Rediscovering Honor with The Green Knight

“Christ is born” is not a line you expect to hear in a movie these days, certainly not in an opening scene. The Green Knight opens with this surprise, then leaves you wondering—why does Christmas matter? It’s difficult to say: David Lowery, the writer-director, perhaps daren’t hold on to the avowed Christianity of the 14th-century poem on which the film is based. Nevertheless, he keeps its Christmas setting. Perhaps he thinks this opening is enough to guide viewers?

Lowery has made a rare movie. I believe people call this sort of vision hauntingly beautiful, full of hints of regret and self-pity which reveal the souls of young men. He tells a story that adds up, but it is elusive and it departs very much from the original poem, so he risks splitting his audience in the effort to share his vision. Those who know the poem will be offended; those who love stunning beauty in images will be satisfied, but not enlightened.

The Green Knight concerns itself with honor, as does the original poem, but it also avoids half of the poem’s title: the name of the protagonist, Sir Gawain, one of the Knights of the Round Table. This is a very democratic version of that very aristocratic poem, hiding as much as possible the aristocrat’s proud claims to superiority—sir, after all, or sire, comes from senior, which means old and therefore revered, and was used for lords or masters. Lowery knows that Americans, outside the military or the South, rarely call anyone sir. So most of the impressive aristocratic feasting and hunting and all the dazzling beauty of the poem are left behind. Gone, too, is the brotherhood of knights, the code of honor—leaving instead a democratic loneliness, a feeling of inadequacy typical of our times.

Lowery’s Gawain (Dev Patel) is himself a man of our times, a layabout youth who misses church for the sake of a woman of negotiable affection. She greets him and he answers “Christ is born, indeed.” There is something impious in what the old-fashioned call the sin of fornication, but I think Lowery thinks that the woman bringing the greeting is somehow tied to Christ, and the story suggests her love may be redemptive for Gawain. It’s hard to tell because the movie is directed to convey the experience of reluctance or shyness: Gawain does not know himself—he wants to be a man, but fears failure. He must dare to find himself and the audience must also dare to follow Lowery’s strange imagery.

Honor and Poetry

This Gawain is not ashamed of his lust, perhaps because he believes love does not need or cannot lead to marriage in a man of no achievement—marriage is a matter of law, and might seem reserved for the respectable or serious. A boy cannot make vows—no one would believe his word, since he has not proven himself. Gawain is ashamed when his uncle King Arthur asks him to tell a tale of his deeds at the Round Table; accordingly, he jumps at the chance to prove himself against the Green Knight who interrupts King Arthur’s Christmas feast with a shocking challenge.

Lowery’s Camelot is not defined by refined manners, but might seem instead a very natural place, as that beginning in a brothel suggests. It reveals ugly truths and does not beautify our lives, like heroic poems used to do. This presentation is based on the opinion that the longing for honor is best seen in those who have none—not the wicked or bestial, but those who have done nothing. Remember Emily Dickinson’s poem: “Success is counted sweetest by those who ne’er succeed…” Lowery is concerned with American boys, who displace the example of heroes who might guide them to the active life, and instead are formed by fantasies on computers or TV screens. Heroism pointed to the need for manliness, facing danger personally, and therefore learning about the human condition; technological fantasies preclude it.

Accordingly, Arthur and Guinevere are old, their hall is not resplendent and whatever grand past lay behind them is cold comfort. Nevertheless, they bear their mortality much better than Gawain—they are dignified. But it is clear he must leave if he is to make something of himself. Camelot seems to have as little future as Gawain. His inactivity resembles Arthur’s senescence. The age of heroes may be coming to an end. Thus, Lowery suggests we should not take comfort in myths, but be adventurous instead So we should ask ourselves whether all the entertainment for boys is making them more active or putting them to sleep. Lowery seems to think Camelot is too familiar—it’s Disney—and is losing its power over our imaginations.

This is why the boy yearns for the Green Knight’s challenge to a duel: to deal a blow and then to suffer one in return, like for like, tit for tat, if you will. War thus turns into a game, but one conducted with fair play and patterned on justice. This is a beautification of the fear that leads us to attack, to defend ourselves, to punish enemies. Gawain, wielding Excalibur and chopping off the Green Knight’s head, wishes to strike a blow at a life that’s given him nothing to do. He loathes his own weakness and wishes to prove himself strong. He changes from reluctant to reckless and the rest of the movie is a test of his soul. This journey is where we observe the elusive connection to Christ.

The Corruption of Ambition

The Green Knight tests the honorable ideal of the Knights—as soon as he is decapitated, he picks up his head and reminds Gawain that in one year’s time, next Christmas, it will be his turn to face the blow. The duel was not merely about the willingness to face a foe, but to face mortality, the inevitable end—however many victories a knight can win, he will someday lose.

The Green Knight represents nature, he is green in wintertime, and nature will defeat the human desire for glory eventually. Lowery accordingly makes him bear a tree-like head, rather like Tolkien’s ents in Lord of the Rings. Life itself, its permanence and therefore its indifference to mortality and to individuality, seems to be testing, and even taunting, Gawain. Lowery’s movie is what we call weird—among the beautiful images there are many cold colors, the characters seem estranged from each other and unable to come together in friendship or even trust, and there are many strange sights. These images are beautiful, but obviously unreal, and therefore haunting, suggesting that we might long for impossible things. Lowery knows that young men fear death before they have even lived, but have no way of speaking to it, as the dark fantasies that dominate their imagination nowadays prove. In comparison to the darkness of young men’s imaginations, Lowery offers something much more beautiful, if not as inspiriting.

The plot of The Green Knight obeys the moral and aesthetic demands typical of American boys, so Lowery is forced to leave out most of the plot of the poem. The adventures of Gawain fit with the expectation of the fantasy stories on which American children have been raised since the 90s: Monsters, animal friends, treacherous men, and benevolent spirits. These are the figments of an imagination that is neither oriented by the scientific study of nature, the political pursuit of freedom and greatness, nor faith in Christ. Americans are confused and the second act of the movie reveals this confusion: Gawain cannot be at home among these fantasies, but he must pass through them to reach the Green Knight and discover his fate.

I will not spoil the plot, since I want primarily to prepare you to experience The Green Knight as Lowery made it. Lowery obviously wants his audience to be charmed and intrigued enough to watch his movie twice, to rethink their first impressions. However, he’s just one artist without a reputation and he’s battling the expectations and the moral vacuity of Disney and the bad habits they have given viewers. Think here of Marvel and all that sarcastic storytelling that encourages young men to pretend they have no deep longings, no great uncertainties, and that their spiritual needs can be met by cool entertainment.

Gawain wants to embrace honor, to be a man of his word, to seek out the Green Knight and receive a decapitating blow. But his intention is not enough—he cannot know in advance what he will do when the fearful moment comes. Journeying, he discovers how strange and wonderful the world is, full of beauty and danger. He realizes he loves his life and thus becomes vulnerable to cowardice. His temptation starts here—he becomes ambitious for his uncle’s crown and conceives a fantasy of usurpation.

Lowery presents this tyranny over Camelot as the result of a desperate love of life, of wanting to have everything when one stands to lose everything, a consequence of cowardice, a fantasy of safety both hiding Gawain from himself and hiding him from his mortality at the expense of everyone’s freedom. Gawain learns to fear the Green Knight’s axe, which forces him to contemplate not only losing his life, but also his integrity. He becomes haunted by the idea that he is already dead inside. He could be a tyrant, betraying not only the people of Camelot, but also his lover who would bear him a child.

The obvious attraction of chivalry today is its notion of self-mastery leading to honor, its very difficulty made plausible or even desirable given the unhappiness of young men.

Temptation

Lowery deserves praise for his intelligent concern with American young men, but it is R-Rated for a reason—a sex scene, the biggest departure from the poem’s plot, replaces the poem’s emphasis on Gawain’s chastity. Any teenager can read the poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, but the movie is for adults for this reason. I think I can explain why this controversial scene is in the movie, but I disagree with Lowery’s interpretation of the story–he misunderstands the temptation of Sir Gawain.

Lowery reasons from the situation we are in, because he wants to help people: Americans have failed to persuade the young to marry, so the majority of the young are unmarried for the first time in our history. American politicians and experts refuse to discuss this, and we have no idea what to do about it. No authority or leader is willing to say anything about it, much less adopt serious measures that might aid us in recovery. Since we live in a shameless world, we conduct all sorts of surveys about sexuality and the ironic upshot is that the young are not having sex. The 2020s are not the 1960s. Smartphones have replaced rock-n-roll. Lowery believes young Americans have forgotten that love and sexuality are part of human nature, and since their Disney entertainment is entirely sexless, he pushes in the opposite direction.

This leads him to the typical mistake of our latter-day liberals, the belief that there is no connection between sex and shame—that the private can ever be made public—hence the rather graphic sex scene. Gawain succumbs to seduction because there’s nothing stronger in him; he will therefore never be honorable, he can never have a public life; instead, his privacy is published, as though that were the same thing, but in fact it sacrifices even the possibility of love, since there is no one for him to love. This was the mistake made with the opening scene and it grew into a big enough mistake to mar the whole movie at the end. It is intended to remind the young that they are too cowardly to be erotic, to remind the adults that they are too embarrassed to deal with the young, and it fails precisely because it is so moralistic and lacking in subtlety.

One is reminded of Flannery O’Connor’s remark that pornography—of which smartphones are full—is sentimentality. She meant that it is based on the opinion that love in all its complexity and tragic tendency can be contrived or counterfeited. Lowery, too, is sentimental. Out of a deep and even noble concern to help the young and to help adults understand how the young are failing to grow up, he has contributed his blow to what’s left of the idealism without which education for honor and love is impossible. The obvious attraction of chivalry today is its notion of self-mastery leading to honor, its very difficulty made plausible or even desirable given the unhappiness of young men. Lowery rejects self-restraint and accordingly ends up robbing them of any object of aspiration. His excuse is that he doesn’t know any better—after all, he had to educate himself without any guidance, there was no one to persuade him that he cannot improve young men by demanding less of them.

The temptation to ruin the poem also comes from our democratic habits—we have few honorable men among us, almost none are publicly honored. Talk of heroism is mostly ideological pandering and most talk of manliness is hysterically punitive, out of a desire for more equality for women. How, then, can anyone make a movie about the heroic ideal? Instead, Lowery gives us his own ideal as a poet of democracy, of young men who discover their individuality through love. This is sentimentality, since love can be tragic. More importantly, it cannot replace heroism, since it is private, and not a matter of public justice. I will explain in my next essay how to begin to love and understand the poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, with quotes from the Tolkien translation!