The Green Knight Part IV: Green, What is Left When Ardor Fades
This is Part IV of a series on The Green Knight, in which I dissect the original myth and dive into David Lowery's recent adaptation for A24. Read Part I here, Part II here, and Part III here.
"So, it’s a poem: a machine for conveying bonus meaning."
Christianity & Paganism
What makes the Green Knight story so compelling? Much of the reason why it still captures so much attention nearly a thousand years after it was first told is its combination of the familiar with the mystical.
For listeners at the time, it would have been the storyteller’s ability to weave in pagan mythology alongside Christian tradition. It is no accident that the Green Knight appears at Arthur’s Court at the time of the Christmas Feast, the height of the Christian calendar and at the time, a day on which people within the village would get together and celebrate in the midst of the darkest period of the year.
That darkness also, naturally, lends itself to mischief, mysticism and otherness. It’s a liminal period, and raises the stakes for interesting things to happen.
For modern audiences, the film replicates this. It takes something we know and believe ourselves aware of, a Knight’s tale, and twists it, bringing in abstract and artistic elements which Lowery has cemented as a stylistic quirk of his since A Ghost Story.
His Gawain experiences his own death, communicates with a talking fox, eats mushrooms and hallucinates, and observes a group of giants walking across a plain in front of him. The mushrooms, I believe, are especially significant as a communication tool with modern audiences. I’m currently reading Michael Pollan’s How To Change Your Mind, which describes the resurgence of psychedelics in our culture since the 1990s. Experiences with psychedelics, especially among the viewership of a movie like this, is much more common than it was twenty or so years ago. By having Gawain accidentally give himself an intense psychedelic episode, he’s giving modern audiences a window into something they’ll be able to understand, and hinting at the fact that in earlier Celtic cultures these substances would also have been used in a shamanic context in order to develop stories and mythology.
Lowery’s Gawain has one hell of a trip and like most trips, delves into a journey of ego death-based learning as part of the package.
Your Footprints Will Fill With Grass
The Green Knight himself has had multiple historical interpretations. Doubtlessly drawn from other Celtic myths (much like the Beheading Games mentioned in Part II of this series) from Ireland and Wales, he is a character rich in significance.
His Green colour is especially emblematic. In English folklore, green was traditionally a colour used to symbolise nature, fertility, and rebirth, but also was tied in with witchcraft, devilry and evil. Many early depictions of the devil depict him in green.
In Celtic (pre-Christian) mythology, green was a colour associated with misfortune and death, and was traditionally avoided in clothing. It is telling that Gawain wears the green girdle (belt), given to him by a witchlike character (Morgan Le Fay in the movie, Lady Bertilak in the poem) up until his final decision to accept his death, symbolising first his cowardice and then final acceptance of mortality. His punishment, in the original poem, is to wear the girdle from then on, something the rest of Arthur’s knights copy thereafter. Green becomes a colour of human mortality and folly, as well as the power of forgiveness and regeneration.
One thing that Lowery adds in that especially stands out in the film is a magical monologue from Lady Bertilak on the colour green. Taunting Gawain as he prepares to face the Knight, she asks him “Why is he green do you think?Was he born that way?”
He replies “Because he’s not of this earth.”
“But green is the colour of earth, of living things, of life. We deck our halls with it and dye our linen. But should it come creeping up the cobbles we scrub it out as fast as we can. When it blooms beneath our skin we bleed it out and when we, together all, find that our reach has exceeded our grasp, we cut it down. We stamp it out, we spread ourselves atop it and smother it beneath our bellies, but it comes back. It does not dally, nor does it wait to plot or conspire. Pull it out by the roots one day and then next there it is, creeping in around the edges. Whilst were’ off looking for red, here comes green. Red is the colour of lust, but green is what lust leaves behind. In heart, in womb. Green is what is left when ardor fades, when passion dies and we die too. When you go your footprints will fill with grass, moss shall cover your tombstone and as the sun rises, green shall spread over all in its shades and hues. This verdigris (green pigment) will overtake your swords, and your coins and your battlements and try as you might all you hold dear will succumb to it. Your skin, your bones. Your virtue.”
In this monologue, she is capturing the duality of nature; Its ability to be both a life giver and remover at once. The magical spectacle of a blooming forest full of life, and the creeping horror of mould, rot and decay. She reminds us that we, in our arrogance in thinking we have control over our environment, will never fully defeat the natural world around us. Indeed we are this world, we are organic matter just as the ivy that creeps up our walls is. Gawain is seeking glory and honour in his youthful yet misguided vigour, but his star will fade no matter what he does. She seems to be warning him that he’s on a fool’s errand, and in his current intention will only end in disaster.
The Green Knight as a story does so many important things. It captures our natural preponderance toward ritual and challenge, mythology and reality-bending, the natural against and with the human, the attempt at setting and holding oneself to moral values, a meditation on youth and its folly. Most of all, it’s a brilliant story that has lasted for a thousand years because of how good it is. It transcends culture and language to become a story that we need more of: a celebration of the difficulty of life, and a striving to become a better person.
Side Note: Posters
I found it interesting that the posters for the film all use the colour red. It seems to echo the Lady’s words: “Red is the colour of lust, but green is what lust leaves behind.” It may be that even in this, the filmmakers of The Green Knight are communicating something important to us: While you may go into this movie expecting one thing, you’ll come out learning another.