King Arthur and the tales surrounding the kingdom of Camelot tend to only conjure images of white faces. From the exhaustive catalogue of films and television shows, to paintings and tapestries dating back centuries, the Middle Ages and its kings and knights, real or fictional, persist as an aggressively white period of history in the minds of most people. Despite evidence indicating that, yes, many people of color from different parts of the world were part of medieval societies, the aforementioned imagery does not reflect that diversity. Even in the fantasy stories of today, a genre that borrows so much from Arthurian myth thematically and aesthetically, many regard it as “historically inaccurate” when non-white people take up centre stage.
This makes Dev Patel’s casting as Gawain in David Lowery’s The Green Knight particularly interesting. There are a few instances of people of colour getting folded into fantasy/period pieces, only to serve as vessels for ham-fisted metaphors focusing on racism and discrimination. So rarely do we get to indulge in the wondrousness of these settings, merely existing in these worlds. Personally, I was scared that the tale of Sir Gawain was going to be yet another example of “colourblind” casting that suffocated an interesting narrative. How blissful it is to be so wrong.
The Green Knight is acutely aware that Gawain is a man of colour. However, rather than hone in on this as a source of external conflict for Gawain, the weight this bears on his story is much more subtle. When the young Gawain strides into court on Christmas Day at the beginning of the film, he’s faced with a sea of white. The lords and ladies, knights and servants, all the way up to his uncle, King Arthur, and aunt, Queen Guinevere — the traditional faces of Arthurian legend. He and his mother (played by Sarita Choudhury), along with his sisters, are the only non-white people in court. This is never explicitly commented upon. Gawain is never directly insulted or berated for his “otherness.”
He does not begin this film as a knight, though everyone around him knows it’s what he greatly desires. When his uncle beckons him to sit at his side, Gawain humbly remarks it isn’t his place. Bashfully admitting he has no great stories to tell, his aunt warns that he must be brave if he wishes to be a great knight. Gawain is an outcast, tethered by blood to nobility and royalty, but seemingly kept at an arm’s length from his destiny as a great Arthurian knight. It’s a discomfort that is very familiar to me. I’ve felt it in classrooms, in airports, and in restaurants. Even if no one utters a word, there’s a palpable tension to being the only person of colour in a room.
More compelling still is how this elevates his quest. The film shows that the Green Knight and his game have been constructed by Gawain’s mother, a departure from the source material. Morgan le Fay has handed her son a knighthood on a silver platter. From the moment he beheads The Green Knight, he is a hometown hero. People sing songs about him, tell his story far and wide, toast and drink to his name, and he hasn’t even fully completed his quest. Before his departure, his mother ties a green girdle about his waist, reassuring him that he will not come to harm as long as he wears it.
Gawain sets off to meet the Green Knight not knowing that he is following a path paved by his mother. What he does know for certain is that the only way he is sure to succeed is if he completes a gallant quest and returns home to be knighted. All he has ever known is King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table as the pinnacle of man’s greatness. Morgan le Fay has known this even longer; whether she agrees or not, to be recognised as a chivalrous knight is one of the highest honors a man can achieve. The line of kings before Arthur, from which he inherited his kingdom, is a long line of white men. It’s almost impossible to imagine that Gawain could be next, but Morgan le Fay tries her hardest to secure that same triumph for her son.
Gawain and his mother do not share many scenes, but their relationship resonated with me very deeply. It reminded me of my own parents, of the many people I know who are the children of immigrants to the United States. In Morgan le Fay’s desperate attempts to secure a life of prosperity for her child, I thought about how these immigrants pass on lessons to their children about the “right” way to act in order to succeed in this new country. These parents often have a fixed understanding of what success looks like: a good job, a partner, enough money to never fret about food or shelter. Despite statistical evidence that these victories just don’t come as easily to people of color as they do to their white counterparts, many parents fiercely insist that they’re 100% attainable.
Morgan le Fay is trying to secure the white ideal of success for Gawain. She wants him to take his place in that long line of kings, to achieve glory and fame. This is borne out of love and concern, a mother using whatever she has at her disposal to ensure the best for her son. However, as Gawain faces different tribulations across his quest, his perspective begins to differ from his mother’s. In his travels, the chivalry of knights is constantly prodded, questioned, and torn apart in front of Gawain’s own eyes. Winifred remarks that the man who brutally attacked her could very well have been a man just like Gawain. His social standing means nothing to the bandits who rob him and leave him at the mercy of the woods. After baring the basest parts of himself and his desires in the Lord’s castle, the Lady sums it up best: “You are no knight.”
Gawain learns that this ideal, the chivalry of these white knights, is corruptible. When he subjects himself to the Green Knight’s axe, he imagines what his life could be if he ran. He is alone; no one will know if he was dishonorable. He could return to Camelot, become a king with a beautiful wife and children. What comes next? As quickly as these triumphs are gifted to him, life will take them away. His desire to achieve the Arthurian ideal of man will cost him his true love, his family, and his throne. The crown has passed from white man to white man, but should it be placed on Gawain’s head, he will not become immune to the hardships and suffering that befell his predecessors.
What is the point, then? What good is it to force a child to only speak English, to divorce them from cultural foods or music, to be as agreeable as possible within systems that place the most value on white people and their contributions? If I or Gawain sever ourselves from our “otherness,” how certain is it that we will achieve everlasting success? If we convince ourselves that there is only one way to be content and successful, we stand to lose much more than we gain. “A seat at the table,” as it were, would be yanked out from under us before we even sat down.
Gawain’s green girdle tethers him to his mother, to his duty to uphold Arthurian values. It is in understanding the futility of chivalry that he sheds this girdle, tossing it aside and standing free from the burdens of his mother’s expectations. Liberating himself from the weight of the girdle appeases the Green Knight, proving his true bravery. Gawain has revealed to his mother, and to us, that there is more than one way to be a good man, that chivalry is not the absolute pinnacle of morality. It’s the same way we can prove to our elders that we can speak our mother tongues in public, that we can wear our traditional hairstyles to work, and that we can untether ourselves from the limiting box of white acceptability.
The film’s final moments truly clarify the lesson Gawain has learned. In a post-credits scene, a little girl plays with a king’s crown, with no regard for how special this object is. In her hands, it’s nothing but a toy. Gawain’s quest has taught him that the rigid ideas of success in a world built on white supremacy are worthless. Like so many of us, he has learned that there is no point in being beholden to a system that has no regard for your individuality, unique outlook, and perspective. Gawain’s visions of his rule feature portraits that literally whitewash his skin and features, stripping away his identity until he fits the mold of a great white king. In facing the Green Knight, he realises that there can be more to life than this hopeless path. Wherever he goes once he departs the Green Chapel, we can be sure that he’ll take those steps proud and unashamed of his true self.