The Green Knight: An Exploration of Civilization and Nature

When literature is turned into film, it’s extremely hard for it to be adapted well. There’s just so much work that written language does that visual mediums can’t convey. When 14th century Arthurian prose is adapted to film, all bets are off. David Lowrey’s The Green Knight, released this week by art house A24, has teased viewers for the past two years as a dark adaptation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. As with most of what A24 puts out, the finished product is dark, beautifully shot, and well acted. But at the heart of The Green Knight, it’s a thematic dissection of the struggle between nature and civilization.

SPOILERS AHEAD. DO NOT READ IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THE FILM

The plot is pretty straightforward. Gawain (Dev Patel), nephew of King Arthur (Sean Harris) and son of the witch Morgana/Morgan le Fay (Sarita Choudhury), sits at his court during a Christmas celebration. Arthur asks his audience to regale him with a tale, and the titular Green Knight(Ralph Ineson) arrives in dramatic fashion. He challenges anyone who is brave enough to attempt to strike him. If successful, they will win possession of his axe. But they will also have to make a journey to his Green Chapel one year later for him to return the blow that was struck, no matter how large or small. Gawain, not a knight yet, is eager to prove himself. He approaches the knight and in one strike, decapitates him. The knight’s body then stands up, lifts it’s disembodied head, and rides off laughing. The year quickly passes, and Gawain ventures out to the Green Chapel, facing a number of trials and challenges along the way. Once he arrives, he attempts to steel his nerves, and experiences a vision of what his life would be like if he runs. We see what plays out , becoming a knight, then taking the crown, fathering a child and throwing away the mother, while marrying someone of royal stature. His kingdom is lead into war, and eventually falls, as he finally gives up his enchanted belt that has saved him all this time, and ultimately dies. As reality returns, Gawain ultimately accepts his fate. The Knight praises his courage, and playfully responds, “Now off with your head.”

Lowrey leaves the ending ambiguous, letting the viewer decide if Gawain is actually decapitated or not. However, what happens to Gawain isn’t what is important here. At the heart of this film, and the heart of most of Arthurian literature, is the battle between Arthur and his sister Morgana. Arthur, the representation of Christianity, leads a life of morals and virtue, while Morgana, representation of paganism, constantly tries to best him. She is the one who conjures the Green Knight in this tale. Stuck in the middle of this struggle is Gawain. His desire to be a knight leads him to throw himself into a struggle he doesn’t truly understand. It guides his actions, as he tries to remain both moral and virtuous in the face of spirits, lustful encounters, and ultimately in his own mortality, having to live up to his word. He also accomplishes much of this with a bravado that is due to an enchanted belt that, as long as it is worn, will protect him from being struck down by man or monster. He toes this line between Christian morality and pagan mysticism, torn between his mother and wanting to please his uncle. The Green Knight, massive and oaken, represents the power of paganism, while Gawain himself is supposed to represent the attempts of “good Christians” to resist it. The Green Knight is a pawn of Morgana just as Gawain is a pawn of Arthur.

From the 5th century onwards, Christianity and Paganism were at odds in England. After the fall of the Roman empire, Christianity lost its’ hold as Anglo-Saxon invaders brought their paganist religions with them into the islands. Missionaries followed in the next centuries, converting these Anglo-Saxons to Christianity, only to have paganism reintroduced following the Viking raids in the 9th century. By the tenth century onward, Christianity had largely won out with a number of reformations and nobility cementing it in place. This tale, both literary and visually, shows the battle over faiths that historically shaped medieval England. The constant resurgence of paganism can be read in the immortal quality of the Green Knight, who continues to live regardless of the death blow struck to him.

At a deeper level, this battle illustrates a larger fight between nature and civilization. Paganism, largely concerned with the natural mysticism and power of the world around us, has it’s stronghold at the Green Chapel, a dilapidated church that is overgrown with ivy, moss, and foliage. The reading of a house of Christian worship, broken down and overtaken by Mother Nature is a stark reminder of the fall of Christianity to older forms of worship. When they are theorizing why the knight is green, Gawain says it is because he is “not of this earth”. The Lady (Alicia Vikander) responds in a long monologue about the colors inherent in life, reminding Gawain that green is the color of nature, that always dominates the others in the end.

Through his journey, the only reprieve that Gawain receives from the harsh elements is brief moments of safety within structures, from a cottage to larger castles. Gawain receives guidance along the way, both from natural and human sources. The natural includes a fox that shadows Gawain, the human being both good and bad characters throughout. Gawain also encounters a herd of giants wandering aimlessly across a desolate landscape, that show him the direction in which to travel. Finally, we have the axe that is bound to Gawain that he won in his strike to the Green Knight. We see this axe placed on the ground multiple times throughout the film, each time showing moss and lichen immediately overtaking the stone it is placed upon. Again, we see it in a box that Gawain hides it away for the year after his first battle. Once the box is opened, it is filled with foliage that wasn’t there before. This weapon can be read as a tool that destroys civilized areas, even slowly, overtaking it with nature. All of these elements showcase the give and take between nature and civilization illustrated in the film that adds depth to the thematic struggle of theology.

The Green Knight is a complex, slow burn tale that can be read in numerous ways. But at its’ core, it is a film that reminds us of the dichotomous battle of the life that we all share.

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