Posted by: Brad Nixon | December 31, 2021

Sir Gawain on the Big Screen, Part Two

Welcome to part two of my annual revisit of the Middle English verse romance, “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” (SG&tGK). For a summary of the primary plot points of the story, read Part One here.

This year, instead of focusing on the poem, as I usually do, I’m commenting on the 2021 film, “The Green Knight,” which is based on the poem.

There are film spoilers ahead, so please be advised.

Many Tales, Many “Gawains”

It’s important to note that this poem is only one of hundreds of Medieval stories in which Sir Gawain appears — sometimes as the principal character, more often as one of the numerous knights in Arthurian and chivalric tales. In some, he’s recognized as the epitome of knighthood: courageous, strong, courteous, honorable. In others, he’s portrayed as selfish, violent, even vicious, and sometimes he’s a laughable parody of knighthood.

In SG&tGK, Sir Gawain appears as the perfect knight. As the story begins, he’s seated in a place of honor at the head table next to Queen Guinevere, near his uncle, King Arthur.

Anyone writing a poem or story about Gawain, from the dawn of European literature to the present, can draw on innumerable aspects of this iconic figure, and you’ll find some of that at work in the current film’s retelling of SG&tGK. That’s how stories work: They evolve, and each tale-teller provides their own perspective.

Bringing the story from page to screen requires some changes in its telling.

I hope my comments will help you follow the film, which doesn’t spend much time explaining its background.

We Begin with Gawain

The film opens with a young, rambunctious Gawain — not yet a knight — visiting his girlfriend in a brothel. A stark contrast from the accomplished, highly regarded Sir Gawain we meet in the poem. According to writer/director David Lowery, he wanted to give Gawain more of a “journey” of development. The film is, then, a coming-of-age story.

It’s “Christmastide,” and King Arthur is presiding over two weeks of feasting at Camelot. 

At the feast on New Year’s Day, young Gawain takes his place amongst the throng of revelers at the castle. The king, his uncle, invites him to sit with him and the queen on the dais. 

A towering figure of a knight, eight feet tall, with skin, clothing and gear all green, surprises the partiers, riding his horse into the hall. He issues a challenge, daring anyone to exchange blows with him.

The untried, uncertain but proud Gawain accepts. Not yet a knight, he lacks a sword, and when he appeals to the gathering that someone lend him one, someone does: Arthur holds out the world’s most legendary blade, Excalibur.

In the poem, Gawain wields the enormous ax the Green Knight carries. As Arthur’s eldest next of kin, Gawain is the king’s likely heir, and there are Medieval tales in which he inherits Arthur’s realm, along with Excalibur, so there is a precedent for this departure from the poem.

Intercut with the scenes in the hall at Camelot, we’ve seen Gawain’s mother, Morgause, Arthur’s sister. She does not appear in the poem. In the film, Morgause is a witch, and it is she who has summoned the supernatural Green Knight to test the mettle of her brother’s Round Table. In the poem, the Green Knight materializes through the witchcraft of Arthur’s aunt, Morgan le Fay, who appears later, both in the film and in the poem.

While Gawain circles warily, brandishing Excalibur, the green knight dismounts, bares his neck and placidly awaits the blow. Gawain beheads him with one swing.

Magically, the headless body of the Knight rises and picks up its severed head by the hair. The head instructs Gawain to be at “The Green Chapel” on the next New Year’s Day to have his turn. The knight then remounts and rides away, swinging his head by his side.

Just as the poem says, one year later, Gawain girds himself with armor, sword, shield, and the Green Knight’s ax. On his trusty horse, Gringolet, he rides north out of Wales into the wilderness of Wirral in search of The Green Chapel, although he has no idea where it may be.

The poem describes — in compelling language no film could relate without a voiceover in Middle English — Gawain’s travails in that wild land. In the film, he does encounter some dire circumstances. Though they don’t match the poem’s adventures, they do equate with some hardships Gawain endures in a number of other Medieval tales, primarily one in which he’s overcome by bandits who take his armor, break his shield, and ride away with Gringolet, leaving Gawain on foot in the harsh winter landscape.

The Castle

As he wanders, Gawain comes upon a large castle, whose lord, recognizing Gawain by reputation as one of Arthur’s knights, welcomes him with warm hospitality. There Gawain meets the lord’s beautiful lady, as well as an aged, blindfolded woman who never speaks, and is never introduced.

That mysterious woman is Morgan le Fay in the poem, although she is never named in the film.

As in the poem, the lord informs Gawain that the object of his quest, The Green Chapel, is but a few hours’ ride from the castle. Gawain can take his ease until New Year’s Day and still keep his fateful appointment with the Green Knight.

His amiable host also proposes a game. Each day, he will go hunting, and whatever his hunt produces he will give to his guest. In turn, Gawain will give his host whatever his day in the castle yields him.

As in the poem, the game becomes problematic.

As films often do, this one compresses three days of Gawain’s stay into one. The character of the lady of the castle is greatly expanded into an intriguing woman who is clearly flirting with Gawain.

While the lord is out hunting the next morning, the lady invades Gawain’s bedroom and there’s a scene that is far more erotically charged than anything the poet would have written in the 13th century: She tempts Gawain to do something a dedicated knight’s code of conduct strictly forbids with a married woman. 

She also gives him a magical gift that she says will protect him from any harm. That would be an asset he could use, since he’s honor-bound to have the Green Knight cut off his head on New Year’s Day.

Then, Gawain flees the castle — something he does not do in the poem — rather than endure further the temptation the lady represents.

In his flight, he encounters the lord of the castle who’s just back from the hunt. 

Something important happens here. The lord knows Gawain has something the rules of the game require Gawain to give him — that magical gift — but Gawain keeps it, thus breaking a trust. That will cost him.

The filmmaker does something interesting in this scene: He has the lord give Gawain as the fruit of that day’s hunt a fox he caught, still alive. This fox has already followed Gawain during his long slog on foot to the castle, and now replaces the human guide the lord in the poem sends with Gawain to show him the way to the Green Chapel.

To the Green Chapel

As Gawain nears the Green Chapel, the fox speaks to him. He admonishes Gawain to go home, to avoid the deadly encounter he’s facing, and promises he’ll never say a word if Gawain turns away.

The talking fox is part of the magic theme that runs through the film, but is less overt in the poem.

Gawain, bound by his vow, continues, and reaches the forbidding Green Chapel.

There, on New Year’s Day, he kneels and bares his neck for the ax blow from the fearsome Green Knight.

In the poem, the Knight does bring down that ax, but only grazes Gawain’s neck. It’s a lesson in ethics: By relying on the magic of the Lady’s gift and not keeping to the rules of the lord’s game, Gawain has failed as an exemplar of knightly honor. 

The film stops just short of that final fall of the ax. It leaves us to wonder what judgment will fall on Gawain. Those who know the poem have a fair idea of what’s to come. The filmmaker gives us a hint.

Yes, movies are different than poems. Stories can be told in many ways.

I recommend “The Green Knight” film as I do the poem. At this writing, the film is available on some streaming services. I watched on DVD, courtesy of my local library.

As I say every year at this time, happy New Year, and Hony soyt qui mal pence.

Copyright Brad Nixon 2021. Photos copyright A24 Productions 2021.


Responses

  1. […] How does the film version end? That’s what we’ll learn in the next post at this link. […]

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Your French adage led me to think that honey soy might be a sweet, nutritious confection.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Nice write up! Thank you. We’ll check our streaming guys for the movie, or maybe sign up to Hoopla or whatever our Library offers.

    Like

    • Thank you. I haven’t seen it on Netflix, Hoopla or Kanopy, although that could change. It was recently on Amazon Prime, and some others.

      Like

  4. Sigh. I tried, but the film just didn’t work for me. I found it on Amazon Prime, but it took me forever to watch. When I did, it wasn’t long until I started getting impatient, or bored, or both. Of course, this can’t be taken as any kind of criticism of the film, since I never found any of the Star Wars films appealing enough to watch, and still haven’t managed to get through more than a few minutes of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, let alone Spamalot.

    I suppose there’s some deep-seated reason for my aversion to fantasy and science fiction, not to mention Renaissance Faires, but I manage to function in society nonetheless, so I don’t worry about it much. It was fun to read your summation of the story again; keeping traditions is to be celebrated, no matter the tradition.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Trust me, my friend, my “appreciation” of this film is tempered with a list of qualifications that make one’s acceptance to the terms and conditions of the typical retail website pale by comparison.
      The fact that SGKT CAN be made into a film is probably evidence that there is nothing that MIGHT be filmed.
      One has only to look for on-screen versions of “War and Peace” to discover the absolute idiocy of trying to squeeze a work of literature into a format that doesn’t fit.
      The sheer effrontery of telling a tale in modern English, with actors speaking a language no one has spoken for a thousand years only begins to touch the waste of effort.
      It’s a poem, not a screenplay.
      I don’t blame you for bailing out. The Counselor and I take it under advisement. We’ve both seen Shakespeare on the page, on the stage, and on the screen. Nothing onscreen matches the original, and if Mr. Tolstoy were here, I’d like to have him weigh in, eh? Let alone the Gawain poet. Ah, gosh, what would he have to say?

      Liked by 1 person


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