April 11, 2022

The Green Knight: Part 1: A Morality Tale

I remember leaving the cinema after watching David Lowery’s A Ghost Story and feeling changed in some way. Here was a filmmaker who was able to combine whimsy, drama, slow-burn arthouse technique, and yet tie it all together with moments of deep emotional frisson and ecstasy. I wasn’t surprised, therefore, that I felt so strongly about his film The Green Knight. Like few other filmmakers working today, he is happy to delve into folklore, mythology and fantasy in an unabashed way. Genre be damned, his films manage to leave their impression on your mind like a witch’s curse.

In this case, he chose a myth at the heart of Arthurian legend. An Anti-Chivalric Chivalric Romance.

Morality Tales

Every generation needs mythology. Today, we have our superheroes, clad in cloaks and masks, standing up for the status quo against marauders and criminals. In the 1950s, Western serials & movies emerged as the United States moved to capitalise on its gains made in the Second World War. Tales of Cowboys and Indians captured the attention of a nation looking to find its own hero tales separate from the knights and pirates that traditionally were connected to the Old Countries in Europe.

These heroes can instruct a society on what is acceptable, where the line is drawn, and how to behave if it is crossed. They operate as morality tales, and those known to us in the West stem directly from the Chivalric Romances of medieval Europe.

The Arthurian tale of the Green Knight is perhaps the most notable, and the most curious. Written down around 1370 in the English Midlands by an unknown author, little is known of its origination. This, and the fact that it was forgotten until the 19th Century, is a testament to English focus in the Middle Ages upon London and the South. Chaucer's Canterbury Tales was published around the same time and gained much more fame, so it is Chaucer who has survived as author-celebrity, and his version of English that is closest to what we currently speak.

A Medieval depiction of The Green Knight

The original story starts with the battle of Troy, charting the path taken by a son of that land, Brutus, and his supposed founding of Britain during the early Roman period. The narration continues to set the scene leading up to the period of Early Medieval English kings, King Arthur being the greatest. In its introduction, the author is setting up why his story is important; Just why we should bother to care about a bunch of pompous knights sitting around an angularly-challenged table.

Brutus, first King of Britain (in legend)

The myth is perhaps so resonant because Gawain’s course throughout the tale does not follow the more familiar patterns set by other stories and for other knights. This is no story of heroism and grandeur, but one of failure. Indeed, not failure by an upstart or peasant, but by Arthur’s strongest knight.

It is also an astonishing feat of authorship - its structure, plotting, characters, and blending of the supernatural, pagan, and christian elements, along with its use of alliterative language and rhyme - make it an epic in the truest sense.

Gawain's Pentangle shield emblem

Doubtless, these tales helped, just as many hero stories do, to reinforce power structures and justify freedoms taken. The kind and courageous knight, who is merely trying to go out and quest to right some wrong, seek romance, and improve his standing at court, is somebody to be trusted, not vilified and despised. With stories such as these, the upper classes of Early Medieval England could maintain their grip over the people they ruled, who invariably vastly outnumbered them.

That aside, these morality tales, especially one as clearly drawn out as The Green Knight, can be rich for analysis and fun to pick apart. In their retelling (just like a movie remake), the storyteller is doing something vital: taking an old story with timeless lessons and making it new, updating those lessons for a new epoch. In one interview I read, Lowery goes further than this, positing that the job of a re-maker not only as interpretation but as conversation. The best morality tales provide as much fuel for the imagination as they do to spark its flames.

Click for Part II
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February 19, 2024
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