Questions about salvation and discipleship in “The Green Knight”

February 3, 2022

In a delightful psychedelic retelling of the famous “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” we meet one of the most unlikable protagonists ever to hit the big screen—Gawain (pronounced Ger-win in the film). While he might not be as overtly murderous as Tony Soprano, it’s hard not to see Gawain’s total lack of character development in the film as an indictment of the whole “beheading game” at the center of the plot.

Because the film is based on a fourteenth-century poem, I feel some spoilers are allowable. We meet Gawain as a drunken mess, much like Shakespeare’s Prince Hal, who has not attained knighthood. Nevertheless, he is Arthur’s nephew and seemingly next in line for the throne.

When Gawain suddenly rises at the Christmas feast in defense of an elderly Arthur and his aging knights, we expect to follow him on a quest where he will further develop the characteristics of a medieval knight. What follows is disappointment.

As Gawain’s journey begins, he accepts his lover’s commitment but offers no assurances about his own loyalties. When helping a distressed spirit, he asks what the spirit will do for him before agreeing to retrieve a body part that will give her rest. He loses his horse and armor by being too trusting. He is offered protection from the Green Knight in exchange for sex, and he takes that bargain. He attempts to escape accountability from the lord who houses him, slinking away at a time when the lord has reason to suspect Gawain is otherwise occupied in hunting. In short, he is a failure as a knight.

We have the capacity to right wrongs in the present, and our future lies before us. What we do with it, independent of our salvation, is the matter that ought to occupy our imaginations.

Gawain has one moment of courage, however. He imagines himself fleeing his reckoning at the hands of the Green Knight. In that vision, he is cowardly, but he returns home and is knighted. He rules on the throne of Camelot but is despised. He abandons his lover but raises the child she births, who dies in a pointless war. In the end, Gawain imagines himself as the one who will precipitate Camelot’s fall.

Having received this vision, Gawain takes off his green girdle, the charm that would protect him, and offers up his head to the Green Knight. The verdant behemoth praises his bravery, and the film ends. We are not offered a conclusion to Gawain’s story.

But does one moment of courage erase a lifetime of dissolution and cowardice? Does a deathbed conversion make all things right? Perhaps it does with God, but even if one’s accounts are settled with God, the carnage of one’s actions remains. Salvation does not mean that one has been held accountable—there is work left unfinished, damage left unhealed.

Perhaps it is in the film’s lack of conclusion that hope remains. Gawain can be a new person if shown mercy, as happens in the fourteenth-century poem. But is he truly changed? Will he tell the truth? Will he ever be the knight he is called to be? We never know, but those questions ought to move us to consider the choices that are before us. We have the capacity to right wrongs in the present, and our future lies before us. What we do with it, independent of our salvation, is the matter that ought to occupy our imaginations. Like Gawain, we are not offered a satisfying conclusion, but we are offered the present, and what we do with it is has eternal and earthly ramifications.

Rev. Dr. Michael Woolf is senior minister, Lake Street Church of Evanston, Illinois. He holds a Doctor of Theology degree from Harvard Divinity School and is currently a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

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