Chivalry and Medieval Ambiguity in The Green Knight


The Green Knight is finally out in theatres, answering a question long posed by medievalists, to medievalists: if you got a couple of medieval kids a camera and a union card what would they shoot?

The answer? Something very much like this film.

[Note: This article contains spoilers for the film.]

The Green Knight is not a 100% faithful rendition of a late 14th century chivalric romance in Middle English, but it does feel like the Gawain poet and David Lowery both looked at some ur-source and, while working with the some of the same facts—Gawain is the nephew of King Arthur; he cuts off the head of a strange Green Knight who rides into Camelot at Christmas; a year later Gawain travels to receive a blow in turn and spends time at a castle where he must exchange his winnings with the lord of the manor—they each took away different ideas about this story and what it means. In the poem, all is explained at the end, Gawain learns the importance of being honest and brave, and a line written in a later hand tries to clarify the moral even further by writing “Honi soit qui mal y pense,” insinuating that this is the founding myth of the Order of the Garter. Lowrey and his team do something fascinatingly different from most films on Arthurian subjects: when they change something, it’s not to clarify, but to lean into ambiguity.

Take the title, for example. The original is Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. You have your protagonist and antagonist clearly delineated, set at opposite ends of the line. The film, however, is called The Green Knight, and goes out of its way to establish Gawain as young—so young that he isn’t yet a knight and, when asked by his uncle King Arthur to tell a story about himself so that Arthur can know him better, Gawain cannot think of anything to say. Gawain is himself green. He’s without experience, and the culmination of his hero’s journey is becoming a knight—so even at the end of the film, with its ambiguous ending, if he is knighted, then he never gets a chance to be anything but a green knight. Is the titular character the wooden man who galloped into Camelot (whom I’ve mentally dubbed Sir Groot), or is it Sir Gawain? This collapse of protagonist and antagonist makes the hero’s journey even more explicitly internal and establishes Gawain as his own worst enemy in both a moral and a practical sense. He rides off on his first quest bearing the instrument of his own execution—the axe—and the means of his own downfall—the green girdle.

The green girdle is another change that defies easy explanation. In the original poem, Gawain first sees the girdle on his hostess, Lady Bertilak, when he arrives at the castle near the Green Chapel. Here it is created and given to him by his mother, here Morgan le Fae. (Another change—in the poem, Morgan le Fae disguises herself as an old woman who keeps Lady Bertilak company and sent the Green Knight to frighten Guinevere to death. And, though it varies myth by myth, Gawain is usually the son of Arthur’s other sister, Morgause. In the film, Morgan le Fae’s actions are much more ambiguous and it is never really explained if the Green Knight was an attack on Guinevere that went wrong, and Morgan makes the girdle as a way to save her son from the misuse of her power, or if Morgan sent the Green Knight as a way to get her son to grow up.)

The film version of Gawain wears the green girdle out of Camelot, until it is stolen by bandits, and he only sees it again when Lady Bertilak comes into his room intent on testing his virtue. Gawain fails this test twice: first, when submitting to her advances in exchange for the girdle, and then again when he fails to give it to his host in the exchange of winnings he agreed to earlier in his stay. He becomes so attached to the girdle thereafter that he has a vision about who he would be if he still clung to it and what it represents: safety from harm, but more importantly, escape from negative consequences of one’s actions. The dishonorable version of Gawain who flees from the Green Knight’s third blow becomes an old, unpopular king estranged from his lover, whose family either dies or abandons him in battle, and who, in the end, loses his head all the same. After this vision, Gawain once again deviates from the poem. Instead of being caught out and slightly nicked by the Green Knight, and then wearing the green girdle forever after as a badge of his cowardice, Gawain takes it off and submits to the final blow, causing the Green Knight to praise his bravery and the film to end.

Does Gawain die, or merely this version of him—the callow youth who spends his time carousing and cringing away from the consequences of his actions? What happens? What does it mean?

But by opening up that space of ambiguity, and refusing to give clear answers, the medieval mindset becomes something to be explored and experienced, rather than something to be observed with detachment. How, for example, should one navigate a world where paganism and Christianity coexist without contradiction? One side of Gawain’s shield bears the image of the Chrsitian Madonna and child; on the other, a pentagram. Witches and saints both spur him along on his hero’s journey. Morgan le Fae is apparently such a well known magical practitioner that Gawain gets into tavern brawls about her reputation and—in a section not found in the original poem—a Christian martyr, St. Winifred, introduces a side quest. (Interestingly the places in Wales where St. Winifred was decapitated is traditionally considered to be a place Gawain passed through on his way to the green chapel.) Ritualistic pagan sorcery, by Morgan and her two ladies-in-waiting, starts Gawain on his quest, but the first truly knightly task Gawain completes is at the behest of St. Winifred, who asks him to retrieve her skull from a well and reunite it with the rest of her skeleton. And even though the green girdle, with its pagan spells woven into the fabric, plays so vital a role, Gawain’s arc, and the film itself, ends in a Christian chapel, where Gawain must be ready to die as a result of his misdeeds—for, as Christianity would have it, the wages of sin are death. But through the embrace of virtue (such as tossing aside the green girdle), and belief, one might find eternal life. Can this life after death be proven? It hasn’t yet—which is why the ambiguous end of the film so captures the essence of the medieval worldview. While you are alive, witches can ruin your life from afar, saints and chapels can provoke visions that make you question the nature of your reality, death is really the only constant.

Death was far more familiar to the medieval person than the modern one, as might be expected in a pre-germ theory world where people lived much closer to the animals that provided their meals, and warfare was more common. One popular late medieval artistic genre was the danse macabre, where the dead, or a personification of death, leads everyone from every station into a dance ending at the grave. Death is always a possibility for Gawain, particularly in his visions. When he is kidnapped, tied up, and then abandoned in a forest, the camera spins in a slow circle—perhaps an homage to another favorite medieval device, the wheel of fortune—until it comes across a skeleton, still tied up, dressed in Gawain’s clothes. When, after this, Gawain finds a bed in an abandoned house for the night, he later sees that he shares it with the skeleton of St. Winifred. His vision in the Green Chapel likewise encompasses the deaths of a number of his loved ones, as well as of himself. But with death an inescapable constant that comes for king and beggar alike, and life a chaotic place where it’s not inconceivable that a fox can speak with your mother’s voice, warning you to turn back, how do you navigate it?

For those at the top of the very stratified medieval world, this answer was chivalry. With power concentrated in the hands of a very select few, and those few hands also holding all the most dangerous and effective weapons of the era, the likelihood of the misuse of power was very high. Chivalry, at its most basic, required those with the most power (those with horses, from the French chevalerie) to adhere by a code of conduct that placed a man’s honor as his most important quality; required him to fight for his king, his country, his church, and his dependants, against injustice; and be honest and brave in his dealings with all. Gawain’s last vision is a long examination of what his life would look like if he rejects the code of chivalry… and the results for both himself and his kingdom? Death. Chivalry therefore unites the promise of Christianty—a way for virtuous living to defeat death—with a means of navigating a chaotic world over which you have very little control. Though the original poem promotes chivalry as the means to navigate an inconstant world, the film is more critical. Gawain misuses his power over the Green Knight, who bows his head in Camelot, by cutting off the Green Knight’s head instead of merely nicking him or tapping him. The chivalric game of the exchange of winnings, which took up so much of the poem and three days of Gawain’s time before he faces the Green Knight, are here collapsed into a single day. St. Winifred chides Gawain for asking what she will give him when, as a knight adhering to the code of chivalry, he ought to volunteer to help her without any kind of repayment. And yet many of the characters in Camelot—including Gawain’s mother—accept it as a given that should Gawain act honorably, he will die. Even Gawain seems to conflate honor with greatness, and as his lover Essel asks, “Why is goodness not enough?”

By removing chivalry as the answer and making it part of the question, the film is a medieval morality play with the moral missing. However, as the often controversial D.H. Lawrence wrote, “When the novelist puts his thumb in the scale, to pull down the balance to his own predilection, that is immorality.” What The Green Knight gives us is moral by this definition, and something we don’t often get, and which asks quite a lot from its viewers: art with the thumb off the scale. It resists telling us, as earlier takes on Arthurian legend might, that chivalry is the answer to life’s challenges. If shows us, instead, why this specific person, in this specific circumstance, chose chivalry: because when confronted with the inescapability of death, he cannot bear to become the person he would be, if he turned his back on honor and avoided the consequences of the misuse of his power. For a character so concerned about controlling outcomes that he refuses to take off his mother’s magic girdle, misuses his sexuality to re-acquire it, and (in a vision) keeps it on until the moment of his death, to have the last outcome be unknowable is both a victory and the ultimate defeat. And for the viewer, it gives them the opportunity to exist in the same world a medieval person would, where magic is real and Death is your constant companion. It gives you the chance to ask, given this understanding of the world, what would you choose?

Elyse Martin is a Chinese-American Smith College graduate who lives in Washington DC with her husband and two cats. She writes reviews for Publishers Weekly, and her work has appeared in Slate, The Toast, Electric Literature, Perspectives on History, The Bias, Entropy Magazine, Publishers Weekly, and Smithsonian Magazine. She spends most of her time writing and making atrocious puns—sometimes simultaneously—and tweets @champs_elyse. She’s at work on several novels, and a medieval middle grade graphic novel with Sean Rubin.

Sean studied Art and Archeology at Princeton University, where he met his wife, Lucy. They have two boys and live in Charlottesville, Virginia, where they spend a lot of time building LEGO robots and rambling in the woods. Sean Rubin is a writer and illustrator of comics and children’s books. He is best known for his Eisner-nominated graphic novel, Bolivar, and for his first self-authored picture book, This Very Tree. Sean tweets and instragrams @seancrubin. He’s at work on several picture books, and a medieval middle grade graphic novel with Elyse Martin.


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