This article contains spoilers for David Lowery’s 2021 film The Green Knight.
The Green Knight is one of the most beautiful, most visually stunning American films I have seen in years. The only thing I know from the past few years that rivals it for its effective use of color and sweeping cinematography may just be Chinese master director Zhang Yimou’s marvelous Shadow from 2018. Not only does color and even the lack thereof, landscape, and physical atmosphere feature heavily (because, to be fair, The Green Knight and Shadow are not the only movies that have featured these), but also these things have heavy, haunting implications for the themes, plot, and characters of the story. However, at this point, I am going to transition to talking about an element of the film I find even more fascinating.
Many of the film writers I read see The Green Knight as being critical of honor and glory culture, critical of the chivalry championed in the original Sir Gawain and the Green Knight poem. But I think they have this all wrong. The Green Knight is actually a film where the filmmaker, writer/director David Lowery for whom The Green Knight was a passion project, is in conversation with the Gawain Poet’s work, looking back at that epic, medieval story from a postmodern perspective and trying to find how he can apply it to his contemporary life.
The Green Knight finds Lowery, I do believe, lost. In interviews for The Green Knight’s promotion, Lowery talks about wanting a story about a young man on a quest, like the movies he enjoyed as a child, and he talks about feeling as if he has had a difficult time growing up but is now realizing he must, even if he does not know exactly why. (There are better interviews available, but here are two that support my point: One with Collider and one with Alamo Drafthouse) In a world sapped of spirituality, Lowery does not find how he should grow up readily available to him. So he searches through art, through filmmaking.
The young people, and especially the young men, of the 2020s do not know where to go, but they know they must go somewhere. The same is true of Lowery’s Gawain. He is the son of a witch and the nephew of the Christian king Arthur Pendragon, but he has seemingly rejected both his mother’s pagan ways and his uncle’s Christian faith, perhaps because, as we see, neither paths have been truly taught to him—either path is preferable to a loss of the spiritual, as C.S. Lewis illustrates in That Hideous Strength, a story that, incidentally, also explores Arthurian mythology.
The leaders who should be in Gawain’s life have taken for granted that he would know how to wield spirituality and the important virtues, although he definitely does not. Gawain wants to be actively good, but instead he is passively bad or just a moral nonentity with nowhere known to direct his energy. He is also cowardly and follows no visible code to speak of, except that he feels drawn to kindness and being kind. King Arthur realizes this reality just in time for young Gawain to try to prove himself, although almost too late.
Where there is no vision, the people perish. And Gawain gets a vision, especially in the guise of the Green Knight and his beheading game, brought into the world by Gawain’s witch mother but somewhat out of her control. At the very moment Gawain feels the most shame at his cowardice and lack of noble deeds, the Green Knight appears and offers what seems to be an easy chance at glory. Gawain takes it, but the task is the ultimate in difficulty, as it turns out.
Honor! That’s what Gawain needs! He knows it at this point, but he does not even know what honor is, and, once again, no one has taken the time to instruct this fatherless, mother-coddled boy. His prostitute lover tries to offer him some form of it in the shape of a simple married life with her, but he is too afraid to commit, although, again, he does at least somewhat want it, as seen in his acceptance of his lover’s token of her true love. In his quest, a magical couple reveal to Gawain the emptiness of his knowledge of honor, although they cannot give him much more hope. This magical couple’s almost Renaissance life and style reflect the knowledge the Renaissance and Enlightenment eventually brought the world, at the same time offering little spiritual help for the hollowness revealed by knowledge. This is, of course, much like the situation of Adam and Eve after eating the fruit of the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. An encounter with bandits previously showed Gawain the limits of kindness, although an encounter with a ghost did show him some of the differences between good and bad knights.
Honor attracts the lost young, but in a world that does not care to teach them what true honor is, does not care much to teach them many of any of the virtues, those same young are left not knowing if and how they will prove themselves and find confidence. And so a vision of honor will either lead them to a learned, authentic system of virtue—though it will most likely be frightfully gained—or this vision will lead them to corruption and extreme selfishness. Gawain realizes this in The Green Knight’s final moments.
So, has David Lowery grown up through the making of this film? Has his interest in medieval Christian poems and stories of honorable quests led him to maturation and goodness? I’m not sure. I do think he is closer than he was in A Ghost Story, which is another film of Lowery’s I like that was exploring similar, spiritual themes. From reading and listening to his current interviews, it seems he is in much the same place as Gawain at the end of The Green Knight in that he has found the good—framed by the Christian celebration of Christmas, filled with spirituality one cannot ignore, shown honor by the keeping of one’s word and the determined facing of death and the rejection of cowardice—but how he will ultimately act on it is uncertain. The temptations of the world are great and our currently in-place structures and leaders do not advertise many decent alternatives, even when they hold such alternatives in their own knowledge.