A Medievalist Delight

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The Green Knight is not a perfect film. Sometimes it loses its pacing, sometimes the camera work seems a bit lazy. Sometimes the acting is a bit much.

But it truly does not matter, because The Green Knight remains a medievalist delight. Not because it is in any way accurate (how can an adaptation of an anonymous poem from the 14th century even be accurate?) but because it plays with all the tropes all the time. There are pilgrim badges on Guinevere’s dress. Gawain’s (and maybe Arthur’s) shield has a Byzantine-style icon of Virgin Mary on it (reminiscent of both Geoffrey of Monmouth and Nennius). The opening credits circle through numerous fonts depicting “Sir Gawain and…” encapsulating so well that there is no “one” version of this story. St Winifred and Reynard the Fox make an appearance. This is a feast for a medievalist.

The film is also full of delightful anachronisms that save it from being part of the “authentic/non-authentic” debate. This is a medievalist film not a medieval one. Just as it should be.

But perhaps the greatest strength of this psychedelic interpretation of a centuries-old poem is that it makes you think that if the medieval author of that poem had a camera and 15 million dollars this could have been the adaptation they would make. And could’ve would’ve is very much in tune with the general tone of the poem itself. The Green Knight is not postmodern - it is just very truly medieval. Those two are easy to be mistaken for each other.

We can and should discuss the way violence, sexual realtionships, and the role of women are depicted in this film - it is not perfect even if it does some things right. Those will, no doubt, spur a vigorous debate.

All this does not stop The Green Knight from being a very modern film. Dev Patel is a modern hero stuck in a challenge that has no happy outcome - he just can’t deal with a world of late stage heroism, a system sustained on “games” and “challenges”. A challenge which he takes partly because of his own pride but chiefly because of the boomer world (Arthur is such a boomer) in which he had no choice but be born into. The sometimes absurd norms of this world and the constant fear of decay (so reminiscent of our climate change worries) cannot be easily shaken off. Is it really a fight that can be won? This makes Gawain’s quest and Gawain’s choices even more ambiguous. And shows how much in common we have today with the medieval world (and it is not just the plague). As every readaptation of the extended Arthurian legend this is not a story about the Middle Ages but about us.

The Green Knight remains a magnificent but flawed film. Just like the poem on which it is based is flawed. And it is good so.

Written on August 2, 2021

Cite this post:

Fafinski, Mateusz "A Medievalist Delight." History in Translation (blog), 02 Aug 2021, https://mfafinski.github.io/The-Green-Knight/.