[The following essay contains MAJOR SPOILERS; YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!]
While digesting The Green Knight's stylistic and structural subtleties, I was reminded of Sir John Falstaff's famous speech from Act 5, Scene 1 of William Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part 1:
'Tis not due yet; I would be loath to pay him before his day. What need I be so forward with him that calls not on me? Well, 'tis no matter; honour pricks me on. Yea, but how if honour prick me off when I come on? how then? Can honour set to a leg? no: or an arm? no: or take away the grief of a wound? no. Honour hath no skill in surgery, then? no. What is honour? a word. What is in that word honour? what is that honour? air. A trim reckoning! Who hath it? he that died o' Wednesday. Doth he feel it? no. Doth he hear it? no. 'Tis insensible, then. Yea, to the dead. But will it not live with the living? no. Why? detraction will not suffer it. Therefore I'll none of it. Honour is a mere scutcheon: and so ends my catechism.
This cynical sentiment is deeply relevant to the mythological revisionism at the heart of David Lowery's film, for "honor" is the one thing that protagonist Gawain desires above all else.
More specifically, he covets the material glory that accompanies knighthood. He wants a grand portrait to commemorate his accomplishments. He wants the peasantry to extoll his heroic deeds. He wants to sit at his kingly uncle’s right hand—and to perhaps even someday inherit his title and lands. It is telling that his first major turning point as a character occurs when Arthur grants him the opportunity to wield Excalibur in combat.
Unfortunately, Gawain seems to make every effort to avoid earning his “honor.” He is introduced passed out in a brothel, completely oblivious to the potential adventure unfolding just outside of his window. In a deviation from the original poem that inspired the movie, his quest to keep his fatal appointment with the eponymous Green Knight is not undertaken willingly: Arthur and his own mother practically have to shove him out the door. Even then, he nearly abandons his journey altogether after losing his enchanted girdle of immortality to bandits. Indeed, the conflict of the final act revolves entirely around that enchanted garment; as his fox companion rightfully taunts, Gawain lacks the courage to confront the Green Knight without it—a manifestation of the cowardice that, according to our protagonist’s hallucinatory “last temptation,” will eventually lead the kingdom to ruin.
As his brief conversation with Joel Edgerton’s Lord Bertilak clearly illustrates, Gawain’s central flaw is that he views “honor” as a mere prize to possess. He does not initially understand that honor is intangible (though not insubstantial, despite Falstaff’s argument to the contrary); it isn’t a treasure that one “wins,” but rather an embodiment of one's ideals. When he removes his bewitched belt—that “token of untruth”—and kneels before the Green Knight bare and honest, Gawain demonstrates that he has finally transcended his previously shallow, simplistic, childish moral philosophy; at long last, he acknowledges that fame and renown are fleeting and inconsequential, while valor, gallantry, and chivalry are their own rewards.
But is this newfound enlightenment really worth the price of his head? Well, that’s up to the viewer to decide.