In my last article, I presented the symbol of Joan of Arc as an antidote to the increasingly prevalent phenomenon of symbolic inversion, the technique of turning archetypal symbols upside-down. In doing so, I made brief reference to the use of this technique in the recent movie The Green Knight and traced the technique in its contemporary form back to the decoupling of signifier and signified that arose out of the methods of postmodern deconstruction. 1 What I’d like to do now is expand a little on one of the currently dominant artistic impulses resulting from this decoupling, using The Green Knight as a characteristic example.
The old European masters painted the ancient archetypal stories in then-contemporary outward form, using the imagery of the times. In this approach, a deep understanding of the nature of archetype is revealed. They knew that the eternal patterns of reality are expressed continually anew in the ever changing outer world of the senses, that the spiritual forces which flow through and animate the drama of our current human condition are the same as those which sculpted the events in the great stories of tradition.
Today we no longer feel this truth, and this is reflected in our approach to artistic expression, which is often the exact reverse of what I’ve just described. Outward form no longer reveals a pre-existing inner order. One of our primary techniques now is to piece together symbolic mosaics from a grab bag of outward forms from the past and drop them over the narrative structures of our own creation. (Well, not entirely of our own creation, since these structures consist largely of negations of the archetypes.) The symbols of the past, once deeply connected to an underlying spiritual reality, have become the modular building blocks of a sheer aesthetic outer surface under which the trending narratives of the day are inserted. The archetypal symbols are now simply skins, design themes that can be tapped into for their visual effect, for their vibe. Every piece of artistic output is an opportunity to paint over the expanding metaphysical vacuum of postmodernism with a unique combination of the de-souled images of our rejected past.
This trend represents the prevailing contemporary attitude toward meaning: there is no transcendent meaning. Whatever meaning there is, we create it ourselves. 2 This attitude is in full force in The Green Knight. The film, an adaptation of the 14th century Arthurian poem Sir Gawain and The Green Knight, presents a more or less complete deconstruction of the original story. Nearly every symbolic element is, if not inverted entirely, subverted in some way. The original archetypal meaning is then replaced with an idiosyncratic synthesis of nihilistic, contemporary thought trends. The way the filmmakers carry this out is actually quite clever, and the resulting depiction is impactful. Aesthetically, the film feels pretty unique. The specific combination of Arthurian imagery, highly imaginative twenty-first century cinematography, and moral reprovals of privilege and masculinity isn’t something we’re used to experiencing. It satisfies our sensibilities. And it’s a definite novel vibe. But novel vibes—the currency of our artistic production these days—quickly lead the viewer to seek out the next novel vibe. They resonate on the surface level and don’t stir the soul. For this reason, it’s unlikely that David Lowery’s The Green Knight will continue to rouse minds centuries from now the way the original poem almost certainly will.
Let’s now take a look at a comparison of the two versions of the story. (I hesitate to even use the word ‘versions,’ since the two have so little to do with each other in terms of their ultimate meaning.) I won’t concern myself with complete plot summaries here. What I’ll do is provide a broad-strokes outline of the original poem and discuss the symbolism of its various elements, adopting a quasi Jungian framework in places where such an approach seems to align with certain latent undercurrents within the text. I’ll then examine the key points of departure in the film adaptation. Through doing this, the degree of divergence between the film and the original poem will become increasingly evident.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight begins at King Arthur’s court on New Year’s Eve. As the holiday festivities are winding up, King Arthur expresses to the crowd assembled that he’d like to hear a tale of an exciting adventure. At that moment, the Green Knight appears. A gigantic, resplendent figure clad entirely in green and riding a green horse, the Green Knight wears no armor but carries an axe and holly bough. He announces that he’s come for a friendly Christmas game: whosoever will dare to strike him with his axe, that person must then agree to have the blow returned in exactly a year and a day. The axe will belong to the challenger. None among the gathered knights rises to accept the challenge, save Gawain, King Arthur’s nephew. The Green Knight bends down and presents his neck to Gawain. Gawain then proceeds to behead him. But this doesn’t kill the Green Knight; rather, his body stands up, grabs the severed head, and reminds Gawain of the appointed time, when the two shall meet at the Green Chapel to complete the game.
A year passes, and Gawain sets out in search of the Green Chapel. On Christmas Eve, he comes upon a great castle. The lord and lady of the castle welcome him graciously. The reader is also made aware of the presence of an ugly old lady, who, though unnamed, is revered by the castle inhabitants. Gawain explains his mission to the lord and his beautiful wife, saying that he only has a few days left to complete it and must be on his way. The lord reassures Gawain that the Green Chapel is less than a day’s journey away and suggests that he rest at the castle until the time arrives. Gawain gratefully accepts.
The following day, the lord proposes a deal. For every day of Gawain’s stay, he’ll go out hunting and give Gawain whatever he catches. In exchange, Gawain must give the lord whatever he himself receives that day while at the castle. Gawain agrees. On the first day, while the lord is gone, the lady of the castle attempts to seduce Gawain. But Gawain, being the paragon of chivalric virtue, declines this advance, accepting only a single kiss. When the lord returns from the hunt and offers Gawain a deer, Gawain delivers him a kiss without disclosing its origin. On the next day, Gawain receives another visit from the lady of the castle, and he again politely thwarts her attempts at seduction. Upon the king’s return, a boar is exchanged for two kisses. On the third day, the lady yet again attempts to seduce Gawain, this time more forcefully than before. When he yet again refuses, she offers him a gold ring, which he also gently but firmly turns down. Finally she pleads with him that he at least take her green girdle, which she claims is charmed and will protect Gawain from harm. Gawain gives in and accepts the girdle. However, the lady makes him promise that he won’t tell her husband of this gift. Gawain’s honour compels him to accept this promise. When the lord returns a third time with a fox, Gawain exchanges three kisses and makes no mention of the girdle.
The day arrives for Gawain to complete his quest. He ties the green girdle around his waist and sets off for the Green Chapel, soon arriving to find that it’s merely a primitive earthen mound above a cave. As promised, the Green Knight is there with his axe. Gawain bends down and exposes his bare neck, ready to receive his blow. But at the first swing, he flinches and the Green Knight mocks him for it. Gawain is ashamed and makes up for this by not flinching at the second swing. But at this second swing, the Green Knight stops short, telling Gawain he was testing his nerve. Fed up with the playing around, Gawain urges him to get on with it. The Green Knight delivers the final blow, which merely nicks Gawain on the neck. Completely befuddled, Gawain prepares for hand to hand combat, but the Green Knight laughs and reveals himself to be none other than the lord of the castle in magical disguise. He explains that the whole Christmas game has been an elaborate trick put on by the ugly old lady at the castle, who is King Arthur’s stepsister, the sorceress Morgan le Fay. She’s orchestrated this plot to test King Arthur’s knights. Gawain has received the nick on his neck as a result of his concealing the green girdle. Deeply regretful of his deceitful behavior, Gawain turns to set out for home in shame. The Green Knight assuages Gawain’s guilt by pronouncing him the most virtuous knight in all the land. Upon returning home, King Arthur’s knights offer Gawain a spirited welcome and absolve him of all blame. Henceforth, they agree to all wear green girdles in commemoration of Gawain’s adventure and as a reminder to act truthfully. 3
This is an incredibly complex and at first somewhat puzzling story. In interpreting it, it’s such a labyrinth of symbolic interweaving that it’s hard to know where to start. However, our task becomes much easier when we realize that the multiple narrative stages and nested levels of meaning all fractally represent the same underlying pattern. When we discover this pattern, we can then see how it radiates outward, pervading the story’s every twist and turn.
What exactly is this pattern then? Interpreting the symbolism of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight has challenged people for centuries; there certainly isn’t a unified understanding of its meaning. 4 This being the case, the interpretation I’ll present here is far from anything I can claim to be definitive. However, I think it’s on the right track. The way I see it, the story is essentially a Medieval incarnation (with a few added undertones) of the central Christian mythos: the fall of man and his redemption by Christ. Mankind, having eaten the forbidden fruit, has gained the knowledge to lift himself out of nature. However, he’s done this under the influence of Satan—the cosmic force which artificially asserts itself as God’s equal—and has thus committed original sin. Expelled from the garden, he propagates the stain of the Eden event into the future as the sin of humanity to come. While man must accept that sin is a part of him, Christ has redeemed the fall, offering humanity the path away from primeval chaos and toward God.
The most important thing to understand about the way the symbolism in this story works is that there are no isolated symbolic images. Rather, every symbolic element is given multiple levels of expression which represent the transformations of cosmic principles through different levels of reality and different stages of time. For example, the figure of the Green Knight, the green girdle, and the nick Gawain receives on his neck are all manifestations of man’s position in relation to God and the world. The Green Knight, representing the garden, becomes the green girdle—original sin (eating of the forbidden fruit); which in turn becomes the nick—the eventual deliverance of man from sin. In this tripartite symbol of transformation, we’re shown humanity first blissfully embedded within the world, then alienated from it, and finally finding harmony within it again on a higher level, through Christ. Thus, these three intuitively but not outwardly related symbolic elements form a subtle through-line from man’s fall to his salvation.
The true genius of the story shines through when we consider the particular way the poem’s author shows us that we’re dealing with one pattern applied to different levels of reality. He does this through what would otherwise be puzzling references to the time of the year. The Green Knight appears on New Year’s Eve. Sir Gawain reaches the castle almost a year later on Christmas Eve. He then receives his nick on New Year’s Day. As Jonathan Pageau points out in his video analysis of the poem, New Year’s represents both an end and a beginning—the end of the previous year and the start of a new cycle. 5 Over the course of the story, an entire year cycle is completed, thus indicating to the reader that we’re dealing with cyclicality, not just in a temporal sense, but in a sense of cosmic scale: the cyclical recurrence of pattern at different levels of being. These temporal landmarks coincide exactly at the points where one level within the story gives way to the next.
At the same time, the cyclical transition point indicated by the New Year signifies an epochal transition, a fundamental split in broader time. Gawain’s decapitation of the Green Knight symbolizes a cutting off from the natural order, the historical transition of humanity into an ontologically different mode of existence, at the time of the fall. That Gawain must receive a compensatory blow a year later indicates that nature is inherently poised to take the world back from man. This is what is “expected.” In the normal order of things, so to speak, opposing forces follow the pendulum swing of causal necessity, thereby maintaining a kind of equilibrium. Cutting off the head of nature should ostensibly result in having the blow returned in kind to man. Man does though possess the knowledge of the forbidden fruit and has therefore risen partially above this tendency toward strict causal balance. 6 He’s left the stasis of paradise and entered the forward thrust of history. The simple cyclicality inherent in nature has become an ascending spiral in man, which in turn acts as a bulwark against nature’s entropic encroachment. Even still, humans are tainted beings. Sin continually leads us backwards in various ways toward the brink of chaos. It looms over us, causing us to cyclically recapitulate and ramify the Eden event into the future. So man’s godlike knowledge alone doesn’t offer him total protection against the threat of primordial instability. It’s Christ who is the final salvation. Christ reveals the true pattern of reality, thus absolving humanity from sin. So the Green Knight doesn’t lob the head off Sir Gawain. He can’t because through following Christ, man is protected against being wholly reclaimed by the spectre of the fall. He’s entered a new era. Hence the mere nick from the Green Knight’s final swing.
There’s a further significance still to the timing of the poem. This is where Christ first subtly enters the narrative. 7 Through Gawain’s arrival at the castle on Christmas Eve, we’re made to understand that the events described in the story hereafter will be influenced by the introduction of Christ into the cosmic drama. Christmas Eve coincides roughly with the winter solstice. Hence the light of Christ shines forth from this darkest point of the year. Gawain must complete his moral test in the light of Christ, who models the virtues for chivalry. Gawain follows steadfastly in this example, and as a true chivalric knight, upholds his virtue to the utmost level possible by a flawed human. His fellow knights take up wearing the green girdle after Gawain as a means of acknowledging sin while recognizing that through following Christ (by way of virtuous action) we are saved from succumbing to it. This further symbolizes how Christ redirects the quasi divine capacities gained through the sinful partaking of the forbidden fruit toward the realization of God. 8
At this point, I’d like to briefly mention an important aspect of practicing symbolic interpretation made apparent in the way Christ is subtly woven into Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Notice that no one element symbolizes Christ directly. Rather, his invisible spirit flows through the narrative and is present in the coming together of various symbolic components. I’ve read several interpretations in which an attempt is made to identify Christ with some specific image within the story. That none seems to fit particularly well supports the notion that we should be careful not to be too rigid in our attempts to interpret symbolism. Spiritual reality is mercurial and not pinned down easily into outward forms. A one-to-one mapping between spiritual principle and symbolic representation isn’t always possible and shouldn’t necessarily be sought.
We could fill a whole book analyzing the symbolism of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. I’ll just mention a few other crucial elements before moving onto a discussion of the film adaptation. The lady of the castle of course harkens back to Eve (understood here as having already been tempted by the serpent). She tries to tempt Gawain into succumbing to his primal instincts, an attempt he successfully thwarts. But when she offers him the green girdle—the forbidden fruit—he can’t resist. The forbidden fruit, she says, will protect him. In this statement we come up against the paradox of the forbidden fruit of the Genesis story. Adam and Eve’s sinful act is simultaneously a downward and a kind of upward movement. It tears them away from nature’s bosom (the fall from grace), but imbues them with the knowledge which leads toward levels of higher material order—”artificial heights,” we might say. As Adam and Eve are the progenitors of humanity, the fruit is then a substance which both damns future man to imperfection and partially “protects” him against nature. (The fruit protects future man in the sense that it gives him the self-consciousness to shield himself from nature through “garments of skin.” The simple covering of Adam and Eve’s nakedness is the first instance of this, which multiplies outward in a series of ever-increasing layers of artifice, leading ultimately to the complex structures of human society). 9 So Gawain is compelled to accept the girdle, as his temptation is a reflection of the cosmogonic prototype. 10
Another aspect of the green girdle, which as I’ve explained symbolizes the forbidden fruit, is that a girdle is worn around the waist and thus separates the upper body from the lower. The upper body was traditionally considered the refined half and the lower body the unrefined. 11 So in the symbol of the girdle, we see the separation of worldly man from natural man.
The final major piece of the puzzle is of course the mysterious reference to the ugly old lady, Morgan le Fay, who turns out to have orchestrated the entire “Christmas game.” I have to admit that my interpretation of her character is only a hunch. She could perhaps represent Wisdom, the “mature form” of the divine feminine. 12 This seems plausible, since the poem mentions that she’s treated with great honor by all. The fact that she’s actually the hidden force behind the entire story indicates that she represents a supreme cosmic force of some kind. Another potential clue could be hiding in her relationship to King Arthur as his stepsister. A stepsister to a king is a curious relationship. It connotes an attachment to the supreme but at one level removed. This brings up associations with Sophia, who in Gnostic lore was said to have spawned the Demiurge and thus set in motion the descent from the Pleroma into material existence. 13 We can in a way understand the status conferred to her through this as a kind of divinity ranked one-level-removed from the absolute. But in the official western Christianity of the Middle Ages, direct references to Sophia had by that time mostly disappeared from the mythos. It’s possible that a trace of her might have found its way into Arthurian legend. For now, that’ll have to be a topic for future investigation.
Through examining the symbolism of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, we come to understand it as a symbolic magnum opus, encapsulating the very essence of the Christian impulse in a way that unites all levels of comprehension, from the cosmic to the mundane, through one pattern. The multiple levels, complex interweaving of parallel narrative threads, and references to circularity and cyclicality allude to a fundamental tenet of spiritual truth, namely that a single divine pattern can be seen to structure the myriad manifestations of the phenomenal world.
In David Lowery’s The Green Knight, we see the spiritual perspective completely jettisoned and the story’s message emphatically rejected. In Lowery’s film, the expulsion from the garden isn’t a stain on man. Man is the stain on the garden. There is no divinity within the human being. Sin cannot be overcome, and the world is destined to be reclaimed by chaos. The most morally upright thing man can do is accept defeat.
While I can’t say with any certainty that this is the intended message behind the film, it is the picture that’s automatically projected through the manipulation of the original symbolism in the particular way carried out. It could be that the intention was merely to be subversive, to challenge the viewer into contemplating the inversion of traditional archetypes. Turning traditional ideas upside-down is of course the technique du jour. Or it could be that the filmmakers had some other artistic goal in mind. In any case, what’s for sure is that the film presents a more or less total inversion of the original story via the outward vehicle of the original symbolic imagery.
As we’ve seen, the Gawain of the original poem is the paragon of chivalry. The Gawain of the film is the opposite. Privileged, aloof, and wholly unbecoming of his noble station, the film’s Gawain (played by Dev Patel) is an aimless, bumbling manboy, a true representative of third-generation wealth. Unproductive and resting on the laurels of his inherited position as nephew to the king, Gawain is first introduced to the audience making love to a woman of lower birth, Essel (a character not found in the original poem). She attempts to connect with him emotionally, but he’s only interested in sex. This depiction is of course intended to update the outmoded chivalric figure found in the original. “Courtly love is all well and good,” one critic remarks. “[B]ut, well, young men are rarely so courtly in real life as they are in chivalric romances.” This reviewer goes on to say, “It’s a depiction that would be largely outdated today. But an idle, privileged young man who has much growing up to do is something that can resonate with modern audiences.” 14 Here we of course see one of the painful tragedies of the contemporary mind, whose insistence on narrative realism reifies the pessimistic picture we paint of ourselves through story in our attempt to express reality “as it is.”
When Gawain accepts the Green Knight’s challenge in the film, he does so out of a half-baked desire to live up to his namesake, like the not-so-gifted child of a famous musician who forms a mediocre band. When he slays the Green Knight, the event unfolds to him the way everything else in his life has so far: given to him with no resistance, as if it were pre-arranged for him to succeed with little effort. He looks around as if to say, “Was that it?” He later shows his complete ineptitude and lack of understanding of the world when he allows himself to be tricked into having his axe stolen by a petty adolescent thief.
Apart from Gawain’s character, there are numerous other major departures, including the appearance of the Green Knight himself. In the poem, his appearance is described as noble and alluring. The radiant image of him formed in the reader’s mind evokes the human desire to return to paradise. However, in the film the Green Knight appears quite rustic, rough, and rather frightening. This doesn’t necessarily negate the original symbolic meaning as much as it evidences either a lack of understanding of it, or a prioritization of aesthetics over meaning. From a simply aesthetic standpoint, I actually found the film’s visualization of the Green Knight figure rather appealing. If the surface level were the only thing under consideration, I’d have mostly good things to say about the movie. That being said, the film’s visual portrayal of the Green Knight fails to elicit a key component of what naturally stirs within us as we contemplate his symbol. Not recognizing the spiritual reality behind the symbol, it reinvents the imagery and in effect dampens its impact.
Another major difference is how the film treats Morgan le Fay, who is now King Arthur’s actual sister, and therefore Gawain’s mother. Lowery’s le Fay is essentially a witch, a shadowy figure who magically pulls the strings behind the unfolding of the Christmas game. This by itself is pretty much in line with the original story. However, her image is far darker and sinister-feeling in the film. In the end, she ultimately ends up being responsible for her son’s hapless fate. I’ll get to that in a moment. Without elucidating the plot any further, we can understand her character as a representation of the devouring mother archetype—Kali in the Hindu tradition, or even Gaia in the sense that she brings about the triumph of nature over man. A possible connection with Lilith, the demonic counterpart to Eve, also comes to mind.
Recall how in the poem, the green girdle is given to Gawain by the lady of the castle. However, in the film he receives it first from his mother, Morgan le Fay. It’s then stolen from him by the child thief and mysteriously gifted to him again by the lady of the castle. Thus we see Lowery drawing a connection between the cosmic and earthly feminine figures, in itself a completely legitimate move symbolically (although contributing to the overall inverted meaning). Through Gawain’s attitude toward women as mere playthings, it’s made clear that he’s got his time coming. So then it’s only right for Gawain, and hence degenerate masculinity in general, to be dealt justice at the hands of the cosmic feminine deity.
The original story has Gawain refuse the advances of the lady of the castle, giving in only to her final request to take the green girdle. In the film, he not only takes the girdle, but he also gives into her seduction and follows through with a sexual encounter. Here of course one of the most important elements from the original symbolism, one of the pieces that represent the salvific Christ impulse in man via chivalry, is inverted. Gawain gives into his lower nature, and at this point it’s all over for him. He’s failed on both moral fronts. He’s sealed his fate as the inevitable victim of nature’s chaotic reconquest.
And so we arrive at the final point of departure from the original story. When Gawain arrives at the Green Chapel and prepares to receive his blow, he flinches, like in the poem. But after the second swing he considers an escape. This precipitates a flash-forward sequence in which he sees how his life would play out in the shadow of winning the game unfairly through deceit. In this vision he’s become a despised king. Siege is laid to his castle and his family abandons him. He sees himself removing the green girdle and his head falling to the ground. When Gawain awakens from this vision, he does in fact remove the girdle. And before the screen cuts to black, the Green Knight says, “Now, off with your head.”
The ending is left ambiguous, but the idea being flirted with is that Gawain meets his demise. All the imagery leading up to the final scene has pointed in this direction. And then of course there’s the intro scene of Gawain’s head catching on fire and the post-credits scene where a little girl finds Gawain’s crown lying on the ground and puts it on her head. Despite the ambiguity of the final moment, we know what the film is getting at.
So what’s the overall effect of a final beheading in light of the person Gawain is shown to be over the course of the film? Basically, he got what was coming to him. Although the Green Knight commends him for his bravery in choosing to accept the blow, we don’t feel this as any true act of bravery. In the review I quoted earlier, the critic writes, “Gawain’s test in the movie is to find his spine and to learn how to be brave in the face of adversity, even death.” 15 If that’s the takeaway that people get from Lowery’s depiction here, then they’ve pretty much missed the point. It isn’t that Gawain in the last moment finally finds virtue, but rather that he gazes upon the bleak future wrought by his nihilism and wagers it would be better to just end it all, to accept defeat and be snuffed out.
The overall picture assembled is this: a privileged, good-for-nothing king’s nephew meets his inevitable fate at the hands of chaotic natural forces awakened by witch magic. This can be interpreted on any number of levels, but in any interpretation the general thrust is more or less the same. We see degenerate masculinity being overturned by destructive feminine powers. We could stick to the surface level and take this as a statement about the shifting cultural dynamics around men and women. Or, we could allow what spontaneously arises within us—the automatic effect generated by the insertion of this new narrative into a pre-existing symbolic matrix—to come through. By allowing ourselves to feel the dissonant synthesis of Lowery’s inverted narrative with the cosmic spiritual images of the poem, we’re left with the impression of a cosmic nihilism, of masculine-tilted humanity being snuffed out by the forces of nature. Man is irredeemable. His time is up. The world would be a better place without him.
The movie The Green Knight conveys a deeply cynical view of humanity. In a way it perfectly encapsulates the spirit of our time. Through what’s really a rather clever scheme of deliberate inversions, it manages to achieve a near total replacement of the original Arthurian tale’s complex meaning structure with a provocative contemporary worldview, while leaving the majority of the symbolic imagery intact. If inversion is the artistic impulse of the day, then this kind of achievement is its pinnacle. In light of this fact, I can’t reasonably conclude that The Green Knight is anything close to a bad movie. I actually enjoyed it, insomuch as I’m a person alive today, who carries a smartphone and shops on Amazon.
My main point here in comparing The Green Knight to its Arthurian source hasn’t been to critically review the film. Rather, I’ve tried to show how far we’ve come from an understanding of both the value of traditional stories and an acknowledgement of the spiritual world. When we read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight or gaze upon the paintings of the old masters, we can feel something stirring deep within us. A vast, sprawling vision of the harmony of the cosmos resonates with its reflection in our souls and provides a glance, even if only fleeting, of the connection between Heaven and Earth. The more we contemplate these masterworks, the more they enrich us, the more they deepen our sense of meaning in life. The impulse we follow now, sadly, doesn’t have this same effect. When we remove the soul from our stories, our souls reach out to embrace the symbols they recognize, but find nothing but an outer shell animated by strange forces. And thus our relationship to spirit dwindles, to the point where we become hostile to it and even deny its reality. And of course vast quantities of quick content are ready and waiting to fill the void left by this loss.
Neil deGrasse Tyson has a famous quote: “The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.” 16 I like to replace the word “science” with “reality.” We may have lost touch with the patterns of reality, but they’re there, lying just beneath the surface, waiting to be rediscovered. When we turn to them again, a reassuring message speaks: though chaos may rise to challenge the brave and worthy knight, so long as he follows the path toward Truth, he’ll receive but a nick.