If you know anything at all about the plot of the celebrated 14th-century Middle English narrative poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, you probably know this much: It opens with the mysterious Green Knight challenging King Arthur’s court to what has come to be known as a “beheading game,” leading to Sir Gawain lopping off the Green Knight’s head with his own axe.
From conversation among anonymous patrons at a Camelot pub in David Lowery’s The Green Knight — along with gruesome Punch-and-Judy puppet shows depicting the confrontation — it seems that this much, at least, about Gawain’s encounter with the Green Knight has already become common knowledge.
The only catch is that it isn’t so — not in the film, anyway.
Whatever locals and storytellers may have heard or relate to others, Dev Patel’s Gawain did not lop off the Green Knight’s head with his own axe. He did it with the sword Excalibur, which his uncle, King Arthur himself, lent him on the spot for that purpose.
Note that while the actual decapitation diverges from the poem, characters remember the incident, not the way it actually happened in their world, but the way it happened in the poem. What’s more, this isn’t the film’s only invocation of elements from the source material at odds with the film itself.
The very fact that Gawain’s antagonist is universally referred to as “the Green Knight” is an intertextual oddity. “Why is he green?” Gawain is asked at one point, a question leading to a pivotal monologue on the unsettling associations of that color. Yet Lowery’s “Green Knight” isn’t really green (a color largely muted, in fact, by the film’s orange-and-teal color grading). His arboreal appearance, more Groot than Ent, does lean into the character’s associations with the foliate-headed Green Man of medieval artwork. Yet even Groot, with his slightly mossy bark, was greener than this Green Knight.
Then there’s the wording of the challenge from Lowery’s Green Knight to Arthur’s court, which diverges somewhat from the poem: Challengers are invited to “try to land a blow” against him, after which, one year later, the uncanny Knight will “return what was given me, be it a scratch on the cheek or a cut in the throat.”
“A scratch on the cheek” is another intertextual orphan, an allusion to something that happens in the source material but not in the film. In the poem, no one ever speaks of the axe being used only to scratch, but a scratch is unexpectedly given where a fatal blow is anticipated. This doesn’t happen in the film, but the language is there.
Finally, there’s the awkward moment when Gawain finds himself hailed as “the finest and most virtuous of knights” — an accolade that’s as eminently suited to the poem’s gallant hero as it is crashingly inapt for Patel’s character, who is not even a knight, and certainly not outstanding in virtue or in any other way.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.