Inspired by 14th-century poem, The Green Knight is latest Arthurian legend on big screen

Arthurian legend is no stranger to the big screen and the latest in that line, The Green Knight starring Dev Patel, has already opened to rave reviews. 

But some are hoping the 14th-century epic poem it is inspired by — Sir Gawain and the Green Knight — becomes the real breakout star.

In A24’s latest film, Patel stars as Sir Gawain, a nephew of King Arthur who sets out on a fantastical journey to challenge the Green Knight, a strange, towering figure with green skin and a seemingly indestructible exterior. The film hit Canadian theatres on Friday.

Appeal of Arthurian legends

Directed by David Lowery, the filmmaker behind Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and A Ghost Story, the film is the latest in a long line of adapted Arthurian legends that has movie buffs and medievalists alike excited for its release.

Dev Patel stars in David Lowery’s The Green Knight. One critic called the film ‘visual poetry.’ (Eric Zachanowich)

“It’s a story about an ambitious young person who, maybe, in the beginning, bites off more than he can chew,” said writer Robin Sloan. Each year, he performs a live virtual reading of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, translated into modern English by poet Simon Armitage.

“I hope I’ll hear at least a few of those alliterative bouncing rhythms spoken by Dev Patel, or the narrator or someone else, because I think they’re, for me, the most special part of the poem,” said Sloan, who is also the author of the novel Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore.

The film was due to be released last May, Lowery said in a recent interview with the Globe and Mail. When the pandemic upset those plans, the director said it gave him a chance to “revisit it with fresh eyes.”

If early reviews are any indication, the extra moments in the editing room paid off.

Justin Chang of the Los Angeles Times called it “a bewitching feat of revisionist mythmaking, the kind that implores you to look upon an old story with newly appreciative eyes.” The New York Times’ A.O. Scott said it’s a movie “worth watching twice,” while Alison Willmore at Vulture wrote that it is a “ravishing and unsettling fantasy.”

“It’s just — it’s visual poetry,” said Jeffrey Zhang, chief critic and editor of pop culture website Strange Harbours. “I think that’s what this film really is.”

Available in the public domain and holding wide appeal, Arthurian legends make for easy adaptations, Zhang said.

Poem was unknown for centuries

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is an epic poem with a fittingly storied history. Written in the late 14th century by an unknown writer who has since been dubbed “The Pearl Poet,” the text was virtually unknown until a 19th-century British researcher came across it.

Only a single copy of the original manuscript has been discovered.

“It’s not like it was a hit in the year 1427,” Sloan said. “Instead, it basically sat unread, unknown in a library — it was passed around from collection to collection.”

It was almost destroyed in a fire in London in the 1700s that claimed other manuscripts, he said. 

“We’ll never know what was on them or what stories were lost in that fire. But just by sheer luck, Sir Gawain in the Green Knight was spared,” he said.

Alexandra Gillespie, a former English professor at the University of Toronto who has taught on Sir Gawain and The Green Knight, said that the “complex,” “jewel-like” poem — along with other texts from the Pearl Poet — makes rich use of historical Middle English.

Alexandra Gillespie taught a fourth-year capstone seminar on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight at the University of Toronto-Mississauga. (Jackson Weaver/CBC News)

“They are alliterative poems,” she said. “So the first letter of many words in a single line will be the same, though they also have patterns of rhyme and other kinds of meter and they’re really, really intricate.”

The text’s recurring green motif is a symbol of sexuality, fertility, nature and abundance, Gillespie said.

“Green is also the death that encroaches on you, the decay that is always just around the corner,” she said.

Sloan said that much of the poem’s appeal is in its use of language paired with a narrative that can be surprising.

“I mean, it’s an Arthurian quest, but it’s not like the others,” he said. “I truly believe this is — it’s not like the others. It’s really a special piece of work in history.”

Ripe for pop culture adaptations

On the big screen and beyond, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight has proved to be particularly fruitful source material, with its hero appearing in a range of media.

There’s the 1973 film Gawain and the Green Knight, and its 1984 remake, Sword of the Valiant; there’s a BAFTA-winning 2002 animated short film that shares the poem’s name. There is also a 2008 documentary that explores the hero’s journey and the 2011 television series Camelot features Clive Standen as Gawain.

The 1991 opera Gawain is just one of many stage adaptations. And there’s even the Green Knight-inspired video game, Chronicles of the Sword.

For Sloan, whose yearly readings of the poem draw in viewers from around the world, the film is an opportunity for people to appreciate the centuries-old text.

I hope that when people watch a movie like this and become aware of its source material, it connects them to a time scale that’s a little bit broader than the one we’re often sort of zoomed into and locked into,” he said.

Still, many stories of Arthurian legend have received an underwhelming reception at the box office. 

Most recently, 2017’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword lost a whopping $153.2 million US for Warner Bros. King Arthur, released in 2004, grossed only $203.6 million US against its $120 million US budget. And Sean Connery’s 1995 film The First Knight was ill-received by audiences and critics. 

So while Lowery takes a risk in adapting The Green Knight, its Arthurian origins could resonate with audiences who are excited by tales of swords and sorcery in the vein of The Lord of the Rings, or even the knight-like superheroes in franchises like the Avengers, Gillespie said. 

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