I’ve known the story of Gawain and the Green Knight for a long time, initially from Roger Lancelyn Green’s King Arthur And His Knights Of The Round Table, then from Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur, both of which I read as a child. Most recently I read Simon Armitage’s ‘translation’ (I think of it as more of a transcription or adaptation when the source is Middle English). I’m no expert on it, however, and I haven’t tried to seek out all its versions—I’ve certainly never encountered as free or avant-garde an adaptation as David Lowery’s The Green Knight, but others may well exist. As I don’t feel any particular personal connection to the story, or have any strong opinions about ‘what it really means’, I was free to encounter Lowery’s film on its own terms. And this is quite a film.
I think there should be a word for works of fiction which treat mythological or fantastical settings as though they were real, in the manner of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord Of The Rings, or George Lucas’s Star Wars, or Bernard Cornwell’s version of the Arthurian legend, the Warlord Chronicles. This isn’t one of those. It has more of a magical realist vibe, but light on the realism. If there was anything it reminded me of it was Neil Jordan’s The Company Of Wolves, a film I haven’t seen since it came out when I was 14—so I’m not claiming any similarities, just saying it gave me a similar impression. Like Jordan’s film, The Green Knight is an adaptation of a historical tale of the fantastic, which rather than attempting to construct a mimetic setting around it, takes the tale’s logic at face value, and spins it into a kind of dream. (I say that, but my own dreams never have this kind of symbolic coherence to them—unless there’s something I’m missing about the fennel-infused steel that magnetic railway was made from last night). Lowery still finds space in this fabulous narrative for some real acting, however, some of it naturalistic, and some of it more like the declamation of a text. Sean Harris’s King Arthur in particular is a sad and charismatic figure, who commands the screen without appearing to want to, and Dev Patel as Gawain is perfect, as is Sarita Choudhury as his mother.
I should say that this version of Gawain is not how I’ve envisaged the character in any of my encounters with Arthurian literature. I usually think of him as a big man, the eldest of many brothers, a combative person, and a leader. Patel plays him as something else entirely, a young, easily-led man, whose courage is prone to fail him when he needs it the most—and there is no sign of the family politics which usually surround Gawain (although to be fair they are also absent from the fourteenth century Green Knight poem). However, I don’t need Gawain to be a certain way, and that is one of the great advantages of source material like this: the tale is a myth, originally told to illustrate the chivalric values of its time, and repurposed by Lowery as a fable on themes of honesty and generosity. The characters in the story are archetypes, with little concrete detail attached to them (although they are given somewhat more in the film than in most versions of the poem). Such a rich web of symbols produces meaning as an emergent property, without requiring its authors to spell things out, to pursue any particular agenda, or to have a single correct interpretation in mind. Watching The Green Knight I experienced a multiplicity of meanings, and a branching web of atmospheres and emotional responses. I’m finding, as you may have surmised, that it’s a difficult film to describe, and in fact I don’t think it would be a good idea to do so. It’s very well made, and the experience it offers to an open-minded viewer is one that is immersively beautiful and richly significant.