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The Green Knight is glorious and a little baffling. Let’s untangle it.

Unpacking the new movie’s connections to Arthurian legends, myths of saints, and … Scorsese?

Patel in armor looks down, flanked by soldiers on the sides.
Dev Patel is Gawain — but not the Gawain you know.
Eric Zachanowich/A24
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

In its opening titles, in cheeky medieval lettering, The Green Knight proclaims itself “A filmed adaptation of the chivalric romance by Anonymous.” That romance is commonly known as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, one of the most famous and important works of English literature, a 14th-century Arthurian tale penned in Middle English that’s inspired centuries of study, contemplation, and scholarly bickering.

The film is a curious and gloriously risky effort. There’s no effort to modernize the story, no attempt to make it easily legible to the audience. Starring Dev Patel, The Green Knight is a swashbuckling tale of adventure, to be sure — but it feels dragged out of the mists of time, uncanny spirits and a touch of the rude and bawdy still clinging to the edges. Director David Lowery took a story that many people struggled their way through in high school English, cast Patel as its uneasy hero, and used it to examine how myths get made.

So while you couldn’t call The Green Knight a “faithful” adaptation of the poem, it might be a more faithful adaptation of the bigger legend around Gawain’s adventure than a line-by-line recreation ever could have been. Understanding some key places where the film deviates from the poem helps make sense of The Green Knight’s loftier goals — and its weirder mysteries.

How The Green Knight twists the Arthurian legend into something different

The Green Knight isn’t David Lowery’s first dip into mythical realms. The director and screenwriter’s subjects have come from all over the place, but he often circles the same goal: reexamining myths and legends and imagining what their aftermath might be. Among his films are Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (2013), about the consequences for a Bonnie and Clyde-style couple; A Ghost Story (2017), about the long, long arm of a tragic romance; and The Old Man and the Gun (2018), about the waning days of a celebrity thief. (Lowery is also completing work on Peter Pan & Wendy, which could slot comfortably into this list.)

The Green Knight takes the same approach to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, with some tweaks, expansions, and twists that adapt an epic poem into a lush, meditative, eerie film. Patel plays Gawain, the nephew of King Arthur, who in this rendering aspires to be a storied and legendary knight of his uncle’s Round Table. One Christmas, after a night of merriment, Gawain confronts a mysterious, magical knight, and that encounter sets him on an epic quest to face his fate.

Generous spoilers follow for The Green Knight. Proceed on your journey with caution.

Image reads “spoilers below,” with a triangular sign bearing an exclamation point.

It only occurred to me after seeing The Green Knight that the film’s title, which diverges from the poem’s title, might have two meanings — and point to some of the biggest differences between the movie and its source material. The “green knight” of the traditional title refers to the knight with whom Gawain tangles, whose skin is described as green.

In the poem, Gawain is already a beloved and respected member of the Round Table, noted for his chivalry. In Lowery’s film, Gawain is young, impetuous, prone to carousing, and ashamed of how little of his life has been spent on bold and brave exploits. He’s new to manhood. In other words, he’s also “green,” and that’s an important part of the story.

In the film, unlike the poem, Gawain has a love interest named Essel, a young woman (played by Alicia Vikander) who is a sex worker, and dreams of spending her life with him. Gawain’s uncle and aunt, King Arthur (Sean Harris) and Queen Guinevere (Kate Dickie) are getting older, and wish to see their nephew — who, in the film, stands to inherit the throne — gain nobility and stature, and quit being such a dissipated doofus.

Onscreen, as the knights and nobility celebrate Christmas in the castle (though it’s New Year’s Eve in the poem), Gawain’s mother (Sarita Choudhury) refuses to join in. Instead, with a group of women, she seemingly casts a spell that might have something to do with the Green Knight. Those steeped in Arthurian legends may suspect Gawain’s mother is none other than the enchantress Morgan Le Fay, who learned the dark arts from the powerful wizard Merlin.

In the poem, Gawain is indeed the nephew of Arthur; Morgan Le Fay is Arthur’s half-sister, and emerges later in the poem, but Gawain is not her son. But let’s leave Le Fay here for now.

The Green Knight isn’t really green, but that’s okay

The sequence in the film in which the mysterious Green Knight appears is plenty spooky, and follows the general contours of the traditional story. The Knight issues a challenge for one of Arthur’s knights to strike him with his ax, then to find him in a year’s time to receive the same blow himself. (This kind of exercise is what passed for a “game” in Arthurian times.)

Gawain accepts. He cuts off the Knight’s head, which the headless Knight then lifts so that it can address the company gathered. Gawain must find the Green Knight in the faraway Green Chapel after a year has passed.

If you’ve seen the film and are wondering why the Green Knight isn’t literally green, it’s a valid question. (In the poem, his skin is green and he rides a green horse; in the film, he looks like a tree.) There were all kinds of reasons someone might write of a “green” person in the 14th century, and some scholars have wondered if the word actually referred to a range of colors — gray, green, blue, brown — that showed up near the sea.

Importantly, one way to read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is to view the Green Knight as representative of the natural world — the wildness of creation and even a more pagan spirituality, full of witchcraft and unseen creatures — impeding on the deeply Christianized and slowly modernizing world of Camelot. That interpretation is visible in the movie’s design, with the Round Table and the castle rendered in dull, almost industrial grays and harsh lighting, and there are ways to read the film as an environmental parable, too.

And to anyone who sees a resemblance between the Green Knight in the movie and Treebeard from the Lord of the Rings movies, it’s worth noting that one of the most famous translators of the poem was J.R.R. Tolkien.

Because Patel’s Gawain is “green” himself, the film frames his acceptance of the challenge as a way to have a noble adventure and inscribe his name in the annals of history. It works — soon, the locals are learning the story of brave Gawain and the Green Knight from puppet shows. The legend has been spun.

Gawain sits on a horse in the woods.
Gawain in the woods!
Eric Zachanowich/A24

Gawain’s journey is merely alluded to in the poem. In the film, it’s a focus.

In the film, the legend the villagers start telling of Gawain’s exploits exaggerates the bravery of Gawain himself, who is still kind of immature, unable to really understand what it would mean to be a man of bravery, with youthful ideas and dreams of grandeur that his lady love challenges. Still, after taking up the Green Knight’s challenge, he’s intent on having his grand adventure, so Gawain does eventually set out for the Green Chapel, nearly a year hence. He’s wearing the green and gold belt his mother made — or “girdle,” as the poem calls it — which will protect him from harm.

In the poem, the journey is described as arduous, but Gawain’s adventures are only hinted at. In the film, two main adventures are shown.

First, Gawain encounters a scavenger (Barry Keoghan), who gives Gawain directions to the Chapel but then sets upon him in the woods with a couple of friends, ties him up, and steals his stuff — including the protective green girdle from his mother. Without that girdle, Gawain is vulnerable.

Bound and helpless, Gawain lies stranded in the forest. Then the camera slowly turns in a full circle, revealing the rotted corpse of Gawain. I gasped at this shot — it felt like a reference to Lowery’s movie A Ghost Story, with its theme of time passing and mortality looming — but then it rotates back to show a living Gawain once again, who frees himself from the bonds and continues his trek.

Why include this odd interlude? One possible explanation is both funny and bleak: that Gawain actually died there in the woods, and those back home invented legends and stories to explain what happened to him, lauding his bravery even though he never made it to the Green Chapel to find the Knight once again. Another is that we’ve slipped into Gawain’s headspace, imagining himself as a corpse, and that’s what motivates him to keep going.

In any case, in the film, he does keep going. In the next section of the story, labeled on screen as “A Meeting With Saint Winifred,” Gawain meets a mysterious, ethereal woman (Erin Kellyman) who appears to him by night as he sleeps in an abandoned house — Winifred. Despite appearing to have her head firmly attached to her body, she asks Gawain to retrieve her head from the spring outside. When he enters the water, the light begins to turn different colors, and he falls into what feels like a trance. How he gets out of the spring is not entirely clear.

There are some scholarly roots for this strange sequence. Winifred isn’t mentioned in the poem. But some researchers, working from geographic clues in the poem, believe that Gawain’s journey took him through Holywell, a town in Wales. Holywell’s name is derived from a well that sits in the middle of the town, named for Saint Winifred and designated as sacred. Winifred, as the story goes, was beheaded by her suitor Caradog; in some versions she refused his sexual advances, and in others she decided to become a nun, but in all versions, he was enraged. When he cut off her head, it fell to the ground, and a healing spring opened there. Then her uncle, who was also a saint, put her head back on her body, and she came back to life.

If the spring Gawain wades into in the film is the well of Saint Winifred, with healing properties, then perhaps Gawain truly did die in the forest, and the spring brought him back to life. Or perhaps something else is going on. Regardless, at the time the poem was written, Winifred’s legend had spread — and since the spreading of legends is at the core of The Green Knight, as are acts of beheading, her thematic connection to the film makes sense.

The temptations of Gawain lead the story of the film in new directions

Gawain’s subsequent arrival at a grand, unexpected castle is much like what happens in the poem. He meets the castle’s lord (Joel Edgerton) and lady, whom he is shocked to discover bears exact resemblance to his love interest Essel, left behind in Camelot. (She is also played by Alicia Vikander.) There’s also a mysterious silent woman who sits at tables and in drawing rooms with the lord and lady, wrapped entirely in bandages.

Alicia Vikander and Dev Patel in a library. She’s giving him a book.
A gift from the lady.
Eric Zachanowich/A24

This is where the two stories, poem and film, really begin to diverge. So it’s worth knowing first how things turn out in the poem.

After he arrives at the castle in the poem, Gawain undergoes a kind of testing of his chivalry and his virtue. He makes a deal — another “game” — with his host, the lord of the castle. The lord is headed out to hunt each day, and he promises to return with a gift for Gawain; in turn, Gawain must give him whatever gift he’s received from the lady of the house that day. Meanwhile, the lady makes three attempts on three successive days to seduce Gawain. His knightly code of chivalry says he cannot refuse what a lady requests, but he also wishes to avoid sacrificing his virtue and potentially losing his life by sleeping with his host’s wife. He manages to convince her to simply give him kisses, which he in turn gives to his host “in the kindliest way he could.”

But then, in the poem, he dodges her advances and gives half-truths to the lord. One of the gifts the lady gives to him is her green girdle — in the poem, that’s the first time he’s encountered a green girdle — and he keeps it for himself, not passing it along to the lord as he promised. In the end, when Gawain finally goes to meet the Green Knight, he discovers as he kneels for the blow, thinking his life will end, that the Green Knight is actually the lord of the castle.

The poet explains that the lord was transformed by the magic of Morgan Le Fay — who turns out to be the mysterious bandage-wrapped woman — into someone who could challenge the knights of the Round Table with a test of courage and honor and perhaps frighten Queen Guinevere. (Morgan Le Fay is not a big fan of the queen.) But the lord forgives Gawain and he returns to Camelot with the girdle around his waist, as a reminder of his failure to keep his promises.

At this point, the film starts to go its own way. To be sure, the bandage-wrapped woman is Morgan Le Fay; in the film she’s also Gawain’s mother, and watching his temptations up close. (Kind of creepy, honestly.)

In the movie, the lady’s temptations of Gawain don’t go as long as they do in the poem, but they’re more graphically rendered and even more explicitly sexual. Gawain, after all, is green, a young man, and when a beautiful lady who looks exactly like his girl back home comes on to him, refusal is, uh, sticky business.

She gives him an exact replica of the girdle from his mother that the scavenger stole in the woods, to his mystification and wonder, and promises it will keep him safe. Gawain, in a bit of a panic, leaves the castle — and runs into the lord.

Something mysterious happens next: The lord kisses him full on the lips, in a way that is definitely not merely polite. Among scholars, there’s been a fair amount of speculation about the kisses the poem names and the manner in which they might have been delivered, as well as whether there are queer undertones to the poem. That speculation is likely what the film is drawing on.

After the kiss, Gawain makes it to the Green Chapel and waits for the Green Knight to wake up and deal him his blow. But while in the poem, the always brave and bold Gawain kneels to accept what he’s promised to accept — and receives only a small wound to learn a lesson — the movie spins off in another direction.

Gawain runs away from the Green Knight, having left his promise unfulfilled, head firmly attached, girdle from the lady wrapped around his waist. He heads back to Camelot. He arrives to make love to and impregnate Essel, but he doesn’t marry her; the child that Essel bears is taken from her at birth. Gawain instead marries a royal woman who rather precisely resembles Saint Winifred, and when Arthur dies, they ascend to the throne and have another child.

Gawain is now King, a legend, a great one. But the glories of his uncle’s Camelot are fading. Gawain’s son dies in battle. Gawain catches sight of Essel in a crowd, hardened by a difficult life, a vision of his inability to keep his word. Not long afterward, Camelot is under siege. As opposing armies pound down the doors of the castle, Gawain quietly removes his girdle, and his head falls off.

Gawain, silhouetted against the sky.
Knights must seek their fate.
Eric Zachanowich/A24

Then, mysteriously — just as in the forest — time seems to reverse itself, and Gawain finds himself back in the Green Chapel, about to take his blow.

What just happened? I can imagine a few ways to explain this magic, some more pedestrian than others. But the best way I know to describe the end of The Green Knight is that it feels like a conscious attempt to recall The Last Temptation of Christ.

Now come spoilers for that other, much older movie!

Is Gawain a Christ figure? Well, kind of.

Does that mean Gawain is a Christ figure? Not exactly.

At the end of Martin Scorsese’s 1988 film (based on the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis), Jesus is hanging on the cross, having lived a life of some confusion and conflict over his divine and human natures. (The Last Temptation of Christ was very, very controversial upon release.) There are ways in which the Jesus of that film and Gawain of The Green Knight bear similarities to one another. They’re both less serene, confident, and virtuous than the traditions that tell their stories have made them out to be. Both movies portray heroic figures through lenses that are not always heroic, struggling with desires and temptations that are a little startling to watch.

As Jesus hangs on the cross in The Last Temptation of Christ, he is tempted by a little girl (or so he thinks she is) to leave the cross and go live a normal human life. And ... he does. He climbs down off the cross. He finds Mary Magdalene — also, in the film, a sex worker — and marries her. They live a happy life together. After she dies, he finds Mary and Martha, the sisters of Lazarus, and they become his wives. They have children.

One day, Jesus encounters the apostle Paul telling stories about the death and resurrection of Jesus, and tries to stop him, explaining that you can’t save people with a story based on lies. But Paul says that even if the story isn’t true, it’s what the people need to hear, and there’s nothing Jesus can do about it.

By the end of The Last Temptation of Christ, Jesus is old, and Jerusalem — like Camelot — is under siege. Jesus begs God to let him fulfill his role as the Messiah, and suddenly finds himself back on the cross, where he dies for the sins of mankind.

Jesus and Mary Magdalene embrace.
The Last Temptation of Christ goes, shall we say, off book.
Universal Pictures

The Last Temptation of Christ doesn’t perfectly map onto The Green Knight, but the story structure is strikingly similar. I don’t think Lowery is trying to say that Gawain is Jesus, although many scholars over many centuries have compared the characters, situations, and symbols of the Gawain myth to elements of Christian theology, and not without merit. To the medieval Christian mind, every story was highly symbolic of some deeper truth. Gawain’s three temptations at the hands of the lady of the castle he visits could be the three temptations Jesus experienced in the wilderness. Some have seen parallels to Christ in the Green Knight, or considered how the soul’s salvation is an element of the story. In a straightforward way, it shows the pagan and the Christian worlds in confrontation, the way they were in the time of the legend.

But that’s really not the gist of The Green Knight. Instead, the movie is a tale of how legends often get spun without strict adherence to the truth beneath them. It’s a story about a knight who wants to be remembered as great, and sees how his life might turn out if he decides to pursue that status as a mighty king, rather than adhering to goodness, virtue, and the keeping of one’s word. The Gawain of The Green Knight is a “Christ figure” in that he resembles the Christ of The Last Temptation of Christ, a man who can’t quite own up to who he is expected to be.

In a way, The Last Temptation’s Jesus gives up a good life to attain greatness, and The Green Knight’s Gawain does just the opposite. One of them saves mankind; the other saves his own soul.

This contrast helps point to what The Green Knight — and maybe even the poem it’s based on — has been about all along. Lowery’s predilection for examining the aftermath of myths and legends rises to the surface once again with the film, and reminds us that behind every epic is just a guy who has to keep living after the great deed is done. Stories of brave exploits remain appealing to us because they tell us that big moments of greatness are what make history, while goodness is rarely recorded.

Read some ways, the poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight turns that presumptive path to legend on its head: For Gawain, to be good and loving and wise is what’s most important; he feels shame when he fails, but his goodness is what makes him worthy of an epic poem. The Green Knight lets Gawain game out the greatness path and realize that only goodness is worth living for. By digging into the story with dirtied nails and a new take on the tale, it could be that The Green Knight is the most faithful adaptation of them all.

The Green Knight is currently in theaters.

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