The Green Knight: Adapting an Arthurian Legend

How David Lowery’s movie adopts the Arthurian legend

Stills from The Green Knight

David Lowery’s The Green Knight is a glorious high fantasy cinematography extravaganza. The original story is a very straightforward chivalric romance with almost zero ambiguity about characters and their motivation. David Lowery however was trying to create a more “open-ended experience“. Many things are not as simple as they once were in the original legend. Sometimes this ambiguity works against itself, leaving key story elements to the imagination of the audience.

Before watching

If you’ve never read an Arthurian legend, it is highly recommended that you do so before entering the realm of The Green Knight. Otherwise, you will be missing out on some key story points and characters which go un-named till the end of the movie. Once you read the original legend, then you can truly appreciate how the story takes very creative turns to bypass the simplicity of the old chivalric romance. Here’s how Lowery adapts the legend known to literature students worldwide.

The Knights of the round table (The Green Knight)

The round table as shown in paintings and in The Green Knight

Ancient tales of King Arthur dating from the dark ages to the middle ages describe him as everything from a warlord to a mythical ruler. What every version agrees on is that Arthur kept the company of twelve knights, all paragons of virtue. From Galahad, Lancelot, Percival, Gareth to the youngest known as Gawain (the protagonist of The Green Knight).


It is to be noted none of these characters are named explicitly except Gawain (played by Dave Patel). However, here Gawain is filled with lust, drink, and cowardice. His status as ‘knight’ is also tentative at best. What this does is give Gawain a very human motive to seek the true honor of a knight sparking the events that follow with the arrival of the Green Knight.

Morgan La Fey (The Green Knight)

Morgan La Fey in The Green Knight

Morganona (La Fey) is the half-sister of King Arthur who is portrayed sometimes as a scheming antagonist and sometimes an apathetic family member lost in her own secret rituals. In some popular versions, Morgan/Morganna is the mother of Mordred, the future enemy, and the son of King Arthur. Lowery pulls from both these perspectives in creating a Morganna that explicitly summons the Green Knight for motives unknown.

For her son

Perhaps at the end, we can conclude that it was for her son, Gawain’s own benefit as Morganna would show up in various different forms throughout Gawain’s journey. This puts Morganna in a very delicate light creating a unique perspective of the character far away from the mainstream appeal.

A Promise (The Green Knight)

Lovers and friends in The Green Knight

Unlike in the legend, Gawain’s honor is in question here. Much to his mother’s disapproval, Gawain lives a life of excess and pleasure while still being an unproven knight. On top of that, he is completely aware of his lack of said honor and is hungry to prove himself before King Arthur; becoming his worthy successor. During the course of the movie, Gawain would not keep his promises to his lover Essel or even to his family.

The only one kept

The Green Knight

The only promise he kept was to return to the Green Knight in his ancient chapel to receive a blow equal to that he dealt with the Knight. This act, however, forced and riddled with failure, would be the act that would redeem Gawain, his only saving grace despite his repeated failure. The Gawain of legend was by no means a failure, but David Lowery attempts to create a more human, more relatable Gawain perhaps.

The Five Virtues (The Green Knight)

The five virtues and the pentagram as depicted in The Green Knight

The five knightly virtues are friendship, generosity, chastity, courtesy, and piety. In the movies, all the knights wear a pentacle which represents these virtues. This original poem and the movie both challenge Gawain to keep true to these virtues. But, in the movie, we don’t see Gawain adhering to any one of these virtues. Thus it more directly asks the question if such high moral standards are applicable in a fallen world.

Gawain’s Failure

Through the failure of his displays of virtue, Gawain becomes a living embodiment of a very human condition. He does not fear God, neither is he chaste nor even true to this lover (who he would abandon without question), nor is he courteous and is always thinking about selfish interests. His tests of virtue are the highwaymen, St. Winifred, the lord and lady, the giants and fox, and finally the Green Knight himself. A hero is not supposed to fail, yet through Gawain’s failure in the movie he subverts the old stories and also becomes more human in our eyes.

Strange Creatures (The Green Knight)

The fox and the giants in The Green Knight

In The Green Knight, there are some story elements not present in the original legend. The most important being the blindfolded woman in the mansion of the lord and lady, the fox and to an extent the giants. It could be that all three are manifestations of Morgan’s power, especially the blindfolded woman. The fox develops a unique bond with Gawain only to be scared off later when he goes to the temple of the Green Knight despite its warnings to turn back. When Gawain asks the giant if he could ride on its back to his destination, the fox scares off the giant meaning probably there are no shortcuts in this journey. Though none of their identities are explicitly mentioned, we can make a pretty educated guess about this.

The Green Sash (The Green Knight)

Broken promises in The Green Knight

Facing death and the green sash are greatly connected in The Green Knight. In the legend, Sir Gawain enters into a pact with Lord Bertilak (the lord of the mansion) and promises to return him something which he finds in the Lord’s manor in exchange for a hunted animal. As events follow, the lady of the house tries to seduce Gawain, yet Gawain being chaste allows her only a kiss which he, in turn, returns to the lord in measures of one, two, and three for each day. On the final day, he receives the green sash from the lady but he keeps it a secret from Lord Bertilak.

Symbolic Mortality

In the movie, however, the sash becomes a symbol of Gawain’s fear of mortality. First, he receives it from his mother meaning it was the mother who gave him the sash to test his resolve. As long as he keeps his sash, Gawain feels safe. When he doesn’t have it he feels intense vulnerability and fear. The sash becomes a symbol for his fear of death, as at first when loses his sash to bandits he hallucinates his own death. In the end, when he finally meets the knight at his chapel, he hallucinates his dishonorable life with the sash. Only when he learns to let go of the sash does he actually become a knight, his fear of mortality left behind. The Knight then reveals himself as Lord Bertilak himself though it’s quite subtle.

Finding Honor (The Green Knight)

A journey of honor in The Green Knight

Gawain’s honor is in question the whole duration of the movie. He is a truly dishonorable man searching for greatness within himself. Yet, he is unsure if there’s anything there to find. From the beginning, he values his own life much more than honor. He carries a talisman of his mortal fear in the sash. Yet, at the end when he bows down to the face of The Green Knight, a “what if” scenario begins. He watches how living dishonorably will make him not only a hated ruler but also a terrible father and husband. Another “what if” is presented earlier when he loses his green sash at the hands of the highwaymen. In the scene, we find Gawain dead, yet he is still alive. His fear of mortality gradually turns into a fear of a dishonorable life. It is only when he rips off the sash, that he becomes truly honorable.

Gawain’s Fate (The Green Knight)

A dishonorable yet self-serving life in The Green Knight

In the end, when Gawain stops flinching, throws away all protection, and with determination tries to ready himself for decapitation, the Green Knight declares him as a knight for the first time. In the legend, Gawain is dealt a blow with the sash on his person, which doesn’t take his head off but leaves a deep scar to remind him of his dishonesty.

Throwing fear aside

However, in the movie, Gawain completely removes the sash and abandons all dishonesty to die an honorable death. Yet, we do not know his fate. The ending is left ambiguous and we are left wondering what will happen. There are multiple possible endings. But, the journey to this outcome itself is the main focus of the Green Knight. Perhaps Gawain returns with honor, or perhaps he perishes there. Yet, in the movie stylization is more important than a moral lesson. So, purposely the ending has been left up to us.


The Green Knight sometimes reaches great heights and sometimes fails to deliver yet in the end it is a very enjoyable fantasy movie that is sure to turn some mental gears. It adapts the legend adding elements of psychological realism which makes the characters much more human to our eyes. It takes a very simplistic 14th-century poem and turns it into a true test of mental fortitude. Of course, many stylistic cinematographic techniques have been used to bring this movie to life and enough can’t be said about them in just one article. For more on that check the video below.

Boidurjya Ganguly

An arts student living on movies, music and games. 50% caffeine and 100% tired.

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