorry, by the way, that I had no way to illuminate the drop caps.)

mearsk August 13, 2021 at 11:15 am

Ahh, the formatting was on purpose. I was thinking at first that something had gone very wrong with your blog software.

wjw August 13, 2021 at 3:26 pm

Yeah, just my attempt to do some kind of Gothic vibe.

Privateiron August 15, 2021 at 6:07 am

“Sword of the Valiant” is a campy take on the same tale. It is one of the few Golan-Globus pictures I can recommend. It’s not a masterpiece, but it does have Miles O’Keefe and a quite wry Sean Connery.

John Wilson August 16, 2021 at 12:34 pm

At a certain point I thought you might be spelling something out.

Then I looked and thought, “T…Y…G…A…(F? What the hell is he doing?”

This is what I get for overthinking things all the time. Sigh.

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