Warning for fans of contemporary cinema and/or medieval literature: This article spoils both the ending of the recent film The Green Knight as well as the 14th-century poem “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.”
Gawain (Dev Patel) — and it is just Gawain, no “Sir” here — has come to the end of his quest. A year after beheading the Green Knight (Ralph Ineson) in the world’s worst game of Christmas crackers, he has arrived at the Green Chapel, ready to meet the same fate. Or maybe not so ready. When the knight raises his axe, Gawain falters. Then he flees. In a stunning, wordless sequence, we see what happens next. Gawain returns to Camelot, is hailed as a hero, and is eventually crowned king. But the moral rot of the lie begins to poison his soul. He grows into a harsh, tyrannical ruler, and in the decades to come, he loses everything: his lover, his child, his kingdom. As Camelot crumbles around him, Gawain pulls off the magical girdle that has kept him safe from harm — and his head rolls clean off.
But it turns out that was just a vision. Gawain’s still at the Green Chapel, and now he’s just received a very intensive lesson about the true meaning of honor. Having been scared straight, he removes the girdle, then faces the axe, finally prepared to die. The Green Knight draws his finger across Gawain’s neck and says, “Now little knight, off with your head.” Then we cut to black, Sopranos style. (Though with a cheery folk ballad instead of Journey.)
That’s the enigmatic ending to The Green Knight, David Lowery’s dazzling new medieval fantasy. It’s a finale sure to inspire endless rounds of what-happens-next theorizing. Does Gawain get his head chopped off? Or does the Green Knight spare him, as in the epic poem the film is based on? The unknowability seems to have been the point. In an interview with Vanity Fair, Lowery revealed he shot a more “definitive” ending, but decided to scrap it in favor of something more elusive. But despite the fact that there’s no definitive answer awaiting, I see no reason why we can’t have fun discussing what it all means anyway.
In that Vanity Fair interview, Lowery implies that Gawain did indeed die in one previous iteration: “If people were to watch a movie in which Dev Patel gets beheaded at the end, they probably would like to leave the theater feeling differently than they do with the more ambiguous version.” Cutting to black doesn’t just spare the audience the sight of one of our favorite onscreen dreamboats getting brutally killed. It also underlines one of the film’s key themes: that it doesn’t really matter whether or not the Green Knight went through with the chop or not.
The Gawain of The Green Knight longs for honor and renown, and hopes his quest will be the thing that transforms him into a legendary knight. But he also spends the film treating knightly ideals more as loose guidelines than codes to be rigidly adhered to. Before leaving, he refuses to commit to his lowborn lover Essel (Alicia Vikander). In his chance meetings with a stranger on the road (Barry Keoghan) and Saint Winifred (Erin Kellyman), he’s initially more interested in what he can gain from each encounter than in how can be of service. And, when confronted with a lordly couple (Joel Edgerton and Vikander again) who love his vibe, he pulls a twofer, breaking the vows of chastity and honesty in a single morning. The girdle — a gift from his mother, the sorceress Morgan Le Fay (Sarita Choudhury) — is emblematic of his cheat-code approach toward honor. Gawain aspires toward bravery, but the fact that he’s sporting the medieval equivalent of a Mario Super Star somewhat goes against the spirit of the quest. (Fittingly, the garment that symbolizes a stain on knightly ideals is itself stained in the film’s infamous hand-job scene.)
Ultimately, the blackout mirrors Gawain’s own mental journey, though in a less literal way than the “cut to black = death” thinking of the famous Sopranos theory. Throughout his quest, Gawain has conceived of the mission as a means to an end; as Edgerton’s lord jokes, he will do this one great deed, and then a switch will be flipped and he’ll become honorable. But after being presented with a glimpse of his possible future, he realizes the emptiness of that worldview. It’s his actions themselves, not the rewards they might bring, that matter. Lowery’s jarring ending presents this same lesson to the audience. As he told Nerdist, his intention was “to embrace the finality of Gawain’s quest, that it could end in his death and that it probably should end in his death. For him, the noble thing to do would be to submit to his own death. And I wanted to be very black and white about that.”
In other words, what the Green Knight does after the cut to black is less important than Gawain’s decision to throw away the girdle and accept whatever fate has in store for him. That’s the end of his arc, the moment he chooses to live, and possibly die, as a true knight.
It’s quite an existential view of honor, and funnily enough, it’s a harsher reading of the knightly code than the film’s source material. In the poem, Gawain survives his encounter with the Green Knight, in part because he’s much better at upholding knightly ideals than the Gawain of the movie. When visiting the MMF-curious lord and lady, he skillfully navigates a situation where courtesy and chastity are at odds, and for two nights he honorably upholds his bargain with her husband. In this telling, his only fault is to accept the lady’s offer of the girdle on the third day, an offense for which he is duly punished by the Green Knight (who also turns out to be the same person as the lord). After twice refraining from beheading Gawain, in honor of the two times he was honest, on the third swing the Green Knight gives him a tiny cut — because, after all, wanting to live isn’t that bad of a sin. He’s still embarrassed, though, and the story ends with the narrator explaining that Gawain would forever after sport the girdle as a public reminder of his cowardice.
That version of the story was written in a world where the codes of chivalry were a living, breathing value system; they were strong enough to take some light ribbing. Lowery’s harsher stance may be an artifact of our more skeptical times. As Katy Waldman notes, The Green Knight is a “more profoundly disorienting — and modern — version of romance,” in which the communal expectations of a clearly defined social order have given way to an internal, psychological view of concepts like honor. The audience has to be confronted with the possibility that Gawain will actually die, because that’s the only way the concept has any teeth.
But if you ask me, I’m thinking the Green Knight still lets him off the hook. Maybe because of the glint in the giant’s eye when he speaks his final line. And maybe because this is a movie that already has one happy ending — what’s one more?