Summary of this month’s movie:
Here come the spoilers! On Christmas morning, Gawain is at a feast at the Round Table with his uncle, the king. The mysterious Green Knight barges in and states that any knight who lands a blow on him will win his green ax but must travel to the Green Chapel and receive an equal blow in return on the following Christmas. Gawain takes up the challenge. The knight yields, and Gawain decapitates him. The knight gets up, takes his severed head, repeats their deal, and rides away.
Gawain basically parties all year, but the king reminds him to uphold his side of the challenge. Gawain heads for the Green Chapel and wears a magical green sash that protects him. He is ambushed, and his attackers steal the ax, sash and horse, leaving Gawain tied up. He crawls to his sword, cuts his ropes and then pursues them. That night, he helps a ghost lady find her skull and unite it with her skeletal remains and, the next morning, finds the ax has been returned to him.
He reaches a castle and finds out the Green Chapel is nearby. The next morning, the lady presents Gawain with the green sash, which she claims to have made herself. Gawain heads for the chapel and the Knight. The Green Knight swings the ax, and Gawain flinches. The Knight chides him. Gawain kneels for the blow again, but at the last moment, he scrambles away. There’s a sequence where Gawain imagines his life if he flees back to the king's court, a coward, and he doesn’t love what he sees. So he kneels, removes the sash, and tells the knight he is ready. The Knight praises Gawain for his bravery, then drags his finger across Gawain's throat and playfully says, "Now, off with your head", and smiles kindly.
Jeni, what'd you think of the movie?
Jeni: Honestly, I’m kinda still processing lol First, I feel like, among all the Arthurian retellings, I was pleased to see that this one focuses on a character who doesn’t get the same kind of attention the others do. Sometimes, I get really tired of the soap opera love triangles and everything in stories about King Arthur. But Gawain definitely hasn’t be done as much. And I really like how allegorical this movie is. This movie was somehow both beautiful and very gritty visually. I really like that the costumes and settings aren’t glamorized like movies about this time period often are. The colors are muted. The king and queen, who are obviously Arthur and Guenivere but never get named, aren’t all romanticized and beautiful. Everything is very dark, and the extravagant details we associate with royalty are only used sparingly, which is actually pretty accurate historically. The actors are all phenomenal. Overall, there’s this really dreamlike quality where you’re often not really sure what’s real and what’s imagined. Even at the end, I was like, okay, so did the knight kill him, or did he get to go home, or ….? What did you think?
Carly: Yeah, I feel the same exact way. I just, I’m not sure what to think or feel about this movie. When I started watching it, I was like ooo maybe I made a mistake picking this one, it is so literary and harder to discuss because it is very dreamlike. Obviously, we could get into the dreamyness, but it is hard to pin this movie down. But yes, it was gorgeous visually. I was obsessed with the acting and how it looked and just, the vibes? I thought Dev Patel was great, but I can watch him in almost anything. I loved the theme of cycles and how everything repeats and wraps around and continues. That’s not a great explanation, but you get what I mean. It’s a movie I was really happy that I watched, but I’m not sure I’d ever watch it again. When it was done I just sat there and had to think and process for a bit. Which is great! And not a criticism at all. Anyway, that’s all to say: I enjoyed it and it did all the things well that you mentioned, but I don’t need to see it again.
So Jeni, what’s something this movie does well that writers can use in their own work?
Jeni: Ugh it’s so harrrrrd. I mean, it does several things well, but I was like, symbolism? We already talked about that. Motif? Did it. Haha But I noticed this movie doesn’t really follow three act structure. As we’ve mentioned on the show before, most movies–and novels–do. Even if they’re called something different, they’re still using the same basic structure. Each one just breaks it down differently. But there are other structures out there, and they can be used successfully. It all depends on the story. So, briefly, I want to highlight a few of those. Some common ones that do still follow three act structure are save the cat, story circle, snowflake method, four act (although there are different kinds of four act, but that’s a topic for another day), and five act. Then there are structures that come from specific kinds of stories like epic verse (think Beowulf) or are related to the culture they come from. I’ve spent some time studying these and highly recommend taking Henry Lien’s diverse narrative structure class if you get the chance. I know he’s done it for Writing the Other a couple times now. BUT anyway, back to this movie and finally answering your question. This movie follows another common structure that doesn’t quite line up with three act–the hero’s journey. I found that interesting, but it also doesn’t super surprise me because the hero’s journey is often thought of in the context of myth and legend, and Gawain is, after all, an Arthurian hero. The king in this movie isn’t named, but it’s totally Arthur. So, that was my really long-winded, convoluted way to say: what this movie does well that authors can use in their writing is the hero’s journey.
Carly: On the surface, the hero’s journey seems a lot like three act structure. The hero starts off in their normal world until something happens to change their circumstances, a “call to action.” The hero resists the call, until something else happens that makes them decide to answer. As they answer the call, they enter a new world. They face a series of challenges, followed by a dark moment, also called dark night of the soul. Then the climax sees the hero fight the antagonist, often one on one, and return to their world changed in some way. But where it varies the most is that the hero’s journey doesn’t place the same emphasis on percentages and pacing between plot points, and the scenes don’t always connect and build on each other the same way. As such, the hero’s journey isn’t suited for every story. Now, the hero’s journey has been discussed and dissected a lot over the years, and for this podcast, we are going to use a version of it that was popularized by Christopher Vogler called the Writer’s Journey. It modifies the original hero’s journey laid out by Joseph Campbell by adapting it to three act structure a little better for screenwriters and novelists. Joseph Campbell originally defined the framework with his book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, which basically had those three sections, the departure, the challenges, and the return. But anyway, the hero’s journey is all about the steps the hero takes and how they return home, changed. It has lots of archetypes to work with and once you see them, you can’t unsee them.
Jeni: Right, so let’s start with talking about the three phases. Like Carly said, this doesn’t line up exactly with the three acts of three act structure. Those are pretty solidly divided into the first 25%, the middle 50%, and then the last 25%. For the hero’s journey, the phases aren’t necessarily divided up the same way, although they definitely can be. It’s usually framed more as the hero being in their ordinary world, the unknown or special world, and then back to their ordinary world again. These phases are often called the departure or separation, the initiation, and then the return. The first part, the departure, shows the MC in their everyday world and they get the call to adventure. The hero often rejects that until a mentor helps or convinces them to take it. Then initiation, the second phase, starts when the hero crosses into the special world, where they face trials or have to undertake tasks. They often have to do this alone, although they may also have people who help them. They eventually reach the main crisis and overcome the main obstacle. Three act structure normally calls this the climax. Then the hero will often return to their ordinary world with their treasure or reward. There are sometimes obstacles here, kinda like a reversal in three act structure, but then we see how the hero has transformed because of the adventure. So you can see that there is still emphasis on how the external plot and the character arc work together to create the story. But the hero’s journey puts more weight on the order of the events and how those impact the character than on how one scene builds the story overall. So, in the movie, Gawain’s trials don’t really build on each other. He gets attacked, and then following the people who took his stuff leads him to the part with the ghost lady. But then we never really get a resolution to the people who took his stuff. And then the ghost lady feels disconnected in a lot ways from the rest of the story. It feels more like a detour than scenes that build on the previous scenes and form the foundation for later scenes. The only way this ties in is that he gets the ax back. It’s not uncommon for stories that follow the hero’s journey to have “trials” that feel like this–we see how they make some difference to the MC and the lesson they learn, but the scenes themselves can feel almost unrelated from an external plot perspective. If you consider its roots in legends and mythology, that makes sense, since a lot of myths and legends are kind of told in that way as well. The movie even tells us when a new tale is starting with a scene card that gives the sense that we are moving on to another tale of Sir Gawain, which is how a lot of the old Arthurian stories are told.
Carly: Okay so let’s get into the different archetypes. And like I said before, once you see these archetypes, you can’t unsee them. They are everywhere and pretty soon you’ll be able to predict how a lot of stories will go and who the characters will meet. This warning is starting to sound ominous… which fits well with these legendary themes. So… you have been warned. Choose wisely. Alright, so we have: the Hero (obviously), the Mentor, the Threshold Guardian, the Herald, the Shapeshifter, the Shadow, the Ally, and the Trickster. Let’s start with the most obvious, the Hero. In this case, it is Gawain. The Hero is the person that will undertake this journey. But most importantly, they are sacrificing for others. They will give up a lot for the greater good. In this movie, Gawain intends to give up his life for the kingdom, to keep his word. Other times it isn’t their life, but often it might as well be. They will be sacrificing their way of life, their happiness, everything as it is, in order to save others. In this format, that is what makes a hero. Next we have the Mentor, which is the character that teaches the hero. It’s often the elderly mentor that has information that the hero doesn’t know. They bestow gifts to help the hero on their journey, both actual and metaphorical gifts. In this it is the king, aka King Arthur. He constantly advises Gawain on what to do and why he should do it. Next we have the Threshold Guardian. This is an opponent that is there to test the hero’s commitment to the journey. They can be fierce opponents that if understood, can be overcome. They can sometimes even become allies. In this movie, I would argue that Winifred is the Threshold Guardian as she tests whether or not he is true. He asks her what he would get out of pulling her head out of the spring and she questions why he would even ask. She shows the cruelty of knights (as she was beheaded by one), and she pushes him to be good, to do things for the right reasons. In the end, she delivers the ax back to him that he’d lost. Now the Herald is someone that brings the call to adventure, a force or being that brings about change. You could argue that the king is a Herald here, but it is also Gawain’s mother (Morgana in this version), that set the whole thing in motion. Now the Shapeshifter is someone that constantly changes, metaphorically but possibly literally. The Shapeshifter is about wanting to change. They represent that urge. They call into question where their loyalties lie and who they are is unclear. I’d argue it is the Lady in this movie. She shows how Gawain has changed, and how he hasn’t. She gives him another green sash, but requires something from him that he shouldn’t give. She has a long monologue on how green will overtake the world, but she is also a rich lady that benefits from civilization. She’s many things that are unclear. Then there is the Shadow, which at its simplest form is the villain or antagonist. It isn’t always that simple though. They represent the dark side. Or the darkness within the hero. They can even be a fatal flaw that the hero must overcome. Obviously, this is the Green Knight. He presents Gawain with this test and is enforcing his fear. He is pushing Gawain to become a true knight, but he forces Gawain to see all the darkness inside of him. The Ally is someone that travels with the hero. They can be sidekicks, animals, or other characters that go along with the hero. Sometimes they’ll even commit acts that the hero can’t do because the audience wouldn’t condone it. In this case, I think it is the fox and Gawain’s horse. They travel with him the most and are used as humanizing figures. And finally we have the Trickster, the character that embodies chaos and mischief. They are also all about getting the hero to change, while remaining the same themselves. In this movie, it is the thief that he meets on the road. The thief literally lies to him to lead him into a trap. He steals the ax and leaves Gawain tied up. He fools him but in doing so forces Gawain to recommit to his journey. He presents him with a way out, but Gawain doesn’t take it, like he would have in the beginning. Okay I’m done talking, Jeni you talk.
Jeni: I saw KM Weiland has a new book about archetypes that I’m super excited to read. For me, archetypes might be the thing that’s most helpful from the hero’s journey in terms of any writer being able to use them in their stories. Even if you aren’t using the whole structure, just understanding archetypes can make a big difference when deciding about a secondary character’s role in the story and how they influence or reflect the MC.
- The Ordinary World: We see the hero in their everyday life and establish their internal goals and obstacles.
- The Call to Adventure: This is the inciting event, what gets the main story going and pushes the main character out of their ordinary world
- Refusal of the Call: The hero has some hesitancy about going on their adventure because of fear, insecurity, or other issues.
- Meeting with the Mentor: They encounter or meet with an existing mentor who gives them the knowledge and confidence they need to leave their ordinary world and start their adventure
- Crossing the First Threshold: This is where the hero leaves their ordinary world and crosses over into the unknown or special world.
- Tests, Allies, and Enemies: This step is kind of a wake up call to the hero as they learn the rules of the special world, face obstacles, and work to overcome enemies. I mentioned before that the steps in the hero’s journey aren’t always as evenly spread out as the plot points in three act structure, and this is a great example of that. This one step is often several scenes or even the majority of the story.
- Approach to the Innermost Cave: Here, the hero faces challenges that will lead them to the final conflict, and they have to dig deep to overcome their own internal struggles.
- The Ordeal: This is where things take a turn for the worse and the hero has to face new obstacles and higher stakes. It might be where an ally gets killed or the hero suffers another big loss and/or experiences the dark moment. Some sources suggest this should line up with the midpoint, which, for those counting, this is step 8 of 12. Sorry to anyone who was hoping this might be more linear than standard three act structure.
- Reward: The reward here may be literal or figurative. This is where they finally have everything they need to face down the big bad.
- The Road Back: They return to their ordinary world. Just as often, this looks like continuing on to the place they’ve been moving toward this whole time or taking the last leg of their journey to bring them to their final confrontation.
- The Resurrection: This is the climax, where the hero has to defeat both their external and internal obstacles and resolve the main conflict of the story.
- Return with the Elixir: The denouement, where we see how the main character has changed through their adventure and have gained what they needed to grow.
Carly: Let’s break down the movie into these steps. So we start with the Ordinary World, which is the beginning of this movie. We see Gawain lolling about having sex, drinking, having a grand ol’ time. But we also see that he wants to become a knight, that he wants a seat at the round table. Then we get the Call to Adventure, which is the Green Knight showing up and issuing his challenge. This is where I got very annoyed that he beheaded him, knowing what the challenge was, but whatever. Then there is the Refusal of the Call. In this movie we have Gawain not wanting to go. He knows that he’ll be beheaded if he does. He has been haunted by the story for the past year. It is literally an ax hanging over his head. He doesn’t want to go, he wants to stay with his lover and ignore the world. And that leads into Meeting with the Mentor. Here is when Arthur shows up and is like “hey, you promised to do this thing. You should keep your word.” And then Gawain is like, “yeah, fiiiiine.” And then we Cross into the First Threshold, and this is where Gawain leaves Camelot and begins the journey to the Green Chapel. I love his exit here because it shows his isolation. He is doing this thing because he was talked into it, and now he is all alone. Classic hero. And finally we get into the Tests, Allies, and Enemies. Which is basically the whole movie. Here is when he is forced to face obstacles, where he comes up against things that don’t make sense in his ordinary world. He faces off against all those archetypes we talked about. This one step is basically two-thirds of the movie. It’s the trials period where he must choose wisely or choose poorly. We really should’ve just done Monty Python, but shh.
Jeni: Okay so from that point, we move on to step 7, Approach to the Innermost Cave. This is the point at which Gawain has to take the final steps of his journey to the Green Chapel, which, by the way, is super cool. I love how it looks and how the knight is just part of all the overgrown stuff that has taken over the ruins.
Gawain’s ordeal is where he tries and fails to let the knight behead him. He’s trying so hard to be brave and have honor like he knows a knight should, but, ya know, he doesn’t wanna be decapitated, which is a pretty hard instinct to fight.
For the reward, I struggled a little because I feel like that’s when he gets the green sash back, but it’s out of order? This isn’t the first time I’ve seen something out of the order though, when it comes to the hero’s journey.
The Road Back is really interesting in this movie because it’s this fairly long sequence where Gawain is actually just imagining himself running out of the chapel and going back to let everyone believe he’s a hero but how that would eventually eat away at him and make him a fraud. So in this case, him heading home is more figurative than literal.
Once he snaps out of that sequence, Gawain truly faces his own fear. His Resurrection moment is when he takes off the sash and tells the knight he’s ready. Now, he’s really facing his fate.
The Return for him is really this moment where the knight swipes his finger across Gawain’s throat. This is definitely open to interpretation because maybe two seconds later, he does just cut off Gawain’s head, like “haha just kidding.” But I took this ending to mean that the real challenge was being willing to die. So we see that Gawain has grown because he truly faced down his fears and saw that there are worse things than dying.