“The Green Knight” and Modern-Day Honor


James Knowles

A magical quest and a massive axe don’t keep the hero of “The Green Knight” from being incredibly relatable in the modern day. Photo courtesy of The New Yorker

“Tell me a tale of yourself, that I might know thee.”

“I have none to tell, king.”

“Yet. You have none to tell yet.”

By the time this exchange was delivered, director David Lowery’s “The Green Knight” had already seized my attention and refused to let go. The opening shot alone contains an otherworldly mix of light, stone, royal regalia and mystical fire. It is followed by an introduction to the film’s very unique hero Gawain, played perfectly by Dev Patel.

Gawain, the nephew of King Arthur, is direly out of place among the knights of the round table. The legendary circle is filled with the recounted tales of great deeds, quests and battles. Gawain is untested, not truly worthy to sit among them, much less on the throne that he’s in line to occupy. Gawain realizes this much sooner than the audience—he’s both good and bad, but not arrogant—and is humbled to be reminded of his glorious unwritten destiny by his uncle and aunt, Camelot’s power couple Arthur and Guinevere.

Soon after, the eponymous Green Knight appears with a challenge to a game—one that only Gawain is brave enough to accept. He takes his turn, and in consequence adds an uncomfortable element of certainty to his future. Honor is for the taking, yet it could come at a dreadful price.

Gawain’s ensuing struggle to strive forward towards honor without succumbing to the fear of what lies ahead resonates strongly with me, and I assume also with others around my age and position in the world. In every previous stage of my life, there’s been something between me and the real world, a next step to take before the precipice. University is the final step for most of us, but at the same time one last buffer, the still moment before the plunge. Gawain is in that same place of hesitation. Before the fateful game, he’s asked if he’s become a knight yet. After replying in the negative, he is essentially told to get on with it.

“I’ve got time. I’ve got lots of time” Gawain responds.

In my penultimate year of schooling, the future is right in front of me. It contains infinite possibility—complete independence, the fabulous new and the ability to make a difference in not only my life but the world—yet few guarantees, beyond the absolute certainty that there is no going back. It’s exhilarating, and it’s terrifying.

The battle in Gawain’s heart is certainly a product of its situation, yet clearly correlates to my own. Whereas my future exists as a terrifying unknown, his bears the threat of death. In both cases it looms over horizon, and despite all the fear it conjures, there is the urge to confront it head-on. Independence and meaning, or glory and honor—in one way or another, fulfillment is there to be taken.

Gawain’s fantastical encounters are a little more exciting than anything most of us will experience, but like all fables, they can teach us a valuable lesson. The future is not set in stone, but it won’t pass us by. None of us are knights, but we all can face our futures, and even without swords and games of death, we can all find our own honor.