The Green Knight, an adaptation of the poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, takes audiences and its protagonist Gawain (Dev Patel) on a quest for honor. Gawain, a ne’er-do-well of sorts, hasn’t made a name for himself. Not yet. King Arthur (Sean Harris), his uncle, displays warmness and kindness towards his nephew, but something’s missing. When the Green Knight appears in Arthur’s court and demands a game of honor—a game no one in the modern day would say yes to—Gawain rises to the challenge. He delivers a blow to the Green Knight, a blow that he must receive in turn in one year.
The film from director and writer David Lowery follows Gawain’s journey to meet the Green Knight. We talked to Lowery about the film’s ending and Gawain’s choice.
Gawain isn’t what one would call courageous. At least, not at first. Agreeing to play the Green Knight’s game forces him to go on a journey—a journey in which he can rely only on himself. He goes with protection from his mother (Sarita Choudhury) though: a girdle which protects Gawain from any and all harm. As Gawain approaches the Green Knight in his lush but ominous bower, he leaves the girdle around his waist.
He’s afraid to receive the blow, as any reasonable person would be. Gawain did decapitate the Green Knight after all. An equal blow wouldn’t mean a happy ending for Gawain. So he hesitates and flinches and asks for a moment to collect his thoughts. And then, he runs in terror and cowardice. Gawain returns to his family and hides the truth of his actions. We see his whole life play out, a life riddled with cruelty and tragedy. Lowery says, “I definitely wanted it to go on long enough so that we sort of forget that it might just be a flight of fancy. It’s very sustained.”
In the original translations of the poem, Gawain approaches the Green Knight with deceit in his heart. Gawain bends his knee and exposes his neck, but he’s still wearing the girdle. Lowery explains, “At the end of the day, the Green Knight calls him on it, gives him what is effectively a scratch on the cheek and sends him home, and asks that he wears that girdle forevermore so that he is reminded of his own fallibility. But he still is allowed to go on his merry way and has a happy ending.”
And that worked well for the poem. However, for the film, Lowery wanted it to have more grit and have the ending be more concrete. He wanted Gawain to have the opportunity to act upon the cowardice and journey home and flee. “What I wanted to do was to embrace the finality of Gawain’s quest, that it could end in his death and that it probably should end in his death. For him, the noble thing to do would be to submit to his own death. And I wanted to be very black and white about that,” he says.
Lowery continues, “But I also wanted him to realize that with some degree of nuance and some degree of perspective. And to get that perspective, he needed to imagine what it would be like to do what Gawain in the poem did, which is to go home and have to live the rest of his life knowing that he flinched in the moment of truth. I just extrapolated on that and wanted to basically, cram an entire life story and an entire biography of this theoretical Gawain into five or six minutes and see where his life would go if he were to have embraced the cowardly thing to do in that moment.”
Ultimately, Gawain takes the honorable course of action by removing the girdle that has kept him safe. The Green Knight recognizes that and refrains from beheading Gawain. Since Gawain displayed courage, one can, perhaps, imagine his life to be the opposite of what it would have been if he’d fled and that he goes on to live a life unmarred by deceit and cowardice.