Next Story

The flawed quest for knightly perfection

The Arthurian romance of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight takes on a new garb in David Lowery’s film

By Khizer Asif |
PUBLISHED January 09, 2022

Honour — an intangible quality a person can obtain through a chivalric action. Honour plays an important role in the lives of knights. For the more honorific a person appears, the more it helps create their legend. The desire for greatness, to have bards sing their story and the reaping of rewards that follow an elevation of their prestige pushes those ill-experienced to commit a righteous act. This aspiration is bolstered with tales, songs and epics of heroes, which obscures the truth with the creative liberty the writer, singer or hero uses to retell them. Such fantastical tales, portraying irreproachable heroes, divert the audience’s ability to discern its validity. Others are dragged further into these tales. Unable to foresee the effort and sacrifices that are needed to live the same lives as their prodigious heroes.

Sir Gawain, although better classified as just Gawain, is that kind of, Other. This greenhorn protagonist is entranced by the stories of those of the Round Table. King Arthur’s Round Table—his uncle. David Lowery’s film, The Green Knight, takes a twist on its adaptation of the epic Sir Gawain and The Green Knight. The film almost feels dreamlike, providing a story that is powerful and haunting. It is like an upheaval from the original, as it morphs Gawain into a character filled with lust, stubbornness and inexperience, all which is further exacerbated with his insistent quest for valour. The Green Knight is a film that diverges from traditional storytelling of epic heroes, using Gawain to showcase the naivety in expecting real-life to be a repeat of those foretold stories.

Living up to expectations

The nephew of the king, Gawain, has yet to earn the right to be considered as one of the legends of the Round Table. This is noted both in the film and the primary source, where Gawain is seated next to King Arthur. He supersedes all high-ranking knights and officials who are better deserving of Gawain’s place.

It is also worth pointing out that the seat belonged to Lancelot. Second to Arthur himself in tales and valour, who is said to be on a quest for the holy grail—a journey that he may never come back from.

Upon seating next to the king, Gawain is confronted by the king asking him to retell a tale so that he can understand him better. This idea of telling stories to give people context about one’s self is an important theme for this movie. Where the film explores the idea of how stories are made, to how they can be exaggerated, King Arthur himself emphasizes this importance on tales, with him saying, “I look upon my friends here today and see songs no muse could dream of, much less sing.”  Him referring to his friends as songs rather than people tells the audience that Arthur believes the tales of his friends, certain there are no lies to which they’re told. This line also sets precedence to Gawain’s goal throughout the movie, gaining a tale that is equal in valour as those presiding around the Round Table.

The movie further plays with the idea of expectations in all kinds of ways such as how Arthur and those of his kingdom are supposed to epitomize the Christian faith. Yet through the movie, and the narrative poem, Arthur and his people are found to still practice their pagan origins, for instance the pentangle (a star) medallions they wear (and seen across the Round Table). In the context of Christianity, it represents several things, the five points have been linked to the five wounds of Christ and as the star of Bethlehem. Though in terms of knighthood, it represents the five virtues of a knight: generosity, courtesy, chastity, chivalry and piety. However, this symbol is also of pagan origins where scholars to believe that this symbol was adopted among the religion in medieval Britain. Gawain’s mother practices these pagan rituals. Ironically, she is the sister to King Arthur—who is a paragon of Christianity. The expectations of King Arthur’s court to be virtuous, in terms of religion, is further conflicted with the movie set on Christmas.

Telling a story vs living It

Gawain is in way over his head (cue the rimshot) when impetuously accepting the game from the Green Knight. On Christmas day, the yet-to-be knight Gawain and those of the Round Table are confronted by the Green Knight, demanding a challenge of blow-for-blow where him and another are given the chance to lob off the other’s head. Gawain takes up the challenge and chops off the knight’s head, assuring his destiny. Miraculously the knight is not killed from his head being cut off but gets up and tells the protagonist that a year from now he needs to meet him at the green chapel where it can be his turn to chop his head off.

The film hints at the predestination of Gawain’s quest, a quest created by his mother. As in the opening scenes, the king is talking among his knights and friends about breaking bread with him on Christmas day. The king’s speech is juxtaposed with his sister reciting an incantation that appears to have summoned the Green Knight, adding to the idea of fabricated tales.

This meeting between Gawain and the Green Knight is a great example of how real-life turns into a story. Even though cutting off the head of the knight was just the beginning of his tale, the public treated as if though Gawain has already achieved valour to be considered knight. Gawain has yet to be knighted by the king.

As with every beginning there is an end, but in the film, it gives the audience several endings. The first being of when Gawain is robbed in the forest by scavengers where he is tied up and left to die. Before they abandon him, one of the scavengers, says to him, “You rest your bones my brave little knight. I’ll finish your quest for you. I’ll finish it good.” Him telling Gawain that his quest ends with him, is reality hitting Gawain telling him his quest isn’t as simple as a game. Life is not a game, and unlike stories, death is always swift.


The film gives a comparison of romanticising and de-romanticising heroes from their tales. Where it may seem glamourous and action-packed as the stories tell you, but to the disappointment of those viewers the film liberally shows the unmitigated truth — its all walking and barely any fighting. This film not only tests the patience of Gawain but the audience as well, especially for those who are expecting an action film. They are instead faced with the same trials as Gawain. The patience to achieve goals is something not only the Arthurian hero face. It can be said that everyone has moments where they need patience. Otherwise, those who aren’t, are just counting one’s chickens before they hatch. Such is the case with the Gawain’s tale already popularised among the masses before the completion of the quest.

The lord of the estate that Gawain stays at towards the middle and end of the movie, responds to Gawain’s question on how he knew his name. To which he replies with, “I know more than just your name,” implying that his story is tantamount compared to the protagonist’s name. The film further expands on the theme of storytelling where the audience listens to how the lady of the estate admits to Gawain that the books in the library are altered by her – changes which she calls “improvements.” This extrapolates the message of the film where stories told aren’t always made with the valour and honour that they’re based on.

Gawain lacks patience himself, hunting for tales unaware the trials he would have to face in order to gain one. Yet an unlikely person to show impatience, is King Arthur, who is already placing major expectations on Gawain where he says, “Is it wrong, to want greatness for you?” Gawain is not too please with the duty thrusted unto him and believing his inability to gain greatness is a matter of destiny, as he responds to king, saying, “I fear I am not meant for greatness.”

Regardless of his feelings, Gawain is off to his misadventure and the audience see him truly inexperienced and a greenhorn. Instances of him eating mushrooms from the bottom of a tree, and immediately puking, show his incompetence. One deeply impactful moment in the film is when he encounters giants walking towards the same direction of his destination (possibly hallucinating from the mushrooms he just ate). What makes this scene important is how Gawain upon seeing the giants asks the closest one if he could ride on top their shoulder and carry him to the green chapel. When that giant places her hand over Gawain—maybe to appease his request—he flinches unable to take favour. This is indicative to the famous saying of “Standing on the shoulders of giants.” This phrase is referring to how using the understanding and works of great figures of history to bolster oneself further making greater progress. Although, Gawain is unable to accept this and thus is forced to continue, on foot. The lord of the estate mentions the unlikelihood that achieving a single quest would change the way a person acts or feels. He asks Gawain of this doubt: “You do this one thing, you return home a changed man, an honourable man? Just like that?” Gawain dubiously responds with, “Yes.”

Advice for viewers

This movie is meant for critics. As this movie can seem confusing to those who aren’t familiar with the lore of the myth that has been adapted. Not to say people are incapable to view the film such manner. But reading a simple summary of the original source will give the well-needed context a viewer needs to fully enjoy the movie. The audience is expected the same kind of patience as that of Gawain. This way one can enjoy the fairy-tale like setting with its masterful use of gold, red and green colours. Seeing the beauty in the lines, and in between the line, that the characters say—feeling the brevity. The creators of this film surely gave effectual justice to this homage of Sir Gawain and The Green Knight, providing something digestible for modern viewers. It is poetic when Gawain asks the knight, “Is this…really all there is?” To which the Green Knights responds saying, “What else ought there be?” Leaving the audience to wonder the existential meaning in chasing valour.