UCCS’ ‘resident medievalist’ shares thoughts on ‘The Green Knight’

Brianna Beassie 

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     “The Green Knight” is a film meant for lovers of the chivalric romance and fantasy genres. Based on the 14th century medieval narrative “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” the film has received mixed reviews — most notably from UCCS’ own resident medievalist and English professor, Thomas Napierkowski. 

Thomas Napierkowski, photo courtesy of the UCCS website.

     In “The Green Knight,” Dev Patel stars as King Arthur’s nephew Sir Gawain, a young man who must go on a fantastical and dangerous quest to prove his honor. When a mysterious knight with green, tree-like skin arrives in King Arthur’s court on Christmas Day, he presents Arthur and his court with a challenge. 

    Essentially, a brave and noble knight must step forward and cut off the Green Knight’s head, with the caveat that in one year the same knight must journey to the Green Knight’s home called The Green Chapel and allow him to cut off their head in return. Gawain, feeling he must prove his worth in court, volunteers.  

     “The Green Knight” is based on the 14th century medieval narrative “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” Having read the original story myself, I was pleasantly surprised with the way director David Lowery told the tale, although there were several notable differences between the film and the original narrative poem.  

     Gawain in the original story is portrayed in a more noble and chivalrous light but, in the movie, Gawain is more reckless, sometimes cowardly, a tad egotistical, and arguably selfish. 

     Napierkowski shared a mixed response to the film ahead of its release. 

       “What I know about it so far has created in me a rather ambivalent response … I am absolutely, 100 percent confident there is no way I will like this film as much as I like the poem. Because I think the poem is one of the finest pieces of short narrative poetry in the language. And it’s probably the best English language Arthurian poem,” Napierkowski said. 

     He added, “I suspect that like a lot of people, I will say that it seems to be a pretty impressive piece of cinematography. But I think I will be disappointed in some of the ways in which it has adapted the original.”  

     There are specific parts of the original narrative Napierkowski would like to see in the live action adaptation.  

     First, the humor that helps make “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” the story that it is. There are a several instances of this in the original poem; however, one that stuck with Napierkowski the most was when Gawain pretends to sleep to avoid the presence of a woman who is pursuing him sexually, and when Gawain admits his “failure” to the court of Camelot, blushing as he reveals his true actions. 

     Another detail Napierkowski hoped to see brought to life was the sound of the Green Knight sharpening his axe as Gawain approaches the Green Chapel, which helps set the tone for a good portion of the story.  

     With these moments in mind, Napierkowski said, “Those are things that probably would not fit into this film, and maybe that’s one of the reasons I would be disappointed in the film because, for me, they are small details but nonetheless important details in the poem.” 

     The way Gawain was portrayed as a hero was another detail Napierkowski noted. He pointed out that “many critical reviews of the movie so far have described Gawain as a womanizer and a spoiled rich boy.” 

     Napierkowski said, “One of the things appealing about the poem is that Gawain is a hero, but he’s a very human hero … In some ways that makes him, in my eyes, an even more admirable hero. He’s not a superhero out of the comic books. He’s someone who struggles to be a hero.” 

    Although Lowery’s film went in a different direction than the original poem, Napierkowski agreed that it is nice to see the entertainment industry has continued to produce work inspired by the Arthurian legend. 

    Although the story dates back to around the 14th century, as Napierkowski said, “These tales are timeless.”  

Still from The Green Knight. Courtesy of A24.