In The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis wrote of a fundamental quandary facing modern Westerners: “We make men without chests and expect from them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst.” How, he asks, can we expect people to exhibit virtues which they have never been taught? How can we require honor from “men without chests”?
The 14th-century romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was written before the great deconstruction of Christian virtues in the modern mind. But the film adaptation, The Green Knight, could not be a more post-Christian, more 2021 story—for it is a film about honor full of men without chests, distributed to an audience that has been raised to disdain the search for greatness.
One might question whether in our society so full of quislings and tyrants it is really honor and chivalry that need debunking. But pushing that question aside, even to deconstruct honor meaningfully, a narrative must understand it. The Green Knight does not. Part moody fantasy and part impenetrable A24 art film,The Green Knight evokes honor culture only aesthetically, and thus it fails even at deconstruction, for it is impossible to effectively deconstruct a culture you do not comprehend.
The story begins on a snowy Christmas day, when the Green Knight (Ralph Ineson) bursts into King Arthur’s court. The knight bids some warrior to strike him down, and since—and this is a notable choice—Arthur (Sean Harris) is too frail and aged to take up the challenge, the king’s young nephew Gawain (Dev Patel) responds in his stead.