And when that baron bold had Britain made, I trow,
Bold men were bred therein, who loved strife well enow,
And many a war they waged in those good days of yore —
Of marvels stern and strange, in this land many more
The latest from A24 studios, The Green Knight (2021), is a retelling of the fantastical chivalric romance of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a story written by an unknown author in the 14th century as part of the tales of King Arthur, medieval histories and romances of Britain.
The original manuscript was first published in its entirety in 1839 and has been dated to the 14th century, about the time of Chaucer, although the early English used is different. Despite its age, the poem’s translations (including one by J.R.R. Tolkien) are quite readable and enjoyable, even for a modern audience.
As I was watching the movie, I kept thinking about how chivalry, an ancient concept of manhood, is still alive in today’s values of manhood. What we know as toxic masculinity is a warped perversion of the age-old values we know as Arthurian.
In an interview, Director David Lowery explained that he was asking himself, “How will history look back upon me? How will history look back on my generation? How will history reflect upon the things that I’ve done?” as he worked on the film. These are questions that until the last hundred years or so, women have not been able to ask of themselves. They are questions wrapped up in masculinity.
The Green Knight takes place at Christmas, when Sir Gawain, played by a hypersexualized (and thank you very much!) Dev Patel, is asked to sit at the side of King Arthur. Up until this point, Gawain’s main strengths appear to be sleeping with women and drinking. When the King asks him to tell a tale to entertain him, Gawain replies that he has no tale. He has no past, no history, no courageous, manly-man deeds to share in boasting. Meanwhile, King Arthur is literally the stuff of legends, at the end of his life, facing death. How can Gawain compare?
Queen Gwenevere (played by Kate Dickie) turns to Sir Gawain and asks, “What do you see?” referring to the crowd of knights.
“I see legends,” Gawain says.
She replies, “Do not take your place among them idly.”
Honestly, King Arthur and Queen Gwenevere are creepy af in this movie. Dev Patel is beautiful and I want him to find my head in a spring. Can we talk about his henleys? I digress.
When a mysterious knight bedecked in wood and green arrives, he invites Sir Gawain into a “beheading game” as part of a Christmas jest.
“‘T is Yuletide, and New Year, and here be many a guest,
If any in this hall himself so hardy hold,
So valiant of his hand, of blood and brains o bold,
That stroke for counter-stroke with me exchange he dare,
I give him of free gift this gisarme rich and fair,
This axe of goodly weight, to wield as he see fit,
And I will bide his blow, as bare as here I sit.
If one will test my words, and be of valiant mood,
Then let him swiftly come, and take this weapon good,
Here I renounce my claim, the axe shall be his own —
And I will stand his stroke, here on this floor of stone,
That I in turn a blow may deal, that boon alone
Yet respite shall he have
A twelvemonth, and a day.
Now quickly I thee crave —
Who now hath aught to say?
(translated by Jessie L. Weston)
The green branch the knight bears is a symbol of peace, showing he means no harm. But the court is wary, and none but Sir Gawain volunteer. Then, he is gifted with King Arthur’s sword, a symbol of the King’s faith in him, the famous sword in the stone.
The Green Knight is putting a challenge to the “legends” at court, questioning their manhood. Gawain’s act of stepping forward both shows that he is a man of courtesy, but also in the case of Lowery’s Gawain, that he has no idea what he’s getting into.
But what does all this mean? Why does Gawain force himself to travel far and wide just to fulfill a silly game? Well, to understand it, we have to understand the chivalric code.
The History of Chivalry i.e. Rules for Dudes
For simplicity’s purpose, I’ll talk about The Knight’s Code of Chivalry as described in The Song of Roland (which also happens to be the inspiration for Stephen King’s The Dark Tower), an 11th-century epic poem. The rules are:
- To fear God and maintain His Church
- To serve the liege lord in valour and faith
- To protect the weak and defenceless
- To give succour to widows and orphans
- To refrain from the wanton giving of offence
- To live by honour and for glory
- To despise pecuniary reward
- To fight for the welfare of all
- To obey those placed in authority
- To guard the honour of fellow knights
- To eschew unfairness, meanness and deceit
- To keep faith
- At all times to speak the truth
- To persevere to the end in any enterprise begun
- To respect the honour of women
- Never to refuse a challenge from an equal
- Never to turn the back upon a foe
Thus we see the high standard Sir Gawain was having to deal with. Becoming a knight meant turning his back on everything he knew about being a man. Men fuck whores and get drunk. Knights have a higher code.
Knights in the medieval time period of the Gawain poet’s writing were already a thing of legend. Living up to that ideal of manhood meant becoming such a legend. They would be expected to fight “for God” in crusades (which although not often directly mentioned in many Arthurian legends, were meant to recover Jerusalem as a “holy land” under Islamic rule, resulting in massacres of Muslim and Jewish people.)
Essentially, the main question in the movie is, “Will Sir Gawain not be a dick?” It’s a standard that seems easy to achieve on the surface, but when applied to manhood, perpetually at odds with the desires of the body, it is not so easily achieved.
As Gawain’s lover Essel puts it in the movie, “This is how silly men perish.”
To which Gawain replies, “Or how good men become great.”
Knights navigate a world of two duties — that due to God and that due to courtly love.
Chivalry and Manhood Today
We can see the ideals of chivalric manhood and masculinity in the culture of the United States, dating back as far as the Civil War era and the Gone With the Wind tradition of men speaking out for women’s honor. (This tradition often resulted in men being “trapped” by women or else dying on the sword of marriage and honor, i.e., Scarlet’s tainted honor must be avenged to the injury of Dear effeminate Ashley, but I digress.) This idea of manhood emerged from British values carried over to the US, and continues on today in a hyper-idealized way. “Good men” are those that stand up for women, provide a home and living for their family, and go to church (a Christian one). It’s a country song waiting to happen. God is great, beer is good, and women are crazy.
Chivalric ideals seem innocently good on the surface. But today in the US they have often been hijacked for the purpose of subjugation. A wing of the “Proud Boys” is called the Fraternal Order of Alt-Knights. In January of 2019, a group of three men as part of a right-wing militia group were sentenced to jail for plotting the mass murder of Muslims on American soil. They called themselves “The Crusaders.” In the war of twenty-first-century manhood, everything real and true gets obliterated, even the potentially useful portions of chivalry.
It’s the reality The Green Knight shows us about manhood; these virtues are easily twisted.
Every step of Gawain’s journey in the film is fraught with trauma. From having his clothing ransacked (a direct opposite to the book’s repeated descriptions of his beautiful clothing), to having his dear horse stolen (don’t worry, the horse doesn’t get hurt), to being left for dead on the road.
When Gawain finally makes it to the home of a Lord and Lady, viewers are meant to believe he is safe. But this is just where the temptation begins.
The protection of a woman’s honor comes at the cost of her freedom. The difference between Gawain’s two love interests in the film (both played expertly by Alicia Vikander) is virginity. In medieval times (and in some backward societies today), virginity was a highly prized sign of a courtly lady. Her love is a method of control that results in great power. Because Essel is not a virgin, she cannot be a lady.
In a trippy scene at the near-end of the movie when Gawain imagines his life if he should eschew honor and refuse to face the Green Knight, Essel is put aside when she bears Gawain’s child, merely a vessel for his lineage.
St. Jerome, a Latin priest, wrote that as “long as woman is for birth and children, she is different from men as body is from the soul. But when she wishes to serve Christ more than the world, then she will cease to be a woman and will be called a man.”
When examined with a modern lens, it’s easy to see the chivalric knight as a mere Don Quixote, bumbling and tilting at windmills. Why go to all this trouble for a mere game of moral honor?
What sets the Gawain of David Lowery’s vision apart is his complexity, married with the stellar and subtle acting of Dev Patel; this is a Gawain who struggles under the weight of the expectations of chivalry and manhood.
I particularly enjoyed the queering of The Lord that Gawain visits. In the book, Gawain’s kiss with The Lord occurs three times. On the third, the kiss is described by translator Jessie L. Weston as “setting them on his lips with all solemnity”. J.R.R. Tolkien’s translation of the kiss is far juicier, “He clasps then the knight and kisses him thrice, as long and deliciously as he could lay them upon him” (89).
In the original tale, Gawain spends most of his time at The Lord and Lady’s home with the ladies in feast or attempting to avoid the advances of The Lady as she tempts him. In contrast to these romantic scenes in Gawain’s bed (with the curtains closed about him) are long, violent descriptions of The Lord’s hunt for the fox. While some have cast aside this scene of male kissing as being a part of the film’s horror elements (and even poorly chosen to call it “gay panic”), I felt that this section captured the strangeness of relating a medieval story for a modern audience.
Leann Stuber explains in “The Contradiction of Masculinity in the Middle Ages” that as urbanization and an expanding population meant men and women often worked together in professions, traditional male gender roles based on dominance over women became far more complicated. Originally, “Concepts of male superiority from classical literature were incorporated into Christian doctrine, creating a definition of masculinity based purely on male dominance and virility.”
But, as Stuber goes on to explain, gender began to be defined by profession, and “The varying definitions of masculinity created numerous contradictions for men in medieval society.” In the medieval time period, gender was far less tied to sex differences than it was to actions. A man acting in a way that was “feminine” or “womanly” would be far more dangerous than his body being unfeminine in some way. Kissing was common between men and often described as a part of the chivalric knight’s “free and gay” persona. But the queering of the text is necessary and important to translating the work for a modern audience. What IS with all this jousting and swordplay and penis metaphors? Was the kiss merely between two men chaste, or was it something more?
Romantic chivalry was far more a literary concept than a true concept in the age of chivalry in the absence of useful evidence. The truth is, what we know about medieval masculinity comes from literature — not from first-hand accounts.
The film engages with these themes in a nuanced way. Even the green girdle wrapped around Gawain by multiple women is a sign of the feminine — to be shunned at the last moment for the purpose of gallantry. The introduction of Gawain’s mother (a character not present in the text but who plays a large figure in the larger Arthur mythos) as a witch-like schemer whose actions are ultimately mysterious to the viewer, places women at the forefront of the fate of the male lead. Gawain’s mother is the one who summons the Green Knight, to test her son or else force him to take his place in the world, “to test [his] knightly pride.” (By the way, the whole scene with the green girdle at the end totally gave me Carmen Maria Machado Husband Stitch vibes.)
David Lowery’s Gawain receives his due in the end and rightly place at Arthur’s side. It’s a film worth watching over and over again for its cinematography, exploration of surrealism, and excellent rendition of a centuries-old tale that deserves reading through a feminist lens.
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