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Alicia Vikander as a richly dressed noble lady at a banquet feast gives Gawain a good eyeing-up in The Green Knight Photo: Eric Zachanowich/A24 Films

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The Green Knight’s sensuality comes with a sharp warning about selfish sex

It’s a morality tale about how people treat each other

The oldest epic in human history is the story of sex. The setting and characters change as the story keeps getting told, and the way storytellers position sex as temptation or salvation varies, depending on who’s writing the story. But humanity’s greatest tales never venture far from our most ancient roots. Sex and pleasure are vital parts of human nature, and creating life is an essential rhythm of the natural world, but humanity constantly struggles against nature, trying to master it and sometimes corrupting it. The distinction between giving in to sensuality and mastering selfish impulses is the central conflict of David Lowery’s vivid fantasy film The Green Knight. The film doesn’t suggest that sex is inherently selfish or unnatural — just that there are right ways and wrong ways to pursue it.

Lowery places sex and human desire front and center in his bold adaptation of a medieval epic. The poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a morality fable of chivalry and knightly honor, but Lowery’s version is an honest meditation on the corrosive nature of desire, seen through the odd coming-of-age story of King Arthur’s young, impulsive nephew, Gawain.

[Ed. note: Spoilers ahead for The Green Knight.]

Gawain is on the cusp of manhood, finding equal comfort in his mother’s protective embrace and the pleasurable escape of his lover, a local prostitute. More than anything, Gawain is driven by a desire to gain notoriety, power, and the trappings of knighthood that he sees reflected in King Arthur’s court and the men of the Round Table. When the mighty Green Knight rides into court to lay down a challenge, Gawain is the first to recklessly accept. In one fell, poorly thought-out swoop, Gawain seals his fate. After a year, he reluctantly sets out to complete the bargain he made, facing the Green Knight again in a deadly completion of their game. This version of Gawain strikes a careful balance between the naïveté of youth and a carnal worldliness. These are essential ingredients for pulling off The Green Knight’s potent feeling of yearning — yearning for comfort, yearning for power, and yearning to become a man and a legend.

Sensuous pleasure is experienced through all five senses, and The Green Knight seduces viewers’ senses at every level. The film is defined by beauty, with rich, striking visuals, and deep colors and textures permeating every shot. Most obviously, Dev Patel as Gawain exudes sex appeal, and that sexual attraction hits the audience first in every scene, drawing a sharp contrast to his boyish demeanor. A great deal of time is spent focused on his frequently bared skin, conveying the decadence of touch through the screen. Gazes smolder and touches linger. The Green Knight is a seductive indulgence solely on an experiential level.

But the storyline deals heavily with sex and integrity as well. Traditional morality tales warn of what happens to people who step off a righteous path, and they’re often unyielding and final. The Green Knight’s take on morality is much more contemporary and separate from tradition — Lowery isn’t preaching that nature and pleasure are temptations that should be completely rejected. The film draws a clear distinction between sex and pleasure in harmony with honor, as opposed to when it’s used thoughtlessly.

Gawain’s real quest is about confronting and ultimately overcoming his misplaced desire. He must learn to distinguish for himself when the desire to be recognized and admired gives way to the temptation to seize power, or when love is tarnished by lust. Once he’s able to ascend to his higher nature, he will attain worthiness and honor. Lowery uses Gawain’s sexuality and experience as an illustration of those selfish youthful impulses.

The Green Knight is imbued with sex from the very first scene, as Gawain wakes on Christmas morning in a crowded brothel. Right away, Lowery reveals Gawain as immature and occupied by boyish distractions that have kept him away from his duties to his mother and the court. He’s cavalier about sex, about his lover Essel (Alicia Vikander), about his own body, and about how all three have gotten in the way of him meeting his commitments. But his confrontation with the Green Knight sets him on a more serious path.

When Gawain begins his journey to face the Green Knight, he encounters the ghostly figure of Saint Winifred, a lady suitable for the distant, polite courtly desire laid out by the chivalric code. After finding him asleep in her bed, she tells Gawain her story: a prince who desired her assaulted and decapitated her. She appeals to Gawain to retrieve her head from a watery grave. Even after listening to her story, Gawain reaches out to stroke her face and asks what he will receive in return for his services, and she has to scold him to set him back to his purpose. It’s a small, humorous scene, but it’s essential in illustrating how Gawain is still learning the difference between his assumptions about knightly behavior vs. what is truly honorable — all while being chided through the scope of selfish sexual desire. There’s a classic assumption about what might happen between a handsome stranger and a beautiful woman he encounters in his travels, but that assumption isn’t honorable. Though the sexual stakes of the situation are handled with humor, the weight of the implication is greater.

The most sexually charged scene in the film, and arguably its pivotal encounter, comes when Gawain spends a few days in a remote castle with a noble (Joel Edgerton) and his mysterious lady (Vikander again, in a pointed bit of double casting). As Gawain becomes acquainted with his new surroundings, the lady is a tempting presence. She represents the ideal courtly woman, but she lacks the warmth of Gawain’s original love. While her lord is out hunting, she enters Gawain’s bedroom, asking why he didn’t come to sleep with her the night before. She offers him an emerald green girdle and claims it will protect him from all harm. It’s identical to the one his mother gave him when he started his quest, which he lost to bandits. But while his mother offered it freely out of love, the lady is offering more than the girdle. She strokes him and masturbates him with it, asking over and over “Do you want it?” as he breathlessly replies “Yes.” Immediately after Gawain’s orgasm, the Lady leaves him with the girdle, sullied with his semen, and the parting words, “You are no knight.”

Alicia Vikander hands Dev Patel a book of love poems in The Green Knight Photo: Eric Zachanowich/A24 Films

This is the moment where Gawain sees clearly, for the first time, the shame of his selfish desire. He has betrayed his host and acted in a way that definitely does not befit a knight. The sex act perfectly illustrates both Gawain’s youthful vulnerability and the shallowness of his impulsive behavior. He submits himself to another man’s lady in exchange for a cheap release. What’s worse, he begs for it. Being masturbated with a garment that simultaneously represents maternal protection and reckless desire is the final word on Gawain’s quest: The comforts of childhood and adolescence will ultimately hold him back from his development as a man and leader.

The double casting of Alicia Vikander drives the point home. Earlier in the film, Essel asks Gawain for his love and devotion. She asks to be the lady of his heart, and spins out a fantasy of their life together. He rejects her, saying a knight should wed a proper lady. But when he meets his courtly lady, there’s no love for him there. Honorable love in this story isn’t defined by class, but by devotion over lust. Gawain leaves the home of his strange hosts, wearing the girdle still stained from the shameful encounter.

Gawain is acutely aware of the stain of the seduction, as he conceals the gift of the girdle (and, by further extension, the tryst with the lady) when he encounters the kind nobleman on the road. The lord had made a deal with Gawain, promising the spoils of his hunt in exchange for anything Gawain received at the castle. Gawain dishonestly claims he has no spoils to share, but the nobleman, clearly knowing better, gives the young man a passionate kiss. Instantly, Gawain (and the audience) knows he’s been discovered. He flees the encounter, still clinging to the girdle. It is now a yoke of shame and a burning reminder of his selfishness, which is why it is essential for him to discard it when eventually facing the Green Knight.

The figure of the Green Knight looms large over the film, as a catalyst to Gawain’s journey and the judge he must face at the end. The figure carries his own strong sexual allegory, as a figure that represents a man’s journey in life and the creation of life. The color green, which symbolizes life, defines the mythic knight and Gawain’s fabled girdle, and pulses vibrantly in the forests Gawain traverses. In a speech to Gawain, the alluring lady of the house describes green as the color of life, and red as the color of passion. She acknowledges that life comes from sex, and that green follows red. In symbolic but direct terms, she’s telling him that behind every flash of desire is a consequence, and instructing him on the importance of shedding reckless passion in favor of a life lived with honor.

While Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is an ancient text based on knightly chivalry, the film adaptation draws greatly from Celtic lore and tradition. Observing the Green Knight through this lens more firmly roots the knight and his lesson for Gawain within nature. In the film, the Green Knight appears in Arthur’s court on Christmas Day bearing a holly branch, a symbol in the Celtic tradition of peace and fertility, associated with sexual vitality. Christmas falls near the Celtic winter celebration of Yule, and it appears that the Green Knight is modeled, symbolically and in appearance, after the Celtic Greenman, or Holly King, a figure from Yule celebrations who rules over the darker winter months.

Traditionally, the Greenman grows old in the bleak winter and eventually yields his life so the younger, bright Oak King may take his place with the arriving Spring. The Oak King rules in the height of his youth and strength, before he ages and the cycle repeats. Read through this lens of Celtic paganism, the Green Knight represents a clear picture of the year Gawain waits before traveling to the Knight, and the ways the journey lets him become a worthy leader. At the height of his reckless youth, he slays the Green Knight in the king’s court. For a year, he stews in his own naïveté, but through trials of nature, he’s able to clearly see the choice that lies before him, and make the moral decision.

Gawain is given the unique opportunity to see what his life will look like if he continues to give in to selfish desire. In the deciding moment, he is willing to let go of the comforts of childhood and the hot-blooded passions of youth, and submit himself to something greater. He changes and matures, but is never separated from nature.

The sensual nature of The Green Knight takes the traditional model of the exalted hero — a person who’s above humanity’s basest impulses — and returns him to earth. Specifically, the film offers a hero who is just as connected to his own earthy side as he is the higher ideal he comes to embody. In persisting through the trials of nature, Gawain is able to overcome his own thoughtless, destructive nature. It’s proof, once again, that our greatest tales never venture far from our most ancient roots.