By David Armstrong
Caveat Lector: Spoilers follow for David Lowery’s The Green Knight.
David Lowery’s The Green Knight (2021) is simply incredible. In a lifetime of ill-conceived, failed, and outright botched Camelot films, it is refreshing to know that someone, somewhere, actually has some knowledge of Arthuriana, particularly the mystifying, apocalyptic, even psychedelic strangeness that surrounds the Matter of Britain. And it succeeds in doing what so few retellings of myth do—namely, it makes changes that deepen the symbolic argument of its narrative rather than upend it. Specifically, Lowery’s Green Knight is like a mystery pageant—very nearly a cinematic apocalypse—that gets at the very heart of Christian mysticism: the resurrection life that comes through egoic death.
In the original tale, Sir Gawain is one of the knights at Arthur’s table, supping on New Year’s Day—the eighth day of Christmas and feast of Christ’s circumcision for early medieval Catholics like the Romanized Britons of Camelot—in festal court when the otherworldly figure of the Green Knight arrives and challenges Arthur’s court to a game. The terms of the game are that wherever the knight who will meet him strikes him, so, too, will the Green Knight land a reciprocal blow one year hence. Sir Gawain takes up the challenge and beheads the Knight, only to find that the Knight is capable of magically taking up his head again and leaving for the Green Chapel where the game will be concluded. One year later, Gawain goes to meet the Knight, encountering various trials along the way—above all, the offer by a bewitching temptress of a green girdle that will allegedly keep him alive no matter what. Gawain takes the girdle and fails to be honest with the lady’s husband, the host of his final stop along the journey, about having received it; due to its protection, when he finally does meet the Green Knight, he receives only a slight wound upon his neck. Gawain bears a degree of shame for his trickery, dishonesty, and temptation, but the Green Knight seeks to console him, assuring him of his friendship and that his honor outweighs his human weakness. The Knights of the Round Table proceed to take up green girdles as personal reminders of Gawain’s quest and the importance of honesty.
It is clear that Sir Gawain struggles to uphold chivalric chastity and honesty in the face of the realia of his quest, and so interpreters—who have been famously divided on nearly every element of this enchanting story—read the lay as on some level a statement about balancing the idealism of Christian morality with the realism of life in the world. Like Arthur’s knights, Christians are held to high moral standards that are difficult to keep in the world without dying: short of landing a less fatal blow on the Green Knight in the first place, the only way for Sir Gawain to have retained his honor to the end would have been to submit himself to martyrdom at the Knight’s hands.
Lowery’s The Green Knight recognizes and rectifies this imperfection in the original tale, and its changes end up (intentionally or not) making it a parable of Christian discipleship. For one thing, Gawain is Arthur’s nephew and, theoretically, his heir. These are the waning days of Camelot: Arthur and Guinevere are now ancient, and Arthur looks on Gawain with “regret” that he has not sought to know him better, but also with excitement for what Gawain might yet accomplish. In Christian terms, Gawain is here being reimagined along the lines of a discipulus dilectus of the regal Christ, who in John’s Gospel promises that “he who believes in me…will do works greater than these, because I am going to the Father” (John 14:12). Arthur’s concern is for how the legacy of his kingdom is going to continue beyond him in the future, not least since he lacks an heir. And to his credit, Arthur does not seek to cling to life for anything, seemingly, other than to see the greatness to which his friends and successors will attain. “Is it wrong,” Arthur asks Gawain at one point early on, as though Christ asking us, “to want greatness for you?”
The forthcoming “death” of Arthur, or his rapture to Avalon to slumber long as Britain’s rex quondam rexque futurus, hangs over the film, though in an unspoken manner. As Gawain travels out from Camelot, it is clear that the Arthurian project has failed to unite Britain under a just and merciful rule, as Gawain encounters ruins, battlefields of dead soldiers, brigands, the ghosts of murdered women, giants, witches, and spirits, all of whom clearly exist uneasily on the margins of the Arthurian court and consciousness. The Green Knight himself, whom no less than J.R.R. Tolkien noted was the most difficult interpretive question of the text and whom C.S. Lewis once described as among the most vivid of literary characters, capitulates this tension. He rides from the fay-filled world of the wilds into Arthur’s court with the holly bough of peace, on the one hand acknowledging Arthur’s status as the greatest of high kings, but also, on the other, challenging his knights with the test of his game. Note well: the test is not for Arthur, who will have few more adventures before the rise of Mordred to avenge his sins with Morgan le Fay (seen but unnamed when Gawain goes to the House of Lord Bertilak): it is for those knights, Gawain principal among them, who will take the legacy of Camelot forth into the future beyond the dissolution of its dream into the myth or “Matter” of Britain.
Another of Lowery’s changes is the amount of emphasis placed upon Gawain’s journey through the liminal world of late antique and early medieval Britain. It is not inappropriate to say that a large part of the point of this film is to get lost in the gorgeous and unsettling aesthetics of its fantasy. Gawain’s quest to find the Green Chapel—a small sanctuary overrun by nature, representing the binary that runs through all of English Christianity, of whether and when the faith of Christ and the native Celtic paganisms of the British Isles will ever be able to find happy embrace—takes him far beyond the edge of civilization and even of human savagery into the decidedly spiritual world of the wilds. Each of the encounters that he has on this quest—including a psychedelic trip taken with the aid of wild psilocybinic mushrooms—upend Gawain’s sense of the real, as he forsakes the comforts of home, food, drink, and sex for the sake of honor. The bulk of the film is thus Gawain’s own temptation in the desert, above all to despair and turn back from the frankly upsetting spiritual and mortal danger of the world beyond the settled space of Camelot carved out by Arthur. From this perspective, the Green Knight himself strikes an imposing figure as both testing Satan and pedagogic Christ. On the one hand, Lowery clearly favors the interpretive tradition which sees him as the medieval Green Man, a fay personification of nature preserved mostly in ecclesiastical architecture as a reminder of the sanctity and spiritual vitality of the natural world. On the other hand, this nature sprite is like a Destroying Angel for Gawain, looming over the self-deconstructive experience of his quest and overseeing his final test, before congratulating him on its completion and welcoming him, as promised, as a friend and equal. We must, of course, “appear before the dread judgment seat of Christ,” in the words of the Byzantine Liturgy, before we may enjoy his friendship.
A core component of Christian cosmology is that through his Passion—inclusive of his death on the cross, burial, descent into Hades, resurrection, and ascension—Christ has conquered and filled the universe, for the reorientation of the divine powers in submission to God. The apocalyptic envelope within which Christ-followers exist in the logic of the New Testament is one in which Christ has already conquered these powers, and so the universe is really full of Christ. This is not yet publicly manifest: and hence the paradox of Christian life is warring with spiritual beings who are really and can only be pedagogic tools of Christ even as they are our spiritual adversaries. Contra a thoroughgoing amillennialism, it is obvious that Satan is not enchained in hell and unable to influence the world; but just as he continues to wreak havoc, it remains true that he now does so by divine permission and in the ultimate interest of divine providence, especially for the future manifestation of the “sons of God” who will liberate the created order (Rom 8:19). Gawain’s travel out into the world, which involves the loss of explicitly Christian tokens—I winced when his shield, which bore an ikon of the Theotokos with Christ-child, was shattered on screen—does not and cannot involve departure from Christ, since Christ in fact fills all things. It is rather that Gawain’s only path to the honor of knighthood is indeed a katabasis into the same God-forsakenness, to borrow the language of Hans Urs von Balthasar, that Christ himself has undergone. That is the judgment: the uncertainty, unnerving strangeness, and otherworldly indifference of the unsettled wastes to which Arthur, somewhat illogically, lays claim is a key pedagogic tool of Christ in our lives, and in Lowery’s work, it signals the film’s essential message in a Christian key.
At the climax of the film, Gawain realizes, through an extended vision, that the girdle, while it may save him from the completion of the Green Knight’s game, will not save him from his own worst nature. In his vision—in which he returns to Camelot to be knighted, replace Arthur as king, and rule a declining empire in which he loses love, child, and finally kingdom—Gawain realizes that he has no choice about whether to lose his head. The only agency afforded him is how and when he loses it, either now at the Knight’s hands, or later in desperation at the end of a long flight from this destiny. Gawain removes the girdle, forfeiting its magical protection, only to hear from the Green Knight that he has passed the test. with affectionate eyes and a smile, the Knight draws a finger across Gawain’s neck and remarks, wryly, “Now, off with your head.” Gawain’s ego has been judged, condemned, and destroyed: only the knight now remains, like the martyr whose beheading earns him the right to live and reign with Christ (Rev 20:4).
The message here is basic to nearly the whole of the Christian spiritual tradition: die before you die. If Gawain is discipulus dilectus, then the moral exemplum he leaves us for discipleship to Christ is to let go of the fear of death and the desire to cling to life, embracing death as the principle of our transfiguration. This is what Origen understood to be the true conquest of death by Christ (De Principiis 3.6.5-6). This is what John Behr calls the “mystery of Christ” himself, by which the incarnation is recapitulated in the lives of the saints: “life in death,” the demonstration of divine humanity in the voluntary submission to death that Christ enabled on the cross. Gawain must learn, one way or another, that egoic death is the only way to truly live.
This theme provides a point of unity across Behr’s corpus. See the aptly titled The Mystery of Christ: Life in Death (New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2006); Becoming Human: Meditations on Christian Anthropology in Word and Image (New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2013); ed. and trans., St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation(New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2014); and John the Theologian and his Paschal Gospel: A Prologue to Theology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019).