‘Fantastic sights, chivalric symbolism and deep chills’:
David Lowery’s The Green Knight
Graham Williamson digs into the 2021 adaptation of the Arthurian legend...
Just as Sir Gawain knows that his debt to the Green Knight must be repaid next Christmas, so have horror fans spent the pandemic anticipating the release of The Green Knight (US, David Lowery, 2021). Originally scheduled for release in May 2020, it resurfaced slightly more than ‘one year hence’ after Lowery recut it so ‘the spirit of the movie just got a little more nuanced, while the letter of it stayed exactly the same’. (Letterboxd, 2021)
The movie’s spirit is a complex one. It’s one of those rare but cherishable works of modern folk horror – In the Earth (UK, Ben Wheatley, 2021) would be another – that seems more engaged by the genre’s ideas than its aesthetics. Lowery’s film, like the epic poem it is adapted from, is part of the Arthurian mythology, one of those classic tales whose appeal is both too deep and too simple for Hollywood to grasp. As with Robin Hood, Arthurian films often downplay the mystic profundity of the tales while adding character complexity, an approach which – even when it works – diminishes the mythic stature of these figures.
Lowery’s film, though, is full of fantastic sights, chivalric symbolism and deep chills. As for the character complexity, it already exists within the poem. As Xan Brooks notes, ‘the other knights [of the Round Table] were largely fixed in place. They were signifiers of virtue (Galahad), evil (Mordred) or all-round knightly prowess (Lancelot). But Gawain jumped around. Gawain had an arc.’ (Brooks, 2021)
Despite that favourite screenwriter’s word – arc – being well-applied to Gawain, the story has not been part of mainstream Hollywood’s Arthurian cycle. It was adapted into Gawain and the Green Knight (UK, Stephen Weeks, 1973), which combined the tale with elements of Sir Gareth’s story in Malory’s Morte d’Arthur. Weeks later remade his film as Sword of the Valiant (UK, Weeks, 1984), which unquestionably stands as the most stylistically mainstream film version.
The lack of screen versions can be attributed to the poem’s own lack of fame. Written at some point in the late fourteenth century, it was forgotten until it was published in 1839 by Sir Frederic Madden. In the introduction to his modern translation of the poem, Simon Armitage suggested this obscurity is part of the poem’s appeal:
‘The lack of authorship seems to serve as an invitation, opening up a space within the poem for a new writer to occupy. Its comparatively recent rediscovery acts as a further draw; if Milton or Pope had put their stamp on it, or if Dr. Johnson had offered an opinion, or if Keats or Coleridge or Wordsworth had drawn it into their orbit, such an invitation might now appear less forthcoming.’ (Armitage, 2007, v-vi)
That said, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight has attracted many famous admirers and reinterpreters in the short time it has been known to us. David Rudkin, author of Penda’s Fen (UK, Alan Clarke, 1974) wrote the script for a TV adaptation in 1991, and J.R.R. Tolkien was said to have ‘devoted so much thought and study’ (Tolkien, 2007) to the poem prior to writing The Lord of the Rings. It is typical of Lowery’s sideways approach to the fantasy canon that he seems deeply influenced by Lord of the Rings – not Tolkien’s novel, nor Peter Jackson’s blockbuster film trilogy, but the unmade script by John Boorman, director of Excalibur (US, 1981). One of Boorman’s main additions to Tolkien, the burial and symbolic rebirth of Gimli in order to access a race memory of the entrance to Moria, finds echo in Gawain’s vision of his own death in Lowery’s film.
Elsewhere, Lowery’s interpretation is less iconoclastic than it first appears. You could compare his film to Valhalla Rising (Denmark, Nicolas Winding Refn, 2009) or Antichrist (Denmark, Lars von Trier, 2009), both slow, experimental, confrontational takes on the quest theme from modern cult directors. A lot of Lowery’s grandest flourishes, though, are rooted in the text. His previous film The Old Man & the Gun (US, Lowery, 2018) pulls brief mentions of its anti-hero Forrest Tucker’s acquaintances from David Grann’s source article and fleshes them out into parts for Sissy Spacek and Danny Glover. The Green Knight does something similar, taking a minor reference to the Welsh village of Holywell in the poem and expanding it into a cameo for the village’s native saint St Winifred, played by Erin Kellyman.
In Lowery’s film, Winifred’s spirit cannot rest because of a debt related to her decapitation, a plot point which obviously parallels Sir Gawain’s dilemma. This keenness to repeat motifs has more to do with the logic of balladry than the logic of screenwriting, and ironically the part of the poem which is the most cinematic – the cross-cutting between Lord Bertilak’s fox-hunting and Gawain’s seduction by his wife – was cut by Lowery in order to tie the film more closely to Gawain’s viewpoint.
As it stands, the section with the Lord and Lady – nameless here – still contains much of the meaning of Lowery’s film. Shifted from the middle to the back of the narrative, it occurs as the change in seasons signals to the audience that Sir Gawain’s quest must be near its end. Yet when Gawain awakes in the Lord’s palace, he is told it is not Christmas Day – the deadline he was given at the start of the film – but 21st December, the date of the winter solstice.
The symbolism is clear: Gawain has slipped from a Christian world which celebrates Christ’s birth to a pagan world ruled by the seasons, a connection strengthened by the casting of Alicia Vikander as both the Lady and Gawain’s love interest back at home. The audience is encouraged to read them as Christian and pagan versions of the same archetype, a connection strengthened by the first dialogue exchange of the film: ‘Christ is born!’ ‘Christ is born indeed’.
The death and rebirth of the Green Knight is usually read as a parable of seasonal change, a motif Lowery’s film reflects with a wonderfully-designed puppet show whose backdrop is a wheel which can be turned to represent the four seasons. Sword of the Valiant depicts this character as a knight in green armour, a decision presumably made so star Sean Connery’s face wouldn’t be obscured by make-up. Lowery and his team make him into a towering, wooden-faced giant, voiced resonantly by modern folk horror icon Ralph Ineson.
This Green Knight resembles the Green Man, a sculpted face sprouting branches often found on the walls of English churches. For a long time, the Green Man was thought to be a pagan symbol symbolising the spring, but careful research has found no instance of it during the pre-Christian era. It seems, instead, that rural English Christianity is so entwined with the lingering Old Ways that Christian sculptors working centuries after Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was written happened to produce something that appears authentically pagan.
This in turn shines new light on Lowery’s decision to make Dev Patel’s Gawain the son of Morgan le Fay, a sorceress and antagonist in the Arthurian mythos. The family connection is not entirely invented; Gawain is always portrayed as King Arthur’s nephew, and Morgan is usually rendered as Arthur’s stepsister. But this more direct connection makes it clear that Gawain is torn between the Christian and mystic traditions from the start of the movie.
The casting of Patel, one of those fortunate actors who appears born to be a leading man, was pleasingly uncontroversial; recent films like Mary Queen of Scots (UK/US, Josie Rourke, 2018) and The Personal History of David Copperfield (UK, Armando Iannucci, 2019 – also starring Patel) have established the theatrical tradition of race-blind casting in modern heritage cinema. Perhaps it’s accidental, but the non-white actors in The Green Knight seem to be more pointedly cast; they are outside of the English power structure, like the Welsh Winifred, or they are representatives of an older faith, like Sarita Choudhury’s le Fay. Whether this is intentional or not, Choudhury gives an imposing, magnetic performance, and her connection to the Green Knight is shifted from the poem’s final twist to the film’s set-up.
It ought to be noted that, unlike most fiction about the interplay between paganism and Christianity, Lowery finds much that is mysterious and compelling in the Christian faith. The brief moment where Gawain and his fox companion encounter giant humanoids might be intended to evoke Genesis 6:4, which confirms that ‘There were giants in the earth in those days’. This phrase is often used colloquially to mourn the passing of an age of heroes, and the casting of Sean Harris and Kate Dickie as Arthur and Guinevere – both excellent, both visibly older than most screen versions of these characters – aligns this film with a body of films about icons in their later years including Robin & Marian (UK/US, Richard Lester, 1976) or Mr Holmes (UK/US, Bill Condon, 2015).
In his five-star review for Empire magazine, John Nugent described the film as ‘Revisionist Fantasy, doing for the genre what the likes of Robert Altman or Alejandro Jodorowsky did with their Revisionist Westerns’. (Nugent, 2021) It is interesting that, despite being a Texan filmmaker with a consistent interest in the distance between legend and reality, Lowery has shown little interest in the Western genre; he has previously explored the theme using outlaw mythology (The Old Man & the Gun, 2018, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, 2013), children’s stories (Pete’s Dragon, 2015) and tales of the undead (A Ghost Story, 2017). The Green Knight takes this story even further back in time, and suggests that his forthcoming Peter Pan & Wendy (US, Lowery, 2022) might finally make great cinema out of a story which famously unseated Steven Spielberg.
Armitage, Simon, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Faber & Faber, London, 2007
Brooks, Xan, ‘The timeless allure of King Arthur’s Gawain: “He feels like the first modern protagonist”’, The Guardian, 7 August 2021
Letterboxd Crew, ‘The David Lowery Q&A’, Letterboxd.com, 6 December 2021
Nugent, John, ‘The Green Knight’, Empire Magazine, 29 July 2021
Tolkien, J.R.R. and Christopher, The Monsters and the Critics, and Other Essays, HarperCollins, London, 2007