'The Green Knight' Story: Is 'The Green Knight' Based on History?

The Green Knight is the latest King Arthur story to be adapted, this time from director David Lowery. It follows his nephew, Sir Gawain (played by Dev Patel) who takes on a quest to prove his worth and honor.

The story is a chivalric romance, a genre of literature originating from the Medieval period that tells tales of the fantastical adventures and exploits of heroic knights.

These stories often contained elements of folklore, magic, and morality.

Ralph Ineson, in a video explaining the origins of the story of The Green Knight, called it a "far-reaching, culturally resonant, mythic morality tale."

The Poem On Which The Green Knight Is Based

A production still from The Green Knight
A production still from The Green Knight
The Green Knight
Production stills from "The Green Knight"

The question of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight's historical accuracy is difficult. Historians have not found evidence to substantiate the existence of King Arthur.

According to History, while Arthur appeared in various manuscripts, some of which blended history and mythology, no one has been able to prove he was real.

However, Dr. Andrew Breeze, a philologist and Celticist from the University of Navarre in Spain, thinks a ninth-century chronicle titled The History Of The Britons suggests Arthur may have been an actual person—but not quite the one we have come to know him as.

sir-gawain-green-knight
Sir Gawain decapitates the Green Knight in the original manuscript. British Library / Public Domain

Breeze told The Independent: "He will have been a Briton of southern Scotland, fighting all his battles there; but he was not fighting the English.

"His enemies were other British peoples, around Edinburgh and Carlisle. He was not of course a king. He will have been a brave general who soon became a legend."

Speaking to Newsweek, Professor Inga Bryden from the University of Winchester in the U.K. said: "The figure of Gawain appears in the early literature about King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table, so in that sense he is a legendary (rather than actual) character, who came to symbolize fearlessness, courtesy and courtliness.

"As a character in Arthurian legend he also appears in the 'histories' of the Kings of Britain—the figure was popularised for example in Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain c.1136."

The exploits of King Arthur, known as Arthurian legend, are chronicled in the History of the Kings of Britain, which is part of the Matter of Britain, a collection of story cycles written by various people.

Within the Matter of Britain is the story of Sir Gawain and The Green Knight, whose author is unknown.

Only one manuscript of Sir Gawain remains intact, and an important scholar on the matter was Lord of the Rings author J.R.R. Tolkien.

He called the story "a window of many-colored glass looking back into the Middle Ages," according to Ralph Ineson's introduction.

The story has strong moral themes, such as honor and chivalry, as Sir Gawain is forced to go on a journey to meet the Green Knight.

Bryden continued: "Chivalric romances celebrated chivalric and courtly values (how to conduct oneself socially, as it were).

"The Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Middle English Arthurian poem draws on English and French traditions; the English nobility read French chivalric romance and used courtly French expressions.

"Some commentators have highlighted the religious aspects of the poem - and that there might be a critique of courtly values at play too."

This latter point is certainly prominent in Lowery's telling of The Green Knight.

The Plot of The Green Knight

Behind the scenes on The Green Knight
A behind the scenes image of director David Lowery with actors Dev Patel and Joel Edgerton in "The Green Knight". A24

Ahead are spoilers for The Green Knight.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight begins with Sir Gawain and the Knights of the Round Table coming together for Christmas.

An intruder, The Green Knight, arrives and challenges one of them to a duel: If any knight can land a strike on him, they can keep his axe but must return to him with the weapon after one year and accept a similar blow.

Sir Gawain steps up and cuts the head off the Green Knight, thinking that is the game finished. The Green Knight, still alive, picks up his head and tells Sir Gawain to meet him one year hence to accept his fate.

Following this, Sir Gawain goes on a perilous journey where he must prove his courage and honor before meeting The Green Knight for their final showdown.

The film has a slightly different ending to that of the poem.

In the poem, Sir Gawain refuses to remove an enchanted green sash from his waist, which he believes will protect him from harm.

As a result, the Green Knight's strikes barely injure him, and though Gawain dishonestly concealed the sash, they part on good terms after he offers his neck for a second blow without its protection.

The Green Knight—who was a local lord in disguise—declares Gawain to be a true knight. Gawain and the knights of the Round Table then begin wearing a green sash around their arms to remind them of the importance of honesty.

However, in the film, alternate endings are shown, one of which shows him taking the strike while wearing the green band.

In this version, he returns home wearing his green belt and refuses to remove it at any point due to his desire to cheat death.

He sleeps with Esel (Alicia Vikander) and she has a baby, but he takes the baby from her, leaving her destitute as he marries a princess from another land (Erin Kellyman).

The knight becomes king after Arthur's death, wielding Excalibur, but wars and famines plague the lands, with his people turning against him.

Gawain is unhappy throughout his life but continues to wear the belt until his dying day when he finally allows death to come after his family abandons him.

In the second ending, which is more in line with the poem, he chooses to remove the belt in order to take his blow, properly, knowing his honor is destroyed if he attempts to survive his meeting with the knight.

As a result, the knight congratulates him and sends him home to be celebrated among his peers.

But, differently from the poem, the Green Knight is revealed to be King Arthur himself, testing his nephew's courage.

The Green Knight is in movie theaters now