David Lowery’s film adaptation indicates the compatibility of Christianity and care for creation

If you are looking for the next great fantasy action movie—possibly a supplement to the Lord of the Rings marathon you have once a year—director David Lowery’s The Green Knight is not for you. While still fantastical, this film produced by A24  and released in 2021 focuses on the psychological and mystical aspects, rather than heroic aspects, of its otherworldly content and provides a space for considering the competing influences of Christianity and the natural world in the lives of men. Although Lowery has expressed that he wanted to portray Christianity as antiquated, the film’s theme of stewardship for the earth directly relates to the Christian life and complements the noble tradition of Christian Camelot.

Lowery’s adaptation follows the classic 14th-century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a well-known Arthurian tale. The original story follows Sir Gawain, the youngest of the Knights of the Round Table, on his quest to answer the challenge set by a mysterious green knight. Gawain endures many trials as he journeys to the Green Chapel to meet this knight a year after they originally crossed paths.

The movie is not a perfect parallel to the original poem, particularly regarding Gawain’s fate, but this is common among adaptations of literature. Far more significant here are the artistic liberties the film takes in emphasizing the presence of Christianity. The protagonist and his known world are both Christian. Lowery emphasizes this characteristic by making the Green Knight appear on Christmas Day, not the original New Year’s Eve. King Arthur’s speech to the Round Table is laced with Christian sentiments. At one time he states “I thank thee for breaking bread with me this blessed day,” and he also mentions celebrating the birth of Christ. The villagers attend Mass, and Sir Gawain uses a shield blessed with holy water and bearing an image of Mary, a detail not present in the poem.

The apparent antagonists in the film provide an antithesis to the members of this Christian community. Morgan le Fay, Gawain’s mother, creates the green knight with magic, performing a ritual that involves a blindfold, pieces of bone, and fire. Juxtaposed with King Arthur’s speech about the virtues of his knights, this scene introduces the pagan roots of the green knight himself, establishing an opposition between the two traditions. The Lady who seduces Gawain in exchange for her magical girdle gives a long monologue about the inevitability of death, ending  with “this verdigris will overtake your swords and your coins and your battlements and, try as you might, all you hold dear will succumb to it.” Lowery presents a dichotomy between the world of Christian men and the world of naturalist spirituality.

Lowery stated in a Vanity Fair interview that he made King Arthur and Queen Guinevere sickly and old because “the only references to Christianity in the film are from King Arthur,” and “the idea is that there’s some rot at the heart of that court.” Lowery, a self-identifying atheist, says that he perceives a war between nature and civilization. He does not believe that both can exist with mutual benefits. He also states that he finds comfort in the inevitability of nature overcoming civilization.

And yet, he created Christian monarchs who, while frail, are warm and outwardly loving to their knights and kin. Their kindness and wisdom endear them to the audience, even if they do not give care to the ways of the earth. Despite his efforts, Lowery’s attempt to discredit the Christian tradition backfires and gives the viewer admirable Christians who, if anything, can be pitied for their small ignorance around the importance of nature.

Though some of the environmentalist characters may be antagonistic, the green knight himself represents the sound logic and fact behind naturalist ideology. Lowery’s focus on the effects of the earth is not misplaced. The impact of nature on our earthly lives is significant. The acceptance of mortality is a major theme in Christianity, and it is important to recognize the relationship between the limited finite nature of our lives and the enduring finite nature of the earth.

Lowery’s film also promotes working against climate change, as is clear both from the work itself and from later commentary for the press. The director stated in an IndieWire interview that “as someone who has a very ecological mindset and wants to bring those into [his] work, [he]felt that [he] should lean into that interpretation as hard as [he] could.” Likewise, The Christian tradition promotes stewardship for the earth as long as faith remains at the center of one’s life, and the Christian has a responsibility to give care and attention to the natural world. The values Lowery portrays and the values of Christianity are in fact quite similar.

While Lowery may have wanted to portray a story in which Christianity’s outdated ideals fall to the superiority of naturalistic paganism, The Green Knight actually provides an excellent example of the compatibility of Christianity and environmentalism. Gawain sets out on his quest to gain his honor so that he can join the time-honored tradition of the Round Table. In the beginning, his goal is simply to follow his culture’s tradition. But by the end of his journey, he discovers that his fate is not entirely his own. Gawain submits himself to the green knight, not just for the quest, but to follow the rules of nature symbolized by the knight. It is impossible to be virtuous without being respectful of the physical world, as he learns.

Gawain’s journey and eventual realization at the Green Chapel reflect the fact that Christianity needs to consider the natural world as well as more metaphysical matters. But respecting the earth does not require a rejection of Christian tradition. Rather, the Christian responsibility to care for the natural world makes the pro-nature message of the movie a Christian one as well.

Anna Rahner is a freshman political science and classics major. She looks forward to her sunset bike ride tonight, paired with the Narnia soundtrack, or maybe Enya. She can be contacted at arahner@nd.edu

Featured art: Unknown artist, art from the original manuscript of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight