That was my chief takeaway from watching The Green Knight, which I finally did last weekend. There was a particular friend I wanted to see it with, and we’re still not keen on movie theaters, so on Saturday night we settled in with streaming and popcorn. No one I know who’s seen it has failed to have an opinion about this movie, and almost all of those opinions were either wildly positive or acidly negative; I was intrigued.
It certainly looks good. I wasn’t surprised to learn that director David Lowery was deliberately calling back to the Arthuriana and fantasy movies of the 1980s, which could be both suffused with brilliant color and vivid imagery, and also be deeply weird and unsettling. (Return to Oz, anyone?) I half expected the synthesizers from the Ladyhawke soundtrack to take over at some point. Understand: this would not have been a negative.
Then there’s the storyline, which doesn’t quite hew exactly to that of the poem but is in its own way just as weird. We can argue about whether the medieval mindset was really all that different from the modern one–personally I think humankind has always been prone to irrationality and resting our judgments on the slender reeds of half-formed impressions and emotional responses–but there’s something about the stories from those days, some willingness to leave things unexplained. The edges of what was unknown were a lot closer back then. Giants, talking foxes and headless saints? Who knows what’s out there?
But I do think it was an interesting choice to make Gawain young and untested–and apparently disinterested in maturing or in testing himself until Arthur and Guinevere, in their own respective ways, call out the lack. He’s primed to step forward when the other Knights of the Round Table exhibit aggressive disinterest in answering the Green Knight’s challenge. Talk about awkward silences, man: the best warriors in the world, and not one of them’s up for a bit of the beheading game. And after the Green Knight’s picked up his head and galloped out of Camelot, Gawain does what a lot of us would probably do when faced with an unpleasant but seemingly far distant appointment: tries his best to ignore it.
This post was originally titled “Gawain, Disney princess,” but that’s not quite right. The thing about Disney princesses is that they know what they want, at least well enough to sing showstopper songs about it. Gawain hasn’t got a song. Hell, he hasn’t even got a sword. Arthur has evidently given some thought to who’ll inherit his throne, but idle thought seems to be all he’s given it; certainly Gawain hasn’t been prepared to govern in even the most superficial of senses. The Christmas feast at the beginning of the movie shows a Camelot past its peak: none of the Knights of the Round Table so much as stir to answer the Green Knight’s challenge, and Arthur and Guinivere are well north of middle age. And later, when Gawain leaves for his adventure, it’s clear that the world beyond Camelot’s walls hasn’t been doing so well.
It’s not at all evident that facing the Green Knight will prepare him, either. The Green Knight reminded me, more than once, of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, probably deliberately given that the director cited it as an inspiration. (Those chapter title cards!) Barry Keoghan all but reprises the role of the peasant who questions Arthur’s right to be king and complains of oppression when Arthur tries to shut him up. Gawain’s retrieval of Saint Winifred’s skull is probably no stronger a basis for a system of government than is receiving Excalibur from a strange woman in a pond. Ultimately, Gawain’s own vision of what his life will become if he turns aside from the Green Knight’s challenge and rides home to inherit Arthur’s throne indicates his awareness of falling well short of any kind of ideal.
That resonated for me, as a former Gifted Kid who only recently has begun to make my peace with the notion that I’ll never live up to some vaguely defined potential. When reviewers have talked about modernizing the story, I think this might be what they mean: we look to old myths like this to tell us how to make something of our lives, because in the tangled forest of the everyday it’s difficult to make out any sort of clear path. How many of us have longed for an adventure to pluck us out of our days? Although Patel’s Gawain is more like Bilbo Baggins than an adventure-seeking knight–one gets the sense that he’d have been more than happy to stay living with his mother and sleeping with Essel if the Green Knight hadn’t come along. (Given his mother’s apparent role in that, one gets the impression that she’s been waiting for him to move out of the house for awhile now.)
I’m no medievalist but I wonder how modern this take really is–as though people centuries ago weren’t given to self-doubts and aimlessness of their own. On the other hand what happens on the screen is as weird as anything I ever read from that era, with the sense of an obscured logic that might not be obvious to an observer but that makes sense to itself. Both of the friends I watched it with pointed out that after a certain point, the entire movie could be a hallucination. Personally, having spent many days in the woods with minimal gear and even less food, I found myself relating to Gawain’s predicament, mushrooms or no mushrooms. (I’ve never encountered any giants, though, even though Sasquatch supposedly roams the woods where I routinely hike and camp. Something in us wants there to be something mysterious and inexplicable out there, even as it stands in for all our fears.)
I’ve also seen the film criticized for aimlessness or lacking focus, but if that’s not true to its protagonist for most of his journey, I don’t know what is. When asked why he’s on this quest at all, Gawain replies that it’s for honor–but Dev Patel’s delivery indicates that Gawain has only the vaguest idea of what that is. I don’t mean that he’s an intrinsically dishonorable character, but that he has no internal compass whatsoever. Though stories like this are usually in some sense about someone finding himself, Lowery is way more concerned with his protagonist’s interiority than we see in most fantasy movies–even Lord of the Rings, impressive achievement though it is, often struggled with this. Even then, it’s only close to the very end, with death seemingly imminent, that he finally reckons with himself.
For all that this last portion of the film is arguably the most different from its source material, I don’t think the difference is all that substantial. After all, in the poem, Gawain not only accepts the gift of the green girdle, he never reveals to the Green Knight that he has it. When he wears it back home to Camelot, it is, in a way, an emblem of his failure. When the other Knights of the Round Table take on green girdles of their own, it’s a reminder that they, too, have fallen short of the chivalric ideal.
And Gawain of the film? Lowery leaves us to guess. The Green Knight might well let him live, just as he does in the poem. Or he might cut off his head–and Gawain, without the magical sash, is unlikely to then pick up his head and ride back to Camelot with it. As the lady of the castle in the film points out, in a thematic speech that has been read by some as nihilistic, ultimately it doesn’t matter. The green will have us all eventually.
But until then? The Green Knight suggests that we have both more and less control over that than we might suppose. The Gawain of the film avoids the question of life and death by avoiding adventure, until he’s pushed into it by a mother who’s clearly concerned about whether he’s sensible enough to pour water out of a boot (considering how much of the movie he spends a) wet and b) without boots, she has some basis for concern). He might have stayed in bed. He might have sat there like the rest of Arthur’s knights, never answering the Green Knight’s challenge. He might not have sought out the Green Chapel. He might have gone home, neck and girdle intact, and lived out the future he saw for himself until it became unbearable. He does not. He arrives, as one review I read observes, at courage by way of self-doubt. Which is how a lot of us get there…if we do.
And once he does, he has a question for the Green Knight, before the final blow falls: “Is this all there is?” The Knight, seeming puzzled, replies, “What else should there be?” It’s a riddle in exchange for a riddle, and calls to my mind a response commonly made by a character who we’ll see soon in another literary adaptation for the screen, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. When asked by the newly dead if that’s all they get, Death replies: You get what everyone gets. You get a lifetime.
One year or fifty, that’s what Gawain gets.
And so do we.