Modern Medieval Iconography in The Green Knight (2021)

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The latest iteration of an Arthurian legend, The Green Knight (2021) is hitting theaters on July 30, 2021. The teaser pics and trailer have introduced modern audiences to the story of Arthur’s nephew and favorite, Sir Gawain (played by Dev Patel), who has probably one of the most complex and complicated narratives of all the Knights of the Round Table. Depending on which cycle you’re drawing from, Gawain is either the knight’s knight, the protector of women, a great lover of women, a terrifying villain, or everything in between. It’s not entirely clear from the trailer what direction this film will go in, except to say that the overall vibe is dark, so I’m betting we aren’t going to get a version of Gawain that is all sweetness and light. I’m also willing to bet that the Arthurian scholars out there are going to have BIG OPINIONS about Gawain’s portrayal and his infamous challenge with the mysterious Green Knight. I’m going to avoid speculating too much about how far this film is going to deviate from the 14th-century poem that it is clearly drawing from, and save most of my commentary about the plot for after I’ve seen the film.

Let’s just say that because we are dealing with a romanticized fictional character with a 1,000-year-long history of literary variations, whatever writer/director David Lowery does with the material will be just one more interpretation in a long line of interpretations.

Sean Harris as King Arthur.

What I will talk about right now is the costumes in The Green Knight. Designed by Malgosia Turzanska, who is probably best known for her historical design work on the first season of Stranger Things (2016-), the first thing that stands out about the costumes is how much they draw from early medieval Christian iconography. Much has been stated in the early press on the movie about the striking crown designs which incorporate a halo, a nice nod to Arthur’s “divine providence” as King of the Brittons.

Because I’m always trying to figure out how the dang thing is made, one of the film posters helpfully shows the back of the crown + halo arrangement. Super cool.

 

Dev Patel is wearing what could be interpreted as a gambeson during the scene where the Green Knight appears and challenges the Round Table to a duel. Basically, it’s medieval Under Armour.

 

I’m deeply curious how this scene factors into the plot. My hunch is that it’s a vision Gawain has that shows him achieving his deepest desire to succeed Arthur, but if you’ve followed the various legends, you know that doesn’t exactly happen…

The costumes overall are a mix of tunics and gowns with jaw-dropping fantasy, which works nicely within the context of this mythological court. Arthur’s kingdom has always lurked just beyond the tangible history of the early medieval period, and completely within it as the stories became popularized into romances over the course of the 12th through 14th centuries.

Arthur shown in much more casual attire. The plaid tunic and earthy shawl are a nice nod to the Romano-British roots of the legend.

 

Gawain’s look here incorporates maille, rather than the shiny high medieval armor most people associate with the Arthurian legends. Another nice hat tip to the fact that we are dealing with a far older age.

 

Alicia Vikander is Lady Essel, who is probably the film’s version of Lady Bertilak, and who has a significant role in the 14th-century romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, allegedly the source material for the film.

 

Another glimpse of the Lady from the trailer. From what little we can see of the costume, there’s still clearly a distinct vibe here that I’m thinking is drawing from a famous illustration of Lady Bertilak tempting Gawain, painted in the late 14th century.

 

Temptation of Sir Gawain, c. 1400. British Library MS Cotton Nero A.x f. 129v.

Like I said above, this is going to be a total mashup of eras and inspiration, but it going to have mad aesthetic, so just emotionally prepare yourself.

I, for one, am here for it.

 

 

Will you be watching The Green Knight?

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About the author

Sarah Lorraine

Sarah has an undergraduate degree in Clothing & Textile Design and a Master's in Art History and Visual Culture, with an emphasis on fashion history. When she’s not caught in paralyzing existential dread, she's drinking craft cocktails and writing about historical costume in film and television. She's been pissing people off on the internet since 1995.

36 Responses

  1. opusanglicanum

    although I can quite enjoy films with an imaginative take on medieval costumes it would be nice if once, just once, a filmaker could apply the same attention to detail to medieval clothing as they do to say, regency, or victorian, because this shit gets very tiring

    Reply
    • susan l eiffert

      I completely agree w/ you opusanglicanum. Do these costumers think they can get away w/ their self indulgent flights of fancy because verisimilitude is not important to a time so long ago or no one cares? It would be thrilling to see historical accuracy in this.

      Reply
    • Natasha Rubin

      I would agree with you if this was based on actual medieval history, but I do think there’s something of a loophole in that King Arthur stories have never been historically accurate. King Arthur and some of the other main players may be loosely based on real people, but so loosely that they’d bear almost no resemblance to the story as we know it (for example, one of the earliest references we have to Arthur, from the 9th-century Historia Brittonum, says he wasn’t even particularly nobly born, just a very popular and successful military commander).

      Arthur is supposed to have lived in the late 5th/early 6th century, and yet the legends about him are filled with anachronisms for that era. For example, his knights are often described as jousting in tournaments and having heraldic devices on their shields, both of which make perfect sense for the 12th century when these stories became popular, but far less so for the 5th-6th century when jousting tournaments and heraldry aren’t known to have existed yet.

      I do like the idea of creating Arthurian media that’s more grounded in the reality of the 5th-6th century, but I do think the fact that these stories aren’t historically accurate and never have been gives some leeway. This is legend, not history.

      Reply
      • Al Don

        On one hand, I can see the reason in Arthurian Legends being fantastical and therefore there’s more wiggle room.

        On the other hand, the fact they are set contemporaneously means that yes, they are anachronistic but at least consistent to the time they were written. Even Medieval visual depictions reflect this. So an adaptation of Le Morte d’Arthur that includes cannon [i.e. culverin] would be more correct than the anachronism stew of say… King Arthur (2004), despite the latter’s supposed historic setting.

        Movies like Perceval le Gallois understood consistency and fidelity to the period. It gets it right in ways the more half-arsed “Dark Age” adaptations didn’t.

        So while I think both the sup-Roman and High/Late Medieval approaches make sense, mixing a bunch of periods and styles doesn’t jive with the legends. Of course, then it’s a stylistic choice on the director/production designer’s part.

        Reply
  2. Joni

    I have absolutely no opinion on the mythology or the costuming, but man, Dev Patel is PRETTY

    Reply
  3. Karen

    The close-up of the Lady makes.me think she is inspired by the Red Queen from one of the Alice in Wonderland films. If the reviews are decent I may be tempted ba k to a theater for this one.

    Reply
  4. Gwen

    I have been waiting for this movie for over a year. I’m a huge Sean Harris fan, and he can do whatever his little heart desires. I’m insanely excited about this movie!

    Reply
  5. M.E. Lawrence

    Oh, what the hell–I’ll go; I could do with some fantasy and distraction. Even it’s dippy, the production values look good.

    Reply
  6. florenceandtheai

    I’ve been excited about it since I first heard of it. I’ll probably wait till it streams for a lot of reasons. I giggled the first time I saw the crowns in the trailer, because they were such an unexpected look. When rewatching I made the halo association. To be extra nerdy, Arthur’s cape in the first image looks a lot like a bishop’s cloak in saint’s icons. They have a very specific shape and neckline. The lady with the blue eyeliner is a little jarring in the short trailer. I hope it’ll make more sense in context. I am amused by Alicia Vikander’s giant 1960s girl group hair. Dev Patel is SO pretty.

    Reply
  7. Kathleen Norvell

    I look forward to seeing Dev Patel portray an iconic British hero since he seems to be the only South Asian to break through the color barrier (David Copperfield, which, alas, I missed, but hope to catch later). He does look yummy. And Alicia Vikander isn’t bad either. I’ll be there is some historical context to the blue markings (tattoos?) on her face. As an English major in college, I read “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” This should be interesting.

    Reply
    • Kendra

      I can’t figure out WHO the blue face paint lady is, but it’s not Alicia Vikander! I’ve even stared at the full cast list for a while, and I can’t figure it out!

      Reply
  8. Nzie

    I am not particularly familiar with the Arthurian legends (beyond a quite excellent local play; I need to read Le Morte d’Arthur which a friend sent me sometime!), but the trailer grabbed my attention for sure. I will probably wait for some reviews to get a sense of the content, as I find it harder to bear violent content the older I get. Still, looks quite interesting, and I try to watch a fairly broad variety of movie type.

    Reply
  9. Liza Jane

    Costume needs not only to BE appropriate (I’m not going to say accurate, since this is fantasy) but to BE WORN appropriately. Why the hell is Gawain wear a gambeson to a royal feast? That’s like wearing sweats to a wedding.

    Reply
  10. Michael McQuown

    I’ve seen a number of versions of Arthur and read a few more than that, so I’m willing to watch one more. And thank you for writing maille, rather rhan ‘chain mail,’ which is redundant. The word translates as “links,” which is why the postal service is called mail, and, I guess, the root of the maillot bathing suit.

    Reply
  11. Addie

    The most interesting thing I have to add about Gawain is that in a lot of the oldest sources we have on Arthur’s knights (mainly I mean Culhwch and Olwen, which in its completed form probably dates around the 1100’s at the latest), the most important knights are Cai, Bedwyr, and Gwalchmei (Kay, Bedivere and probably-Gawain using their Welsh names). They’ve all got really noteworthy traits, like Cai is able to grow as at all as a tree, Bedwyr is a one handed spear-wielder who’s the second most handsome man in the world after Arthur.
    There’s debate as to how/why/when non-Brythonic people started adopting Welsh, Breton and Cornish stories, but there’s evidence the Welsh and Cornish started really pumping up Arthur as a Briton king who was a defender against invaders when the Jutes, Angles and Saxons showed up. I couldn’t really tell you why the Normans adopted Arthurian mythos (maybe the Breton settlement in Brittany right by Normandy?). But once they did, people started doing the anime and bad fanfic thing where a new character appears and shows how cool they are by outdoing all the established heroes.
    Lancelot is an obvious example- he’s introduced as the best ever knight and all the girls like him including Guinevere and his relationship with her makes them both more pure and noble. Then Percival gets introduced beating up Kay and sitting in a magic chair that proves he’s the Purest and also the Grail Knight, and Lancelot is the dumb bad one who gets zapped by the power of Christ when he’s about to see the Grail because adultery is bad. Galahad is introduced as Lancelot’s better son and the new Grail Knight who’s better than Percival. Meanwhile all the poor knights who were major characters in the older legends get shunted to the sidelines like Bedwyr or outright demonized like Cai was.
    It’s kind of hilarious to track. It feels very fanfic-y, like authors are going on about how Lancelot x Guinevere is a problematic ship.

    Reply
    • Natasha Rubin

      High five for being a fellow Arthurian nerd! I’ll never stop being frustrated by how Kay and Gawain were demonized in later stories. Particularly since in Gawain’s case they made him into some unthinkingly violent rage-beast, which is a truly bizarre choice since in earlier stories his character was known for being courteous and level-headed and often able to solve conflicts without even needing to resort to violence.

      Reply
      • florenceandtheai

        Gawain is my long time favorite. He’s such a complex figure. He’s in the Mabinogion, so you get the Welsh angle. And then in some cycles he’s the son of Morgause, so you get the whole Arthur’s cousin/complicated family issues vibe there. I just, I think he’s really cool. Yeah, I’m a nerd. I’m trained as a geographer, and I decided to spend my semester abroad in Bangor, Gwynedd because I read The Grey King when I was in 5th grade and it stuck.

        Reply
    • Maggie May

      Why did the Normans adopt the Arthur mythos?

      One story says that some Norman lords married Welsh ladies and learned the tales from them. They wanted ancient stories that were not Saxon.

      Translated into various vernaculars, the Matter of Britain became quite popular.

      Reply
  12. Saraquill

    The first time I saw the poster, all I saw was an intricate stone sculpture wearing a halo/crown. Thus I figured this was an Arthouse Movie. Second time I saw it, I noticed a face, changing my perception into fantasy tale. I’m curious how the movie will play out compared to my impressions.

    Reply
  13. Al Don

    I’m hesitantly curious about how this will work as a feature-length film. It’s been done before and not quite successfully. Like Beowulf, the best version(s) are the 30-minute animated versions. The 2002 animated version of the Green Knight, which looks like animated stained glass, nails it. It sticks to the story and doesn’t add fluff. The recent live action French version wisely does the same thing. This is, after all, a Medieval legend, which couldn’t care about modern story structure or character motivation.

    There’s a lot wrong with the 1973 Gawain and the Green Knight, and even more wrong with the overwrought 1984 remake, but I think its chief problem is how it fills the feature length. The first 10 minutes are the legend, the last 10 minutes are the legend, and the middle bulk of the run time is running errands. Completely remove the hour plus middle section and the movie makes just as much sense. That’s not good storytelling.

    While I’ll wave my hand at the costumes, I’m worried this film might fall into a similar trap. Hopefully not?

    Reply
    • Natasha Rubin

      Yes, agreed. I think they’ll also be tempted to change the story so Gawain has some Boss Battle against a Big Bad at the end, as opposed to just (spoiler alert!) basically just winning the day by being almost-perfectly honorable and fulfilling his end of the bargain(s) he made.

      There’s probably some interesting commentary to be made on how gender roles have evolved (not wholly for the better) in that a medieval poem saw no problem with the hero saving the day in ways that didn’t involve swinging swords or defeating enemies, but I’m not so sure a modern action movie will let him do the same.

      Reply
      • Al Don

        True, true.

        I’m curious, have you read Thomas Berger’s Arthur Rex? The book can be divisive, but I think the way he incorporates Gawain’s encounter with the Green Knight into [mostly] a reworking of Le Morte D’Arthur was brilliant.

        Reply
        • Natasha Rubin

          I haven’t! I honestly haven’t read as many modern Arthur retellings as I should. But I’ll keep an eye out for it now!

          Reply
          • Sam

            I just saw the movie, and I think my favorite costume has to be Joel Edgerton’s amazing blue house coat.

            Reply
  14. Hooley

    I am so excited about this film — I was willing to go to an actual theatre. Alas, the case numbers where I live (which has 80% vaccination) are rising, and my spouse has autoimmune issues, so streaming it is. Sigh. My tolerance for fantasy Medieval is high — I love Excalibur.

    Reply
  15. Kalie L. Faul

    I know next to nothing about King Arthur, beyond what I’ve seen/read in:

    1) King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. (A kick-ass movie, by the way.)

    2) Monty Python and the Holy Grail. (If you haven’t seen this movie, stop what you’re doing and GO WATCH IT. Or at least look up the “Insulting Frenchman” scene – my favorite part – on YouTube.)

    3) The Once and Future King. (Kind of a long book, but worth the patience that it takes to read the whole thing.)

    4) Sonic and the Black Knight. (Forgot to mention that I’m a video game nerd.)

    (Oh, yeah – and, also, J.R.R. Tolkien did a translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Just saying.)

    That being said, though………

    When tickets for The Green Knight go on sale, you’d better believe that I’m buying mine RIGHT. THAT. SECOND.

    Seriously. Try and stop me.

    If you dare………

    Reply
    • Frances Germeshausen

      Monty Python – over here, we put a small fence to keep rabbits out of a strawberry patch, but they climbed a stone wall to get in instead. Reminded me of “that rabbit is dynamite.”
      The Once and Future King – re-read it until it fell apart.
      And before that there were books with Merlin as a central character that went way back to that original end-of-Rome era, wish I could remember. They were good.

      Reply
      • Roxana

        Mary Stewart’s Merlin trilogy perhaps? The Crystal Cave, The Hollow Hills, The Last Enchantment.

        Reply
  16. MoHub

    Is it my imagination, or am I seeing set-in sleeves? This has been a major bugaboo for me in “period” pieces, so please tell me I’m mistaken.

    Reply
  17. Lily Lotus Rose

    I am SO EXCITED for this movie. I will watch an Arthurian tale done with sock puppets, so I’m not going to hold the filmmaker’s feet to the fire over the costuming–especially as others have pointed out–we’re dealing with legend not history (even if the legend might be based on history). Also, as others have pointed out–Dev Patel has matured into such a HANDSOME man! Sadly, Sean Harris looks like death in the two pictures you showed. Back to Dev Patel–I’m REALLY interested to see the context for him dressed as an admixture of Christ Pantocrator and Salvator Mundi. I’m hypothesizing that scene is of Gawain’s vision–in which Christ appears to him (as himself) and that’s what sends him off on a quest. I CAN’T WAIT for this!!!!!

    Reply
  18. Gwyn

    Saw it today; pretty dark visually, and some mumbling of dialogue (not helped by aging ears). Some costumes absolutely spot on, some I may have giggled “Vivienne Westwood!”. But DANG is Mr. Patel a feast for the eyes. He made mud look good.

    Reply

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