Learning How to Die in “The Green Knight”: Existential Dread, Ecological Despair, and the Last Days of Camelot

October 18, 2021   •   By Wilson Taylor

MIDWAY THROUGH HIS journey, Gawain dies. Or, at least, he appears to die: of exposure, of wind or cold, of hunger or thirst, perhaps too a wound; he is ambushed, bound, abandoned in a Welsh forest by a hostile assemblage of bandits and brigands. Moments later, Gawain, the hero of David Lowery’s The Green Knight (2021), is also abandoned by the camera’s indifferent eye, which swivels from the knight’s battered body. Averted with pity and shame, or maybe rather with apathy or cruelty, our gaze turns away to admire the forest’s inhuman beauty. Exploring space and expanding time, the lens slowly revolves, luxuriating in the dense woodland, silvered sun through emerald leaf, birdsong and fog, before completing its round back to Gawain. Time has passed. The knight has perished. Suddenly shorn of flesh, Gawain’s abrupt bones lie beneath a pine, his skeleton bleached against the forest’s green, emptied skull slumping limply from shoulders. A beetle skitters through his jaw.

Gawain has been, of course, on a quest, journeying northward from Camelot to the Green Chapel to complete his engagement with the enigmatic Green Knight, a threatening interloper who has challenged King Arthur and his Court. The previous winter, the Green Knight disrupted Arthur’s Yuletide feast to issue a “friendly Christmas game” in which he would exchange blows with whichever Round Table knight might claim to be the “boldest of blood and wildest of heart.” Medieval literary cultures refer to such an engagement — the Green Knight promising to return any blow in kind, “be it a scratch on the cheek or a cut on the throat,” in one year’s time — simply, brutally, as a “beheading game.” Gawain, desperate for glory, accepted the offer and neatly severed the head of the Green Knight — who, head in hand, repeated the rules of the game before leaving Camelot to its Christmas, Gawain to his death foretold and forestalled.

But like the text and its Knight, nothing so insistently and urgently contemporary can long remain dead — including, for now, Gawain. So back in Lowery’s wilderness, the camera again revolves, counterclockwise now, and Gawain is restored, fleshed again and hale, shoulders cloaked with a golden mantle. This suggestive camerawork manifests what is symbolically true for Gawain and the audience, as well as for the text itself: Gawain’s strange arrangement with the Green Knight stages, repeatedly, humans’ intimate encounter with death. This scene, with Gawain’s quicksilver transitions between death and life, his decomposition and regeneration on the forest floor, reveals the existential and ecological imagination of Lowery’s film. By representing Gawain’s death and decay within the frame, Lowery forces his audience, as T. S. Eliot evocatively phrases it, to “see the skull beneath the skin.”

David Lowery’s brilliant adaptation, with A24, of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight — an intricate and enigmatic medieval romance, authored by the anonymous Pearl Poet of the late 14th century, which both exalts and expands the form — offers a provocative and timely reimagining of the canonical poem. Throughout The Green Knight, Lowery unravels the threads of the Pearl Poet’s self-knowing, self-deconstructing text, pulling, stretching, and reweaving its elaborately layered patterns to spin an exciting and experimental film. Lowery’s bold film relishes some of the poem’s core concerns — including the Poet’s spirited unsettling of the reputation of Arthur and Camelot, his playful troubling of the broader theological and political discourses of the English Middle Ages, and his skeptical probing into the contradictions of courtly culture and chivalric codes. But the film ultimately focuses its aesthetic and imaginative energies on the text’s existential encounter with death: the late Middle Ages by way of Beckett or Camus.

Or Ingmar Bergman, whose sublime The Seventh Seal (1957) also revolves around a knightly game (of chess) with death — and like Bergman, Lowery employs medieval tropes to shape a modern tale. (Sir Gawain, like much of the medieval canon, already anticipates the modern, and is far stranger and more slippery than one might imagine.) Such mortal anxiety thrums throughout the source text — composed, coincidentally, during an outbreak of the bubonic plague. (The Seventh Seal also depicts the ravages of plague, and Lowery’s The Green Knight was itself delayed, by over a year, by the coronavirus pandemic.)

But Lowery’s adaptation extinguishes some of the poem’s redemptive light to stage an inescapable confrontation with nothingness. And, after our too-long years of tensile dread, drifting on such full seas of unspent grief, aren’t we all now deeply acquainted with despair? If Bergman worried about how we might live despite the inscrutable silence of God, Lowery wonders how we might live despite the dread awareness of death — and how we might then learn to die.

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Lowery’s film opens with a prefatory flourish that signals some of his interpretive intentions and existential concerns. Alone in a darkened frame and haloed by a gilded crown, Dev Patel’s Gawain graces an unreal throne. In alliterative verse reminiscent of the text’s jaunty Middle English, the film’s ominous narrator introduces this as a “new tale,” similar to “great myths of old” with “adventure brave and bold” — establishing a measure of mythic depth and contemporary prescience to the narrative. While Lowery’s lens is tight on the uncertain knight, heightening his (and our) existential anxiety, the Pearl Poet’s proem is sweeping and expansive, establishing Gawain — and Arthur’s England — within a longue durée of failed heroes and fallen empires. Furthermore, as the original text dramatizes Welsh resistance to English colonization, the casting of Dev Patel as Gawain and Sarita Choudhury as his sorceress mother — British-born actors of Indian heritage both — sharpens the film’s postcolonial edge, a politics of representation that clarifies the Poet’s skepticism of nationalism and complicates Gawain’s quest into the Welsh wilderness.

History is unstable, entropic, and fatalistic: the poem’s first line invokes the fall of Troy and quickly shifts to consider the collapse of Rome before ambivalently establishing Britain within the poetic frame. The Pearl Poet may praise Arthur, but it’s hard to feel confident within the kingdom’s dubious inheritance of “war and wrack and wonder.” (Here and elsewhere, I rely on Marie Borroff’s fine translation of the Pearl Poet’s lively Middle English.) Sir Gawain is a poem about imperial decay and cultural collapse, about the late-stage anxiety of a fading kingdom beholden to an ancient inheritance of tired myths, riven by plague and paranoia, abandoned by its leaders and betrayed by its heroes. Sir Gawain is a poem for our time.

The Green Knight, then, is a problem for our time as well. His challenge and threat are collective — he embodies and enacts the cultural, historical, and imaginative anxiety of the poem and its people, the muscled torque of so many contradictions, in gleaming verdure. Instead of satisfying Arthur’s yearning for narrative, his desire for “some far-borne tale / of some marvel of might,” the Green Knight offers the terrifying thing-itself, as if Arthur’s cultural and historical despair — his thirst for glory and hunger for greatness — invites mayhem, as fantasy collapses into nightmare. (Gawain’s fatal encounter, furthermore, immediately becomes abstracted into narrative within the film itself, resurfacing in children’s puppet shows and drunkards’ tavern tales in ways that heighten the spectacle but alleviate the anxiety. Death demands storytelling yet resists it.) Irrupting into a complacent but moribund Camelot, the Green Knight threatens Camelot’s politics of stasis, restoration, and nostalgia.

Lowery offers even less to celebrate in Camelot than the Pearl Poet. Far from the poem’s decadent court and youthful king, its tapestries and jewels, Lowery’s Camelot is damp, cold, and bleak, a tired old outpost in an over-worn age. And so is his Arthur: Sean Harris’s King is grayed and weary, with a limp beard and hollow, halting voice. Lowery’s Green Knight, by contrast, surges into Camelot as a vital force of nature. Like his textual predecessor, Ralph Ineson’s Knight bursts into the Court as an ambiguous signifier. Overwhelming the audience’s interpretive imagination, this interloper presents as both a warrior (with his impressive horse, insistent ax, and beautifully embroidered clothing) and as a “phantom and faerie” (with his emerald hue, emphatic physicality, and seasonal sprig of holly). Elaborating on textual details, the Green Knight becomes distinctly arboreal: his skin a coarsened bark, his voice a chthonic rumble, mosses spread at his touch. Revealing the carnage obscured by our cultural codes and customs, the Green Knight’s intrusion gestures toward the natural world tearing down the fragile walls of Camelot’s false seclusion, the violent return of its repressed, the whirlwind sown of nationalist violence and imperial hubris, plague, and ecosystem collapse. Who can feast when such forces are knocking down the door?

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Lowery’s The Green Knight, already delayed by the pandemic, was finally released into the unstable summer of 2021, the hottest season on record, intensified by the political and cultural curdling of our already-long 21st century: the continued collapse of an imagined Camelot. The ephemeral light of solstice — the effervescent return of everyday, the lifting of masks and gathering of groups, the nostalgic restoration — quickly dimmed, not only in a viral gloom but also in our collective failure to contain such a crisis. At the same time, our planetary unraveling quickened its blistering clip, flooding our cities and burning our forests and slashing our coastlines with storms. Atmospheric carbon now measures at nearly 420 parts per million. Into this anguish of the Anthropocene, the United Nations’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its most recent report, articulating what Secretary General António Guterres describes as a “code red for humanity.” “Make a move, or I shall make mine,” growls the Green Knight to Camelot.

In Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization (2015), Roy Scranton bluntly observes that “we’re fucked,” that the “only questions are how soon and how badly.” Our civilizational collapse, Scranton argues, has been sown by our deadly addictions to carbon capitalism and our dangerous commitments to contemporary “ideas of identity, freedom, success, and progress.” In the place of such an atrophied imaginary, this fault in ourselves, we must cultivate “new ideas,” “myths,” and “stories” — an altogether “new vision” of humanity” in which we “accept human limits and transience as fundamental truths.” (“Let me tell you instead a new tale,” beckons Lowery’s narrator to the audience.) Borrowing his title from Montaigne, who suggested that “to philosophize is to learn how to die,” Scranton argues that human individuals and societies, in learning how to die, must “learn to live with and through the end of our current civilization.” We must stare into the green eye of death. “If we want to learn to live in the Anthropocene,” he writes, “we must first learn how to die.”

Gawain’s journey thus becomes an exercise in learning how to die. An individual model for a collective imagination, Gawain must develop a new conception of himself, cultivating a profound awareness of his own end by adopting what Heidegger calls a “being-towards death.” As Gawain rides through a scarred landscape scattered with corpses, his existential dread infuses an urgency and anxiety that both impels and impedes the plot. In addition to his fatal wilderness encounter, Gawain wanders past assorted skeletons, through a still-fresh battlefield rank with burning bodies, and through chilling scenes of deforestation and environmental degradation. His celluloid death in the forest ushers Gawain into a surreal, haunted dreamworld, as he abandons the fixed, historical, and mostly human world of Camelot and finds himself increasingly immersed in a world of myth, ambiguity, and the uncanny. Lowery further reimagines Gawain’s humanity through manipulations of scale and species, nonhuman encounters being integral to medieval literature: Gawain communicates both with a speaking fox and a troupe of singing giants, and, through increasingly wide-angle shots and broad vistas, is dwarfed by a brutal, hostile landscape.

Memorably, Gawain encounters Saint Winifred — a haunting scene beautifully summoned from a single line in the text — in which she requests that he retrieve her severed skull from a freshwater spring. Winifred offers an intriguing counterpoint to Gawain — all those missing heads — but her grisly account of her death, her sexual assault and murder by the hands of a wandering feudal lord, casts a pall both over Gawain’s quest and the civilization he represents and defends. Yet Winifred, unburdened by illusion, has lived through her death and sees through Gawain, dismissing his curiosity whether she is “real” or a “spirit.” “What’s the difference? I just need my head,” she quips, before uttering piercing critiques of Gawain’s quest and his knightly courtesy. As with Gawain, Lowery’s camera reduces Winifred to her skeleton, to her skull beneath the skin. (Lowery includes a similar shot in his meditative 2017 film, A Ghost Story.) If Lowery’s fatal gaze again demonstrates how to see, Winifred models how to live and die. Winifred, her cold gaze shivering Gawain toward a new identity and imagination, presents a new vision of humanity. Gawain restores her head.

Gawain soon finds himself immersed in the dreamworld of Hautdesert, the unreal castle — its “chalk white” towers appear to be “cut of paper” — commanded by Joel Edgerton’s Lord and his beguiling Lady, played by a searing Alicia Vikander. (The double-billed Vikander, who also plays Essel, Gawain’s Camelot lover, enhances the uncanniness of this sequence and this film. Even in his journey, Gawain continually confronts himself.) Whereas the Pearl Poet celebrates Hautdesert as an alternative, idealized Camelot, devoting over 1,000 lines to its portrayal as a paragon of (disquietingly excessive) chivalry and courtesy, with “courage ever-constant, and customs pure,” Lowery emphasizes the unsettling silence of an eerily vacant castle. The only residents of Lowery’s magnificent citadel are the Lord, Lady, and a mysterious elderly woman, who, despite her apparent blindness, continually fixes Gawain with a severe gaze.

Within the Pearl Poet’s deliberately layered text, Gawain’s Hautdesert sequence, folded neatly within the Green Knight’s frame narrative, constitutes the true field of Gawain’s test and the focus of the poem’s concerns. In the text, the garrulous Lord conceives a “Christmas game” of his own: he will share with Gawain whatever he might capture in his daily hunt, if only Gawain will share whatever he might win within the castle’s walls. In three virtuosic sequences, the Lord hunts while the passive Gawain, prone in bed, is repeatedly approached by the bewildering Lady. On successive mornings, as the Lord pursues, kills, and butchers his prey — a doe, a boar, and a fox — the Lady pursues, kisses, and attempts to seduce Gawain in bed. Appealing both to his vanity and his chivalry, the Lady’s dangerous liaisons challenge Gawain’s chastity and courtesy, his ability to occupy the contradictions of the romance plot. While Gawain happily confers his kisses onto the Lord, the Lady’s final gift — a magical green girdle that promises to bestow invincibility upon its bearer — proves too enticing for the death-haunted Gawain to resist. Tangled in a double game, Gawain ultimately chooses life over honor — as Vikander’s Essel might phrase it, he chooses an attempt at “greatness” over maintaining his “goodness.”

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Only then must Gawain meet the Green Knight. Lowery, emphasizing Gawain’s existential anxiety, his fear and trembling, implements his most radical and invigorating shifts during this beautiful and dreadful final sequence. After a prophetic fox warns him of his death, yet another memento mori, the fearful Gawain approaches the Green Chapel for his final encounter with the Green Knight. Lush and overgrown in defiance of winter’s frost, this verdant chapel perilous becomes an unexpected space of life and vitality. In the text, Gawain enters to the unsettling hum of the Green Knight sharpening his ax, but Lowery’s Gawain intrudes into what seems a silent woodland sanctuary, a site of signification that functions as an ironic inversion of dank Camelot and its dusty customs. The Green Knight, seemingly dormant, awaits at the altar for the dawn of a new day.

In the Pearl Poet’s parallel sequencing, Gawain kneels three times for the Green Knight’s ax, echoing the Lord’s three expeditions and the Lady’s three seductions. Twice, Gawain flinches and the ax is stayed; on the third stroke, the Green Knight’s ax “brushes the bare throat,” and Gawain’s blood stains red the snow — a consequence of his deceit in accepting, and obscuring, the signifying girdle. The Knight reveals himself as the mysterious Lord, Gawain’s enigmatic host, as the text’s twinned contests twist into one. And, in the theological framework that underlies the text, Green Knight absolves Gawain. The poem seems to end in qualified triumph: Gawain returns home in glory, and Camelot’s greatness is restored.

Lowery’s ending, on the other hand, is far more troubling and equivocal. Gawain, still expecting the veil to be lifted, the game to be called, is baffled by the Green Knight’s nonchalance, his crude desire to “get to hacking.” “Is this all there is?” laments Gawain. Raising his inevitable ax, the Green Knight responds, “What else ought there be?” Discarding the text’s redemptive framework in favor of a darkly existential and enigmatic signification, Lowery embarks on an extensive speculative sequence in which Gawain, fleeing the fatal swing of the scythe, escapes the Green Chapel and, happening upon his horse in the forest, hastily flees home to Camelot.

In the sublime montage to follow, Lowery imagines the remainder of Gawain’s dishonorable life as an estranged waking death, a walking shadow. Sometimes the future looks like the past; sometimes it looks like the abyss. Still wrapped in the Lady’s green girdle, Gawain is formally knighted; after the death of Arthur, he is crowned king. He and Vikander’s Essel have a child, but Gawain soon abandons Essel, taking their baby from her before taking another woman as his queen. This son is later slain in the battlefield, more carnage of Camelot’s long-simmering war. His mythic castle falls to ruin. His monarchical portrait molders on the wall. So, as Camelot in its last days crumbles under foreign siege, Gawain removes his green girdle, his heavy-crowned head dropping to the floor. Having experienced his life and endured his downfall, Gawain has finally learned to die.

But this has all been a dream, a nightmare, a prophetic vision. Gawain remains in the Chapel. It is morning. The sun is shining, gold on green. Birds are chirping. The Green Knight commands Gawain again to kneel. “Now I’m ready. I’m ready now,” announces Gawain, removing his girdle, exposing his neck. Some fates, he has learned, are worse than death. Unlike in the poem, the Green Knight does not reveal himself, nor does he absolve or release Gawain. Rather, he respectfully strokes Gawain’s face, congratulates Gawain for his courage, and smiles: “Well done, my brave knight. Now, off with your head.” The film ends. The frame greens with moss. The rest is silence.

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During his uncertain stay in Hautdesert, the Lady contemplates the Green Knight’s metaphorical significance — “Why is he green, do you think?” It’s a question Gawain had clearly never considered. While the poem leaves the Green Knight’s hue unexplained and overdetermined, Vikander’s Lady speculates that green, “the color of earth, of living things, of life,” might represent some human limit, a sign that “our reach has exceeded our grasp,” an inevitability of death and decay — of transience or ephemerality or entropy — that we nonetheless repress. “And yet it returns, creeping about the edges … All you hold dear will succumb to it. Your skin. Your bones. Your virtue.” If “red is the color of lust,” she ventures, “green is what is left when ardor fades, when passion dies, when we die, too.” What else ought there be? And so, in the eye of our individual and collective death, in the abyss of our existential dread and ecological despair, as we endure our last days in Camelot, we must meet the Green Knight. We must learn, in the end, to die. Only then may we learn to live.

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Wilson Taylor is a teacher and writer interested in modern and contemporary literature and film. His criticism appears in Los Angeles Review of Books, Bright Lights Film Journal, and elsewhere. He lives in Providence, Rhode Island, and occasionally tweets @wilsonltaylor.