T.S. Eliot famously said in his essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent” that the new work of art modifies the whole existing order, drawing from the larger tradition and rendering it in some way more intelligible. David Lowery’s film The Green Knight, an adaptation of the late 14th century chivalric romance Gawain and the Green Knight, reaches past the original poem to an older work, the Old English Beowulf, to teach us ourselves through its own contribution to the Christian epic tradition.
The story of both the poem and the film run about as follows: On Christmas Day, in Arthur’s court of Camelot, the king, queen, and his knights are assembled to feast when bursts in a knight whose garments and skin are all green. He challenges the court to a game: a knight should deal him a blow with Green Knight’s large ax and a year hence prepare to receive the same blow. The young Gawain, Arthur’s nephew, volunteers, and strikes off the Green Knight’s head. The Knight picks up his head and commands Gawain to meet him next year at the Green Chapel.
Gawain goes and on his way stays at Lord Bertilak’s castle, where he plays another game: the lord goes hunting, Gawain stays home, and each will give to the other what he receives. This starts innocently enough (for chivalric romance), with the lord bringing Gawain the fruits of the hunt and Gawain giving the lord a kiss given him by Lady Bertilak. The next day, Lady Bertilak gives Gawain a magical green girdle that she promises will save him from death. Gawain refuses to give it to her husband and departs for the chapel. After flinching at the Green Knight’s blow, Gawain receives a light nick on the neck with the ax and delivers up the green girdle, having recognized his own cowardice.
One discrepancy between the film and the poem is in overall spirit. The original Gawain poem is jolly, a tale of merry old England where knights go on quests with confidence in their virtue and in Christ. “More marvels have happened in this merry land / Than in any other I know,” the poet tells us. Gawain’s Middle Ages was, as Russell Kirk called it, the Age of Faith, where men were sinners but Christ had conquered the ruler of this world and the Church reigned ascendant over paganism, which existed merely as faery magic and a memory.
In Lowery’s movie, the state of things resembles more the spirit of Beowulf. The world of that ninth century poem was much darker. Although Christianity has become prevalent among Beowulf’s Spear-Danes, when Hrothgar’s Scyldings are besieged by Grendel, they turn to devil worship in “their heathen temples.” In this Middle Ages, paganism retains a role. In a significant change to the Gawain poem, Lowery portrays more centrally Gawain’s mother, who, in his telling, is Arthur’s sister, Morgan Le Fay. It is Morgan, through witchcraft, who summons the Green Knight to Arthur’s court, although her motives are unclear. Does she wish to have Arthur slain, or simply to urge her son towards adventure? It is she who first gives the protective green girdle to Gawain, suggesting that she wants him to win honor cheaply, without risking any real danger.
We see this fraught coexistence of Christianity and pagan magic in an excellent scene in which two rituals occur simultaneously: a bishop blessing Gawain’s shield, embossed on the front with the Christian pentangle, a five pointed star symbolizing the five wounds of Christ, and on the back with the “More Spacious Than the Heavens” icon of the Blessed Virgin Mother, and Morgan and other witches casting an incantation upon the green girdle. Such a religiously confused world possesses extreme tensions, like those of our own times. (In a society where a major PAC was founded by witches actively attempting to hex President Donald Trump, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that Satanists are now suing the state of Texas for the First Amendment right to ritually murder babies.)
Why this religious confusion? The conclusion of Gawain’s quest shows that, especially among the young, psychological insecurity prompts the turn towards magical “technology” and makes difficult a reasonable Christian faith. This complex and its attendant paganism must be vanquished by valiant warriors if souls and society are to survive.
But a valiant warrior is exactly what Lowery’s Green Knight lacks. His Gawain is an untutored, unpracticed youth whose character can best be summed up by the predominant colors of the movie. During a recent interview in Dallas, Lowery said that he wished to emphasize the color of the knight, a theme also present in a short monologue (Lowery’s creation) later in the film. Gawain is unsure of himself; the great gloom of the film’s gray atmosphere hangs over him. Like the pilgrim Dante many times over in the Divine Comedy, he is a coward; his magnificent yellow scarf reminds us of this. Finally, one of the film’s final scenes shows us that the real “green knight” Gawain must contend with is himself. He is green with inexperience and fear.
Why exactly is Gawain, certainly old enough to have had some adventures, so green? In the poem, Arthur is young and Guinevere “without a flaw,” but Lowery’s royals are not so much aged as decrepit. They are more like Beowulf’s King Hrothgar, “old and gray,” than Gawain’s King Arthur, who originally takes the Green Knight’s challenge for himself and has to be persuaded to stand down. Lowery’s gerontocracy resembles our own. Our last two presidents were 70 and 78 years old at inauguration, House speaker Nancy Pelosi is 81, and Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer is 70. The current median age on the Supreme Court is 66; at the end of the Obama presidency, it was 73.
Something about the current regime dissuades young men from seeking out adventure as well. Writers on both the right and the left have noted the problematic decline in the number of young men seeking a college education and how this might affect young women’s marriage prospects. When exploring the Bertilak library, Gawain says he didn’t know so many books existed; Lady B has read them all. Lowery’s Gawain, whom we see at the film’s beginning pursuing a hedonistic life with his mistress, only attending Christmas Day Mass because she drags him there, presents a less technological vision of our young men, playing video games and watching pornography in their parents’ basements. We palpably feel his lack of courage and fidelity when he denies his mistress before Lady Bertilak—both roles are played by the same actress—and she takes the bell she had given him as a token at the journey’s outset.
Given this vision of our young men, Gawain’s final choice at the end of the film stands to teach us, especially the young, the path forward—but will we take it? Gawain’s path requires renunciation, letting go of magical technologies which promise expediency but lead to dishonor. The movie doesn’t present us with Gawain’s future, only what he avoids through sacrifice: a life where he knows the majority of his tragedy arises from self-inflicted wounds. Accepting our mortality doesn’t assure us perfect health and happiness, but it will allow us to live more worthily, like heroes.
Alex Taylor teaches history and writing at the University of Dallas.