Þenne tas he hym stryþe to stryke, And frounsez boþe lyppe and browe; No meruayle þaȝ hym myslyke Þat hoped of no rescowe. He lyftes lyȝtly his lome, and let hit doun fayre With þe barbe of þe bitte bi þe bare nek
The Green Knight is a 2021 filmic adaptation of the 14th century chivalric poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight written and directed by David Lowery and starring Dev Patel.
The film starts with young Gawain as a squire who aspires to become a knight in the service of an elderly King Arthur. At Christmastime a terrifying giant knight with the face of the Green Man arrives at court and invites anyone brave enough to engage him in a game of traded blows. Gawain takes up the gauntlet and cuts his head off, against the warning of Arthur that this is only a game. Of course Arthur, in giving the warning, also gives Gawain Excalibur which, in a departure from the poem, is the instrument of the beheading.
The knight then retrieves his head and says that he will see Gawain in precisely one year to return the blow given. He leaves behind a magical axe, which causes moss and grass to grow wherever it is laid, as a token and departs. From here the story charts Gawain’s quest to reach the Green Chapel by the following Christmas in order to keep his appointment.
This is a dense film that plays quite a lot about the relationship of Christianity and a kind of idealized green man paganism and treating it as a theological text first and foremost is an attractive prospect. After all the Green Knight himself is realized as a god-like figure and this is a film that is very concerned with cycles of death and rebirth which makes for fertile ground to explore how Christians and Pagan might differ with regard to their treatment of theological matters.
And yet, this is not anywhere near a complete-enough picture to capture what I think this film is really attempting to accomplish. Rather The Green Knight is quite focused on a dialectic of geed and generosity and with how that relates to death.
As such I think it’s important to concentrate on a four specific moments within the film. First we should look at what precipitates Gawain’s first great loss. Traveling across a battlefield he encounters a chatty scavenger who engages him in conversation. Gawain, focused on his quest, doesn’t want much from the scavenger except directions to the Green Chapel and he makes that clear. The scavenger directs him to a forested area along a stream and asks for consideration. Gawain is, at first, reluctant to give the scavenger anything but after some wheedling from the scavenger gives him a small quantity of money.
The scavenger then arranges an ambush where he steals Gawain’s axe, his horse, his armor, his magic belt (gifted by his witch-mother who serves as something of a stand-in for Morgana in the film) and his money. The scavenger shatters his shield, illuminated with an icon of the Virgin Mother and when Gawain protests that he was merely looking for the Green Chapel the scavenger tells him he is already within it. The forest is the Green Chapel. But the scavenger also scolds Gawain that he brought this misfortune upon himself because he was insufficiently generous.
Gawain, bound, has a vision of his own death in the woods before he is mysteriously free and sets off on his journey again.
The next episode of significance is when he encounters the ghost Saint Winifred who complains she has lost her head at the bottom of a nearby pond. Gawain dives into the pond and retrieves her skull without any thought of compensation and has another vision before surfacing to find the ghost departed but the magic axe returned.
The next piece of this puzzle arrives when Gawain is at the home of the Lord and Lady who reside near the Green Chapel. The lady interrogates Gawain as to why the Green Knight is green rather than some other colour and he brushes it off saying that, perhaps, the Green Knight is an alien, “not of this world.”
The lady replies with what is probably the longest monologue in the film, saying:
We deck our halls with it and dye our linens. But should it come creeping up the cobbles, we scrub it out, fast as we can. When it blooms beneath our skin, we bleed it out. And when we, together all, find that our reach has exceeded our grasp, we cut it down, we stamp it out, we spread ourselves atop it and smother it beneath our bellies, but it comes back. It does not dally, nor does it wait to plot or conspire. Pull it out by the roots one day and then next, there it is, creeping in around the edges. Whilst we’re off looking for red, in comes green. 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. And what do you hope to gain from facing all of this… this hue?
Green, in the lady’s cosmology, is not passionate but it is infinitely giving. It spreads over everything, filling up the spaces that red cannot permanently occupy. And the lady, too, is generous, returning to Gawain his magical green sash, which his mother and the lady, both, promise will protect him from any harm. (She also compels him to ejaculate as a price for her gift. It’s filmed ambiguously but seems reasonably clear she is masturbating him. And remember that green is what spreads when ardor fades.)
There is an ambiguous unity between death and renewal in the Lady’s speech and we should see this as being encoded in the gift of the sash. Green comes after death. Life creeps back in on footprints and tombstones. The gifted sash, fertilized by a moment of passion that fades into embarrassment and shame, is preservative. He cannot die while he’s wearing it. But this at odds with the cosmological significance of green in the film that exists in an endless cycle of death and rebirth.
Finally there is Gawain’s vision at the Green Chapel.
This is the moment that will most confound anyone who has read the poem since it is invented nearly whole-cloth. After sitting vigil overnight at the chapel facing the inert form of the Green Knight, Christmas arrives and the knight prepares to return Gawain’s blow. Gawain flinches twice and then flees the chapel, initiating an extended montage. He finds his horse and rides back to Camelot. The king dies and names Gawain his heir. Gawain has a bastard son who he takes from his lover Essel, leaving her coin in recompense. He marries for politics but won’t allow his bride to remove the green sash he still wears. His son dies in a war. He is abandoned by everyone he ever knew as they one-by-one exit his life (possibly into death, at least into time) alone on his throne he removes the sash from around his waist and his head falls off.
He is back in the chapel.
Now we need to back-track a moment to piece out the significance of this final vision in a film full of visions. When Gawain was staying at the manor of the Lord and Lady the Lord compelled Gawain into a game. The lord will go out hunting and give a gift to Gawain of whatever he wins in his hunt while Gawain will remain in the house with the Lady. And anything Gawain wins at the home will be given to the Lord. Gawain is dutiful in returning all these gifts, a book, a kiss. But not the sash.
It’s his already after all. His mother gave it to him.
And the sash will keep him from death. So he keeps it. This is the same moral failing he engaged when he refused to compensate the scavenger sufficiently earlier in the film.
But the vision shows him the error of his ways, so Gawain takes the sash off and, now devoid of protection against death, he is ready to face his death. The knight crouches beside him and says, “now, off with your head.” And the film ends.
Of course, we know in the poem that Gawain is given a small cut to remind him of his failure on the third day of the bargain with the lord. He is praised for his virtue above all knights despite this failing and returns to Camelot in high esteem. The green sash is taken up by the other knights of the round table.
But we don’t get that closure here. This is in part because of how paganism is foregrounded in the film but we need to actually look that paganism in the face a bit now because, of course, it’s all a Christian idea of what paganism is. It’s easy to treat the godlike Green Knight as a pagan god because of how Christianity is deployed contra him within the text of the film but this is eliding that the Green Man motif appears most prominently in medieval churches. We should not fall into Frazer’s universalism in saying an English Green Man is functionally equivalent to Osiris just because two cultures realized that annual plant cycles are effective representations of death and rebirth nor should we have such a closed view of Christianity as to foreclose rebirth as a Christian concept just because only Jesus is seen doing so in the Bible.
The Green Knight is a movie about annual cycles, surely. That the action starts at Christmas and ends at the subsequent Christmas is too obvious a tell for anyone to miss. However I question that it’s a particularly pagan film. The axe that so clearly symbolizes death and rebirth is returned after Gawain engages in an act of generosity with no expectation of reciprocation for a Catholic saint. This is an explicitly Christian act of virtue. Furthermore, the most obviously anti-Christian figure in the film, the Scavenger, is hardly triumphant. He might succeed in taking from Gawain, he may play the iconoclast, but Gawain rises again immediately in a vision that explicitly ties death to a symbolic rebirth into the quest, now stripped of the armor of arrogance and more capable of engaging his quest with Christian humility. Ultimately iconoclasts were also Christians after all. Devout ones at that.
Rather I think it’s best to look at this film not as a clash between religions but as an exploration of the relationship between holding on and letting go. This is a movie in which a man receives gifts and loses them, receives more gifts and loses them again. This is a movie where a man struggles to hold onto his own life in the face of the knowledge that his own actions have authored his death and who learns that he cannot begin to properly live until he learns to let it go.
In The Gift of Death, Derrida traces an idea of the gift of life as being also, inevitably, a gift of death. To be given a life is to be given a death. However he complicates this by demonstrating that, within a largely Heideggerian frame, a death cannot be given nor taken. The uniqueness and irreplaceability of the being who dies is such that every being has their own death which is a fundamental factor of being. The gift of the sash is a threat of a hollow life because it promises something that cannot be given – a specific death at a specific time. The sash is the promise that the gift of Gawain’s death will be deferred.
This extinguishing of an irreplaceable being is at odds with death as part of an infinitely recurring cycle, which thus creates a tension within the film between the obvious textual references to rebirth, particularly in the use of Saint Winifred as a fulcrum in the action of the film, and the unresolved threat of the extinction of Gawain’s uniqueness. Gawain is a man who must come to recognize his own death as a part of his being and how that will lead to the end of the irreplaceable Gawain but he must hold this in a simultaneous superposition to the idea that death is a fundamental part of a life without which life is incomplete.
Other people have pointed to the fact that Winifred appearing as a specter is at odds with Catholic theology since ghosts are generally seen as being within purgatory – somewhere you would never expect to see a saint. However this is ignoring that Winifred is a saint of resurrection. Her head was restored to her by Saint Beuno and she returned from death. In this film Beuno is replaced by Gawain but it doesn’t change that the restoration of the head occurs and that doing so dispels the ghost of Saint Winifred. Because a ghost cannot be someone restored to life.
As Derrida continues to explore death and gifts he turns to Kierkegaard and the Knight of Faith – he who has given himself wholly over to God. And for Kierkegaard this was a most precarious position. In fact, writing in the guise of Johannes de Silentio, he proposed exactly two Knights of Faith had ever existed – Abraham and the Virgin Mary. But one of the markers of the Knight of Faith is supreme anxiety – Kierkegaard argues that a Knight of Faith may not be even certain that they are one and that the condition of being such is entirely inexpressible.
“To be sure, Mary bore the child wondrously, but she nevertheless did it ‘after the manner of women,’ and such a time is one of anxiety, distress and paradox. The angel was indeed a ministering spirit, but he was not a meddlesome spirit who went to the other young maidens in Israel and said: Do not scorn Mary, the extraordinary is happening to her. The angel went only to Mary, and no one could understand her. Has any woman been as infringed upon, as Mary, and is it not true here also that the one whom God blesses he curses in the same breath?”
Derrida describes the Knight of Faith as one who has given themself over entirely to one person, who shows absolute and total loyalty. But this has to be read in the terms of Kierkegaard’s uncertainty and anxiety. And so, at last, we can say that The Green Knight is not a film interrogating Christianity from outside it. Gawain is the most faithful of knights. But faith is a sword as two-edged as Excalibur, with which he strikes the head from the Green Knight. He is confronted with constant tests of loyalty. To his quest, to his mother, to his hosts, to God, to the Knight. But to be a Knight of Faith means a singular loyalty before all others. This, ultimately, is Christian faith.
And this is a fundamentally anxious position. Of course Gawain is plagued by visions of his death, and of the hollow life he might lead if he turns away from the focus of his faith. This final vision is not an ambiguous possible other-future but a representation of Gawain’s own anxiety surrounding his life-toward-faith. The Lady asks him after her monolog, “You’ll do this one thing, you return home a changed man, an honorable man? Just like that?” and Gawain just says, “Yes.” I don’t think we necessarily need to doubt his correctness. By devoting himself entirely to his troth to the Knight, by devoting himself entirely to faith, he does, in fact change, just like that. “I’m ready now,” Gawain says to the Green Knight and, in that moment, after an entire film of people telling him that he is not a knight, the Green Knight replies, “Well done, my brave knight.”
Gawain is a faithful knight in the poems and this film does want to interrogate his faith. But I don’t believe it wants to interrogate Christianity; it wants to interrogate the faith of Gawain and the fundamental anxiety of being faithful. His various tests of faith either succeed or fail but they succeed best, such as when he recovers Saint Winifred’s skull, when he embraces his faith. Meeting the Green Knight in a chapel on Christmas day is a Christian act and it’s a test that he succeeds in after fear and trembling. As such The Green Knight is a triumph not of paganism but of a sincere and internal Christian faith I think Kierkegaard would recognize – it is the story of how it feels to become faithful.