‘The Green Knight’ Explained: Unpacking the Film and the 14th-Century Arthurian Legend

‘the-green-knight’-explained:-unpacking-the-film-and-the-14th-century-arthurian-legend

If you’re a fantasy fan, chances are you have been eagerly awaiting the premiere of The Green Knight, the new film adaptation of the Arthurian legend starring Dev Patel. However, considering how old the fable is, you may want a little clarification after watching it — and that’s where we come in. Here’s a breakdown of the late 14th-century tale. Spoilers beware!

On Christmas Day, Sir Gawain, King Arthur’s nephew and a knight of the round table, joins his family and the other respected knights for a celebration at the King’s castle in Camelot. During their feast, a mysterious and inhuman knight from another land — known as The Green Knight — pays the round table a visit and claims he is in search of a friendly holiday game.

He then proposes a beheading game, in which one of Arthur’s brave knights would face the mystifying creature and “land a blow” of their sword on him. After that, the Arthurian knight and the Green Knight would meet again the following Christmas — and the strange creature would then return the same blow in the same place.

Gawain accepts the challenge and swiftly cuts off the Green Knight’s head. The Green Knight picks up his head, reminds Gawain of their arrangement, and then leaves him to wallow in anxiety for the next 365 days. Unsurprisingly, they go very quickly, and soon, Gawain is forced to leave Camelot to go to the Green Chapel, where he and the Green Knight are due to meet.

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The film expands on the legend a bit and embellishes in a few interesting scenarios along the trip, including Gawain’s unfortunate meeting with a homeless thief (played by Barry Keoghan) and his friends. Finally, Gawain arrives at the home of a Lord (played by Joel Edgerton) and his wife (played by Alicia Vikander), who take him in and inform him he is only one day’s ride from his destination. Considering he arrives a few days before Christmas, the Lord convinces him to stay and rest.

The Lord then makes him a proposition: He will go out and hunt daily and bring Gawain his spoils for the rest of trip if Gawain will exchange with him what he comes to possess each day in the castle. Gawain is confused but agrees — until he realizes the Lord’s wife is interested in him romantically. On the day Gawain leaves, the Lord gives him a live fox he found (one the film employs as a cute sidekick to Gawain for much of the run-time) and the knight exchanges a kiss with him, one that was given originally to Gawain by the Lord’s wife.

After arriving at the Green Chapel, the Green Knight attempts three times to finish the game, but Gawain runs away, frightened. The film then skews differently than the legend: Viewers are shown the rest of Gawain’s life, as he experiences building a family, becoming king and falling into obscurity as a leader in his older age. Finally, he is shown sitting in King Arthur’s old throne before he is beheaded by an invisible force, implying that though he escaped his fate at the time of the game, he couldn’t escape forever.

Then, the film flashes back to the present moment, implying that Gawain only thought of leaving, but stayed to fulfill his duty. At that point, the Green Knight kneels next to him and tells him he is proud of him before saying, “Now, off with your head.”

The film’s ending differs from the original legend in that the Green Knight was actually just a Lord who had partnered with Arthur’s sister, sorceress Morgan Le Fay, to test the knights. In the fable, the Lord, Bertilak de Hautdesert, reveals himself to Gawain after nicking him slightly with the Green Knight’s ax.


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