The Journey Through Purgatory in “The Green Knight”

Sir Gawain (Dev Patel) begins his quest for honor in a similar fashion as countless other medieval epics. Yet, roughly 45 minutes into The Green Knight, the world around Gawain seems to transform into a strange dying planet, whose only inhabitants are restless spirits, indiscernible giants and a talking beast. What happens to Gawain that uproots him from his grounded Camelot environment and displaces him in a kind of purgatorial land?

(Major spoilers for The Green Knight from this point on!)

Sir Gawain’s adventure transcends reality when he crosses paths with The Scavenger (Barry Keoghan) for the second time. The Scavenger and his band of lost orphans rob him and leave him tied left for dead. Up till this point, while magic has been shown in the film (Gawain’s mother and the presence of The Green Knight), it’s used sparingly and is relative to other medieval media. When we see Gawain lying helpless on the forest floor, the camera then completes a 360 degree rotation. When the camera return to the wannabe knight, he has decayed into a pile of bones. This moment causes a brief hesitation as to whether Gawain’s quest is completed, given we are gazing on his corpse. Not to mention that just before the robbing occured, Gawain asks if there ever was a green chapel, to which The Scavenger replies, “You are standing in it.” This seemingly indicates that Gawain’s journey had ended before it ever really started.

Yet just a minute later, the camera completes a reverse 360 degree pan and Gawain has returned back to his mortal form. Or has he? The world Gawain traverses from this moment on is filled with strange sights that one would be hardpressed to find in any King Arthur story. It is in this moment that Sir Gawain’s quest is not to find honor, but to discover his salvation, for he is in the place between heaven and hell: Purgatory.

The Spirit of Winifred

Gawain’s first respite on his post mortem journey is to the house of Winifred. Winifred (Erin Kellyman) is alluded to be another trapped spirit who needs her head that is buried at the bottom of a lake in order to travel to the afterlife. It’s a part of the film that is akin to a side quest in an RPG video game (think Skyrim) that helps Gawain’s case for making it into heaven.

When Gawain nervously dives into the water to fetch her head, the strange hue of the water seems like an homage to 1997’s Hercules. In that Disney renaissance classic, the titular hero had to swim through the River of Death in the underworld to save Meg from Hades. Similarly, Gawain is metaphorically wade through the hellish water to return Winifred’s cranium. This mission is the first sign that things in Gawain’s world have changed dramatically.

The Orchestral & Visual Metamorphosis of Gawain’s Terrain

On the trek (unknowingly) to The Lord’s (Joel Edgerton) castle, which is titled ‘Interlude’, we get a glimpse of just how much Gawain’s environment has transformed. The first sign that Gawain has stepped into a new world comes from Daniel Hart’s score. Hart’s compositions in the first third resemble the classic medieval melodies often found in King Arthur’s cinematic adventures. Yet after the previously cited pan sequence, the score shifts to something otherworldly, featuring a choir of ethereal sounding angels. It’s the cacophony of these voices that hint to this environment being some sort of afterlife.

The physical environment also gives clues that Gawain could be stuck in purgatory. In the latter two-thirds of The Green Knight, every land that Gawain traverse is enveloped in heavy fog. This creates a hazy, dreamlike surrounding that further lends credence that Gawain is in a otherworldly territory.

Additionally, while there are noticable areas of greenery and natural beauty before Gawain’s death, the landscape after is dead and decaying. The forestry is barren, save for a few poisonous mushrooms.

The same can be said for any sort of wildlife. Lowery highlights animals throughout the first 45 minutes of The Green Knight, going so far as to prominently focus on them throughout the opening credits. The creatures are such a recurring image in the first third of the film that they create an absent presence through the rest of Gawain’s journey.

One possible reasoning for their absence comes from The Bible. Ecclesiastics 3:20 says, “All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again.” Essentially, since animals cannot follow a path to redemption like Gawain, they follow a cycle of decomposition and reincarnation. Therefore, there is no heaven, hell, or purgatory for animals, thus explaining their disappearance from the world of The Green Knight.

While some may look to the fox that follows Gawain as proof that he may not be in purgatory, the anthropomorphic nature of the fox calls that counterpoint into question. In the last exchange the fox has with Gawain, the creature asks the ‘knight’ to “come home to me”. Knowing that Gawain’s mother is the infamous Morgan Le Fay (Sarita Choudhury), it’s much more likely that she used her dark magic to communicate to her son like a medium would.

The Horny Lord and Lady

When Sir Gawain finds himself in Lord’s castle after a bad acid trip, he is nearly suffocated by the attention he receives from the Lord and the Lady (Alicia Vikander) (who looks almost identical to Essel). They shower him with affection because they have been without company for seemingly an infinite period of time. The Lady has read every book in the massive library and The Lord has hunted extensively, even though there are no animals left to hunt. They’ve already explored and ravenged each other to the point that they’re geographical experts of one another’s human form. Therefore, when Gawain enters their world, it ignites a flame that had been lying dormant for centuries.

In fact, The characters of the Lord and Lady are reminiscent of Mindy (Maribeth Monroe) and the Medium Place in the NBC show The Good Place. In the Kristen Bell ethical comedy, Mindy had been stuck in limbo for eternity with only Cannonball Run 2 and her own libido to keep her company. Likewise, The Lord and Lady have simply run out of ways to be entertained, which is why they become so fixated on Sir Gawain.

Mindy St. Clair (Maribeth Monroe) from The Good Place

“Is This All There Is?”

After an out of body expedition through purgatory, Gawain finally finds himself at the Green Chapel, ready to finally face his own fear and mortality. Yet, when he arrives, the Green Knight (Ralph Ineson) is not yet ready to engage with Gawain, so Gawain sits, literally awaiting judgement in the most sacred of places. The Green Knight wakes from his slumber some time later, ready to return the blow Gawain dealt to him one year prior.

Just before he strikes, Gawain asks, “Is this all there is?” to which the Knight replies, “What else would there be?”. The Green Knight needs Gawain to acknowledge and accept that there may not be another life in order for Gawain to fulfill his quest and join King Arthur in heaven. The final line uttered by The Green Knight, “Now, off with your head,” is left open to interpretation, though in this recontextualisation, death may be the ideal outcome. For death would bring Sir Gawain peace, acceptance and an Golden Ticket into that cloudy haven in the sky.

The Green Knight is available now on your favorite Video on Demand service (Amazon Video, Vudu, etc.).

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