The Green Knight’s ending, explained…
For audiences acquainted with Arthurian legend, Sir Gawain is a familiar figure. He was a Knight of the Round Table and King Arthur’s nephew. The details are a bit fuzzy for most people after that so (spoilers ahead) when the ending of The Green Knight flashes forward after Sir Gawain (Dev Patel) runs from a deserved blow, audiences don’t know that it’s a fake-out.
The Green Knight is a feast for the eyes and ears, with an amazing score and some great visual effects like an animated fox companion. A hero goes on a journey where his bravery, honesty, and courage are tested. When the hero, Sir Gawain, meets his fate at the end of the journey, he flinches from an ax swing that he swore he would accept a year previously. Both in the poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, that the film is based on, and the movie, Sir Gawain flinches at the first swing from the Green Knight (Ralph Ineson). The Green Knight mocks him for his lack of courage, asks him to accept his fate, and swings again. Here is where the movie seems to turn from the source materials.
In the movie, Sir Gawain flinches again and crawls away choosing life over a chivalrous death. It seems like a good choice at first; he’s alive (much better than being dead) and his horse who left him earlier in his travels is now waiting for him just outside the Green Chapel to safely bring him back to Camelot. Over the next few minutes, a wordless sequence plays out detailing the rest of Sir Gawain’s life. It’s not pretty. After he goes back to Camelot, King Arthur (Sean Harris) dies and he becomes king, and things go downhill from there. He leaves the prostitute (Alicia Vikander with a pixie cut) who loves him after she has his son, cruelly takes said child from her right after she gives birth, marries a foreign princess, watches his now-grown son die in battle, and his kingdom revolts.
The montage ends with Sir Gawain, alone on his throne as people pound at the door. He starts pulling a magical scarf that is supposed to protect him from death out of his stomach and his head falls off. Flash-back to Sir Gawain kneeling in front of the Green Knight. He digs his fingers in, takes the scarf off, and tells the Green Knight he’s ready. The Green Knight is pleased, congratulates him, and swings once again. The audience never sees if the blow meets Sir Gawain’s neck. It ends there. Does he die? What does this all mean? Why didn’t Sir Gawain just not chop this Groot-Ent knight’s head off in the first place?
In the poem, Sir Gawain just receives a scratch from the Green Knight, who is revealed to be a lord that readers and audience members met earlier on Sir Gawain’s journey. The Green Knight was just playing a trick with Morgan le Fay, Arthur’s step-sister, an enchantress, and an old lady from the castle, to test the Knights of the Round Table. The lord tested Sir Gawain’s honesty at his castle, asking him to give the lord anything Sir Gawain was given during his stay. Sir Gawain was given the enchanted scarf and several kisses from the lady so, in return, he exchanges several kisses with the lord. He doesn’t give him the sash, which is why the Green Knight gives him a neck wound. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight leave each other on good terms and Sir Gawain travels home to Camelot with the sash as a reminder to be honest henceforth.
In the movie, Sir Gawain goes through a similar experience at a castle with a lord (Joel Edgerton), a lady (Alicia Vikander with long hair), and an elderly blind woman (Helena Browne). The scarf has a bit more going on as it was first given to him by his mother (Sarita Choudhury) to protect him, then lost and re-gifted by the lady.
It doesn’t matter what happens after the final ax swing. The point is not in whether Sir Gawain lives or dies but whether he’s become chivalrous and all that entails: honesty, courage, justice, a readiness to help the weak, etc. He was a medieval party boy in the beginning, but now he helps those in need, like the ghost missing her head (Erin Kellyman) without getting something in return, told the truth (mostly) to the lord, and courageously accepts his fate in the end. He’s become a true Knight.