The Green Knight is a medieval movie for the Internet age. I don’t mean that the titular Green Knight appears to King Arthur’s court on a Zoom call, or that Gawain, the protagonist of the film, Googles where to find the knight to fulfil his quest. I say that because, even though it’s set in a mythic past, the film’s explorations of morality and reputation are uniquely applicable to the question of doing what’s right in a digital world.
In a conversation with a mysterious lord he meets, Gawain expresses his motivations for taking on the dangerous quest of finding the Green Knight: he hopes to be seen as an honourable knight, and thus become part of Arthur’s court. But Gawain’s halting delivery shows that he has never deeply examined this idea of honour.
Gawain is introduced as an inexperienced warrior anxious to make his name in King Arthur’s court, and the fact that Gawain is played by Dev Patel, an actor of Indian descent, complicates this anxiety. As Arthur conspicuously states that his knights have helped cement his rule over the Saxons, who “bow their heads like babes” to their new king, his court becomes linked to ideas of colonialism and conquest. Gawain thus reads as a racial outsider in a hierarchical society, with the “honour” he seeks being bound up with the desire to be accepted by those in power.
In fact, the movie questions whether “honour” is anything more than reputation. Near the film’s conclusion, Gawain experiences a vision where he flees from his quest to meet the Green Knight, returning to Camelot and presumably inventing a story of his success, and eventually succeeding Arthur as king. Even though he flees from his quest, Gawain can wear the public persona of a good knight who has succeeded in his quest; later, when he is king, he upholds this persona through violence, with his soldiers executing a peasant who heckles him. The knightly, or kingly, status that Gawain seeks is thus a matter of public perception, with little to do with Gawain’s morals, or lack thereof.
The film’s costume designer, Malgozia Turzanska, further emphasizes the cost of royal status by having Arthur and Guinevere’s robes be covered with milagros, or small charms, which she imagined were gifts from their subjects. Beneath these charms, they are “barely able to move under all this gratitude” , visually communicating the weight of their responsibilities. The scenes in Arthur’s court are visually claustrophobic, filmed in muted greys, contrasting with the usual portrayal of Medieval courts as places of joy and merriment. Even before Gawain’s vision of ruin, the fact that the court is an eerie, grim place communicates the constricting nature of the world he seeks to be part of.
But this is only a vision, and when Gawain returns to reality, he is given a second chance. So he removes the magical girdle that he believes will protect him from harm, and faces the Knight bravely, knowing that this may end in death…and then, the film ends. As Gawain chooses to fulfil his obligations, he rejects the version of honour that is rooted in public perception—and as he sets that idea aside, we are also excluded from knowing the outcome of his leap of faith. Only in rejecting his desire to be seen as an honourable knight by the world does Gawain, paradoxically, become the traditionally heroic knight.
Comparing this with the modern world, what has changed? I cannot speak for anyone else, but when faced with the many issues in the world that demand my attention, empathy or action, I am often paralyzed. The ritual gestures indicating that my heart is in the right place are easy: to retweet something, share the latest infographic about the latest controversy, send thoughts and prayers.
I would incur no cost doing these little things, and temporarily enjoy being cloaked in support by likes and retweets, like a robe of milagros weighing on my shoulders. But watching Gawain risk his life at the close of his quest made me think of how people around me—many people whom I knew and studied with—were working and sacrificing to do good in the world, from Afghanistan to Texas. I have friends in Oxford whose sincere devotion to doing good deeds make me feel awed, and a little ashamed. It makes me wonder if, even if I did try to imitate them, I could ever come close to doing what they do so seemingly-easily.
But just as Gawain’s biggest step to becoming a knight is to stop worrying about whether he’ll be seen as one, it seems that the real choice is to stop doubting and start doing. That’s the simplest part, and the hardest one.
Image Credit: Wang Sum Luk