Sir Gawain and The Green Knight

Consider The Green Knight: a new movie for British Lit

When you’re teaching a new class, you just can’t do it all. You ease into the new routine, the new texts, the new lesson plans, and activities. For example, even though I taught British Literature to high school seniors for three years, I never taught “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” (SGGK).

British Library, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

During my first year, I bit off a considerable chunk, dove in, and taught as many stories, poems, and plays as I was able. During my second year, I added a few more. During my third year, I added still more. However, for some reason, “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”, didn’t make my cut. Here’s why: I was already teaching Arthurian lore with Le Morte d’Arthur and that, in my mind, was all the questing, sword-fighting, and lady-wooing we could squeeze into the schedule.

However, about two months ago I watched the 2021 film The Green Knight starring Dev Patel (purchased and streamed on Amazon Prime for only $4.99!). It’s an exquisite interpretation of the familiar-yet-idiosyncratic knightly tale. In short, I’ve changed my mind about SGGK. If I were still teaching high school, SGGK would definitely be in my mix. When a quality film exists to readily guide students into a text, it should tip the scale in that text’s favor.

Dev Patel plays Sir Gawain in The Green Knight. | Photo: Triplexace, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Students today thrive on the visual, and if a film provides connection or a way into a text, so be it. After all, there aren’t enough contemporary films to include in a Brit Lit course as it is. When I find one of quality, I do what I can to include it.

Students need to see modern adaptations and interpretations of what we read in order to observe their enduring relevance. For example, Netflix’s The Dig can enliven Anglo-Saxon poetry, and Virgin’s Limitless can do the same for Doctor Faustus.

The Green Knight, directed by David Lowery and starring Dev Patel, has the potential to do the same for SGGK.

Notice I said it “has the potential”

I say The Green Knight has the potential because I know it can make the anonymously written poem come alive for students. For example, Patel is a talented and popular actor. The Green Knight is terrifying and reasonable, for a tree-man, that is. Last, a theme of honor, some expected violence, and scenes of curious dialogue between Gawain and key characters contrast well with the language of the poem… all while supporting the original narrative. All these elements shed new light on Gawain’s journey to his destiny.

However, I also know the film has the potential to steer us off course. There are glaring additions, strange inconsistencies, odd implications, and one extremely off-putting and vulgar detail that you’ll want to avoid. (A blog post in the near future will include a guide of when not to watch.)

Generally speaking, though, I believe that the film adheres to the original poem well enough. In short, The Green Knight film deserves a close look. Listen to this podcast episode: Sir Gawain and the Decent Film as an additional resource.

With that in mind, I’ve assembled a list of resources to peruse as you make your decision as to whether the film would be useful for your classes. Rest assured, I’ll be re-watching the film yet again to determine those parts teachers will find most and least useful for their classes. After all, The Green Knight runs two hours and ten minutes, slightly more than my own self-imposed two-hour limit.

Resource Roundup: The Green Knight

  1. Check out this review from The New Yorker:

In this review, Katy Waldman tackles the narrative accuracy of the movie to the 14th-century text, and she rightly concludes the film downplays Gawain’s inherent gallantry in favor of more modern themes of personal authenticity and “finding one’s self”.

2. Dappled Things, a website dedicated to Catholic art and literature, offers this review:

While conceding that the movie is a good example of how the meanings of old texts can shift over time to reach new audiences, contributor L. C. Ricardo discusses many aspects of the film that were added by the director, including a talking fox, walking giants, and a Green Knight who is not also Sir Bertilak. Ricardo also makes note of the film’s secularization. There is virtually no mention of Christian values, even though the film keeps the Christmas-time setting of the poem.

3. Download this summary and student learning guide from open publisher PressBooks:

Access this summary for student use or to supplement your existing textbook. This webpage provides an easy-to-digest breakdown of the poem in its three acts, a character analysis of Sir Gawain, a brief theme discussion, and study questions.

4. Check out this review from The Guardian:

Read toward the end of this review for how writer Peter Bradshaw discusses the significance of the color green as expressed by the lady of Lord Bertilak, who invites Gawain to stay at his castle midway to his destiny with the Green Knight at the Green Chapel. Does green symbolize the power of nature? The power of immaturity? The power of life itself? Bradshaw writes that green is the color of “the grass that will grow out of the grave and the moss that will cover the tomb, the endless process that will make a mockery of individual heroes and their paths of glory.” To use the poem to discuss symbolism, definitely skim this article first.

5. Check out this review from Vanity Fair:

Writer Yohana Desta speculates in this related article about the film’s inclusion of St. Winifred of Wales, who was memorialized in the 1500s with a religious site featuring a well with healing powers… healing powers that reattached her decapitated head after her murder by an evil Prince Caradog. It’s basically an interesting mention in the film based on a legend that has lured pilgrimages through the centuries. It’s a curious inclusion in the film, and your students will have questions!

6. Try this article from Vogue on for size:

Malgosia Turzanka, the film’s costume designer, won rave reviews. This article includes interesting drawings and discussion about connections between costuming and the narrative’s philosophical themes. From colors to materials to embroidery patterns, students will be intrigued by the creative decisions made to interpret the poem for the silver screen.

Marilyn Yung

Thanks for reading!

Investigate The Green Knight to see if it may be useful in your British Lit classes. It’s rare to find contemporary films to link the current day to the foundational texts of western culture. When one comes along, we should spend some time with it. While I would hesitate to show the entire movie, I suggest watching key parts with the text in-hand.

I’m working on creating a movie guide for The Green Knight. Keep in touch to learn more about that resource by becoming a follower or subscribing by leaving your email below. I’ll send you a Treasured Object Poem handout in return.

Leave a comment below in the comment or on my Contact Page. Have a great week!

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Published by Marilyn Yung

Writes | Teaches | Not sure where one ends and the other begins.

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