The Real Green Knight: Understanding the Text

It’s a rare time where the readings from my Pre-19th century British Literature survey come in handy as directly as they did in my viewing of A24’s retelling of the legend of Sir Gawain in The Green Knight. In terms of its faithfulness to the original text, there are some significant departures. Overall, the spirit of Gawain’s quest is the same, however, as is the looming reality of human frailty that Gawain must resist. Here is a look at the real Green Knight.

Examining the original text reveals a lot of variance in the film. Some of these don’t ultimately have any bearing on the plot or meaning of either, such as the physical characteristics of the Knight himself. In the text, the Green Knight and his horse appear to be normal with the exception of being “veritably verdant!” The horse and rider are decked out in finery, which is quite different from the nature inspired depiction of the Knight in the film; he looks kind of like an Ent, and so does his horse.

However, the context in which the Green Knight appears is also pretty different in the film and the poem. The film sees an aged Kind Arthur and Queen Guinevere at dinner, Arthur calling up his nephew Gawain to express his regret at not getting to know him better. In the text, this scene is much merrier, with the narrator describing Arthur’s youth, the Queen’s beauty, and the luxury of the Christmas feast. Gawain and his cousin are already seated by the King and Queen, so the implication is that there is a familial bond between them that does not appear in the beginning of the film.

Courtesy of A24

Their relationship is the first but not only substantial variation from the original text. The Gawain of the film is much more lost than the Gawain of the poem – his new relationship with his uncle allows Dev Patel’s Gawain to feel compelled to defend the honor of his ailing uncle, in addition to proving himself worthy (which is the main motivation in the poem).

The warmth of the party also makes the appearance of the Green Knight more of a sudden and shocking event, stilling the voices of the attendants; the film’s somewhat formal feast after Arthur’s conversation with Gawain takes the air out of the scene in the first place.

While Arthur warmly greets the Knight in the poem, the exchange in the movie is colored (no pun intended) by the Green Knight’s inhuman appearance and Arthur’s agedness. The King’s somewhat aggressive response to the Knight’s game challenge, followed by his encouragement to Gawain that it’s “only a game” is confusing for Gawain (and to me tbh). It almost seems like Arthur knows what’s going on? Or is he trying to encourage Gawain not to lop off this weird dude’s head when presented with his unarmed neck? I’m not sure, but lop off the head he does, and the Green Knight promptly picks up his own decapitated cranium and laughs uproariously as he rides away. Gawain will now have to receive a blow in kind a year later, and must seek out the Green Knight at the Green Chapel on that fateful day.

The next major departure is the characterization of Gawain himself. Expertly acted by Patel, the film’s Gawain is very young, waiting on his turn to be knighted by the king, and consorting with a prostitute called Essel. The Gawain of the poem is young, but he is the definition of Arthurian chivalry, as evidenced by the pentangle on his shield (very Steve Rogers).

The difference here allows for some interesting interpretation and reinterpretation of Gawain as a man. In both tales, the frailty of man is one of the major considerations, and Gawain’s frailty is tested in a few ways. However, as a true knight of the Round Table – albeit, by his own admission the “weakest of [Arthur’s] warriors and the feeblest of wit” Gawain has some level of honor already claimed and some level of chivalry to his name to protect and build on. Patel’s Gawain is not sure what he really wants or how to find it, and so the testing of his resolve seems to be more of a discovery of himself.

Courtesy of A24

Gawain’s choice to remove the girdle before the Green Knight’s blow represents a major shift in his characterization between the film and the text. The (very cool) sequence wherein Gawain sees his life play out if he flees from the Green Knight prompts him to reject frailty and choose courage, removing the garter and steeling himself for the deadly blow.

In the text, Gawain makes no such decision, but allows the Green Knight to strike him with the belt on. The scratch that both the film and poetic Gawain receive, then, takes on very different meanings – in the film, this is the passing of the test of sorts, allowing Gawain to feel comfortable in the knowledge that he has developed the honorable nature of a true knight in spite of his failings with the lady of the castle and with Essel.

In the text, the scratch becomes a symbol of Gawain’s shame, knowing that he could not face death with the chivalry that he would have expected of himself, even though he managed to rebuff the temptations of Bertilak’s wife on three different occasions. He takes the girdle and wears it as a reminder of his own weakness. The film seems to lean into a classically heroic ending, while the poem is somewhat more complex in its treatment of Gawain. The narrator basically says that we shouldn’t blame the poor guy for wanting to keep his life, but also that Gawain is disgusted with himself all the same.

One of the most important ways in which the original poem diverges from the film is the role of Morgan, and by virtue of her magic, the girdle that will allow no harm to come to its wearer. In my view, making Morgan into Gawain’s mother was a weird choice to say the least. That said, the character (played by Sarita Choudhury) is only identified as “Mother”, so there’s a slim chance that she’s not technically Morgan la Fey. Regardless, it is her machinations that summon the Green Knight and test Gawain on his various virtues.

In the poem, it is revealed that Morgan encouraged and enchanted Bartilek into becoming the Green Knight and offering the challenge to the Round Table for reasons that are unclear but likely along the lines of “because why not I’m a sorceress”.

Courtesy of A24

In the film, we see Morgan summon the Knight with a note that lists the conditions of the challenge, ostensibly to give her son a chance to prove his mettle, win the favor of the king, and put him in a favorable position after Arthur’s impending death. She gives him the belt as he begins his journey to protect him, before he loses it on the road to a few robbers dressed like Ewoks. The presence of a woman blindfolded in the same fashion as Gawain’s mother during the Summoning of the Green Knight implies that her magic is present in the castle, and so her magic belt comes back to Gawain as a temptation by the unnamed lady (Alicia Vikander in a dual role as Gawain’s love interests).

Making Morgan into Gawain’s mother offers a more specific motivation for her schemes, but also makes it a little bit weird to have a highly sexualized temptation as part of her magical game (not that the poem is too much better – Morgan is his aunt). Either way, there is a sense of power with a woman acting as a sort of guiding hand or puppeteer to the events of the story, which bears mentioning for a medieval text.

Also Reynard the fox is in the movie as a kind of magical sidekick, which is both an addition making the film into a more classic Hero’s Journey and a nod to other famous stories around this time period. Reynard talking at the end as an additional trial for Gawain was weird, but an interesting expansion on the story.

The film brought many great cinematographic elements to the story as well. The costumes were nice but not indulgent – the most luxurious being a gorgeous blue dress worn by Vikander as the lady of the castle. The expert use of light and shadow worked to build tension and offer a sense of both the realistic in the medieval world – that is, one with only natural light and candle light – and the surreal world into which Gawain ventures (interestingly shadow in light play large roles in other A24 movies like Hereditary. While there are clear differences between the source material and the film, The Green Knight remains a representation of the hero’s journey in only the way A24 could tell it.