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Reflections on the 2021 Movie The Green Knight””

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    Robert Juliano

      In 1993, linguist and political activist Professor Noam Chomsky of MIT published a book entitled Rethinking Camelot: JFK, the Vietnam War, and U.S. Political Culture. For a number of reasons, the myth of Camelot came to be associated with John F. Kennedy’s presidency. But, this book explored some of the very dark sides of his administration, especially the terrible actions it took in South Vietnam. The striving to explore the darker, more real side of JFK’s “Camelot” was what I was reminded of when I saw the excellent movie The Green Knight (twice!).

      This movie is a re-imagining of the 14th century Middle English poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (authorship unknown). In that poem, King Arthur, Queen Guinevere, and Arthur’s Court are in their prime. Camelot shines bright, and Sir Gawain is its greatest knight. This is a time of chivalry, of courtly-love, of honor and bravery, of sincere and authentic faith in Christ. Gawain’s symbol is the pentangle, five points symbolizing the five knightly virtues of friendship, generosity, chastity, courtesy, and piety. And when the Green Knight proposes his game at Camelot, it is seen as such, the Green Knight’s challenge being:

      So I crave in this court a Christmas game, 

      For it is Yuletide and New Year, and young men abound here. 

      If any in this household is so hardy in spirit, 

      Of such mettlesome mind and so madly rash 

      As to strike a strong blow in return for another, 

      I shall offer to him this fine axe freely; 

      This axe, which is heavy enough, to handle as he please.

      And I shall bide the first blow, as bare as I sit here. 

      If some intrepid man is tempted to try what I suggest,

      Let him leap towards me and lay hold of this weapon. 

      Acquiring clear possession of it, no claim from me ensuing. 

      Then shall I stand up to his stroke, quite still on this floor –

      So long as I shall have leave to launch a return blow Unchecked.

      Yet he shall have a year 

      And a day’s reprieve, I direct.

      Ten months after Sir Gawain accepted the Green Knight’s challenge and chopped off his head, he makes the long journey to the Green Chapel to meet with him as he had promised. As such a strong and powerful knight excelling in all of the knightly virtues, he faces formidable obstacles in good humor and all remains a game throughout the poem.

      But, this movie is a dark re-imagining of the tale. King Arthur and Queen Guinevere are in their later years and, though they are strong in spirit, they almost look like ghosts. Camelot stands firm, but it does not shine – and the surrounding lands seem grey and not possessed of the magic that led to the founding of Camelot. There is one scene where we see a field full of the unburied dead from a battle which took place not long ago. Here, we begin to wonder whether Arthur’s reign was truly beneficial to the people. We also wonder whether Arthur and the Round Table have run its course and expended all of its possibilities.

      Gawain himself is not (yet) a knight, mediocre in combat, can speak of no tales of his own heroism to the King when Arthur requests this from him, and is hardly someone with the five knightly virtues his pentangle symbolizes. Thus, whereas the Gawain in the poem can experience all of this as a game, the Gawain in the movie finds this exceedingly difficult if not impossible. And we grieve, or at least I did, whenever Gawain failed to live up to the very high standards of court chivalry.

      But, the darkness in the movie and the deep flaws in Gawain reveal that such can be an immense reservoir of strength – a source of will which enables one to carry on – to persist in the “game” instead of abandoning it. It is not strength and virtue, but weakness and deep shame which fuel Gawain’s movement forward to a fate, as he sees it, of certain death, all in the name of “honor.”

      In our time, more than six centuries from the period these knightly virtues were held as ideal, it is hard to imagine how very difficult it was to actually live up to them. Here, I am reminded of Jung’s observation in Answer to Job (CW 11) of the purity of the early Christians and the Christian saints had in leading a Christ-like life. Most modern individuals pale in comparison with respect to such purity. Jung wrote:

      As a result of the spiritual differentiation fostered by the Reformation, and by the growth of the sciences in particular (which were originally taught by the fallen angels), there is already a considerable admixture of darkness in us, so that, compared with the purity of the early Christian saints (and some of the later ones too), we do not show up in a very favourable light. Our comparative blackness naturally does not help us a bit. Though it mitigates the impact of evil forces, it makes us more vulnerable and less capable of resisting them. We therefore need more light, more goodness and moral strength, and must wash off as much of the obnoxious blackness as possible, otherwise we shall not be able to assimilate the dark God who also wants to become man, and at the same time endure him without perishing. For this all the Christian virtues are needed and something else besides, for the problem is not only moral: we also need the Wisdom that Job was seeking.

      One wonders, though, if the movie reflects, not the end of the magic and possibilities of Camelot, but the eyes which view the movie, for the hero’s journey and the medieval period’s values may no longer speak to us. Perhaps, Arthur and Guinevere are seen as old and long past their prime because the myth is old and no longer resonates with us. Joseph Campbell felt the individual quest was the best and most authentic image of Western spirituality, but perhaps this is not as widely applicable as he thought (e.g., issues of gender – the heroine’s journey; James Hillman and Archetypal Psychology’s view that the hero may no longer be the appropriate imagining for our time, etc.).

      In closing, I thoroughly enjoyed this movie and there is still much to unpack from it. And the reader might be interested in reading an excellent scholarly review of the movie by Dr. Ingrid Nelson, Professor of English at Amherst College specializing in the late medieval literature of England (see enclosed link below).

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