Sir Gawain and The Green Knight Book vs Movie

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**Warning: Spoilers for both book and movie!**

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by Unknown (1300s) Verse translation by Keith Harrison

The Green Knight directed by David Lowery (2021)

I know I’m posting about this a little late considering it has already been out for over a month. Ideally, I would be posting this a week or less after the movie was released. The reason I am posting it late is because I had actually no intention of covering this movie! I knew about its upcoming release and was interested in seeing it because I enjoy Arthurian movies, and I seem to recall seeing it was based on a poem. Yet, I did not at all plan on reading the poem and comparing the two. Until I saw the movie. I saw it a few weeks after it was released and was surprised how much I loved it! Yet even then, I didn’t plan on covering it because my weeks up to the end of October were already full and I didn’t feel like shuffling things around. Then I came to discover the movie Flag Day was only given a limited release and it wasn’t being shown in the city I live in. Since I now had an open week, I figured why not use it as an opportunity to talk about this awesome movie! Plus, the poem it’s based on is like a short story, so it was nice to cover something that wasn’t very time consuming as far as the book is concerned.

Synopsis

Before I get into a synopsis and then into full on spoilers, I want to let you know, once again, that I loved this movie. It is very mystical and has a creepiness to it wasn’t expecting, but it wasn’t scary. I went into it knowing basically nothing about the story, and I think that’s a great way to watch this movie! Everything, even things that may be considered common knowledge, came as a surprise! When there is a movie I know I want to see, I avoid trailers at all costs, because I want to know as little as possible! So many trailers give far too much away, especially this one! I watched it after the fact, and so much is revealed! So, if you are listening to this and debating if you want to watch the movie, turn this off and go watch it now! Then come back and listen to this to help you better appreciate the film!

Okay, now for a brief synopsis. Gawain’s mother, Morgan le Fay, has the Green Knight approach King Arthurs court and challenges them to a blow in return for a blow. Meaning, a man can strike the Green Knight, and then a year and a day later, the Green Knight will get to strike the man in return. Sounds kind of silly, but there you have it.

Gawain rises to the challenge and beheads the Green Knight, only to have the knight pick up his head and tells him to meet him in a year and a day at the Green Chapel, where the Green Knight will return the blow. A year later, Gawain sets off on his quest to find the Green Chapel and face his fate of most likely being beheaded.

Thoughts on the book

No one knows who actually wrote this poem, and though it was written sometime in the 1300’s, it wasn’t titled and published till 1839. The style of poetry isn’t one done today, and is called long-line alliterative verse, with a rhyming “bob and wheel” that divides it into stanzas. It is written more like a novel with the story and perspectives it has. The version I read started with a section talking about the poem and its history written by literary scholar, Helen Cooper. There is a quote which reads, “The language of a novel, however, could never match the powerful rhythms and muscular texture of its alliterative verse, which the smoother patterns of modern English cannot reproduce in prose and only with difficulty in poetry.”

To give an example of its writing style, here is a section that is talking about the passing of the year. (Which is shown in the movie through use of the wheel at the puppet show).

“Each new season turning in its time: After Christmas, the crabbed fasting-time of Lent When people eat fish for meat, and simple fare. Then the world’s fresh weather fights with winter: Cold shrinks into the ground, clouds rise; Warm rain shuttles down in flashing showers Over the flatlands; flowers poke up, Fields and groves put on their freshest green; Birds start building, they call out loudly For the calm of summer that spreads its balm on alleys and slopes.  -Rich hawthorn-blossoms swell -And burst in rows; in the copse -New bird-sounds run, pell-mell, -Through the glorious full tree-tops.-And then broad summer, when balmy winds Out of the west breathe on bush and seed, And plants under a wide sky dance in joy; When dew gathers and slips in drops from wet leaves As they bask in the sumptuous beams of the bright sun. Then autumn, with sombre shadows striding towards Winter, warning the grain to grow to fullness. On dry days he drives the rising dust Up from the folding fields, where it spirals high. In the huge heavens, winds wrestle with the sun; Tawny leaves are ripped from the linden tree And lush grass in the field leans over, and greys. Whatever rose up earlier now ripens and rots; The year dwindles, all days seem yesterdays. Winter winds on as it will, as it has done of old. And when the Michaelmas moon Burns on the icy world Gawain fears he must soon Make his quest through the cold.”

As I said, I saw the movie before reading the poem so I kind of knew what to expect. The movie goes more in detail in some ways, yet there was a lot to the poem, and I really enjoyed reading it. It is a poem, but back in the day, a lot of stories were written as poems.

There is a lot of symbolism and metaphors here which I really liked. One example, when he is at the Lord and Lady’s house in the book, the wife enters his room three times and tempts him. Each time she tempts him, we are also told of the Lord and what he is hunting, and the scene is told from the perspective of the prey. The third time she tempts him is especially mirrored by the hunt, but we will get more into that later.

Overall, I really liked this poem. I remember reading Beowulf in high school as well as some Chaucer, I wish we would have read this as well! Though I haven’t read Chaucer or Beowulf since school; I should go and reread them and maybe I would like them just as much as Gawain.

Movie

Going into this episode, I unintentionally catered it to an audience that has seen the movie. I wrote this out in a nonlinear fashion, so if you are someone who hasn’t seen the movie, it may get confusing at times as I jump around. If you have read the poem, or are at least familiar with the story, that will help. But overall, this podcast is meant for those who have seen the movie and want to a better understanding of it and to know how it compares to the poem. All listeners are of course welcome, I just wanted to give that heads up.

David Lowery adapted the script, was the editor, and director! He seems very hands-on! This film was supposed to be released earlier, but with Covid it was pushed back. There are the financial reasons to wait for it to be able to be in theaters, but with this I think seeing it in theaters helps to really transport you. That’s the benefit of theaters in general, but this film feels like such a journey and I loved feeling so “in” the movie. There was little CGI in this, and they used a lot of old school movie magic and prosthetics. To film some of the wide shots, Lowery also used the matte paint method. In the image below, the people on the outskirts are actually painted in.

Acting

Dev Patel is in the lead role of Gawain, and if you have listened to my episode on Slumdog Millionaire or the movie Lion, you will know I love Patel! I think he is a great actor, and I absolutely loved his acting in this. If he doesn’t get an Oscar nomination, I’ll be so bummed.

Alicia Vikander is someone I don’t think I have talked about here, which is a shame because she is such a fantastic actress. Here is has two roles, Essel, Gawain’s girlfriend who doesn’t have a high social standing and The Lady, who later tempts him. As Essel she has this kind of over the top accent, which kind of bugged me a tad. Then, when we see her as The Lady, it made sense she was using that accent as a way to further differentiate between the two.

Joel Edgerton is the Lord, and he is great portraying this sort of weird, eerie guy who seems to help Gawain, while also testing him. Egerton said that Lowery had him watch videos on YouTube of drunk British actors on talk shows, which is funny yet fitting.

Sarita Choudhury is Gawain’s mother, Morgan le Fay. She is a great actress, initially she wasn’t in as much of the movie but as they were filming, Lowery just kept wanting more of her in it.

Sean Harris and Kate Dickie play King Arthur and Guinevere. They are old and aging, and initially I found them kind of creepy looking. Yet, they each bring a warmth and sincerity to their roles.

There is so much to get into here, I don’t know where to start! I guess I will start at the beginning.

Morgan le Fay

In both, we learn that Morgan le Fay is behind the whole thing. She is Arthur’s sister in both and was taught magic and witchcraft by Merlin. In Arthurian lore, she is Gawain’s aunt, but in the movie, they made her Gawain’s mother instead.

The character or le Fay was, “invented by Geoffrey of Monmouth for his Vita Merlini, where she is a shape-shifter skilled in the arts of  healing, she is given her place in the Arthurian orbit by Chrétien, who makes her Arthur’s sister (and so also sister to Gawain’s own mother—both are later re-defined as Arthur’s half-sisters, born to his mother by her first  husband); the prose romances degrade her into an evil enchantress, with a particular hatred of Guinevere.” In the movie we never see she has anything against Guinevere.

In the poem, The Lord, who is named Bertilak, tells him how and why he is the Green Knight, telling Gawain, “Through the power of Morgan le Fay, part of my menage— By her wiles in witchcraft and her cleverness She has mastered magic skills once kept by Merlin, For it is well known that long ago she fell in love With that wise wizard…”

He tells Gawain that she is back at the castle, and that she was the old woman who was with The Lady. He invited Gawain back to say hello to her, but he says he is going to go straight home instead.

In the movie, there is the old woman has a gauzy bandage around her eyes, which is what we see Morgan le Fay wearing earlier. This is what clues us into the fact that the old woman is his mother watching him. Either because she is watching over him in a motherly way or watching him to make sure he does what he is supposed to isn’t made clear.

I read in one review that this movie is all about a mother’s love. Le Fay has this whole thing happen, so Gawain can come home with honor and prove his worth and help him become a knight, then later maybe even king. Another said that Le Fay is disappointed in her son, so she sends him on this quest to get him to shape up. Either way, I suppose it is done out of love.

When we are introduced to the Green knight in the movie, the scene is cut between what is happening with the Green Knight at the round table, with Morgan Le Fay and her sisters casting the spell. David Lowery said they filmed the spell casting scene later, because originally, he wasn’t going to make it so obvious that it was her doing. He said this scene took the longest to edit and he was working on it for a year before he was satisfied with the outcome, as it cuts back and forth.

The Christmas Game

Reading this story in our day and age, this whole Christmas Game may not make much sense. However, it was common back then. This is the first time a “beheading game” is talked about though.

I was realizing though, these “blow for blow” challenges from back then, are still done today. How many times have you and someone else been like, you can do this thing to me, then I get to do it to you. If the second person chickens out, the other person would get upset and find that person untrustworthy or disingenuous. The challenge may not be given as formally as it is in this story, but we still do it today, nonetheless.

Gawain

The movie shows Gawain to be much more “flawed” than he was in the original story. For one, in the movie he isn’t yet a knight but in the book he is. As we will discuss later, he fails at many of the tests a knight is supposed to have passed. The movie also shows him missing Mass, whereas in the book he always attended. Before he leaves on his journey, the woman he has been seeing, named Essel, asks him to call her his lady but he won’t. He is seeing her exclusively, yet isn’t willing to fully commit to her, probably because she isn’t of noble birth. The beginning makes it seem like she may be a prostitute because they are in a brothel, but if she is, it isn’t said outright.

In the poem, he has already proven his knighthood, and when the Green Knight asks for someone to take his proposition, Gawain says humbly to King Arthur, “I am the weakest and the least in wit; Loss of my life is therefore of little account. I am, by birth, your nephew; besides that, nothing. My one virtue, your blood that runs in my veins. Since this affair’s so foolish and unfit for you And since I asked soonest, please leave it to me.”

When the year passes and it is time for Gawain to find the Green Chapel, in the movie he hadn’t planned on going, saying to Arthur, “But I thought it was just a Christmas game.” Whereas in the poem, he stays true to the bargain. “After the meal, in gloomy mood, Gawain came to the king Concerning his journey, and said straight out: ‘It is time, my lord, to take my leave of you. You know what it’s about, and I’ll not bother you With all my difficulties, and the small details. I’m duty bound to depart tomorrow, without delay, To get my blow from the man in green, as God decrees.’”

When other knights question why he going to face the fate of being beheaded it reads, “Gawain put on good cheer. ‘Why should I hesitate?’ ‘He said. ‘Kind or severe, We must engage our fate.’”

Though in the poem, once he leaves the other knights mourn his leaving and say similar to what Gawain says in the movie, “Whoever heard of a king heeding the counsel of capricious knights in the nonsense of Christmas games?”

Even in the book though, Gawain shows he has his weaknesses. In Arthurian stories, Arthur and Lancelot are shown as supiorior knights. Helen Cooper says, “It is Lancelot who is the central character after Arthur himself (or even in preference to Arthur) in the great Vulgate cycle of French prose romances, of the thirteenth century, where Gawain slips even further down the ethical and chivalric scale, to the point where he often functions as an antitype of good knighthood.”

In the poem, Gawain does have a character arc. He starts this quest speaking humbly of himself, then when he returns, he truly is humbled by his downfalls and is less prideful. In the movie I think his arc is even more pronounced because he failed much more often than the poem version did. When he finally makes the right decision, it feels very pleasing to see him realize what is truly important.

The Pentacle/Pentangle

In the book, it specifically describes the star that all the knight wear, called the Pentangle. It is considered a “token of truth” and when one wore it, it was a public display of their virtues, all of which a knight must possess. The five virtues it symbolizes are, generosity, good fellowship, purity, courtesy and compassion.

In the movie, we see the knights wearing these, but it is never directly spoken of. When you go into the movie knowing these five virtues knight must prove, you can see that each person/task he comes across is testing one of these five virtues and he fails each time.

The Journey

In the poem, almost nothing is said of Gawain’s travels until he reaches the castle of The Lord and Lady. Another quote by Helen Cooper reads, “Knights are usually tested in armour on the battlefield rather than naked in bed, as Gawain is, or at least in combat with those dragons and boars that are either dismissed by the poet in half a line or fought by someone other than his hero.”

This does make the poem unique. All the book says about his journey is, “It’s hard to tell a tenth part of them all. Sometimes he wars with dragons, or with wolves; With wodwos, who watched him from woodland crags; With bulls and bears; sometimes with savage boars, And giants from the high fells, who followed him. Had he not been brave and sturdy, not served God, He would have died, been destroyed many times.” Fighting a dragon or wolf and showing his bravery and physical abilities isn’t the focus here. Rather, focusing on where his heart is at, as he is tested in his bed chamber. Very rare for a story of a knight to not focus on the seemingly more exciting battles.

A quick word on the giants though. In the movie, he does come across giants. He asks them if he can hitch a ride with them, that way he will arrive to his destination and not have to put much work in. The fox though howls and sends the giants away. Also, when the giant tries to pick Gawain up, he flinches away anyhow. The phrase, on the shoulders of giants obviously comes to mind. Gawain doesn’t want to put the work in and instead wants to rely on the work of others.

The movie, unlike the poem, does show what he faces on the way, and as said above, each one is a test of one of the chivalric codes.

Scavengers

The first test he comes across is the young man who is scavenging among the dead bodies. He strikes up a conversation with Gawain, who doesn’t say much in reply. He does ask the man if he knows the way to the Green Chapel and the guy gives him directions. Gawain merely thanks him, and the scavenger, who is clearly poor, has to basically beg for payment. This is a test of generosity which Gawain fails. Even when he finally gives payment, it isn’t much at all.

The main scavenger is played by Barry Keoghan and he is so off-putting and unsettling in his mannerisms, especially when they have Gawain tied up. Makes me want to watch more with him. I’ve read that he is incredibly off-putting in The Killing of a Sacred Deer, which I haven’t yet seen.

St. Winifred

When he gets free from the binds the scavengers leave him in, he comes across an abandoned house. He is then approached by a ghost named Winifred who says she needs him to retrieve her head from the bottom of the lake. Gawain is very polite, however, before diving into the lake, he asks her what’s in it for him in exchange for helping her. By having this attitude, he fails in having courtesy.

The Lady

Staying at the house of The Lord and Lady happens in both book and movie. I’ll start with the movie. He is left alone with The Lady who happens to be played by Vikander, who also plays Essel. This could be done to make the temptation even harder for him. They spend the day together and she gives him a book, of which she has many, which he accepts. She also does a painting of him. The next morning, she is in his bedroom and asks why he didn’t go into her chambers. He says he wanted to, but he shouldn’t. She tempts him right there, and he says again that he shouldn’t. She then shows him the sash and tells him it will protect him from harm and asks if he wants it. He says yes, and this scene goes on for like 30 seconds and is very sexual as she asks him if he wants the sash. He ends up finishing, if you know what I mean, and she tells him “you are no knight”.

Vikander as Essel on the left, and The Lady on the right

In the book there were a lot of other people staying at the castle. During the day, while The Lord was hunting, Gawain was hanging out with all the other people, rather than spending the day with just her like he did in the movie.

He stays there three nights, and the first two mornings she enters his room, she tries to seduce him. They do have one kiss each morning, and then they talk. The book says, “The lady lured him on, enticing him to sin. But he held himself back so well no blemish appeared. There was no sin on either side…”

The third morning she is dressed in more revealing clothes and offers him a ring which he refuses. She then offers the green sash, or girdle. She tells him it will protect him, and he gives in and accepts it. Up until this point he has been honest with The Lord. But when receiving the girdle it reads, “The knight, pondering her words, now began to wonder If it might be a talisman in his terrible plight When he came to the Green Chapel to get his gains: Maybe death could be foiled with this marvellous device! Patient now as she pressed him, he allowed her to speak. She gave him the girdle once more, most eagerly. He accepted, and she granted the gift with goodwill And besought him, for her sake, never to uncover it But loyally to conceal it from her lord. He conceded: No one will know except themselves, no matter what the price. He thanked her, time and again, For her gift and her advice. By then she had kissed Gawain The hardy, not once, but thrice.”

Each time he is tempted by her, the hunt is shown and the first two times The Lord easily kills the prey. Just as Gawain easily stays strong against temptation. However, the last hunt is a fox which is more cunning and is a harder prey to catch. Just as this third temptation is a harder one to say no to. The hunting scenes are unique because it is told from the perspective of the prey.

“Scholars have frequently noted the parallels between the three hunting scenes and the three seduction scenes in Gawain. They are generally agreed that the fox chase has significant parallels to the third seduction scene, in which Gawain accepts the girdle from Bertilak’s wife. Gawain, like the fox, fears for his life and is looking for a way to avoid death from the Green Knight’s axe. Like his counterpart, he resorts to trickery to save his skin. The fox uses tactics so unlike the first two animals, and so unexpectedly, that Bertilak has the hardest time hunting it. Similarly, Gawain finds the Lady’s advances in the third seduction scene more unpredictable and challenging to resist than her previous attempts. She changes her evasive language, typical of courtly love relationships, to a more assertive style. Her dress, relatively modest in earlier scenes, is suddenly voluptuous and revealing.”

The movie doesn’t show the hunt, instead, on the first day is shows a painting of a fox hunt and then later shows a painting of a man being hunted; showing the parallel in the two.

The Lord

In the poem, The Lord seems like a happy guy and he and the others in his castle were excited about having a knight of the Round Table stay with them. It says of them, “And presented themselves without ado because all virtue, Excellence, strength and good breeding belonged To this reputable person, praised everywhere, Whose honour was held highest before all men. And each man said quietly to his companion: ‘Now we shall see a marvellous show of manners, And learn from the intricate turns of his conversation; Without even seeking we’ll see just what Good talk can be, for the prince of courtesy walks Among us. Surely God has showered his grace On us in granting us a guest such as Gawain At the season when all on earth sing the birth of God above!” In the movie too, they have heard of Gawain because talk of him beheading the Green Knight has spread.

While hanging out that first evening, The Lord excitedly proposes a bargain between he and Gawain, ‘let’s settle on a bargain. Whatever I win at hunting will henceforth be yours; And you, in turn, will yield whatever you earn. There, my fine fellow, swear on it truly, Whether we win or lose” The first two mornings the only thing Gawain receives, which he then needs to give to The Lord, is a kiss he receives from The Lady.

After the first morning of temptation, and the first day of hunting, when The Lord and Gawain reunite Gawain is impressed with the day’s kill. The Lord says, “‘I give them all to you, Gawain,’ was the lord’s answer, ‘Our contract agrees you can claim them as your own.’ ‘That’s right,’ he replied, ‘and I say the same to you. What I have won with all honour, here in your hall, Is yours indeed, as we agreed. I give it with goodwill.’ Now he clasps him with both arms around the neck And kisses him as courteously as he can. ‘There, take my trophies for I got no more than that, Had they been greater I’d gladly give them to you.’ ‘That’s very fine,’ replied the lord, ‘Many thanks, but maybe They were greater—so I wish you would tell me where, With your subtlety, you won such a wonderful prize.’ ‘That’s not part of the pact,’ he said, ‘ask me no more. You’ve received what’s yours. That’s all, you may rest assured.’”

This happens the second day as well because once again, Gawain and The Lady kissed, so he once again kisses The Lord.

In the movie, Gawain hurriedly leaves after receiving the girdle, and on his way out passes The Lord. In the movie they had made that same bargain, and The Lord asks if there is nothing Gawain needs to give him and Gawain says no. The Lord says that there is, and then kisses Gawain. When I saw this the first time, not having read the poem, this seemed odd. I thought The Lord and Lady were each desiring him, but I now assume Lowery was including this since it was in the poem? It also does just add to the weirdness of his stay there.

Gawain not keeping his bargain with The Lord to give him whatever he may receive in the house, is him failing in good fellowship. Then in the movie, he also ejaculates which shows his failure in purity/chastity. The way he treats Essel before leaving, not claiming her as someone he would marry, then again denying her in front of The Lady could be seen as him lacking the fifth virtue of compassion.

The Green Girdle/Sash

In the movie, Morgan le Fay is the one who firsts gave him the girdle, and it is then stolen by the scavenger. It is later given to him by The Lady. I don’t really know why Lowery had Gawain’s mother give it to him first.

The green sash has a lot of symbolic meaning. For starters, you can compare it to the Pentangle. The Pentangle is an endless knot that can’t be undone, whereas the sash can be tied and untied showing that it isn’t as firm. The sash also represents witchcraft and magic, whereas the Pentangle represents honor and Christianity. In the poem it clearly states Gawain’s belief in the girdle, which shows his lack of faith and placing his life above his honor, “But he wore the green belt not for its beauty Nor for its pendants, all neatly polished, Nor for the gold that glinted on its end-knots, But to save himself when it behoved him to suffer And stand defenceless against death when he met that man again.”

In the movie, the sash is made by le Fay, so we can assume it did have magical qualities. In the poem though, we can assume it was just normal clothe because there is nothing to prove it would have actually saved him. Quite the contrary, giving it up is what would have saved him.

In the book, accepting this and not giving it to The Lord as he promised, is his only failure in the story. This makes this story unique, for as Helen Cooper says, “it is commonplace for a knight to commit some kind of failure early in his quest and then to atone for it and move beyond it… but Gawain’s discovery of his fault is itself the climactic moment of his quest, when atonement is not an option within the story.”

When he returns to Camelot, contrite about what has happened, it is contrasted with his elaborate, seemingly humble speech at the beginning of the story.  “He returns sadder, wiser and deeply humiliated. His kinship with Arthur had seemed a guarantee of excellence, of everything that separates the civilization of the court from the huge and alien green figure who disrupts the feast; his equal kinship with Morgan insists that, whatever it is that the Green Knight represents, it is as deeply in his blood as Arthur’s courtliness and nobility.” He now feels true humility and views the sash as a sign of his shame and faults.

Before leaving The Green Knight, Gawain tells him “‘As for your girdle,’ said Gawain, ‘God reward you, I shall bear it with the best will—not for its gleaming gold, Not for its fine-knotted cloth, nor its many pendants, Not because of its cost or its handsome handiwork—  But I shall see it always, as a sign of my fault Wherever I ride, remembering with remorse, in times of pride  How feeble is the flesh, how petty and perverse. What a pestilent hutch and house of plagues it is, Inviting filth! And, if my vanity flare up, When I see this love-lace it will humble me.”

When back at the court he tells them something very similar, ‘Look, my lord,’ he said, touching the love-token. ‘This band belongs with the wound I bear on my neck: Sign of the harm I’ve done, and the hurt I’ve duly received For covetousness and cowardice, for succumbing to deceit. It is a token of untruth and I am trapped in it And must wear it everywhere while my life lasts. No one can hide, without disaster, a harmful deed. What’s done is done and cannot be undone.’

His fellow knights admire his humility and honesty for this, and they decide to all wear green girdles similar to his so that they may all be reminded of the fallibility of men and to help them stay true to their oaths.

In the movie, when at the Green Chapel he becomes cowardice and runs away. He returns to Camelot and there is a 15 minute segment that has no talking and it is showing how his life turned out, due to his cowardly act and lying about it upon his return. He never takes off the sash and wears it always. Symbolizing his secret shame about what he has done. It shows him with Essel and he isn’t able to look her in the face, even when it shows them having sex he isn’t able to look at her face. She has their baby, which he takes and abandons her. As time passes, he is an unloved king and the people throw stuff at him. His son dies in battle and at the end his castle is being taken over by enemies. Oh, and he became king when Arthur died since he was the next of kin. Anyway, as he is waiting for the enemies to enter, he looks down and finally removes the green sash, resulting in his head falling off.

We are then brought back to the Green Chapel and see that this was a vision of what would happen if Gawain gave in to those temptations and the kind of man he would have become. He realizes that having integrity and honor is more important than keeping his own life. He then tells the Green Knight to wait, and he removes the sash, then says he is ready. After this, the Green Knight says, “Well done, brave knight.” He then says, “Now, off with your head.” It is said in a more joking way though I thought, so even though it cuts to the end there, I don’t think Gawain actually gets his head chopped off. I think he passed the test and the Green Knight let him live.

The Green Knight

In the book, we learn that the Green Knight is The Lord, Bertalik and the whole thing was planned by Morgan le Fay. In the movie, as Gawain sits before The Green Knight, we see the face of King Arthur, Morgan le Fay and The Lord flash over the face of the Green Knight. This shows all their involvement in this whole test.

Director David Lowery on set with Patel and Ralph Ineson

A lot of people through the years have studied and debated why green. In the movie, The Lady asks this very question and proceeds to give a monologue on what green represents. “Red is the color of lust, but green is what lust leaves behind, in heart, in womb. Green is what is left when ardor fades, when passion dies, when we die, too… When you go, your footprints will fill with grass. Moss shall cover your tombstone, and as the sun rises, green shall spread over all, in all its shades and hues. This verdigris will overtake your swords and your coins and your battlements and, try as you might, all you hold dear will succumb to it. Your skin, your bones. Your virtue…”

On the Wikipedia page for The Green Knight it says, “Given the varied and even contradictory interpretations of the color green, its precise meaning in the poem remains ambiguous. In English folklore and literature, green was traditionally used to symbolize nature and its associated attributes: fertility and rebirth. Stories of the medieval period also used it to allude to love and the base desires of man. Because of its connection with faeries and spirits in early English folklore, green also signified witchcraft, devilry and evil. It can also represent decay and toxicity. When combined with gold, as with the Green Knight and the girdle, green was often seen as representing youth’s passing. In Celtic mythology, green was associated with misfortune and death, and therefore avoided in clothing. The green girdle, originally worn for protection, became a symbol of shame and cowardice; it is finally adopted as a symbol of honor by the knights of Camelot, signifying a transformation from good to evil and back again; this displays both the spoiling and regenerative connotations of the color green… There is a possibility, as Alice Buchanan has argued, that the color green is erroneously attributed to the Green Knight due to the poet’s mistranslation or misunderstanding of the Irish word glas, which could either mean grey or green…”

The thought the idea that the author meant the color grey is an interesting thought. Though I think green in a far more intriguing color and clearly has so many meanings.

When the Green Knight approaches the court the poem reads, “They’d seen strange things, but never a sight like this; They thought it must be a sort of magic, or a dream. Most of the men were too terrified to reply; Struck dumb by his words, they waited, stock-still.”

In the movie, this scene is much creepier, with the Queen becoming possessed as she reads his letter. Nonetheless, as we can see from that line, his presence was still uncomfortable and caused unease.

None of the knights step forward and are too fearful, Cooper says of this scene, “The Green Knight, by engaging with the greatest knight of Camelot, also reveals the moral weakness of pride in all of Camelot, and therefore all of humanity. However, the wounds of Christ, believed to offer healing to wounded souls and bodies, are mentioned throughout the poem in the hope that this sin of prideful “stiffneckedness” will be healed among fallen mortals.”

After no one accepts his challenge, the poem continues with the Green Knight saying, “’Where are your boasts of valour now, your bold victories, Your pride, your prizes, your wrath and rousing words? Am I right? All the pageantry and power of the Round Table Made nothing by the words of one man?  You’re all white with fear, and not a whack fallen!’ And he laughed so loud the king blanched with anger, Then his brow darkened in shame, his face flushed blood-dim— He grew as wild as the wind; The whole hall turned grim. Then, being of noble kind, The king strode up to him And replied: ‘By Heaven, sir, your request’s very silly, But as you ask for a silly thing I’ll see you have it. No man here is scared by what you’ve said. Give me your great battle-axe, in the name of God. I’ll easily provide what you’ve pleaded for!’ He leaps down lightly, seizes the man’s hand Who also dismounts in high disdain.”

From here, as we talked about, Gawain gives his humble speech and offers to take up the Green Knights challenge. This is like the movie, because the knights don’t do anything and Arthur says that he wishes he could be the one to take on the challenge, however he is too old and his body won’t let him. Then Gawain steps up, who isn’t even a knight, and Arthur lets him borrow Excalibur.

In the poem, when he finds the Green Chapel, it reads, “‘The Green Chapel! Lord, what a sight! A place, more likely, where In the dark of midnight The Devil says morning prayer. ‘An utter desert,’ muttered Gawain. ‘What a desolation, With its sinister shrine, and tufts of weed everywhere! A fitting spot for that fellow in his green gown To do his devil’s rites and unholy duties! All my five senses say it is the Fiend Who’s brought me down here to destroy me! What an unhappy place! An evil chapel—Devil Take this accursed church, the worst I’ve ever chanced on.’

In both book and movie, Gawain initially flinches away as the Green Knight is about to bring down his ax. In the poem, when he does this the Green Knight says, “‘You’re not Gawain,’ he said, ‘so noble and so good. He’s not afraid of a whole army by hill or dale. And now you tremble in terror even before I touch you. I never knew he was such a lily-livered knight! Did I flinch, or flee from you when your blow felled me? Did I cavil, or create a fuss at King Arthur’s house? My head flew to my feet but I never flicked an eyebrow; And you—I haven’t even touched you and you’re trembling. It’s clear I’m the better man here, the case is white and black.’ Gawain replied: ‘Enough!  I won’t flinch when you hack— Though once my head is off I cannot put it back. ‘But swing promptly, man, and bring me to your point. Deliver me to my destiny—but don’t delay! I’ll stand up to your stroke and start away no more Till your steel strike me squarely. There’s my oath on it.’ ‘Here is your bargain, then!’ He heaved the blade up high And gazed at him savagely as if somewhat crazed.”

In the poem, the Green Knight brings his blade down three times, the first two times causing no harm. The third time, he strikes his neck, leaving a cut but not killing him. He tells Gawain, at this point Gawain knows the Green Knight is The Lord, “When you behaved well in my hall and gave me all Your winnings as a wise and good man must. And the second stroke I dealt you for that day When you kissed my wife and returned my rights to me. My arm missed both times: mere feints, no harm to show. Who pay their debts can rest Quite unafraid. And so, Because you failed the test Third time, you took that blow. For that woven garment you wear is my own girdle. My wife wove it, so I know it well. I have missed no facts concerning your acts and kisses, Nor my wife’s wooing of you; I brought it all about. I sent her to test you out. You withstood her stoutly. You’re the most faultless warrior who walks on foot!… Yet here you lacked a little: your loyalty Was wanting—not out of greed, not out of wantonness, But because you loved your life—and I blame you much less For that.’ And the first words that he spoke were these: ‘A curse upon my cowardice—and my covetousness! There’s villainy in both, and virtue-killing vice!’ He grasped the love-knot and loosened its clasp, And hurled it hard in anger towards the man. ‘There, take that tawdry love-token! Bad luck to it! Craven fear of your blow, and cowardice, brought me To give in to my greed and go against myself And the noble and generous code of knightly men. I am proved false, faulty—those failings will haunt me. From falsehood and faithlessness come a hollow heart and ill-fame, And I confess to you That I am much to blame. What would you have me do That I may cleanse my name?’ The lord laughed, and replied reasonably And warmly: ‘Any harm you’ve done is now undone. You’ve clearly confessed and freed yourself of fault. You’ve paid your penance at the point of my blade; hold you absolved of all offence, and as fresh-made As if, since birth, you had never sinned on earth. And I give you back the girdle with the golden border. It’s green like my gown—so take it, Gawain, To recall this contest when you ride away Among proud princes, as an emblem to remember Your quest and challenge.’”

When the challenge is offered at Camelot, the Green Knight says that whoever accepts, after they meet again at the Green Chapel, they shall part in trust and friendship and that certainly does comes to pass in both book and movie.

The Fox

It is common for stories like this to have a “quest animal”. In the book, it is his trusty steed. In the movie, his horse is taken and a fox follows him on his journey.

As they near the Green Chapel, the fox tempts him to leave saying he faces certain death. Gawain says he must go on. The fox then says, well in that case, take off that green girdle. Gawain says no it’s a gift and claims to not believe it will save him, yet also refuses to take it off.

In the book, The Lord sends an aid to help Gawain find the Green Chapel. As the get close, this man is who tells Gawain he should not go any further.  In the poem the man tells him, “’I’ll hurry home meanwhile, and I promise And swear, by God and all his good saints— So help me!—and by the holy relics and all else, To keep your secret loyally, and tell no one you ran From any knight or man that’s known to me.’ ’Many thanks,’ he murmured, then replied somewhat drily, ‘I‘m touched by your care for my welfare. I wish you well. I’m sure you’d keep my secret quite securely, But however firmly you held it, should I fail here And scuttle off, fleeing in fright, as you suggest, I’d be a fraud and coward, and could not be forgiven. No—I shall go to the chapel, whatever happens, And say to the man you speak of whatever I wish, Come foul fortune or good, wherever my fate might dwell. Tough he may be, his arm Might wield a club that can kill, But the Lord will save from harm All those who serve Him well.”

The line, “should I fail here And scuttle off, fleeing in fright, as you suggest, I’d be a fraud and coward, and could not be forgiven.” is what must have inspired the scene in the movie where he does just that and lives the life of a fraud in the vision he has.

Book or Movie

Well, this podcast has gone on long enough, so I guess I should wrap things up. There was just so much to go into with both the book and movie and so much to discuss! I love both so much. I love the symbolism, the metaphors, and the moral of the story. The movie is so incredibly beautiful, such amazing cinematography and camera work. The score is also amazing. A mix of medieval music, but also this unnerving score at times. This was filmed in Ireland, and some scenes are on sets, but a lot of it was filmed where actual castles exist. Lowery stays true to the overall theme of the poem, while adding his own artistic take to some aspects. I love the poem and highly recommend reading it, but ultimately, I think I like the movie even more. It’s just so well done in literally every way! I have zero complaints. Again though, the poem is also well worth reading!

I’ll end this with a quote I really like by director and script writer, David Lowery, “As a filmmaker, it’s really important to remind myself constantly, that the movies I make aren’t all that important. Someday they won’t exist anymore. Someday they’ll all fall away. They won’t be around; they won’t survive me as long as I sometimes think they will. And so more important than the legacy I’m creating for myself with my body of work, is the way I comport myself as I make them. The integrity in which I live my life and my attempts to be a good person, to do good in this world. I wanted that to be one of the central points. Because here is a character who has a tremendous legacy laid out ahead of him. He is related to King Arthur, one of the greatest kings of medieval history. He could be the successor of the throne. But it was important for me to make sure that his journey carried him to a place where he realizes that more important than that legacy was the idea of being a human being with integrity and goodness in their heart. And that’s what I wanted to convey in The Green Knight.”

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