The Green Knight Review

The Green Knight Review

“Where I see a story can be improved, I improve it.”

While the above is a paraphrase of the original dialogue, I could not be bothered to return to this pretentious movie to provide the exact quote. The intention of the writer/director, David Lowery, is encapsulated by the paraphrase, regardless, and I see no reason why the gist of his thesis for this movie cannot be represented best by the paraphrase provided. After all, the arrogance with which I assign the quote is no more overlarge than Lowery’s in his reimagining of Sir Gawain as a cowardly, perfidious, hot-headed, and prideful knight. At least my paraphrase is not slanderous, unlike Lowery’s paraphrase of the original epic poem (meaning that this film is not a paraphrase at all, but mean-spirited slander). And, truly, Lowery’s film is a slander of the original “Maiden’s Knight” himself, for it is a subversion of expectations that subverts itself through a strawman fallacy. Gawain, as depicted in Lowery’s vision, is not compassionate, nor chivalrous, nor brave, and, therefore, earns no such sympathies likewise from the audience. Rather, he is altogether irredeemable, being a much-maligned embodiment of “toxic masculinity”. Therefore, there is not much to be learned from Gawain himself, being that he is a hollow dummy upon which Lowery can make passes with a lance lowered lazily against him. It is a one-sided jousting tournament. This is not the Gawain of the original story, nor of the “The Greene Knight” poem, nor of the other famous Gawain story involving the Dame Ragnelle where he gifts the greatest gift of women to his loathly wife (sovereignty). This Gawain is a soulless caricature, and not much else. He feels the need to “be a honorable knight”, but his primary character traits are antithetical to the “honorable knight” he aspires to be (known as). He would rather have the reputation, superficially, than put in the effort for reform and self-improvement (primarily because he has no “self” to improve).
The female characters, on the other hand— while also being empty-souled exercises in moral concepts akin to Gawain—are by and large high-handed remonstrations against “toxic masculinity”. They have little in the way of personality or character. The Lady Bertilak, for instance, is the character through which Lowery speaks the abovementioned paraphrase. She is the aristocratic version of Gawain’s favorite prostitute, Essel. She is learned and skilled in calligraphy and water/light magical photography. She is an agent of Gawain’s mother, and of the director, serving their dual purposes simultaneously. She does nothing throughout the film but tempt Gawain to his baser nature and then reprimand him, all the while providing recursive meta-textualization of the story itself and voicing the director’s self-involved views on the story. It is disingenuous at best, and bad storytelling besides. This modern/post-modern fascination with metanarratives has yet to be proven worthwhile, especially when such fixations distract from the primary goal of a storyteller: telling a cohesive, coherent story with fully-rounded characters. Truly, symbolisms and themes and “deeper meanings” will emerge on their own, naturally, if the writer/author/director/whatever focuses on telling a good story. When a storyteller is more concerned with a “message” the story suffers more often than not, regardless of whether the “message” is needful or apt to the time period. Lady Bertilak is a casualty of Lowery’s predilection to preach, becoming a captious, bipolar cardboard-cutout by the close of the second act.
Contrasting with Lady Bertilak, in both station and disposition, is the prostitute Essel. Essel loves Gawain. This much we know about her. It is her defining attribute: her love for Gawain and her frustration with his reluctance to marry her. She asks only that she have his ear, his hand, his heart, and be his wife. But she is lowborn and, as stated, a prostitute atop that. This is a fantasy movie, of course, but it is also one that purports to deal with human themes and modern problems of “toxic masculinity”. What the movie fails to address (even as it is premised to address it) is Gawain’s duties as not only a knight, but as royalty. What of his obligations to the kingdom? As the nephew of a childless king he must consider his marriage carefully, for with it comes alliances that may make or break not only Camelot, but the lives of his people. In the vision Gawain sees toward the end of the film a war occurs. We are not provided reasons for this war, but it certainly cannot be because he chose to marry a noble lady and NOT a prostitute. Yet, this is what may be easily implied by the sequence of events. The director provides no direct reason for this subsequent war, nor the ensuing dissolution of Camelot, but that is likely because he could not think of one that would justify Gawain’s marriage to Essel rather than to a noble lady of a foreign court. Is it because Gawain had not matured enough from his quest to make better decisions? Is it because he had a bastard son that raised arms against him for the right to the throne, much as Mordred is known to do in the superior movie “Excalibur”? Best not to ponder it too much because Lowery certainly didn’t. And that is the primary problem with this film: it pretends to be deep, but swims in the kiddie pool of spectacle and, admittedly, beautiful cinematography.
Another character (loosely speaking) is Saint Winifred. She appears near the halfway point after Gawain has been laughably disarmed, hogtied, and humiliated by a trio of adolescent urchins. Her character within the story seems to exist solely to state that men can do bad things to women, such as beheading them when they refuse to lie with them. This seems needless, to be frank, in the context of this film. Thus far, while Gawain shows cowardice and arrogance and other dishonorable traits, he never demonstrates violence toward women (or children, since, again, he has been easily disarmed), so the inclusion of this segment as part of his lesson is baffling. Does Gawain’s mother suspect that her son would harm women if given the chance? Or does Winifred exist so the jarring exchange may take place? It is a strange little interrupting interlude, especially when he tries to touch her face to test if she is real and she reproaches him for presuming he may touch her. He clearly suspects that she is a spirit, and is proven correct afterward, but it passes as another strike against Gawain’s morality. Moments later she requests that he retrieve her head from the pond. He asks what she will give him in exchange and she reproaches him again. While this scene is supposed to be a comment on “male entitlement” it is jarring and does not fit with the rest of the movie, particularly Winifred’s modernized tone and wording. It exists solely so the director may preach (to the choir) about how wicked it is for a man to think he should “get something from a woman in return for a favor”. But the truth is that Gawain is risking his life to retrieve Winifred’s head and put her to rest. He could simply walk away, and would have been wise to do so, especially since she was so skittish as to flinch from his innocent attempt to ascertain if she was real or not. Overall, this scene is completely disjointed from the narrative and serves no purpose except as an indulgence for the director. After all, Gawain was seeking shelter and Winifred surprised him after he had explored the house and found it isolated and abandoned, laying down to sleep. Lowery seems to want the narrative to go out of its own way (and pacing) to provide reasons to dislike Gawain.
Speaking of narrative, the whole narrative is set into motion by Gawain’s mother. In the original mythology Gawain’s mother is Morgause, so I will condescend to dub her Morgause for the sake of this review, even if she is treated within the film as if she is Morgan Le Fay. Morgause wants to test her son. She wants him to mature to be a man, but not just any man: an honorable man. What is an honorable man? It is difficult to discern within this film, mainly because the film is dead-set against Gawain ever becoming an honorable man. If anything, the film wishes to prevent him from being an honorable man as if to subvert the character arc with which it is misleading the audience (literally heading the Hero’s Journey off at a stroke). Morgause sends the Green Knight to challenge King Arthur’s court (while she is absent from her own throne at the right hand of King Arthur) and her hot-headed son steps forward to prove himself to his uncle and to defend the honor of the court (speciously). Morgause uses her son’s pride to ensnare him into a “game”, as King Arthur deems it, to prioritize his life to more selfless service (I suppose). The problem with this premise, however, is that it shows that the “toxic masculinity” of Gawain has been allowed to flourish erstwhile. Why has he degenerated so pathetically? Where was his mother during this time of ongoing moral decay? What happened to parental responsibility? Why did she wait so long to assert herself over her son? Is it because Camelot is a “patriarchy”? How so? There are three thrones in front of the Round Table, two of which are habitually occupied by women. Indeed, Arthur’s wife (Guenivere, presumably) takes the Green Knight’s scroll from Arthur’s hand and reads it herself rather than allowing Arthur to read it. Her voice is then subsumed by the Green Knight’s, whose voice, in turn, is controlled by Morgause. Morgause wrote the letter herself, and she and her fellow Fae/witches conjured the Green Knight, or, at least, they control him. The power of the women in Camelot, in the wild, and in Bertilak’s castle is quite prominent. The giants, for instance, all seem to be female. Gawain asks to ride upon a giantess’s shoulders, but the fox forbids him from doing so. Elsewhere, the men are devoid of agency. King Arthur is enfeebled, his own body being “unwilling” to meet the Green Knight’s challenge. Lord Bertilak is rendered utterly harmless in the movie, whereas in the original story he is imposing. In the film Lord Bertilak poses little threat, whereas Lady Bertilak and her “blind” waiting woman are seemingly omniscient, watching Gawain while he sleeps, appearing unprompted and unseen in the background, and even overpowering him sexually (as Lady Bertilak does when she grips him with her hand while offering him the green sash). The aristocratic women in the film are quite powerful. The lowborn women (such as Essel and Winifred) have no power and can only make requests for either Gawain’s love or service. Is there a message in this dynamic? If so, it is muddled. Not all women can be aristocratic to escape victimization, and yet those women that are aristocratic are as manipulative as the aristocratic men. What is the answer? I doubt there is even a question, to be honest. Lowery just likes to blow smoke and pretend it is genie powder, even as you are choking on the intake.
And what about the ending? It is as inconsistent as the rest of the film, both in terms of narrative and themes. My fiancee and I both concluded that Sir Gawain did not bow his head to the Green Knight and doff his enchanted sash because he had matured to the point of being willing to lay his life down for honor, nor had he reconciled his pride with Nature and the erasure it brings to mankind. No, Gawain simply did not want to live such a life as was shown to him in the vision. His cowardice and his pride, thus, spurred him to accept his premature death rather than attempt any modicum of growth. Of course, the conclusion of the film is open-ended and welcomes interpretation, but Lowery has demonized the “Maiden’s Knight” so much by the culmination of the film that Gawain is irredeemable to the last. He is a strawman of lust and privilege and cowardice. Why else would the fox—who is likely his mother in disguise, though they do not list the voice actress anywhere—attempt to dissuade Gawain from meeting the Green Knight? She was attempting to humble him, but by the end he realized what she could not realize: he could not change. Hence why he says “It wouldn’t matter if it was a single year or a hundred years”. He was not only talking about his cowardice, but his core identity, which was chaff to the very end. He knew he could not change, and so he would rather die than face a future of disgrace. The question, then, becomes: what is the point? There isn’t one. It is just the shallow spectacle of wild gesticulation pretending to be Art. It is a straw knight: posed upright and plated in gleaming armor, but hollow, ultimately spun about like a weathervane by the cultural winds. It is the rustling of chaff and only fools would believe it has anything important to say.

In The Field

Poems aren’t always by appointment,

but, like wounds in the battlefield trench,

must be done quickly, without ointment

or sedative, sawing while teeth clench.

It is butchery more than healing,

amputations to stop the foul spread,

sutures applied to staunch blood spilling

before feelings are anemic, dead;

it is a frenzy of clamps and blades

applied in bloody barbed-wire ditches

while bombs fall all around from air raids—

calligraphy sewn like stiff stitches.

The Boardwalk And The Labyrinth

 Ray Bradbury was a natural storyteller.  The path of his plots were as boardwalks that led from one direction to another —sometimes sunny, sometimes rainy, sometimes overborne with a storm from the sea — yet always in a straightforward direction as Bradbury led the reader through his homemade carnivals along the dynamic panorama of the beach.  Bradbury, therefore, is an excellent example of traditional storytelling that takes aim and hits the mark with deft precision, clarity, and economy.  His stories aim for nothing except a good story and fully realized characters, for Bradbury was a writer with a story to tell, and the story was all that mattered to him.

 Contrarily, Gene Wolfe was an engineer who reverse-engineered plot and pretense within his own stories to demonstrate the untrustworthiness of narratives and conceits.  He wrote labyrinths and dropped the reader into them with shrewdness and aplomb, like mice in a maze.  Often the reader is lost in a Wolfe story, even as the reader thinks he knows where the story is going.  Often the reader even misunderstands where he has been, the wanderer lost not only because of the many-cornered plot that Gene Wolfe angles askew from the center, but the presumptions the reader takes into the labyrinth with him as a reader given to credulity and trust of the author.  Gene Wolfe, therefore, was a deft maze-maker of stories, revealing greater truths through his puzzle-constructs which force the reader to question everything that he sees within the unfolding passages.  His stories aim at bewildering the reader, but never cruelly.  There are signposts everywhere, if the reader is observant enough to learn to read them.

 For these reasons, both Bradbury and Wolfe are good storytellers, but they are very different from one another.  Between the twain there is much to be recommended, and much to be learned from, as a writer of fiction.  Whether one writes a boardwalk or a labyrinth, it should always be well-constructed in its passages, and the journey should always be entertaining

Battle Of The Wits

I prefer Saki to Wilde

like a gleeful little child

too busy throughout his day

with the games he likes to play

to eat but in little bites

the sour-sweet dessert delights,

each story packing a punch

that does enough as a lunch

for an intellect in need

of some nourishment to feed,

and, besides, he does not cloy,

being subtle, this choirboy

whose wit prefers not to preach,

but seeks with humor to teach

lessons acerbic, yet smooth,

like a tonic meant to soothe,

yet burns when it’s ingested

to purge someone phlegm-chested.

I hold nothing against Wilde

nor Dorian Gray, so styled

with wit as to be satire

of satire itself, a pyre

in which irony aflame

immolates the author ’s shame —

an enlightenment most quaint

despite its destructive taint

that hounded him in his life

and cost him his lovely wife.

But while both men have now won

readers generations on

and lived the same span of years

while closeted for their fears,

Saki died before such fame

could make or break his strange name.

A sniper ’s gun found him out

in the trenches, at a shout

to snuff out a cigarette

only to die himself, yet

even his death was satire —

for, ere the sniper did fire,

Saki sought to ward the eye

of Death, so none else might die,

but, in so doing, passed from

service, life, till kingdom come.

Saki fought and died in France,

enlisting despite the chance

of the combat and horror

well known in the First World War

whereas Wilde died destitute

in Paris, in ill repute,

not that I blame him for it

or for each close-minded Brit

that despised him for his book

or the astute views he took;

it is just that Saki knew

how to keep just out of view

(save when in a sniper ’s sight

in the early morning light),

but the point is simply this:

Saki did not take the piss.

He loved Britain, in his way,

and fought for it, till the day

he was laid to rest, at last,

which showed that his writing past

was love of life, of folly,

and though sharp, too, was jolly

and he critiqued Britain well

with the tales he had to tell,

proving satire is best done

of what you love most, or none,

for it is, otherwise, spite

and, so, propaganda —trite,

of little substance or worth,

and very little of mirth.

Sharp, witty, and full of love:

thus does writing rise above

the pettiness it records

and thus deserves great rewards.

After all, life is a jest

told with great love, if told best.

Editor’s Note

A good editor sacrifices the
author
for the story,
castrating the pride and ego
with an impassive scalpel
to sterilize the dominating old bull
so easily misled by his crown of horns;
a good editor
culls the herd
and promotes more virile progeny;
he
brings down the
slaughterhouse hammer
on the bullish head of
stubbornness,
letting the author’s vanity die
so that his stories may live, lest the
juggernaut rampage,
trammeling newborn calfskin
under haughty, overbearing hooves.

Medley Of Rhymes

19th Century Reality Check
Drunken, the servant stumbled down the hall
and sprawled outward amidst the lordly ball.
So much of an uproar came from the fool
that a gentleman challenged him to duel.
“As it please my lord,” he said with a bow,
then proceeded to beat the dandy’s brow.
He broke the gent’s nose and blackened his eye
till the gent yielded with a pleading cry.
The servant then righted himself up, tall,
and glowered at the nobles, one and all.
“You thought yourselves superior,” he slurred,
“but now you can see the truth, by my word.
You think you can command us with your names,
but what happens when we tire of your games?”
He pointed at the gent weeping on the floor
and drummed his barrel chest, wide as a boar.
“Mark you, fools, a beast of the savanna
whereas you’re but cats on the verandah!”
He then stumbled out of that regal house,
having taught prideful cats to fear the mouse.

The Graeae (Professional Critics)
Oh, these critics three
passing one eye between them,
two thus blind in three
as they clutch at the one’s hem
and beg for guidance
while they look in jaded turns
and oft deride sense
for sake of what thereby earns
an eye passed again
as if good taste came, not sight,
with an eye plopped in
while in caves yet lacking light.
They cannot see much
in caves so dark with conceit,
each one out of touch
beneath the columns of Crete
and fighting for views
from the fickle, rolling eye,
blind to changing hues
in a new day’s dawning sky.

Clubfoot In Mouth
Lord Byron, that conceited bastard,
always had to put in the last word
like the boot to the head
of a corpse before abed,
but even that was a gaff
from which the corpse might laugh,
the clubfoot striking as befits
a club and foot dull to the wits
it disdained with tragic toes
as belike a nib, bent, that flows,
for he was, after all, an aristocrat
and, consequently, a pissy brat
born among pretentious elites
and despising Middle class Keats
and deriding him for dying from
a “bad review”, a conclusion dumb
and disregarding the acute thrombus
that had killed his brother, Thomas,
to whom Keats tended in bravery
while Byron committed knavery,
his sense of Art so narrowminded
that he was himself all but blinded
to the trends beyond his own,
like a dog chewing an old bone,
or a coxcomb nibbling his sole
swollen yet swallowed whole.
There is no doubt about it—
Lord Byron was a little piece of shit,
and as for the Little Ice Age’s start
it began, no doubt, in his heart.

Master Trappers
Some are ambushed from within
by their genetic booby-traps.
Some say, “Original Sin
is the reason for such mishaps.”
But it’s best to think these traps
inborn, waiting, like lightning rods—
and listen as the thunder claps
like snares set and sprung by cruel gods.

Earn The Urn
Ashes to ashes, all to burn
in a clay jar or porcelain urn,
and so the hours of accruing wealth
amount but to a heap of self
dissolute of its former worth
much as before its earthly birth,
and so some dwell in the bottle
to drink away the days they have got till
interred within the selfsame glass
through which their precious hours did pass,
whereas others to cubicle cages
are confined by career stages
and yet others choose to be free,
letting ashes blow across the sea.
As for me, do what you feel you must
since all empires aspire to dust
and earth become a gigantic urn
for the things we think we earn.

Echoes Lost

I.
There was a monk who lived by himself, cloistered in the high mountains. Where the mountains existed does not matter; everywhere, nowhere, it does not matter. What matters is that every day the monk ventured down into the timberline and rummaged for his food— mushrooms, nuts, berries, and dandelions—and every day he fetched water from a limestone well in the cave where he slept. This was how he lived. This was all he knew. It was enough.
The monk was an ascetic in his isolation. The only belongings he possessed were his robe, his straw mat, and the bucket with which he drew water from the well. He lived for decades by himself, nor did anyone deign to visit him, for no one knew he lived in the mountains. His only conversations were with his echoes in the well. These conversations were very one-sided, but the truth was that he was unsure which side these conversations actually took place on. He listened as much as he talked, for the well echoed with his words. It was very much like a form of meditation, for through the echoes he could see how he was, himself, an extension of the world, and see how the world was indeed an extension of himself.
The monk was not a solipsist, but he was a philosopher, and a poet, and the theologian of his own religion. His philosophy was very wise, his poetry very beautiful, and his religion very true. In fact, the monk’s religion was the truest religion ever known upon the earth, besides the self-correcting religion known as Science. The monk could not abide falsities, and so his religion had to be irreproachably truthful. If it had not been, he would not have abided it. He would not have believed anything at all.
Sometimes the monk spoke for hours into the well, lecturing the well so the dark hole could in turn lecture the monk. It was as if the earth itself was revealing its heart to him, and all of its secrets. At other times the monk would be silent for weeks and listen to the winds talk amongst themselves, carrying word from around the world like a gadfly-gossip. He appreciated, too, the chatter of squirrels and chipmunks, the howling of wolves and even the growling of bears. Whether fierce or funny, all conversations were his to learn from. Therefore, there was much to listen to, even when isolated in the mountains.
But however much he learned and lectured, the monk was mortal and, in one especially cold winter, he passed away. No one knew what his religion was, or what he had heard in the wilderness, nor the heart of the earth and its unburdened secrets. Not even an echo remained of him, spiraling up from that deep silent well. Why, then, does this monk matter? Does he matter, or was his life simply another Koan— the deferral of meaning?

II.
There was an oni that lived in the mountains. He did not like humans, but he had grown accustomed to hearing the monk talk. In fact, the oni lived in the well, and sometimes he played tricks on the monk, altering with his own voice the echoes that rose up in return to the monk. It was not that the oni was spiteful, nor that he really wished to deceive the monk. It was only a bit of mischief to pass the time, and the monk seemed contented with the echoes that rose up to meet him. The oni had lived for thousands of years. He knew about humans, and he knew about the material world. Long ago he had nearly become a Bodhisattva, but turned away from the Path after succumbing to baser impulses. He had also traveled the world, and had learned many religions and their various facets of Truth. Thus, he had imparted the monk’s words with real truths about the earth, and about mankind. He lied, yes, by falsifying the monk’s voice and throwing his voice with words not the monk’s own, but he spoke truths among those words. His echoes, thus, were true insomuch as they spoke to the Truth.
When the monk died, the oni wept for a year. His voice echoed out of the well and rumbled in the mountains. His voice became as thunder and his tears became as rain. The storm of his grief brewed over the mountains for a long time. Yet, no one visited the mountains, so no one heard him or his grief. When he had finished grieving, the oni left the well and took his echoes with him. No one knew the oni had existed in the well— not even the monk whom the oni mourned. Why, then, does the oni matter? Does he matter or was his life simply another Koan—the deferral of meaning?

III.
There were mountains that were somewhere, or perhaps nowhere at all. They may have been, or may never have been. A monk may have lived among them, and an oni may have also, or they may not have. There may have been echoes in the deep bosom of the earth. Or there may not have. Yet, of them this was written, and writing is but the echoes of things that may or may not have been. Why, then, does writing matter? Does writing matter, or is it all simply another Koan—the deferral of meaning?

Why Poetry?

Because when poetry is good
it is as a fairy-haunted wood
full of shadows and foxfire
which burns in glade, thicket, and mire
and fireflies in hinted flashes
while, at a distance, lightning crashes
and rain coos its gentle music
along the canopy, its dew thick;
because the wood is known, yet wild
and I wander as an elfin child
in want of magic and insight
between the gloom and the bloom of light
that sparks with such breathless surprise
and wakes the mind as it blinds the eyes;
because it is, too, the splinter
caught neath the fingernail, and Winter
blowing cold through the frosted trees
to bring famine to all families,
and it is the pookah, so crazed
it trammels its rider till glazed,
it is the wendigo, hungry,
and the charlatan, his tongue free
to charm off the chastity belt
of the princess whose soft heart doth melt
at the gold song of a cuckoo
and then her own song: that of “boo-hoo…”
It is the dagger in the bed
as she cradles so gently his head,
it is the will o’ the wisp aglow
to lead astray another John Doe;
because it heals us when we die
each day of our lives, wondering Why?
And it resurrects us anew
when the woes of the world hack and hew
at our hearts, our bodies, our minds,
gutting us like fruits unto rinds;
it helps us to understand ourselves,
and our feelings, those tectonic shelves
hidden away in our secret depths
whose quakes come with our quickening breaths
while we seek the words of solace
to shelter against pains that toll us
in an old crumbling barn’s facade
against the wrath of a jilted god.
Because it is innate, this need;
as inborn as to breathe and bleed,
and we know no better way
to heat the night and to cool the day
with but few of the choicest words,
nor how better to compete with birds.

Word Salad

There are cockroaches scurrying
in the jumbled salad bowl
of the midnight special,
unashamed within the neon light
of this downtown diner.
Do not try to persuade me
that they are almonds
as the other patrons praise the chef
and vomit profusely on the counter.