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Dev Patel, in grey armor with his head bowed, in The Green Knight Photo: A24

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The Green Knight doesn’t have to discuss race to make its racial messages clear

In a movie obsessed with color, skin color matters most

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In addition to a tidal wave of thirst, Dev Patel’s casting as Gawain in David Lowery’s much-hyped medieval blockbuster The Green Knight brings in another element rarely seen in adaptations of Arthurian epics: melanin. Lowery’s film is obsessed with color and its symbolism, from its color-coded sequences to a tour-de-force monologue on green and red. Skin color, however, is never remarked upon. Even without overt commentary within the film, though, the casting choices heavily shape this adaptation of a medieval chivalric romance, animating it with thoroughly modern anxieties about race, identity, and the outsider experience.

Historically speaking, there’s no reason to think Asian or otherwise dark-skinned people would have been an unfamiliar sight in the sixth-century British Isles. This was the era just in the wake of the multi-continent Roman Empire, and trade through Africa and Asia would have been well-established. The Arthuriad literally features a Muslim knight (who definitely deserves his own movie or TV series), so even Arthur’s inner circle was hardly the Aryan conclave past films have imagined it to be.

But the usual whinging that accompanied Patel’s casting demonstrates just how entrenched Arthuriana is in the Western imagination as a tale of White Excellence. It’s no surprise that Gawains of years past have been uniformly Wonder Bread-toned, from Excalibur’s Liam Neeson to King Arthur’s Joel Edgerton (who coincidentally returns to Camelot in The Green Knight as the Lord of the house where Gawain faces many, uh, temptations).

Previous film Gawains have also hewn much closer to the character’s traditional position — in the earlier chivalric romances, anyway — as one of the purest and most honorable of Arthur’s knights. Patel is novel not just as the first silver-screen Gawain to be a man of color, but the first to be kind of a fuck-up, title-less and spending his days in the tavern or brothel, rather than on the battlefield. He stands out in Arthur’s pale court, ranging around its fringes like a fly in the Christmas pudding, even — or perhaps especially — when King Arthur calls Gawain to his side, offering him Lancelot’s conspicuously empty seat. Lowery may have cast Patel primarily for how cool he might look on a horse, but intentionally or otherwise, putting a man of color into this role emphasizes Lowery’s characterization of Gawain as an outsider.

[Ed. note: Major spoilers ahead for The Green Knight.]

The Green Knight stands silhouetted in the doorway of King Arthur’s court in David Lowery’s The Green Knight Photo: A24 via Polygon

This visual difference is emphasized by the violent foundations of Arthur’s court, a violence Gawain has yet to participate in. “Surely your knights have spilled enough blood in your name to put them closer to you than I,” Gawain self-consciously says, in response to that invitation to sit by Arthur. In a key departure from the text, Gawain is distinct from the other men at court as the only one who hasn’t killed and conquered on the aging king’s behalf. And while Sean Harris’ performance imbues Arthur with a certain avuncular tenderness, there’s no doubt that spilt blood put him on the throne, and spilt blood advances his knights in glory and standing. “I see a land shaped by your hands,” he tells them in his Christmas speech. “You have lain those same hands on our Saxon brethren, who now in your shadow bow their heads like babes. Peace, peace, you have brought this kingdom.” Festive!

We see the costs of that “peace” when Gawain crosses a battlefield covered in decomposing bodies, based on the famed Battle of Badon, where Arthur defeated the Saxons and was said to have killed 960 men by his sword alone. (A scavenger played by Barry Keoghan, wearing valuables pilfered from the corpses, helpfully tells Gawain that story.) On this battlefield, the violence underpinning the king’s royal court comes into focus. The story of King Arthur, and Arthurian myth itself, cannot be separated from his position as Britain’s vaunted ür-imperialist, to the point where accounts such as the Historia Regum Britanniae claim he literally conquered Rome.

He most certainly did no such thing, but his lionization as a conqueror even more fearsome than the Romans is the basis for the following centuries of belief in British exceptionalism, as a tiny island rewrote its history of infighting and tribalism as one of unquestioned, pre-ordained imperial destiny. It seems hardly a coincidence that Arthuriana enjoyed its biggest revival in the 19th century, the era of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and John William Waterhouse, as well as Great Britain’s “Imperial Century” and the establishment of the British Raj.

Historical context inevitably makes the casting inherently political, even if the actors’ racial identities are never explored or discussed. The ties between Arthur’s empire and the one which colonized India and much of the global south make it particularly significant that actors of Indian descent — Patel and Sarita Choudhury, as his mother — are present in Camelot. Their outsider status adds the familiar sting of assimilation to Gawain’s palpable need to prove himself to his white uncle-king and comrades with a suitable act of greatness — i.e. violence. He must prove to them and to a contemporary audience that he is less out of place than he appears. When the Green Knight, a presence even more foreign and strangely colored, arrives, Gawain leaps up to deliver the killing blow with the desperation of a man who knows he can’t belong unless he kills what belongs even less than he does.

The terms of the Green Knight’s Christmas Game feel like an apt metaphor for the theater of war and imperial expansion. He invites anyone among Arthur’s court who’s brave enough to land a blow against him, ”with honor,” and he’ll return that blow in kind a year later: “Be it a scratch on the cheek or a cut on the throat, I will return what was given me, and then in trust and friendship we shall part.” Arthur and Gawain have, at all times, the option of merely nicking their opponent and accepting their nick in return at the appointed time.

But there’s no gold or glory to be had in restraint and equal exchange — rather than risking the slightest injury from a foreign challenger — in Gawain’s case, one who even lays down his weapon and meets him without defense — they both choose to exact a blow devastating enough to make reprisal impossible. In the case of the game, Gawain tries to cheat the terms by killing the Knight, so he’ll never have to take the return blow. In the larger political sense, Arthur’s choice to massacre all opponents keeps the balance of power disproportional. As the Green Knight picks up his own severed head and rides away laughing, however, Gawain realizes with horror that overpowering the outsider isn’t quite the triumph he imagined.

Gawain’s class ascendancy is a familiar one for non-white people: It’s conditional, and possibly temporary. He basks in his victory for a while, the subject of a regal court portrait for the royals, and a Punch and Judy-esque puppet show for the masses. Both those depictions of him in the film render him as much lighter-skinned than he actually is, in a key reflection of how advancement of status and proximity to whiteness go hand-in-hand for a person of color in this environment. These light-skinned likenesses gesture toward history’s tendency to whitewash figures as soon as we canonize them, and the closer Gawain gets to realizing the myth of him as a “traditional” knight, the lighter these depictions become. (Later, Gawain has a photograph taken by a Lady who has already heard knightly legends of him, and the daguerreotype-esque portrait has no color at all.)

Almost a year after the Green Knight’s arrival, it becomes clear that even the Knight’s shed blood isn’t enough to wash away Gawain’s outsider status completely — or that of his kin, as Lowery goes further in othering him. Gawain is in his cups as usual at ye olde tavern, being toasted by a fellow drunk for his triumph over the green meanie, when an offscreen voice protests: But his mother’s a witch!

Sarita Choudhury, blindfolded and in long, dark-colored robes, extends a folded letter in the air in The Green Knight Photo: A24 via Polygon

She isn’t just any witch, either — she’s none other than notorious sorceress Morgan le Fay. The liberty Lowery takes with the source material here is crucial, as he trades Gawain’s canonical mother, Morgause, for the Arthuriad’s most frequent antagonist. (Both women are Arthur’s sisters or half-sisters, depending on which of the many tellings of the myth you’re reading.) Morgan is the only other character of Indian descent in the film with spoken lines, and Choudhury plays her with the sly ambition of a Lady Macbeth, taking a much more active role as the architect of Gawain’s quest for knighthood and eventual rise to the throne. While the poem only brings her in at the end as a bit of a deus ex machina to explain all these woefully pagan goings-ons, Lowery shows us right off the bat that she’s the figure behind the curtain when it comes to summoning the Green Knight, and she has her own reasons for conjuring him into court.

“It became a drama about a mother and a son in a way that I hadn’t intended,” Lowery told Vanity Fair. “All of a sudden, I was writing about my own relationship with my mom, and the fact that I stayed, I lived under her roof for far longer than I should have. I had failure-to-launch syndrome, and she eventually had to force me out.”

This particular dynamic takes on new resonance in the context of a woman of color and her son, in a largely white realm. Morgan doesn’t just want her son out of the house, she wants him to be upwardly mobile as a knight ascendant. Reinforcing a culturally familiar trope of non-white mothers, Morgan wants to engineer an opportunity for Gawain’s advancement, in an effort to bolster his status in a place where they seem to have never quite belonged. Morgan’s rituals, full of bones and teeth and the old language, run underneath and counter to the Christian proceedings that go on simultaneously in Arthur’s court, where neither Morgan or her attendants ever appear.

Gawain’s ability as a man to more easily navigate and ascend these spaces is classic diaspora politics, as is the longstanding connection between marginalized women and witchcraft. (Medea, another foreign witch from the East, is thought to have had a particular influence on Geoffrey of Monmouth’s depiction of Morgan le Fay.) While Morgan and Gawain canonically have origins outside Anglo mythology, it’s Gawain who ultimately gets the chance to be a hero and join the majority class, while his mother’s magical girdle protects him. The sash represents, among other things, Morgan’s ambitious designs for her son — she summons the Green Knight, yes, but also creates the green girdle that will allow her son to evade the Knight’s reprisal and come home a hero. It’s yet another cheat to the terms of the game, allowing Gawain to potentially escape the consequences of his actions and “end his song in falsehood,” coming home to claim stolen glory and elevated status, as the fox who speaks in his mother’s voice urges him to do.

Lowery offers an extended glimpse into what that path might look like for him, if he accepts succor from his mother (and the noble Lady, who may also be his mother, if you subscribe to certain theories, which makes their last scene together awfully awkward) in the form of the girdle, and comes back to Camelot without having fulfilled his contract with the Green Knight. He becomes the model minority Arthur and Morgan hoped he might be, becoming a knight, abandoning his low-class girlfriend, and even succeeding to Arthur’s throne and carrying on his dubious legacy. The expansion continues, as King Gawain contemplates bigger maps and wages war on bigger battlefields. But while the girdle protects his body, it doesn’t shield him from the vicious cycle of such a life. He takes his son from his girlfriend’s birthing bed, and in turn has him taken by the battlefield. He cheats death, only to be surrounded by it. He conquers land abroad while losing the loyalty of his kingdom. And there, always there, is the girdle.

When his comeuppance comes pounding at the castle doors, it’s unclear if it’s the Green Knight finally coming for his due, or his own people revolting against him. Either way, Gawain must harvest what he’s sown, and his head goes rolling over the flagstones.

“Is that all there is?” Gawain asks the Green Knight back in his chapel, on the verge of a breakdown as the latter prepares to chop his head off.

“What else ought there be?” the Knight replies.

Perhaps there should be something besides the endless wheel of blows dealt and received, of people subjugated and dying, terrified in the name of a distant empire. The only way for Gawain to escape the cycle of bloodshed is to also reject the imperialist mindset of Arthur’s court, and accept that violence begets further violence. He cannot escape who he is, and he can’t survive by ascending in a white man’s world using a white man’s tactics. Only by literally breaking the circle of the girdle and putting aside all the false glory and aspirations to power it represents, can he finally be shown mercy and achieve real honor. He claims an identity outside of the cyclical violence of Arthur’s court, embracing his outsider status instead of trying to overcome it with more bloodshed. His race and his parentage no longer matter — the only true knighthood is here, in the forest. He finds a personal integrity he didn’t know he had, in the face of the only character in the film who actually bears the title of Knight.

The Green Knight is currently in theaters and available for premium digital rental via platforms like Amazon.

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