The Green Knight hit theaters recently and is a super dense movie. Let's decode its many meanings.
There is an overlap between religion and history, between metaphor and truth, between what actually happens and what we feel like happens. This convergence of elements is actually where the narrative form, storytelling at its core, draws all its power.
When we loosen our grip on the facts and allow meaning and interpretation to drift, magical things happen. We create a more powerful interpretation of the world, of events… we create the meaning of existence.
And if we do this well enough, it transcends time and lasts for generations. Lessons or parables told and retold in new ways, or the same ways.
All of this is why David Lowery and A24’s The Green Knight is such a fascinating and dense feature film.
If we can understand this film and its history, we can truly better understand our craft.
Based on the Arthurian Lore, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a deeply symbolic, meaningful, and challenging story.
Lowery’s feature version starring Dev Patel attempts to decode and unravel the ancient tale in a manner that does the original text justice, but also opens up some of its mysticism to a modern audience.
If you haven’t seen it yet, consider this post a deep dive and a primer, and there will be some spoilers...
If you have seen it, you’re probably wondering what the hell Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is about.
The short answer is—we’re not entirely sure. Nobody alive is.
The long answer is—well, a journey…
So don some chainmail, grab the nearest legendary weapon, and let’s go.
Table of Contents
What is Sir Gawain and the Green Knight about?
Okay, the bad news?
We are incapable of knowing precisely what The Green Knight is about, or what it meant to the people of its era. We can only attempt to decode it and use it as a time travel device to a culture that's over a thousand years old.
The good news: that’s kind of the fun part, right?
But we’re not just figuring out what The Green Knight movie made in 2021 means, or even the meaning behind the original story itself.
The importance of this story to our storytelling tradition looms so large that implications of it apply to history, narrative craft, and maybe even life itself.
This ancient fascinating text holds mysteries that critics, artists, and thinkers have been trying to unlock for over a thousand years. It probably all made perfect sense to the people of its era. But all that is buried in time now. Obscured behind a misty fog of oral history, unwritten accounts... forcing legends to become fact.
So here we stand in 2021 attempting to use The Green Knight movie as a key to glimpsing the past. Not just as it was, but as it felt, or what it meant, to the people of its time. How they made sense of their world. And how all of that applies to ours.
Let’s start with the key figure…
The Green Knight
The title of the 2021 movie is simply The Green Knight, the original title is Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
Who is the Green Knight? Here is an image of him from the original text (he’s the green guy holding his own decapitated head):
Here is his adapted character for the 2021 film:
He’s the antagonist in the story, but he’s also the quest-giver, the teacher. He combines many story archetypes into one figure. Maybe he's even... an Anti villain.
But to decode who he is, first we need to talk about the story as a whole. The original story.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight summary and The Green Knight Story
The legend goes that on Christmas Day, the Green Knight crashed a party in Camelot. You know Camelot. You surely know some version of it.
Disney’s Sword in the Stone, the musical? Maybe the grail from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade?
Arthurian legend is a massive piece of western civilization and storytelling. Its influence on everything from Tolkien to Star Wars is well documented. You know Arthur, Guinevere, Merlin, and Lancelot even if you don’t. They’re in all story DNA.
Side note: who is your favorite King Arthur actor? Mine is Sean Connery. But he appeared as the character alongside a really rough casting choice for Lancelot.
What about Sir Gawain and the Green Knight?
Well, these characters are essentially a spin-off.
Yes, even in the ancient world, there were spinoffs of popular tales! So much of what we know of The Iliad, for example, was added later in the oral tradition. Think of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight almost as you might think of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story or Laverne and Shirley to Happy Days. Or Frasier to Cheers. The list goes on.
Much of what we recount here in this summary is also detailed in the Sir Gawain and the Green Knight SparkNotes.
But here we go.
Gawain is Arthur’s nephew. He comes to the Christmas event, where the knights are celebrating. Then the Green Knight shows up. He challenges the assembled: one of you gets to strike me now, then in one year I get to strike you back in the same way. Gawain accepts and beheads the knight.
Then... shit gets weird.
To everyone's shock, the Green Knight picks up his own head and tells Gawain that in one year he must meet him at “the Green Chapel” where the Green Knight gets to return the blow.
Meaning… in one year, poor Gawain has a date with decapitation.
A year later, Gawain journeys to the chapel. Along the way, he struggles to survive and continue his quest. Classic hero's journey stuff.
Just as he’s nearing the end of the quest, Gawain finds the castle of Lord and Lady Bertilak, who let him rest and run out the clock until the big day.
Oh, there is also this mysterious creepy old lady with them.
During the stay, before the date with decapitation, Lord Bertilak makes a deal with Gawain. Every day after hunting, the Lord brings back whatever he catches for Gawain.
In return, Gawain must present Lord Bertilak with any gifts received during the day while Bertilak is away.
During the first day while Lord Bertilak is hunting, Lady Bertilak attempts to seduce Gawain, But being the good knight that he is, he rejects her advances giving her only a single kiss.
Later the Lord returns with a boar and he presents it to Gawain. Fair is fair, so Gawain gives the lord a single kiss.
The next day Lady Bertilak manages to get two kisses from Gawain in her efforts. And once again, at day's end, Gawain gives the lord two kisses in exchange for his bounty.
On the final and third day… Lord Bertilak hunts a fox and the lady kisses Gawain three times.
But this is when it gets more tricky... and symbolic.
The Lady also tempts Gawain to take a green silk girdle from her that she says has the magical ability to protect him from all death and harm.
Gawain is now very close to having to face certain doom at the hands of the Green Knight. So not only does he accept this magic gift, but he does NOT give it to Lord Bertilak, thus breaking their pact.
Gawain goes off to face the Green Knight. The knight starts to swing to chop off his head and stops just short.
He starts a second swing and then also stops short.
Then a final time… and he actually knicks Gawain’s neck and draws blood.
Then the knight reveals the whole truth. He is in fact... Lord Bertilak. The whole thing was a trick played by sorceress Morgan Le Fay, who is Gawain’s aunt and Arthur's half-sister. The blood drawn on the third strike was a punishment for failing to share the gift on the third day. The first two days the test of chivalry was passed, hence the stopping short on the swing... but the final day was a failure.
Wearing the sash on his arm as a mark of shame, Sir Gawain returns home.
Now, there are many ways The Green Knight (2021) veers away from this, but amazingly it remains faithful to the key beats and events of the story.
Let’s get into the what and the why.
The Green Knight movie
First, some basics. The Green Knight release date was July 30, 2021. It was pushed back due to the COVID pandemic over a full year, during that time writer/director David Lowery had a chance to completely re-cut the film to better fit his vision.
You can get a taste of what Lowery is up to with The Green Knight trailer.
The visuals are striking, particularly the photography by Andrew Droz Palermo. Listen to him weigh in when he came on our podcast:
The production design is a very particular medieval look, seemingly more inspired by our sense of history, and less based on mysticism.
For that… look or listen no farther than the audio. The soundtrack and sound effects mingle in The Green Knight to create what I would consider some sort of auditory feast. It’s one of the most engaging-sounding movies I’ve experienced. The sounds are a character. They marry the visuals in such a way that suggests magic and uncertainty far beyond what we can see.
Now, there have been many Sir Gawain and the Green Knight adaptations. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (1973), and then again more loosely in 1984 as Sword of the Valiant. As well as an opera in 1978.
Lowery takes many of the metaphors and symbols in the original and attempts to put them forth in cinematic terms. It’s a bold endeavor, to say the least.
He makes some of the symbols and metaphors into more obvious cinematic conventions. Including Morgan Le Fay as a character more connected directly to Gawain, casting her as his mother. This is a very intentional change, indicating his own interpretation of the original author's intent.
Wait up! Original author?!
Who the hell wrote this thing in the first place?
Who wrote Sir Gawain and the Green Knight?
In the same manner as many older myths, much here is unknown. Scholars refer to “The Gawain Poet” or “The Pearl Poet.”
It’s an anonymous individual.
But here is what we do know about the Sir Gawain and the Green Knight author. They were a contemporary of Chaucer (of The Canterbury Tales), and likely from East Cheshire or West Staffordshire. Those are just about all the details we have on the author.
But fear not! We can get a little more details by asking another question.
When was Sir Gawain and the Green Knight written?
The surviving manuscript is from the 14th century, so it was written in the 1300s.
This part is very important. That’s not when it takes place!
The stories of King Arthur typically take place around the early 6th century, which is (no accident) considered the end of the classical period, and the beginning of the Middle Ages.
Wait, so is King Arthur real?
Probably not. But—kinda.
To better answer this type of question we have to be open to nuance and the fact that history, particularly one from oral legend, is so muddled.
We’re talking about a thousand-year-old game of telephone.
The idea of a warrior-king who defeated Saxon invaders from Britain in the 6th century certainly seems like it was real. What was he like? Did he have a wizard by his side? Did he wield Excalibur?
Maybe there were some elements of his story that gave way to legend building. And then by the time of the 14th century you get things like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, deeper reflections on the larger myth about the hero-king who helped transform the world.
Keep in mind that when people were writing these stories, it had already been over 600 years since they happened in the first place. So we have two important eras at work here.
Era one, when Sir Gawain and the Green Knight takes place, is the early 6th century when there was a massive shift in western Europe from the classical era to the medieval.
Era two, when Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was written, is the 14th century when the Black Death, or bubonic plague, wiped out a third of the European population. England and France fought the Hundred Years' War, and chivalry was at its height.
What is chivalry? Well, that’s maybe the single most important Sir Gawain and the Green Knight theme.
Chivalry in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
When you think of chivalry, you likely think about knights, and/or something approaching gentlemanly behavior. And the most common associated phrase in our world: “Chivalry is not dead."
But chivalry has many meanings and most important to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is the notion of chivalrous conduct.
At first, the word simply referred to the knights themselves. In French and Middle English, versions of the word were used to describe mounted and armored soldiers.
But over time the term came to refer to all that the ideal knight embodied. A high quality of character, and a code of conduct.
You can check out the “Code of Chivalry” for knights.
The basic gist is to be a good guy to a fault, to the death, under any circumstances. To place duty, honor, grace, courtesy, and defense of all that is right above one's own needs or existence.
And that is what Sir Gawain and the Green Knight seems to mostly be about.
Aha! We found it!
We don’t know for sure, of course, but we can deduce that given the time it was written, and the content, that most of the stakes and circumstances of the plot are built around the code of chivalry.
In Lowery’s version, some of this is made more obvious by creating a first act that clearly indicates Gawain (not a knight yet) as a man lacking in this department.
When you think about classic cinematic structure, in modern terms, we typically want first acts that indicate a protagonist with an obvious “need” and an obvious “want,” and those two things are not always aligned.
Gawain wants to be important, but he needs to be chivalrous.
Let's be honest, the original text and the original Gawain weren’t structured quite that way. Lowery has layered in modern screenwriting tropes to some degree here.
In the original text, it’s important to note that Sir Gawain is, from the first act on, a knight. He is also considered a particularly chivalrous one! The story and adventure are meant as a test of his knighthood. Not an opportunity to earn it. This is a key difference.
Of course, it makes sense as a change because it expands upon the original text to create a meaning that connects more with a modern audience. In a manner they understand.
This is why I said at the beginning, how we connect through story is its own language. We cannot fully understand the way that this original story connected to its audience.
Gawain, when we meet him in the film, is a party boy. He’s living with his mother Morgan Le Fay, not the case in the original either. He has “no story to tell,” he has “no quest,” and he has no chivalry. He does have, however, a lot to prove to Uncle Arthur.
And mother Morgan le Fay makes it happen. The choice to make Morgan Le Fay the mother of Gawain implies that she wishes for her son to become chivalrous. In the original, why would Aunt Morgan Le Fay care? There is no such dynamic.
The journey is a quest then into adulthood, foisted upon the young aimless man by his mother.
This is certainly applicable to the original, but it is subtext… it's interpretation.
Either way, in the end, Gawain is faced with the decision to protect himself via the magical band (that in this version Morgan le Fay created for him… and resurfaced in the hands of Lady Bertilak in one of the most uniquely weird sex scenes you’ll see in movie theaters) or to hand it over to Lord Bertilak as his code would demand he do.
There are also brilliant casting and visual metaphors and connections that abound. Alicia Vikander plays a girl Gawain has an affair of sorts with back home, but also plays Lady Bertilak. Morgan Le Fay wears a blindfold when she casts the initial spell, as does the old lady who lives in the Bertilak home.
The green magic sash somehow changes hands. Is stolen along the way.
In Lowery’s film, before the final Green Knight strike, we see Gawain confront the reality where he is not chivalrous. He imagines an entire life after taking the coward's way out.
This is one that is also implied in the original text. When Gawain refuses to return the gift, he is nicked on the neck by the Green Knight, and then must return in shame with the band.
Lowery turns the interpreted meaning behind that one moment into an entire breathtaking “what-if” montage.
After seeing that life, Gawain then chooses the alternative. He hands over the gift. Takes the blow. And the Green Knight congratulates him at the end of this for choosing correctly.
This is another instance of the modern screenwriting trope. The importance that a protagonist makes a choice that demonstrates a change. Lesson learned, in the case of the original text, is shown to us in quite a different manner. It’s shown not by choosing differently, but by bearing the scar and returning home.
Symbolism in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
There are symbols aplenty in this story, but here are some of the key ones.
The girdle. The girdle represents an attachment to mortal life. It’s a protective tool, but it turns out to be the ultimate obstacle to his development of chivalry. It’s a fascinating aspect of the story, but one we’ve seen elsewhere in movies.
Remember when Luke Skywalker does this?
Video is no longer available: youtu.be/pVWGmQgHDZc?t=150
Well, that is the moment Luke declares himself “a Jedi Knight,” and it has a lot in common with Gawain’s decision regarding the green girdle.
The Pentangle. The pentangle is a symbol of the knight's unity of virtues. It was considered a "magic seal," representing the five joys of Mary and five wounds of Christ.
Green. Obviously the color of life, but in this story so closely connected to death, all beautifully elucidated by Lady Bertilak in an incredible low-lit scene at the castle towards the end. The power of life as a force of death.
In most ways, The Green Knight is about death, and how we face it. That might be the core aspect of the story. Do we attempt to cheat it? Attached to our mortal body? Or do we face it boldly, selflessly, accepting death as actually a part of harmony with nature. With "green"?
Star Trek: Wrath of Khan actually captures this idea cinematically, and owes a lot to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
Kirk is a character who avoids, even literally cheats death in the story. In the end, his friend faces it demonstrating chivalry, and it’s a greater "loss" to Kirk than he could have imagined.
The Green Knight. Yeah, the Green Knight is a symbol all his own. And probably one for death, he’s a sort of a grim reaper figure. His ax, a scythe.
Sex. Is this really a symbol? It’s obviously a huge component of the story originally, as well as in the current feature film version. Sex is indicative of giving in to the flesh. Temptation and sexual activity are wrought with a connection to pain and death. Throughout the film and story, sexuality is treated as a dangerous, explosive weapon.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight characters
The key characters in the story include:
Gawain is one of the knights of Arthur's round table in Camelot. In the A24 story, he’s a nephew, not yet a knight, with something to prove.
The Green Knight is a magical hulking bearded green being with a giant ax. He comes with his challenge to Arthur and his knights. He lives in the Green Chapel. He turns out to be a trick/illusion created by Morgan Le Fay. In the film, this is less explicitly stated, and he is not revealed to be Lord Bertilak.
King Arthur is the King of Camelot, the wielder of Excalibur, the hero of the realm. He is Gawain’s uncle, and in the film version portrayed as old and weak, his time having passed him by.
Morgan Le Fay is Arthur’s half-sister. In legend, she is a sort of enchantress, oftentimes Arthur’s adversary. In the film, she is Gawain’s mother, who creates the spell of the Green Knight and the challenge seemingly to help Gawain come of age and become a knight.
Lord Bertilak lives in the castle Gawain happens upon toward the end of his journey. He lets him stay and engages him in a simple game/exchange of goods that turns out to be directly related to the events that would come at the Green Chapel. In the story, he is also the Green Knight. In the film he is not explicitly so. Instead, he is an odd and obvious precursor.
Lady Bertilak is the Lord’s wife. She tempts Gawain with her sexuality. In the film, she also seems to be the most articulate and thoughtful person on the true nature of the Green Knight and his future. She is well-read and an artist. Her meaning in the story, and film, go far beyond her role in the plot. She gives Gawain the green girdle he lost.
Winifred is a character Gawain encounters along his journey and seems pretty clearly to be a reference to Saint Winifred. She is a fascinating addition to the story, as she is not part of the original legend. Her legend could intersect, however, since the location of it is around where Gawain would have been. It’s a very unique way to weave another legend/myth and religious story relating to sexuality and death in the Green Knight’s tale.
Are the key characters archetypes in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight?
Of course they are. Gawain is an archetypal protagonist or knight, out to prove his value and test his mettle. He is a warrior archetype, committed to proving himself in combat, and proving his strength of character as well.
The Green Knight is a classic antagonist, but he also folds into himself qualities of the mentor or sage. He isn’t just issuing a challenge, he has a lesson to teach. At the same time, he fills the role of the herald, as he comes forth bringing the generation of the quest in the first place.
In many ways, Morgan Le Fay is a "devouring mother" archetype or evil mother figure. She’s a twist on the caregiver.
Lady Bertilak is the temptress. Just as the devouring mother, this is a limited and often sexist figure, but Lowery brilliantly combines the characters with other roles in Gawain’s life to give the female figures more agency and power, but also make their roles and intentions more dimensional.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight religious aspects
Religion plays a major role in the original story, as it would in any art from that time.
The pentangle is a symbol of Arthurian Christianity, but more so the themes of self-sacrifice, temptation, and chivalry are all tied closely to ideas of religion from the period. Not to mention… it takes place on Christmas.
There very well could have been pagan rituals or echoes of them baked into some of this story and its symbols as so many were in early Christianity. Remember, the time the story takes place is not long after the Western Roman Empire falls and Christianity is very much on the rise.
This is a world where people who had been pagan for centuries were welcoming in the Christian ideology and combining it with their own prior belief system.
It's arguable that in the tale, Gawain’s reconciling his failures of the flesh with his chivalry is about showing the people of the time a pious way forward. How to be Christian… but also human. Gawain cannot be Christ. He is just a man.
Women's role in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
This could very easily be its own long post, and it’s also not one I feel equipped to write, but the role of women in the original story is layered and problematic in a modern reading.
This is part of the genius employed by the filmmakers in The Green Knight, where they interpret certain symbols, combine many forms of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight analysis to form a version of the story that makes the female figures more engaged and less simplistic or purely evil.
If anything, this take on Gawain paints him (literally) as something of a fool in the hands of powerful, intelligent women who are the ones crafting the events of the story.
Lady Bertilak, in the film version, is the most dynamic and interesting character on screen. From the moment she shows up, everything shifts, and we start to cut closer to the bone of the actual original myth, and its symbols and meanings. The ideas that truly run deepest are expressed by her, explained by her, to the often oblivious Gawain, and the completely clueless Lord Bertilak. Lady Bertilak "gets it," and she’s the one who puts Gawain in a position to learn the true lesson.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight moral
So what does it all mean?
Again, we don’t really know. Even after all that. But in terms of the A24 film, we have a clear sense of a moral, and it seems to align with the original as well. Sir Gawain cannot escape death, nor can any of us. We all have a date at the Green Chapel. How do we approach it? In every day and in every relationship we can choose to be honest in how we face reality, or we can hide from it.
If we cling to the idea of the protective green girdle, we arguably fail to live life authentically. We fail to be bold and chivalrous. We fail to see the truth. That life, love, sex, and death are all intertwined in one swirling mass. We are not separate pieces from the process, we will return to the dust and the earth. As separate as we consider our beings and selfhood, this is, in the end, a lie.
And isn’t that also the meaning behind the Christ story? And all religions? And all stories?
For “it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.”
What did you think of The Green Knight? Let us know in the comments.