Abigail Lee ‘25 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer
From the outset, The Green Knight mystifies legend. As slyly as it pretends to unravel history seam by seam, it’s clear that its deliberate ambiguities are not meant to present a straightforward retelling of an ancient story, but to examine the implications of its own genre instead. It’s an alluring and masterful self-referential project, as fascinated by the central legend at the heart of the adaptation—a 14th century poem—as it is dedicated to covering its own tracks, to smoothing over easy explanations in favor of reckoning with the essence of legend itself.
When we meet Gawain (played extraordinarily by Dev Patel), he’s guileless, with no traces of the mythology that will soon shroud him. He’s woken up on Christmas Day by his lover, Essel (Alicia Vikander), who asks if he has achieved knighthood, indicating the consuming objective of his youth. “I’ve got time. I’ve got lots of time,” he replies. Gawain is both restless and inert, obsessed with his visions for a future that he has no idea how to enact. It’s this naive proclamation that signals how little Gawain grasps the entangled paths ahead of him.
As the nephew of King Arthur, Gawain is invited by the monarch to sit by his side as they watch living legends eat and drink for the holiday. The celebration is formidably interrupted by the entrance of the Green Knight, a humanesque figure of wood and shrubbery, who presents a game. A volunteer will be allowed to strike freely at the knight, in the agreement that after one year, they must seek out the Green Chapel where the knight will return a blow. Gawain seizes the chance in a hushed room where no one else comes forward.
Gawain chops off the knight’s head, and he is promptly lauded as a hero. But his journey to fame is not over; he must travel to the Green Chapel on a murky quest with little direction. What follows is a stunning film of shadows and gloom, a meditative adaptation that wallows in the depthless and indecipherable reaches of the medieval landscape.
Through encounters with rogue tricksters, ghosts, and mystical animals, Gawain must seemingly prove his abilities and navigate the scenic hurdles that come with an adventure tale. Yet, his physical capacity and masculinity are negated almost immediately, and he is progressively shed of the qualities that defined him at home. He grows rugged and desperate in the wilderness. Stripped of ego and image, his boyishness is made nakedly obvious. What’s left is a nascent selfhood, a young man who must understand himself outside the lens of adolescence, against a bigger picture.
In the end, the Green Knight is not the antagonist, merely a stand-in for the outside world. When Gawain initially decapitates the knight, he watches in horror as the body merely picks its own head up and sets it back in place. The Green Knight, like the forces of nature, outlives and outlasts the temper of men. He represents Gawain’s presumptuous enterprise to contest the external, immaterial forces that are beyond him. Perhaps this is how to become a legend: you dare to carve through the eternal cycles of nature to make a name for yourself.
The film may be too slow for some audiences; its minimalism is an investment into its own philosophizing. But existential stillness requires this, and viewers should give it a chance. The film asks, how seriously do you take a game? Is it all a trick or is it the foolishness of men to underestimate the laws of nature?
In trying to uncover tradition and legend, The Green Knight exposes what is still unknown, entrenching it further into mythical territory. Perhaps legends were always meant to be just that—a space where things disappear and come out timeless.