Anyone who follows me on social media will have seen my excitement for David Lowery’s new film The Green Knight, an adaptation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a 14th century alliterative Middle English poem telling a strange gothic-comic tale of Gawain, King Arthur’s nephew and a favored knight of the round table, and his funny-not-funny beheading game with an uncanny Green Knight.
It is a weird, complex, ambiguous, delightful, and elusive poem. As with any translation, scholars must choose which tone to emphasize, and readers are spoiled for choice with different and complimentary approaches. There’s J.R.R. Tolkien’s standard scholarly edition and Bernard O’Donaghue’s straightforward near-prose which conveys the energy of the adventure. Marie Borroff’s Norton Critical Edition captures the high style of chivalric romance, and British Poet Laureate and Yorkshire native Simon Armitage emphasizes the evocative and misty Northern landscape. Verlyn Flieger’s recent comic play “The Bargain,” contained in Arthurian Voices, embraces the farcical sex comedy lurking not so subtly under the surface.
Lowery’s body of work increasingly shows that he is a filmmaker with his own particular concerns, and yet his concerns overlap with those of the Gawain Poet quite neatly. He is certainly interested in genre stories, having written and directed the Southern Gothic crime drama Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, the meditative A Ghost Story (which is exactly what it sounds like), and the children’s fantasies Pete’s Dragon and the forthcoming Peter Pan & Wendy (live-action remakes for Disney). It was such a relief to see the Green Knight trailer and realize that the director loves and respects fantasy, contrary to the recent trend of “true-story-behind-the-legend” adaptations which present neutered and mainstream versions of fantastic tales. His version of the Green Knight does all of these in turn. It has spooky ghosts; gory beheadings; steamy (and somewhat graphic) sex scenes; stunningly misty mountains and woodlands; and the pure fairy tale delight of a talking fox. And crucially, Lowery takes all of these marvels “seriously” (a virtue of the original poem praised by Tolkien in his essay “On Fairy-stories”).
Lowery’s remarkable short film Pioneer (which I recommend you watch when you’re done reading this — go on, it’s only 15 minutes) displays his knack with narrative ambiguity and his talent for creating arresting yet quietly intense scenes. In this short, a father tells his son (?) an epic, violent, and increasingly tall tale. Is the story true, in a literal sense, as the father’s narration implies? Given Lowery’s demonstrated love of fantasy, I’d like to think so. But given the brevity of the story and the intentional lack of external clues and context, ambiguity is clearly the point. The power of the story, and the skill of the storyteller, is all we’re given.
Lowery is emphatically a storyteller and a filmmaker, not a scholar (though the categories are by no means necessarily exclusive). He is not so much a translator as a transformer. The Green Knight is more a transformative work than an adaptation. While all of the films above contribute to make Lowery the perfect choice to depict the myriad tones of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, he doesn’t stop with merely dramatizing the poem as written but reshapes it into something new. It’s not a modernization, exactly. The film is too in love with its pseudo-medieval setting and art-house roots for that. But it is a pretty radical reshaping that makes The Green Knight a fundamentally different story than it source. On one level, as Tolkien argued in “On Fairy-stories,” this is true of every retold story:
We read that Beowulf “is only a version of Dat Erdmänneken”; that “The Black Bull of Norroway is Beauty and the Beast,” or “is the same story as Eros and Psyche”; that the Norse Mastermaid (or the Gaelic Battle of the Birds and its many congeners and variants) is “the same story as the Greek tale of Jason and Medea.” Statements of that kind may express (in undue abbreviation) some element of truth; but they are not true in a fairy-story sense, they are not true in art or literature. It is precisely the colouring, the atmosphere,the unclassifiable individual details of a story, and above all the general purport that informs with life the undissected bones of the plot, that really count. Shakespeare’s King Lear is not the same as Layamon’s story in his Brut. Or to take the extreme case of Red Riding Hood: it is of merely secondary interest that the retold versions of this story, in which the little girl is saved by wood-cutters, is directly derived from Perrault’s story in which she was eaten by the wolf. The really important thing is that the later version has a happy ending (more or less, and if we do not mourn the grandmother overmuch), and that Perrault’s version had not. And that is a very profound difference…
Every story is a new story, by virtue of the teller and her choices. However, this is more true than I was expecting of The Green Knight. I am typically not a “purist” when it comes to adaptation, and am pretty liberal about so-called deviations. But even going in with an open mind, I was surprised and at times shocked by some of Lowery’s choices. It’s taken me a few weeks since seeing the movie to sit down to gather my thoughts, and I think I’ll keep thinking about it and trying to work it out long after this blog post is published.
**Spoiler warning past this point.**
And so I’m of two minds. On the one hand, this transformation is the most Arthurian thing about the film. It’s become a slight cliche to refer to the collected body of Arthurian literature as “fanfiction,” but though an oversimplification, there is truth in the maxim. There is no original written source, no single definitive version. From Geoffrey of Monmouth to Guy Ritchie, each storyteller borrows, discards, remixes and blends freely at will, giving credit or not and caring little about fidelity to real or imagined sources. As things go, The Green Knight is on the more radical end of the spectrum. The elements are all there: Gawain as Arthur’s nephew, the beheading game, a wild and dangerous journey north, a mysterious castle full of temptations, a magical green girdle, a fox, a secluded chapel. Like Tolkien’s anthropologists above, some reviewers have looked at these superficial similarities and concluded that this is the same story, or at least a “faithful” retelling. But that would ignore the more fundamental shifts in the narrative.
Gawain is not the acknowledged champion of the Round Table but an untested (as Alissa Wilkinson points out, a “green”) knight eager to prove his worth through daring adventure. This seems especially important since, we’re told, he is also Arthur’s heir. Arthur and Guinevere are, in Lowery’s version, distinctly feeble and sickly, somewhat ineffectual though kindly. This dynamic is further complicated by the inclusion of Gawain’s mother, who, in Lowery’s tale, is the source of all the magical goings-on (presumably to help Gawain earn his kingly status). Lots of reviewers seem to have concluded that she is Morgan le Fay, the witchy mischief-maker in the poem. And while that seems a reasonable conclusion, I wondered if she might not be Arthur’s other sister, and Gawain’s mother in other sources, Morgause. She is of course equally magical, already linked to Gawain, and particularly associated with sexual temptation, especially in Malory and T.H. White where she uses magic to seduce her half-brother Arthur, begetting the bastard Mordred and sowing the seeds of Arthur’s death and the downfall of his kingdom. Though she is not presented as evil, per se, I got strong Queen of Air and Darkness vibes from the mother’s mystical pagan rituals. Did Lowery stumble his way into these associations, or is he making these allusions intentionally? It’s hard to know, since none of these Arthurian characters, apart from Gawain, are named as such. In the credits, they’re all King, Queen, Mother, Magician, etc. The result is a little baffling though undeniably interesting. It’s hard to know what someone unfamiliar with Arthurian legends would make of this oddball film that almost free associates images and ideas and refuses to explain itself.
My opinion kept shifting throughout the film regarding whether these changes work. As with Morgause/Morgan, the question kept occurring to me: Are these choices deliberate or accidental? Lady Bertilak weighs in favor of intentional deviation and design when she says of her library of copied manuscripts that, when she finds “room for improvements,” she makes them. The Lady is linked to the filmmaker not only through this mischievous statement but in her portrait or Gawain which appears to be a type of photograph. So she is, in some sense, the voice of the author. (Of course she’s also the Mother, making the temptation scene even weirder, magically manipulating things behind the scenes.) On the side of chaos is the King Arthur actor’s bizarre pronunciation of Gawain’s name as “Gar-win,” which Lowery said he left in just because. So Lowery is clearly not opposed to letting things just happen.
The three temptations in the Bertilaks’ castle, with their parallel hunts and attempted beheadings, are blended and truncated to an extent that I found quite disappointing. The neat and satisfying structure of the poem is its most impressive feature, and the story loses some pleasure for me when that structure is messed with. Here, I suspect that Lowery either does not understand or does not appreciate the original poem’s concern with knightly Christian virtue and Gawain’s resistance (or not) to temptation. Which is a bummer, as it’s kind of the whole point of the original. The girdle is introduced much earlier, is stolen for a while, and its ultimate significance is utterly changed. While Dev Patel is charmingly befuddled throughout the film (Lowery does capture the wonderful randomness of medieval romance) there is, ironically, less of a coherent sense of whether he is passing any of these tests. (Apart from the end, but we’ll get to that.) It is perhaps not surprising that a modern film has more opaque morality, but I can’t pretend I didn’t miss the clarity of the poem. Though the poem is not without its ambiguous points and sharp edges, the orderly structure holds a power that I think is lost in Lowery’s more meandering rendition.
Much more successful is Gawain’s journey north, where the text leaves ample room for Lowery to invent and fill in gaps. The poet tells us that Gawain was beset by many more adventures than he has room to tell, and you can feel Lowery’s gleeful excitement as he comes up with these untold tales. There’s Barry Keoghan’s nasty Scavenger. A brief mention of giants is expanded into a very original and thrilling sequence. The fox gets an expanded role. Most interestingly, there’s a whole episode with the decapitated ghost of Saint Winifred (which suggests that Lowery actually does know his sources better than we might think). I’m not even sure what this means and why this is here — surely the beheading motif is significant — but again, it has the feel of a chance encounter met by a knight errant on a quest for aventure.
Then we get to the Green Chapel, at which point I gave up even guessing where the story was going. In a nearly silent sequence, Gawain patiently waits all night for the awakening of the Green Knight, flinches through a few false-start beheadings (Patel’s grief and fear are particularly poignant here), and then flashes forward into an extended dream-vision of Gawain’s life if he fails the test and runs away, if he chooses safety and cowardice over honor. Alissa Wilkinson convincingly connected this sequence to Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ. It’s a pretty harrowing portrait of empty ambition and, to quote Tolkien’s fairy story essay once again, “endless serial living.” Gawain becomes king, steals his lover’s baby, and finally (in probably the most stunning and memorable moment of the film) removes the green girdle, causing his head to topple off his shoulders. It’s a shocking and bracing moment depicting an old and satisfying fairy tale message: Life is found in the willingness to risk death. He who would save his life must lose it. Only the bad guys choose physical immortality above everything else. Gawain’s sash is his One Ring, his Horcrux, his Giant’s Heart. In horror at this vision, Gawain takes off the sash before the third and final blow (a small but crucial distinction from the poem). The Green Knight (his Mother? David Lowery?) is pleased: “Well done, my brave knight. Now, off with your head.” Cut to credits.
Will Gawain literally lose his head? What does it even mean to lose one’s head in Lowery’s film? I couldn’t tell you. Fairy stories, Tolkien tells us, should have a eucatastrophe and a happy ending. We could assume that the Green Knight will spare Gawain, praise his bravery, and send him home to be celebrated and adored, as it happens in the poem. That Gawain will live happily ever after, though chastened and a little ashamed by his failures. But that would be a big assumption. This is a different story. As with Pioneer, we’re not told where this story goes next, or what is true outside the frame. I’m still working through what I think happens in this story, and what it’s even about. I’m not sure where this film will sit with me over time: I could see it growing or shrinking in my estimation. In any case, I’m looking forward to many years of thinking it through, and of seeing what others make of it.