The Green Knight characters King Arthur and Queen Guinevere wear sun halos, which symbolize their royal status via Christian themes.
David Lowrey’s The Green Knight is a surrealist trip into Arthurian legend, and King Arthur and Queen Guinevere’s sun halos play a part in visualizing their legendary status. There have been many cinematic tellings of King Arthur’s rise to power and the exploits of the legendary Knights of the Round Table, but there have been fewer adaptations of the epic poem Sir Gaiwan and the Green Knight. Sir Gaiwan’s story isn’t filled with bloody battles or enchanted swords; however, it does carry similar messages of chivalry and bravery to his more famous uncle’s exploits.
In both the original poem and Lowrey’s larger-than-life retelling, Sir Gaiwan is a young, glory-hungry knight-to-be who accepts a dangerous game (or test) from a mysterious Green Knight. If he’s brave enough to strike a blow upon the Knight, he’ll receive his mythic axe and untold glory; the catch, however, is that in one year’s time Gaiwan will have to receive a similar blow upon himself. Energized by the thought of honor and praise, Gaiwan decapitates the Green Knight, who promptly picks up his severed head and declares their game officially commenced – much to Sir Gaiwan’s horror.
While there are differences between The Green Knight and the original poem, in both, Gaiwan goes upon a deeply introspective journey about what it means to be honorable, and King Arthur’s legacy looms large over his nephew. Lowrey showcases Arthur’s wisdom and regality in many ways, particularly through set and costume design. The sun halos worn by both Arthur and Guinevere play a key role in that.
While many historians struggle over whether or not King Arthur was a real historical figure, in legend, he’s considered a holy ruler who defended Britain against their Saxon invaders in the 5th and 6th centuries. Regardless of his actual historical existence, his experiences with Excalibur and his conflicts with Morgan le Fay (Gaiwan’s mother) are embodied in various art forms; Arthurian legend makes up part of the Matter of Britain, a mythic nationalistic history of the country. Because of this, he’s frequently portrayed as almost like a deity, which is reflected in The Green Knight via the sun halos that Arthur and Guinevere wear in the film. Medieval religious iconography displays saints and religious figures with a halo of light encircling their heads, representing their virtue or their holiness. Arthur and Guinevere are considered to be virtuous saviors of Britain’s history (Arthur’s much different in some versions, like Guy Ritchie’s Legend of the Sword), so their exalted status makes them closer to God in the eyes of their subjects.
The other meaning is one that takes the original story’s Christian subtext into account. The chivalric code was a set of rules that dictated how a knight should act, and because Europe was overwhelmingly Christian during the Middle Ages, the chivalric code had Christian undertones to them. Arthur’s kingdom in The Green Knight is one portrayed as honorably Christian, and his sun halo represents the holiness of their kingdom – God shines his favor and his light upon Camelot, but beyond the kingdom lies paganism, witchcraft, and debauchery. David Lowrey’s version of The Green Knight isn’t a typical fantasy action-adventure. There’s no epic battles or metaphysical combat between wizards; Gaiwan doesn’t even fight the Green Knight. It’s much more concerned with the idea of how one achieves a legacy of greatness, and choosing to frame Arthur and Guinevere as holy and revered rulers certainly helps drive those themes.
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