Warning: Contains plot spoilers for the film The Green Knight
David Lowery’s daring, dark, and dizzying film The Green Knight re-examines chivalry for the modern age.
In the ancient poem that inspired the film, the gallant Sir Gawain sets out to prove his chivalric credentials by taking on a peculiar axe-wielding contest proposed by the other-worldly Green Knight. Along the way he faces various challenges. Can he maintain his purity despite seduction? His loyalty despite temptation? His bravery despite fear?
The bind of the chivalric code is this: each of the virtues it demands is intertwined with the others. If Gawain fails in one area, he fails in them all. Although in the poem he does ultimately prove himself to be ‘most faultless’, he nonetheless comes up short. When he finally returns to Arthur’s court it is with his life, but penitent, bearing the scars of his imperfection.
The 2021 film version, by contrast, has Gawain as an un-knighted party boy hoping to earn greatness through a single heroic deed. His bizarre, mind-bending quest to find the Green Knight leads him to a life-changing realisation: greatness is hollow; goodness is enough.
Honour, Gawain concludes, does not lie in position, power, or wealth, nor can it be achieved in an instant. Instead, it is earned through a life of integrity and honesty, virtues he becomes willing to die for.
Despite their many plot differences, what both versions share is our hero’s central weakness: loving his own life too much. The lesson both Gawains learn is therefore startlingly biblical: ‘Whoever wants to save their life will lose it, whoever loses their life will find it.’
Except, of course, these are not Jesus’ words. Instead, the only truly faultless man promised his followers: ‘Whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it’ (Matthew 16:25).
Ultimately, we can never achieve perfection. Nor can we escape death. As Gawain’s hostess explains, everything we hold dear will one day succumb to decay.
All we can do is surrender to the one who tempers his final judgement with mercy: Jesus, the ultimate other-worldly intruder, who offers us not grotesque games as a route to greatness, but unearned grace and a position in a court far higher than even King Arthur’s. It is only in joining his quest to bring life to a decaying world that we find something truly worth living for.
Rachel is a part-time writer and a full-time mum. She attends King’s Church Durham.
Watch the trailer for The Green Knight