Knight School: What New Lawyers Can Learn from The Green Knight

Author’s Note: Spoiler alert. There is some detail in this post about what happens in the movie and how it ends. The symbolism in The Green Knight is heavy and I personally benefited from some excellent analysis about the movie that I read online. In addition, though the movie is new, the story is not. If you aren’t familiar with the poem and prefer to be surprised, watch the movie first and then come back later to read.

When I left the theater after watching The Green Knight, I wasn’t sure what to think. I was mostly confused, a little surprised that the theater wasn’t totally empty, and I wondered out loud to my husband why the critic reviews had been so good. It wasn’t really that the movie was bad, but it was slow. Though it was about knights, there was hardly anything knightly about it. There was only one sword fight, and I knew going in how that would end. Even while watching the movie, I wasn’t rapt with suspense, though curiosity glued my eyes to the screen as I tried to unpack the symbolism in each scene.

The curiosity, it turns out, didn’t stop when I waked out of the theater. Most of the time with movies, you have an experience, perhaps a catharsis. You know the message. You feel the emotion. You may reflect or talk for a few minutes about what the movie meant, but then you quickly move on. But I couldn’t with The Green Knight. I kept thinking about it for days after I watched it. What did the movie mean? What was the point? Having studied mindfulness enough to know some Buddhist philosophy and being familiar with Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey, I knew the basic gist of the story: we humans aren’t in control of many things in life but it is the acceptance of our lack of control that gives us the capacity for greatness.

That part was clear with the Green Knight’s threat to take off Gawain’s head and Gawain’s obsessive clinging to the magical green girdle he thought would protect him. It was only when Gawain finally set the girdle aside, and leaned forward to accept his beheading, that the Green Knight pronounced him a “good knight.” The movie doesn’t tell us what happens next, but, if you are familiar with the poem, you may know that Gawain does not get beheaded after all.

So why was this movie stuck in my brain? Because it didn’t just give us the needed reminder that we aren’t in control of things in life, it also showed how the stories we create and try to live up to as we go about our lives are part of the illusion of control that we must escape. From the outset of Gawain’s journey to face the Green Knight, he fails to live up to the standards for knights from the epic poems. Gawain appears to agree to fight the Green Knight at first, not out of courage or conviction, but instead because Arthur primed him in the minutes before the Green Knight’s appearance to believe he ought to start becoming somebody important.

When he leaves the castle walls on his quest, Gawain is quickly bested by 3 nihilistic teens and robbed of his horse, armor, and the green girdle his mother made to protect him. He’s left hogtied in a forest, presumably to die but narrowly and awkwardly escapes death. Gawain then wanders lost through the woods and stumbles upon the ghost of St. Winifred, a woman beheaded for her chastity, who must shame him into helping her secure her disembodied head. And he utterly fails in the house of a lord he encounters before facing the Green Knight. He is totally outsmarted, outclassed, and beguiled by the lady of the house and accepts in rather humiliating circumstances the gift of his magically restored protective green girdle from her.  She brands him “no true knight” for this encounter because Gawain cannot let go of the lust for protection and control. As Gawain runs from the house, telling himself he’s heading to face the Green Knight and not merely running away from his shame, Gawain fails again. He meets the lord of the house in the woods and reneges on his promise to give everything he received at the house back to the lord before he departs. Though he offers a farewell kiss, Gawain leaves without mentioning the green girdle the lady had given him.

So why do I love this? I love this because Gawain is us. Though played masterfully by Dev Patel, the character Gawain doesn’t have a clue what he’s doing. He goes out into the world, like us, with no instructional manual. He’s forced to try to make something out of himself, perhaps due to pressure from his family or the idea that he’s got big shoes to fill. At first, he falls flat on his face. He gets taken advantage of by bad people and suffers dearly. But from that he learns something really important: what it’s like to suffer. And he uses that knowledge for good when, after a little prompting from her, he helps Winfred even though she has nothing to give him. But then, just like us silly humans, Gawain fails again. He goes back to a house that looks enough like his home in Camelot and he forgets what he just learned. He falls prey again to the idea that he can find a lasting security and he clings again to his green girdle and hides it from the lord.

But even this big dope of a guy—even Gawain who keeps messing up—learns. By the end of his relatively uninspiring journey, he learns the truth he needs to understand to do anything great at all: that security and safety (at least the lasting kind) are myths. Before he faces the Green Knight, Gawain is shaking with fear and has a vision of himself running away and returning to Camelot. In this vision, Gawain’s unearned legend for bravery precedes him and leads him to rise in favor and ultimately become king. The vision though foretells the personal costs he must suffer and the harm he must do to others to take that path. More significantly, the death of his loved ones and the depicted fall of his empire tell us that none of this so-called greatness will last anyway. It is this vision, stark as it is, that knocks sense into Gawain and forces him to set the green girdle aside and lean in as the Green Knight prepares to take his head. 

In other words, Gawain is not a perfect knight or a terrible knight. He’s a deeply human knight. When he tried to look like a perfect knight, he failed to live his values and suffered for it. When he, instead, faced life as it was, unmitigated by any appeals to magical thinking, he became the true knight and even his past failings couldn’t tarnish that. I love this movie because it depicts the silliness we humans fall prey to, but also how we learn and progress. It shows how easily we fall into old stories and mental images of what we think we ought to be.

It also shows how those stories can keep us from helping each other and being ourselves and how they can even make us feel justified to cause others pain. Indeed, unlike many films depicting Arthurian legends, this one examines some of the old stories and legends even as it retells one. It contrasts the tale of St. Winifred, a woman brutalized and robbed totally of her agency, with the heroic yet often violent heroism for which men of the time were praised. Likewise, Gawain’s final vision examines the merits of the knightly legends as well as the value of titles and power, which not only fade but may also lead to the perpetration of violence against others, including loved ones.

So, why on earth do I offer this review in a blog about mindfulness for lawyers? Well, for one thing, the Arthurian legends are some of the best-known examples of the hero’s journey in the West and those tales still have a lot to offer us in terms of illustrating the paths of mindfulness and compassion. More significantly, though, I’ve been a new lawyer. I know what it’s like to go out into the world, thinking you have a part to play and battles to fight to make your name. I have experienced the pain of not fitting the stories in my mind about the lawyer I thought I was supposed to be, but that was soon followed by the benefits of learning to be myself. When I stopped emulating the myth of the lawyer persona in my mind, I started practicing law my way and I served my clients better, found much more happiness, and, even in the midst of stress and fear, had some fun.

I think the creators of The Green Knight made a tactical decision to make Gawain much younger and less established than the well-sung hero of the ancient poem. They made him young because I think the filmmakers were talking to the young. They were telling the young that, like Gawain observed, our leaders are aging, our stories from the past need to be examined, but we have no choice but to go and try and fail. If we do this with open hearts, a willingness to face our own shame and accept what we cannot control, we may just become good knights and do some good in the world. It’s a hard world to be living in and a difficult time to be practicing law, but The Green Knight tells us that you don’t have to be perfect or fit the mold to be a “good knight.” Instead, you only have to accept the realities of life, including your own humanity, and be willing to face the things that scare you. This is a lesson any young knight, human, or lawyer could certainly use. Thus, just like life, The Green Knight may confound, confuse, and mystify you, but if you can sit back and let the lessons it is offering come to you, you may come to see how good it really is.

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