The Re-Appropriation of English Folklore and the Brown Messiah in ‘The Green Knight’
How the casting choice of Dev Patel as Sir Gaiwan inherently alters the film's trajectory and gives it new meaning.
A hero’s journey is never completed. Even within the re-telling of the legends, one must depend on the hero to defeat the evil, complete his task, and possibly find a partner. We find ourselves in a modern age hyper-focused on the narratives of the superhero. Still, David Lowery begs us to challenge that in his new interpretation of the Arthurian legend The Green Knight, featuring Dev Patel, a British actor of Indian descent, in the role of Gaiwan. Patel’s performance is not only exceptional, but it also inherently brings new life to the legend due to the social and historical implications of casting a man of color to play the starring role typically seen through a white western lens.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, written by an unknown author, is a centuries-old poem that can be roughly traced back to the 14th century and is one of the Round Table stories. The narrative was later added to the Percy Folio, which acted as an anthology of Arthurian literature. After delays in its release due to the pandemic, The Green Knight will re-introduce these Middle-English legends to the masses.
While the idea of a high-fantasy movie may bring to mind a filmed Dungeons and Dragons campaign or a rip-off of Game of Thrones, the character of Gaiwan remains a timeless example of honor in the face of courage. The Middle English chivalric romance begins with the court of Camelot enjoying Christmas Eve (though some translations claim it’s New Year’s Eve). While indulging in feasts and festivities, King Arthur asks one of his knights to tell him a story about their latest adventures. As he does so, the doors to the castle open, and in strides a green giant, carrying a bough of holly and a battle-ax. Sir Gawain accepts the challenge offered by the Green Knight, where he is allowed to strike the knight with a blow if he agrees to receive an impact in return in a year and a day. This fable shows Gawain struggling to complete his quest and remain honorable, grappling with temptations and tests to his strict views of virtue. Gawain, however, in this interpretation is not a knight but the ignorant nephew of Arthur. Arthur hides his lack of confidence by enjoying the spoils of the kingdom and acting as a non-committal lover. He takes on his new journey into knighthood, battiling superstition and supernatural on his way. Gawain eventually establishes himself as an honorable and brave knight, and David Lowery chooses Dev Patel as Gawain, a character who sees himself as the pinnacle of chivalry. While Patel captures the heroic qualities in Gawain, he also shows some of his complexities. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Lowery said:
“The first time I met Dev, I just was like, I really like you. I really want to just keep talking to you. I want to hang out. He was such an affable gentleman. I also loved the image of him as a knight on a horse. That image in and of itself was incredibly beguiling. But I also knew that he could do anything in the movie and [the audience] would still be on his side. They would just follow him through whatever came his way or whatever I had him do.”
Patel’s acting experience speaks for itself, with impressive titles like Skins and Slumdog Millionaire under his belt, so it’s not surprising that he can play a character that achieves greatness. However, Patel’s appearance in this story is monumental, as white actors have traditionally represented Arthurian legend.
Arthurian stories often drew from the reality of the British Empire at the time and used stories about magic and chivalry to record their history. The Green Knight is no different in its idealized version of a Christian kingdom where witchcraft and western ideology can peacefully co-exist. The film adaptation magnifies the religious undertones and subtly addresses them. The Green Knight with its modern re-telling, dismisses the idea of a homogeneous society, providing depth to the Camelot we see on screen.
The Green Knight uses motifs of Christianity and paganism to create one cohesive narrative; it can be reasonably understood in this re-telling that Arthur’s travels spanned beyond Britain. To use this story as a metaphor for the forced Christianity that would arise in the Middle Ages, Patel’s role as Gawain carries multiple meanings as we can parallel the story of an intruder in Camelot to the British occupation of India, where Patel’s family is originally from. With the story of The Green Knight exploring the relationship between monotheism and polytheism and magic, the knowledge that Patel’s family is Hindu amplifies the themes of religious identity through the film.
Gawain is in a brothel in one of the scenes and is woken up by a white woman throwing a bucket of water in his face and exclaims, “Christ is born,” and Gawain responds, “Christ is born, indeed.” They playfully tease and chase each other, and as Gawain walks around, he asks if he has become a knight yet. Gawain’s Christmas day christening reinforces the Christian kingdom but also anoints Gawain as the new Christ figure of the domain.
One of the best examples of this religious exploration is in the trailer when a striking image of Gawain is shown. He sits on a throne in a dark chamber, illuminated by one single spotlight shining on him; Gawain sits draped in saffron-colored robes, with his bare chest exposed, and holds a scepter in one hand and globus cruciger in the other. While sitting motionless in the chair, a crown resembling a halo miraculously descends to coronate him, and within moments Gawain is ablaze. He is burning silently but remains untouched.
Baptism by fire.
Elsewhere, Hindu iconography is invoked, such as when Gawain is spotted wearing a saffron scarf while on his journey. This color choice is directly representative of Hinduism. Saffron is outside of the British color palette of the period. If this story were historically accurate, someone would have had to travel to receive any saffron-colored fabric in theory. This choice technically insinuates that Arthur’s Britain had traveled to India to receive such dyed fabric. Arthur’s fictitious travels lend themselves to the idea that colonization started much earlier than the actual records represent. Still, within the context of Camelot, it means that, in theory, Hinduism would have become part of the Christian culture. Furthermore, we see Gawain’s mother, Morgan Le Fay, appear in a scene wearing what seems to be a saffron-colored Lehenga.
Within a film like The Green Knight, where the color palette remains cool and grey-toned, the bright flashes of color we see on Gawain and Morgan Le Fay remind us that they are outsiders in the kingdom but remain integral aspects of the court. The pair adorn themselves in colors unique to Hinduism, solidifying their status within the kingdom.
In Hinduism, saffron represents fire, purity, and religious abstinence. Saffron is the most sacred of all the colors and is worn by holy men and represents a quest for light. Gawain’s quest is clearly about his desire to be honorable, and the story of the Green Knight has often been compared to the Christian tradition of Gawain acting as a messiah of sorts, delivering the kingdom from evil. Gawain is presented as his own “white knight,” which embodies the white knight for the rest of the kingdom. Yet Through the portrayal by a non-white man, who clads himself in colors representing Hinduism and travels beyond Britain, Gawain presenting himself as a “personal Jesus” mocks the white western notion that the Christian messiah was a white man. Morgan Le Fay’s veil features the color sapphire, which has deep roots in Vedic astrology. Le Fay’s history as a magic practitioner, wearing blue sapphire, directly references Jytoshia, which differs from the western tropical astrology. Wearing blue sapphire helps develop the third eye and aids in divination practices. Thus Morgan wearing blue sapphire acts as a direct pathway to her practices. The two-color choices of saffron and sapphire give insight into the power Le Fay has.
While the history of Camelot is nuanced, the actual history of Britain and India is similarly intense. It has real consequences that affected the rest of the world and changed Britain and India forever. The sharing of culture was inevitable, but the storied Arthurian legend remained a western treasure.
The British Raj lasted 200 years, but it was not introduced until 1858, clearly centuries after the Arthurian legend. Still, the fact remains that Patel’s performance as the hero to a mythic British empire is monumental when we remember the history of Britain and India. While the story is a centuries-old one, the modern legacy of Sir Gawain has happened in what seems like one lifetime. In 1947, the end of the Raj, J.R.R. Tolkein had already translated the poem 22 years prior, in 1925. The first film based on this story, Gawain and the Green Knight, was released in 1973 and was directed by Stephen Weeks. Modern interest in the work has shown that the level of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight takes many thematic interpretations, including individuality, homoeroticism, and colonization. The scholar Patricia Clare Ingham proposed in her thesis In Contrayez Straunge’: Colonial Relations, British Identity, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is about the relationship between Britain and Wales. With that theory in mind, one can make the correlation between Patel playing the most recent British colonizer in the Arthurian world, acts as a sense of reversal for the original colonization.
What matters most with this production is the history being made within the confines of Arthurian literature and film. Aside from the obvious points of interest, this film carries the weight of history on its shoulders and presents itself as an entirely new story. The Green Knight is not simply a fantasy film but rather a thesis on the ideology of western individualism, savior complexes, and heroism. As Gawain opens the interpretations for a larger world, Dev Patel allows us to see the fabled civilizations as more than British society. The Green Knight takes the traditional hero story and the western Messiah and fixates an Indian man as the lead, serving as a reminder that the “white knight” trope can be re-contextualized with a simple casting decision.