An ambitious young knight of King Arthur’s Round Table makes an ill-advised bargain and embarks on a personal quest in the new trailer for The Green Knight, a forthcoming film by director David Lowery (Pete’s Dragon, A Ghost Story) adapted from the famous 14th-century medieval poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Originally meant to debut at the 2020 SXSW festival, with a May 2020 theatrical release, the film was shelved in the face of the global pandemic. With theaters slowly reopening around the country (and the world), The Green Knight is finally being released this summer.
(Spoilers for the 14th-century medieval poem below.)
The original poem falls into the chivalric romance genre, relating a well-known story from Arthurian legend. (I highly recommend J.R.R. Tolkien’s translation from 1925 or Simon Armitage’s 2008 translation, recently revised.) On New Year’s Day, King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table gather at Camelot to feast and exchange gifts. A mysterious Green Knight disrupts the festivities and proposes a different kind of exchange: any one of the knights may strike him with one blow with his axe; in return, the Green Knight will come back in a year to return the blow. Sir Gawain, the youngest of the knights and nephew to Arthur, accepts the challenge and beheads the Green Knight. Everyone is shocked when the Green Knight picks up his severed head. He says Gawain must meet him at the Green Chapel one year hence to receive a similar blow, per their bargain.
As the deadline approaches, Gawain embarks on a quest to find the Green Chapel, having plenty of adventures and battles along the way. Finally, he arrives at a castle, and the lord and lady invite him to stay as their guest. The lord, Bertilak de Hautdesert, proposes another bargain: he will go out hunting every day and give Gawain whatever he catches, provided Gawain gives the lord anything he gains during the same day. And every day, the lady of the castle attempts to seduce the young knight while her husband is away. Gawain is caught between two competing codes: the code of chivalry demands that he not betray his host’s trust by sleeping with his wife, but the code of courtly love demands that he do whatever a damsel requests.
He manages to courteously fend off the lady’s advances for two days, granting her only one and two kisses, respectively, which Gawain then passes on to the lord when he brings back a deer and a boar. On the third day, when Gawain once again spurns her advances, the lady tries to give him a gold ring. He declines the gift. But when she next offers him a green and gold silk sash that she swears will protect him from physical harm, Gawain—knowing his rendezvous with the Green Knight approaches—accepts in a moment of weakness, and the two exchange three kisses. He passes the three kisses on to the host when the lord returns with a fox, but Gawain doesn’t tell his host about the lady’s sash.
The next day, Gawain rides off to meet the Green Knight, who delivers the return blow. Gawain, who is wearing the sash, only suffers a minor nick on the neck. Technically, he “wins” their game, but the Green Knight reveals himself to be none other than Lord de Hautdesert and says that the entire yearlong scheme was meant to be a test of the Arthurian knights. Had Gawain told the lord about the sash, he would not have even suffered a slight wound on his neck. So Gawain’s victory is also a source of personal shame, even though the lord declares Gawain to be the most blameless knight in the realm.
There have been prior attempts to adapt Sir Gawain and the Green Knight for film and television, most notably director Stephen Weeks’ 1984 film, Sword of the Valiant, starring Sean Connery as the Green Knight. Both that film and Weeks’ earlier 1973 adaptation took considerable liberties with the original text—understandable, given the passage of centuries, but neither film proved successful. (Time Out’s reviewer even compared the poor production values of Sword of the Valiant unfavorably to Monty Python and the Holy Grail, although Connery received praise for his performance.)
Judging by the trailer, Lowery is also taking a few liberties with the source material. Per the official premise:
An epic fantasy adventure based on the timeless Arthurian legend, The Green Knight tells the story of Sir Gawain (Dev Patel, Slumdog Millionaire), King Arthur’s reckless and headstrong nephew, who embarks on a daring quest to confront the eponymous Green Knight, a gigantic emerald-skinned stranger and tester of men. Gawain contends with ghosts, giants, thieves, and schemers in what becomes a deeper journey to define his character and prove his worth in the eyes of his family and kingdom by facing the ultimate challenger.
Ralph Ineson (Game of Thrones, Absentia) plays the Green Knight; Sean Harris (Prometheus, The Borgias) plays King Arthur; Katie Dickie (Game of Thrones, Prometheus) plays Guinevere; Alicia Vikander (Ex Machina) is the lady; and Joel Edgerton (who played Gawain in Antoine Fuqua’s 2004 King Arthur) plays the lord. The cast also includes Barry Keoghan, Sarita Choudhury, and Erin Kellyman.
The Green Knight opens in theaters on July 30, 2021.
Listing image by A24