Would you lie to save your own life? This moral dilemma is the big reveal in one of my favorite poems. In an anonymous alliterative verse text of the late 14th century that only survives in one manuscript — and later titled by modern scholars “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” — Gawain is given the gift of magic, an enchanted green sash that prevents the death of anyone who wears it. But an earlier promise to Lord Bercilak, who hosts Gawain at his castle, — to mutually exchange all acquired fortunes at the end of each of three days — puts Gawain in a problematic position. He must either give up the green sash and break the code of chivalry or keep the sash and thus survive a fatal blow. Gawain had decapitated the Green Knight one year before; the agreement made then states the same blow must be returned, one year hence. Is Gawain wrong to conceal the girdle?
The Green Knight does not think so. And when Gawain enters the Green Chapel and finds that the Green Knight is really Lord Bercilak (or Bertilak de Hautdesert) Gawain is forced to recognize an unpleasant aspect of their character: Gawain lies to save their own life, because Gawain fears death. Contrarily, the Green Knight awards Gawain a final gift: empathy and compassion, a gratuity Gawain is unable to grant themselves. Gawain mourns in self-hate this defect when the Green Knight spares Gawain’s life. The sash then turns into a reminder of Gawain’s perjury.
When I watch modern adaptations of premodern stories such as The Green Knight, I find myself disappointed by how these narratives impose an oversimplified and retroactively heteronormative and patriarchal vision of the medieval world. These traditional lenses limit the beautifully unresolved nature of these texts, which ultimately talk of a human condition —devoid of 19th-century impositions of gender and sexuality. “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” is not about Gawain asserting alpha male authority in an attempt to take the place of King Arthur. Nor is it about the oversexed femme fatale who serves as the tempting Eve of a man’s demise. Its sounds and verses do not assert a hegemony over peoples inhabiting both mythical and natural worlds.
The text is very queer, just as the world in which it was conceived.
In a montage at the end of the film we get a vision of Gawain’s future: Gawain takes the throne from King Arthur, abandons a peasant lover, takes their baby after choosing a new wife from the upper class, and builds an empire on greed and ferociousness, a foreshadowing of this choice. This premonition moves Gawain to disclose the girdle, removing the enchanted object hastily. But the audience is left wondering whether the Green Knight delivers the final blow. The complicated ethical choice that greens the ending of the poem is absent from this film’s narrative, leaving no reading at its conclusion other than: monarchy is male and misogyny is an inherent part of it.
This anamorphic adaptation is antithetical to the plethora of ways one can read its premodern precursor. Feminist readings suggest (beyond the traditional Judeo-Christian interpretations) that the tale represents the power of the female sex through the figures of Lady Bercilak and Morgan le Fay, whom the Green Knight admits is the trickster at the heart of this game. Gawain arguably can be read as non-binary, queer, and both a “female” or “male” character. (For this reason, I use they/them pronouns when referring to Gawain in the original manuscript, and he/him pronouns when referring to Gawain in the film.) The homosocial interactions in this text are very much homoerotic, in both its main story line and its metanarrative. The narrator is enthralled with the beauty of all characters — male and female in sex. Then, Gawain and Lord Bercilak (the Green Knight) kiss and embrace — an accepted practice in the chivalric code — and the multifarious layers of the hunt are set side by side with scenes in the bed chamber. The interwoven homosocial and homosexual quest of its place and characters are metaphorically represented through the ascending difficulty of the lord’s daily hunt: the deer, the boar, and the fox, respectively. The cycle of the hunt, sexual pleasure, and the harmony of reciprocal exchange is only broken with Gawain’s choice to withhold the gift of the green sash, which also catalyzes Gawain’s acceptance of their own humanity.
“Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” is a story that also offers a commentary on the imposition of humanity on itself and nature. “The North” in British literature of the period usually symbolized the direction of the devil and giants — arguably a colonial othering of the Scottish and Welsh tribes of the North. Postcolonial readings of “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” drawing from the source written in a Northwest Midland dialect of Middle English, argue that Lord and Lady Bercilak represent a hybrid Anglo-Welsh culture.
In its cycle of gift-gifting and exchange throughout, the story points repeatedly to how humanity suffers when we are unkind to one another and to nature. In a beautiful monologue by Lady Bercilak around the significance of the color green, The Green Knight exposes the original romance’s ecocritical prospect, reminding us that the imperfections of humanity infringe not only the social contract of exchange among humans, but also on nature. Though I appreciated the beautifully executed cinematography in the film, and the superb acting of Ralph Ineson, Dev Patel, and Alicia Vikander, I hope that future films on and about the premodern world will be more intentional about the ways they frame stories of the past. Instead of continuing to propagate anachronistic models that already problematically reassert themselves in modern society, we should, one day, be able to see on the big screen just how badass, freethinking, and intercultural the premodern world really was.