Books

What Makes a Good Christmas Story? ‘The Green Knight’ Movie Versus the Original Poem

TIMEDecember 8, 2021

I wanted to sit in a plush, velvet movie-theater seat, gripping the armrest tightly in anticipation. I’d waited expectantly for the Christmas-themed “The Green Knight,” based off one of my ultimate favorite books, to be released. But after watching the trailer, reading a detailed synopsis, a review, and an analysis, and after seeing the terrible Rotten Tomatoes audience rating, waves of disappointment chafed over me. How could such a marvelous and one-of-a-kind work be turned into a disastrous and incomprehensible movie, I wondered.

I’m passing on seeing the movie this holiday season, and I’d advise you to do so, too. I do, however, recommend the equally Christmas-y poem that the film is based on. I’ll explain. (Warning: Plot spoilers!)

“The Green Knight,” released in July 2021 and directed by David Lowery, is based off the 14th-century poem “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” by an anonymous author. Although the poem is arguably the peak of all Arthurian literature, the movie lacks a complete plot and a coherent story. In fact, everything that makes the poem such a great work has been altered.

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The first page of the only surviving manuscript of “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” anonymous, circa 14th century. (Public Domain)

The Poem

In “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” there exists a reverence for truth and being true to one’s word. An unusual green-colored knight mysteriously appears at court during a Christmas season feast. He makes an agreement with one of King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table, Sir Gawain. The agreement is that Gawain may strike the Green Knight and then will receive, a year later, a similar blow in return—without striking back.

Magically, the Green Knight retrieves his head after Gawain chops it off. But what will happen to Gawain?

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Gawain has chopped off the Green Knight’s head. “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” from the original manuscript, circa 14th century. (Public Domain)

In the poem, after the year is nearly up, Sir Gawain faithfully upholds his end of the bargain and asks for permission from his uncle, King Arthur, to leave and seek out the Green Knight: “Now my liege, for permission to leave I beg you. … I must set forth to my fate without fail in the morning,/ as God will guide me, to seek the green man.”

Unfortunately, the need to stay true to one’s word is not exhibited in the movie. First, Gawain is forced by King Arthur to uphold his end of the deal. Then, when Gawain finds the Green Knight, he flees back to Camelot before the Green Knight can make the final strike, despite the fact that he has agreed to accept the blow. Gawain lives and continues with his life. Or so we think.

But in the end, it turns out that his fleeing is just a vision. When he comes back to reality, he is still kneeling on the ground in front of the Green Knight. Gawain finally accepts the blow.

This telling, in the movie, is a twisted way of being truthful. Gawain accepts the blow only when he realizes that he has no way out. This version removes the deep sense of uncertainty involved in real life. But in the poem, a person has to be true to his word in a life or death situation.

Also, even when Gawain makes the right choice in the movie to stay and receive the blow, the incoherent storyline ends before the audience finds out what ultimately happens. In the poem, it is clear that after Gawain stays true to his word, he is rewarded not only with his life but also with high praise from both the Green Knight and King Arthur’s court.

Introducing a Spiritual Dichotomy

“The Green Knight” presents a dichotomy between the world of Christianity and the world of naturalist spirituality. King Arthur is emblematic of a Christian in the movie, representing the most powerful example.

man with sword stands before a king inThe Green Knight
(Dev Patel (L) as Gawain and Sean Harris (R) as the aging, weak King Arthur in “The Green Knight.” (A24)

The director, Lowery, a self-proclaimed atheist, said in an interview with Vanity Fair: “The only references to Christianity in the film are from King Arthur.” In the movie, King Arthur is an elderly, sickly ruler instead of a youthful and lively king as presented in the poem.

Thus, the movie’s King Arthur symbolizes that Christianity and tradition in general are dying. Lowery confirmed this point: “The idea is that there’s some rot at the heart of that court.” On the other hand, the movie’s Green Knight, who looks like a tree, symbolizes naturalist spirituality. With the protagonist and antagonist representing two very disparate ideas, incongruity and opposition are always present in the movie.

man with face made of tree bark in The Green Knight
In the movie, the Green Knight represents naturalist spirituality. Ralph Ineson plays the titular Green Knight. (A24)

However, in the original poem, both Sir Gawain and the Green Knight are Christian, and there is no dichotomy, nor is there any ideological conflict. Sir Gawain draws his strength from Christianity and tradition. It is his source of power as seen in the description of his armor featuring Mary, the mother of Jesus:

“The knight had, in handsome design
on the inner side of his shield, Mary’s image painted,
so when he cast his eyes on it his courage never failed.”

Sir Gawain also frequently prays. For example, he begs God and Mary for a home to hear the Mass at Christmastime (lines 753–758). His praying works as he then comes to a castle in the forest. Gazing upon it, Sir Gawain

“humbly removed his helmet, and with honor he thanked
Jesus and Saint Julian, who are both generous,
and who had courteously responded to his cries.”

Thus, we can see that in the original poem, “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” there exists a reverence for a supreme being and the upholding of tradition, while on the other hand, “The Green Knight” movie presents the idea that Christianity and tradition are something of antiquity, and that eventually they will be overcome.

The emphasis on standing by one’s word and embodying the ideals of tradition and Christianity are a few of the key characteristics that make “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” such a widely known Christmas classic and such a marvelous piece of literature that it helped lay the groundwork for English literature. The movie, on the other hand, has lost the initial spirit, underlying beliefs, and meaning of this Christmas ornament of literature.

The translation of “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” cited above is by Evan Mantyk and appears on The Society of Classical Poets website.  

Andrea Li is a student at Fei Tian Academy of the Arts.

Andrea Li