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‘The Green Knight,’ apocalyptic anxiety and the new avatars of climate change

David Lowery’s new medieval fantasy film should be understood as part of an emerging cultural trend of eco-anxiety

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Dev Patel stars as Sir Gawain in David Lowery’s medieval fantasy film The Green Knight. Still image courtesy A24.

As climate breakdown and the Anthropocene progress into increasingly dire territory, more and more artists and filmmakers are endeavouring to capture the anxiety driven by a warming world. Caught up in this anticipatory energy is a notable rise in pagan practices and pagan-inflected art that could be connected to these growing concerns, reflecting a culture terrified by the biblical climate events of the near-future. This collective malaise can be seen in the horror genre across mediums.

In music you can see it in Backwxsh’s dark shamanistic imagery and lyricism, and in many of the horror films put out by popular indie distribution house A24. Ari Aster’s Midsommar (2019) and Robert Eggers’ The Witch (2015) come to mind when discussing films that reflect neo-paganist art and motifs.

Alex Garland’s sci-fi horror Annihilation can be dissected along similar lines as well, even though it is less overtly pagan (the bear in Annihilation draws from Algonquin folklore). The film features a mysterious zone, similar to the one in Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 sci-fi art film Stalker, described by John A. Riley in the Journal of Film and Video as a “hauntological” representation of a Soviet future that had never materialized as promised.

Garland’s zone is unfolding in front of us. Like the liminal space in Stalker it is a zone where the natural laws as we know them are suspended, mixed, and sublimated in unpredictable ways—a depiction that reflects the unknown directions in which climate chaos will unfurl as we ebb deeper into anthropological crises.

The horror genre is the natural home of eco-anxiety. Writer-director David Lowery’s epic medieval fantasy film The Green Knight (theatrically released in the United States on July 30 by A24) should be understood as part of this cultural exploration of eco-anxiety and our relationship to nature. The film is based on a 14th century Arthurian poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, in the tradition of chivalric romance. This should not to be mistaken with the romance films of our contemporary period which centre around love and sentiment; Lowery’s film harkens back to the old genre about adventure and the moral tests it entails.

The Green Knight is exceptional in this sense, particularly when viewed alongside its neo-pagan (filmic) siblings. Instead of terror it elicits the old systems of morality and ethics that are the given new tests in our burning age. The story of old posits the chaotic natural world against that of a pious, human one. Who will emerge the champion?

The Green Knight tells the story of Sir Gawain (King Arthur’s nephew, portrayed by Dev Patel), who embarks on an epic quest to confront the Green Knight (Ralph Ineson) after the latter challenges the court of the Round Table to a mysterious challenge (spoilers ahead).

Much like Midsommar, The Green Knight is set around the solstice, albeit on the opposite side of the calendar. It centres around Christmas, a Christian holiday that was moved by the Romans from Jesus’s likely birth time in spring so that it could draw attention and power away from the pagan winter solstice celebrations. Christmas customs of gift-giving and feasting were taken from these Roman pagan winter solstice celebrations.

Romans had their own pagan holiday before adopting Christianity. Saturnalia was one of the most popular Roman festivals. It was a joyous time of role playing, colourful clothes, and feasting. It took its name from the god of agriculture and time, Saturn, its astrological symbol exemplified by the scythe used for the winter sowing season.

Saturn ruled over chaos, rather than the normal Roman order. This is exemplified through the holiday’s custom of reversing roles. Masters would pretend to be slaves, and slaves would pretend to be masters, though many faced actual repercussions if they got carried away with the role reversal. Romans would greet each other during this time by using the salutation of the festival, io Saturnalia. The poet Catullus called it “the best of days.”

The ancient Romans who celebrated Saturnalia, the English nobles that populate this story, as well as our modern-day corporate feudalists, sought dominion over nature—a wilderness that had to be tamed or cut down much like the titular knight. The nature-pagan-animism versus the Christianity-civilization dynamic of the original Arthurian poem has a new angle given our current place in the Anthropocene.

In the film, the Green Knight dares one to strike him as long as he takes a return blow in a year and a day. Any knight who is capable of landing a hit will win his coveted green axe. This game recalls our conscious destruction of the ecosphere in pursuit of temporary monetary gain, all at the expense of time. Gawain’s participation is fuelled by an incomplete understanding of the game and what’s at stake.

Chasing after the potential fame and honour his journey to meet the Green Knight in the Green Chapel is marked by a series of five knightly challenges, represented by the pentagram. These five challenges revolve around generosity, fellowship, courtesy, chastity, and piety.

The challenge of chastity is perhaps the most interesting. The lady and the lord in the second-last challenge display a past-future dynamic. The lord is a huntsman who catches his food in the wild. He drapes himself in furs whereas the lady is representative of progress, technology and knowledge, symbolized by her massive library and arsenal of gadgets.

She reads, writes, and even has made her own camera obscura which she uses to capture Gawain’s likeness but reversed, upside down (one that makes an appearance in his final vision). For her to represent the test of chastity elicits a call for moderation and sober thought with respect to technology and our domination of the natural world. Today, we live in a time ruled by the lady and the temptations of cold technology. Gawain’s lack of knightly virtues represents his difficulty with an order that is set against nature, and against fate.

The film ends on a more ambiguous note than the original poem. In the Arthurian version, Gawain is let go with nothing but a scratch on his cheek—a poem written by a culture that still believed in its dominion over nature. Time has whittled down that imagined hierarchy, as forest fires burn through Greece, Canada, and the Pacific coast, and as record floods hit Germany and China. I am not inclined to think the Green Knight in this depiction is as merciful.

Kalden Dhatsenpa is a Tibetan writer and artist based in Tio‘tià:ke, or Mooniyang, or Montréal. He is the national anti-oppression coordinator for Courage, host of the film podcast Cheapy Tuesdays, and a federal candidate for the NDP in Longueuil—Charles-Lemoyne.

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