Words by Ethan Lamb
Given looming fears over climate change, when we talk about ‘Nature’ in a modern-day context, we often frame it as a fragile being under attack, and therefore, something we need to strive together to protect. This notion is so prevalent that it’s hard to imagine a time when human beings considered nature to be an overwhelming force that must be contended with daily for survival. This is the consciousness that the original Arthurian poem ‘Sir Garwain and The Green Knight’ was written in and is the primary notion that drives David Lowery’s 2021 film adaptation The Green Knight.
After chopping off the head of a mysterious tree-like entity known as The Green Knight (Ralph Ineson), Gawain (Dev Patel) unwittingly accepts a fatal challenge that will lead him back to the Green Knight’s lair, ‘The Green Chapel’, to have the act returned upon him, sending him on a quest through a fantasy depiction of England, encountering mysterious characters that seek to dissuade and confuse him (and the audience).
The film leaves these encounters largely unexplained, choosing to inspire a sense of unfolding disorientation in the viewer rather than a clear plot progression. One monologue, however, stands out as being direct enough of an interpretation of a theme that it’s hard not to see it as part of the film’s mission statement. Lady Bertilak (Alicia Vikander) explains to Gawain the significance of the colour green as part of the forest’s natural flora, and how it will thrive under any conditions given enough time. She points out that the goals of civilisations are left as an insignificant struggle within the larger cycles of the natural world. This explicit exploration of Natural Philosophy is where the film departs from the modern framing of discussions surrounding nature. Lowery seeks to implant the idea in the audience’s head that nature and the natural world will recover from any lasting damage long after we are gone. The real victim of mankind’s actions is mankind itself, cursed to be repaid the damage done to the natural order. This is a fundamental principle in Natural Philosophy: the revelation that humankind is just part of a small, inevitable cycle of nature and that the idea that we can transcend nature or overcome it in some meaningful way is simply narcissistic thinking.
This idea all culminates in the film’s emotional climax, where Gawain, finally at the mercy of The Green Knight, experiences an epiphany where he realises the future that awaits him if he allows his karmic balance to go unresolved. He sees death, war and suffering for himself and his loved ones if he runs away from the consequences of his actions. Gawain then allows The Green Knight to behead him, accepting his place at the end of a natural cycle and releases his grip on life and honor. The Green Knight, the natural world personified as inexorable, omnipotent and god-like, becomes a teacher to Gawain and in a sardonic twist ends the film with a punchline before a harsh cut to the title card. Lowery himself has stated that he sought to frame Garwain’s beheading as “a positive thing” and the ending can be interpreted as a moment of self-actualisation over a mode of thinking that is largely absent from the 21st-century zeitgeist.
This bold departure from modern perspectives is what gives the film it’s authenticity as an adaptation of a historical document. Not only do the visuals and mise-en-scène contribute to the film’s identity, but so does its core philosophy. Leaving you with an unforgettable film that challenges the audience on a level deeper than most dare.