This is very spoilery about the ending — does Gawain die a hero’s death or live a long, boring life? — and his tests along the way. The actual ending is directly below, with more explanation further down. (My 4/5 review is here.)
It’s deliberately ambiguous at the very end, as Gawain kneels in the green chapel, waiting for the Green Knight to cut off his head. His opponent even tells him that is exactly what he is going to do.
It’s possible Gawain has a magical, last-minute reprieve but I doubt it. The real Gawain has to die, to complete the “game” as a man of honour, which means that the legend, which is bigger than him, can live on.
I should point out that I am not a scholar of medieval chivalric poetry. This is simply my take on the movie. Having said that, this film is another cog in the machine of a changing legend. We often hear the complaint, when a so-called true event is made into a book, TV show or film, that viewers or readers won’t get the real story. And every retelling of every Arthurian legend — from a 15th century romantic song sung by a visiting traveller, to this movie — adds another layer, like the rings on the tree trunk that we see at the very end, the title of the film carved into it.
Gawain has started his journey a year after beheading the Green Knight in King Arthur’s court. The Green Knight simply picked up his head and galloped off chortling, leaving Gawain to complete their “game” in a year’s time, when he must accept the same blow in return at the green chapel.
The Green Knight was summoned by Gawain’s mother, presumably to test her son and put him in line for the throne. Her brother Arthur is old and weak, and worried about what will happen to his beloved Camelot.
This, and Gawain’s showdown with the Green Knight the next year, take place at Christmas — a time when Christianity and the old Pagan traditions merge with greenery brought into homes to decorate them, and this conflict between the new and old religions is a constant.
After a year in which Gawain’s status grows without him actually doing everything (he’s scared more than anything) he eventually, reluctantly, leaves Camelot to journey to the green chapel.
During his travels, Gawain is given various tests. The scavenger gives him directions to the green chapel and then requests payment for his help, which he eventually gets, though his directions are wrong and he later ties up Gawain and steals his horse. It is there, as Gawain lies bound in the forest clearing, that we see him years later turned to bone, before we come back to his present and he frees himself. The sight of his skeleton is a glimpse of the real man if he fails in his task, the half-formed legend dying with him.
Later he meets the beautiful and ethereal Saint Winifred, who seems real but keeps asking him to help her find her head, even though it seems to be attached to her shoulders. She is already dead, having been raped by a man then murdered. She asks Gawain to retrieve the head from the forest spring. He goes in and finds her skull on the bottom, though when he takes it into her house it momentarily turns back into her fleshed-out head and speaks to him. She tells him the Green Knight is known to him, before it reverts to a skull again and he lays it gently on her skeleton on the bed.
The Lord and Lady, in the castle into which he stumbles later, also test him. The Lord tells him that as a game he will give Gawain what he finds out hunting, and Gawain must give him whatever he is given in his house. His Lady later gives Gawain a green girdle she says she has made, just like the one his mother wove (there is also an elderly grey-haired lady with a bandage wrapped around her eyes — earlier we have seen Gawain’s mother bandage her own eyes, so presumably this is meant to be the witch again. Likewise, the Lady looks identical to Gawain’s low-born girlfriend Essel and both are played by Alicia Vikander).
The Lady paints another portrait of Gawain, though it is upside down; and she shows Gawain her library where she admits to embellishing stories she hears when writing them down. Yet she and her husband and their house are clearly magical (“this house is full of strange things” the Lord tells him, and Gawain sees himself in a hunting painting on its walls). She also warns Gawain that green — the colour of both life and death, and what is left after the red of lust — will eventually creep back, whatever we do to pull it out, and overcome everything.
So in the Lady, we see both explanations for magic in this story: that it is real (linked to nature / the Pagan religion) and that it is the creative licence of writers.
Gawain and the Lady have sex, as she asks him if he wants it, and to take it. He takes her green girdle, and ejaculates on it; the grim-faced Lady tells him “you are no knight”. Gawain sees the old woman in the room, picks up his axe and runs out of the house. Outside he runs into the Lord, who has been hunting. The Lord asks if Gawain has something for him, then says he will take it from Gawain, leaning down from his horse to kiss him. The Lord has caught the fox on his hunting trip; he releases it and it runs off into the forest.
Gawain and the fox reach a river, and a small boat. The fox pleads with Gawain to flee, and save himself; only his doom lies ahead. “Come home with me,” the creature implores but runs away when Gawain refuses. (I think the fox is Gawain, the side of him wanting a quiet and unheroic but long life. Gawain’s cloak is the same colour as the fox’s coat.) Gawain gets in the boat and rows to the ruined green chapel. The Green Knight is there sleeping. He wakes and they talk, as Gawain asks if this is all there is. The Green Knight tries to behead Gawain, but Gawain keeps flinching, then says he is sorry and runs away, finding a horse in a clearing and returning to Camelot.
This is where we see what would have happened had he followed the fox’s advice and fled the quest. He gallops back home, arriving soaked and exhausted. His mum cuts his hair; a dying Arthur knights him. Gawain is crowned the new king, but as soon as his girlfriend Essel gives birth to their son the child is taken away. She crawls in desperation across the floor but it is too late. Gawain then marries another woman (who looks like Elizabeth 1 with her red hair rolls and wide white forehead — legendary, iconic images are intruding across the centuries). They have another baby, but his son with Essel grows up and is then killed in battle.
Gawain becomes a hated king, as do most after too long on the throne; leaders dying early and heroically, remaining a perfect and just king, are better for legend purposes. Camelot is starting to lightly crumble. Eventually the middle-aged Gawain realises he must face his fate. Untying the green girdle around his waist, his heads falls off. Then Gawain finds himself back in the green chapel, and realises there really is only one way, as the Green Knight tells him he is now going to behead him.
The end credit scene sees a young girl pick up Gawain’s crown from the floor of Camelot, and put it on her own head.
Read my 4/5 review. The Green Knight is in UK cinemas and on Amazon Prime now.