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THE GREEN KNIGHT – Daniel Hart

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

The story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is one of the oldest and most respected pieces of medieval literature in the world. Written in olde English by an unknown scribe sometime in the 14th century, it looks back some 400 years to the time of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. One Christmas, as Arthur and his knights are celebrating, their festivities are interrupted by a monstrous Green Knight, who challenges the court to a game: he dares any knight to strike him with his own axe, but that knight must seek him out the following Christmas and receive the same strike. The young and impetuous Gawain, Arthur’s nephew, rashly agrees, and beheads the Green Knight – only for the Green Knight to stand up, pick up his head, and leave, reminding Gawain of his obligation. What follows is an examination of the nature of honor and chivalry, temptation and seduction, as an increasingly agitated Gawain leaves Camelot in order to complete his quest to find the Green Knight – a journey which will, most likely, conclude with his own death. The film is directed by David Lowry, and stars Dev Patel as Gawain, with support from Alicia Vikander, Sean Harris, and Joel Edgerton, among others.

The Green Knight is a staggering motion picture. It absolutely won’t be for everyone; it unfolds at a slow, thoughtful pace, and the dialogue is often spoken in an ancient style of English replete with the ‘thee’s’ and ‘thou’s’ that even pre-date Shakespeare. However, as a visual and emotional journey, it’s one of the most breathtaking pieces of cinema I have seen in years. Lowry initially shoots the film in meticulous period detail, using natural light and long shadows from candles to follow Gawain down the thick corridors of Camelot, and in the mist-shrouded countryside around it. You can see and feel and almost smell the life in this place – it’s a Camelot which feels like a real medieval fortress of thick stone, wattle and daub, straw and mud, a world away from the fanciful renderings you usually see in Hollywood Arthurian fantasy. People live here, love here, and die here.

But then, when Gawain leaves on his journey, Lowry frames the story like a filmed dream, very much like what John Boorman did with Excalibur, and what Matthew Robbins did with Dragonslayer back in the 1980s. The lushness and density of the forests through which Gawain travels contrasts starkly with the opulence of Bertilak’s castle and the decrepit rot of Winifred’s cottage, a symbolic representation of the cycles of life and the concept of nature inherent in the story. Gawain’s encounters with various supernatural and magical entities are by turns charmingly whimsical, unashamedly erotic, and terrifyingly immense, resulting in some truly arresting cinematic imagery. And, of course, the emotional content – by which Gawain has to deal with numerous threats to his life, his own need for acceptance and acclaim, his adherence to codes of honor and chivalry, various sexual encounters, and then his final confrontation with the Green Knight in which he flinches at the prospect of his death – are universal concepts to which everyone can relate.

For the music, Lowry turned to his regular collaborator, composer Daniel Hart. Their previous works together include titles such as Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, Pete’s Dragon, A Ghost Story, and The Old Man & The Gun, but I would suggest that The Green Knight may be their best work together to date. However, much like the film itself, the score for The Green Knight will absolutely not be for everyone. It’s an intense collision of medieval plainsong, early Christian hymns and canticles, contemporary minimalist classical strings, and aggressive electronic sound design, which is placed incredibly high in the film’s sound mix, to the extent where it is often the dominant aural feature, outstripping dialogue and sound effects. It’s loud, intense, and often violently in-your-face, but it’s also deeply evocative, establishing both a unique sound and a specific sense of time and place from the outset.

There are numerous recurring elements in the score, but none of them really establish themselves as a main theme, per se. Interestingly, none of the recurring ideas seem to relate directly to Gawain either – instead, they represent the forces around him, the influences both natural and supernatural, that initiate his journey, and accompany him on his way. The opening cue, “In Stori Stif and Stronge,” introduces the first of these, which I’m calling the ‘magic chorus’ idea. It appears to be directly related to Gawain’s mother, Morgana le Fay, whose dabbling in witchcraft and magic influences so much of what happens to Gawain, from the appearance of the Green Knight himself, to the protection he receives from the girdle she gifts to him, to his encounters with various creatures and beings over the course of the journey, notably Lord and Lady Bertilak towards the end of the film. Morgana’s presence looms large over everything, and as such this ‘magic chorus’ idea – a collision of chattering, overlapping voices – is everywhere too, in the initial conjuring scene “Shaped By Your Hands,” during the Green Knight’s audience with the Round Table knights in “One Year Hence,” when Morgana gives Gawain the girdle in “I Promise You Will Not Come to Harm,” at the conclusion of Gawain’s encounter with the duplicitous scavenger in “Rest Them Bones My Brave Little Knight,” when Gawain first meets Winifred in “A Meeting With St. Winifred,” and many others.

What I like most about this, though, is the way Hart surrounds this idea with representations of ‘normal life’ in Camelot. Magic exists as part of the day-to-day reality of these people, as common and accepted as any other aspect of life, and this blending of the natural and the supernatural is what makes The Green Knight such a compelling, fascinating score. For example, in “Christ Is Born Indeed,” Hart establishes the earthy medieval sound of everyday life in Camelot through the use of woodwinds (especially recorders), undulating string harmonics featuring what might be a viola de gamba, various percussion items, the unmistakable drone-like sound of a psaltery or a hurdy-gurdy, harps, lutes, and what sounds like perhaps an early type of bagpipe. Hart also often employs dance-like rhythms that have an almost primeval feel, and are rooted in old English folk music, but then also brings in the identifiably ecclesiastical sound of early Church music – out with the old and in with the new – commenting on the fact that at that time in history the ancient pagan beliefs of the Britons were being supplanted by Christianity. This sound is also very apparent in the subsequent cue “You Do Smell Like You’ve Been at Mass All Night,” which underscores Gawain’s introduction as he moves through the castle; the second half of this cue is a sort of proto-hymn, an ancient sounding Christmas carol which sounds like it is sung in an unintelligible combination of medieval English, Latin, and what may be Norman French, with the words “Père Noël” (Father Christmas) standing out prominently.

King Arthur himself has a musical identity, warm string and harp textures with a kind, fatherly tone, which first appears in “Tell Me A Tale of Yourself, So That I Might Know Thee,” and underscores the collegial encounter between Arthur and Gawain immediately prior to the Green Knight’s arrival at court. This idea appears later, in “Remember It Is Only a Game,” and then during the second half of “I Promise You Will Not Come to Harm” where it blends with Morgana’s ‘magic chorus’. The music for the Green Knight himself is perhaps the most challenging music in the score; it is hinted at during “Shaped By Your Hands,” but then comes fully into focus in the three cues comprising “Greatest of Kings,” “Remember It Is Only a Game,” and especially “One Year Hence”. These three cues underscore the encounter between the Green Knight and Gawain in the Round Table chamber, and to illustrate the shocking countenance of the Green Knight and his magical powers, Hart digs deep into his bag of dissonance, emerging with a whole load of eerie soprano vocals, breathy woodwind textures, shrill string harmonics, and pulsating electronic tones that creak and groan. In each of these cues the Green Knight textures combine with Arthur’s ideas, Morgana’s ‘magic chorus,’ and the medieval orchestrations, resulting in a kaleidoscope of unsettling music. By the time the Green Knight has been beheaded, and Gawain’s fate has been sealed, Hart’s music has become a wildly abstract collision of electronic throbbing, manipulated woodwind textures, and a gurgling noise that has to be heard to be believed.

Once Gawain has embarked on his journey, he begins to have encounters with various magical and ethereal characters, all of whom test his chivalry and his sense of honor. The Winifred sequence is the part of the story in which Gawain meets the ghostly incarnation of St. Winifred, a Welsh martyr who according to legend was decapitated by her lover after she told him she wanted to become a nun, and whose death resulted in the creation of a healing well or spring. Gawain is tasked with retrieving Winifred’s head from the bottom of the lake as part of his chivalrous duty to help any maiden he encounters, and the three cues which underscore this sequence – “A Meeting With St. Winifred,” “Your Head Is on Your Neck, My Lady,” and “Are You Real, Or Are You a Spirit?” – combine Morgana’s ‘magic chorus’ with percussive strings and spooky recorders, climaxing with an otherworldly ecclesiastical choral sound and a surge of string based emotion as Gawain jumps into Winifred’s well.

Throughout the score Hart peppers his orchestral music with original songs and madrigals written in the medieval style, including the aforementioned “Père Noël” carol, as well as “Child Thou Ert a Pilgrim,” which begins with a beautiful mournful string theme accompanied by rattling tambourines and soft cooing vocals, but then turns into a lovely sung performance of a poem. The culmination of this comes in “Aiganz O Kulzphazur,” a gorgeous, evocative, haunting song performed by soprano Emma Tring to accompany the scene where Gawain encounters a tribe of giants striding through a valley, in one of the film’s most arresting and surreal visual moments. The fascinating and brilliant part of this is the fact that the song appears to be sung in both English and the ancient language of Lingua Ignota, which is one of the earliest known constructed languages, dating from the twelfth century, and which was created by the medieval composer Hildegard von Bingen. In the language of Lingua Ignota ‘aiganz’ means ‘angel’ while ‘kulzphazur’ means ‘ancestor,’ which suggests that Hart was commenting on the potential nature of these immense creatures through his lyrics – a theory supported further by the fact that Bingen’s real notes about her created language were kept on something called the Riesencodex, or the giant codex. There is a reprise of the Aiganz O Kulzphazur melody in the subsequent “The Giant’s Call,” surrounded by eerie, howling noises. I love the fact that Hart went so deep into his research of medieval music and came up with this approach.

Eventually Gawain reaches the castle of Lord and Lady Bertilak, where he is given rest and hospitality, but again has his chivalry and honor tested – not least by Lady Bertilak, who appears to him as a sexier, more alluring version of his low-born lover back in Camelot. The music for Lord and Lady Bertilak is again based in the same orchestrations – strings, harp, recorder, solo viola de gamba, subtle allusions to Arthur’s theme and Morgana’s ‘magic chorus’ – but has a slightly askew, reticent, ethereal sound which makes their friendliness and generosity seem a little twisted. Both “Should Not a Knight Offer a Lady a Kiss in Thanks?” and “Hold Very Still” have this tone, while the writing in “Do You Believe in Witchcraft?” makes the awkward kiss between Gawain and Lord Bertilak, and Gawain’s subsequent betrayal of him regarding the girdle, even more intense.

Throughout his journey to see the Green Knight Gawain is accompanied by an inquisitive and intelligent fox, the supernatural nature of which is unexpectedly revealed in “I Never Asked For Your Help Anyway,” when the fox speaks with Morgana’s voice and tries to tempt him to abandon his quest at the last minute. Hart scores Gawain’s determination to honor his promise with an adventurous tone, full of surging strings and ominous choral chanting, as Gawain finally approaches the Green Knight’s chapel in a boat.

The finale of the film – and score – is a sequence where, in the split second before the Green Knight is about to behead him, Gawain (spoiler alert) has a vision of the future, of what would happen if he were to flee the Green Chapel and go back to Camelot with his head still attached to his neck, but his honor in tatters. In “Gawain Runs and Runs” Hart blends the Green Knight’s throbbing electronics with Morgana’s ‘magic chorus’ and a brilliant version of the “Père Noël” carol performed by Danish soprano Katinka Vindelev, arranged as sort of an action motif – it is Christmas Day after all. “Blome Swete Lilie Flour” is an original minstrel ballad, performed by Hart himself, which accompanies Gawain’s journey back to Camelot; it’s a gorgeous and wistful guitar piece with slight echoes of Greensleeves in the chord progressions, but which contains themes relating to regret and death. The ‘no coin to pay the ferry’ lyric alludes to the ancient idea of the recently deceased needed to br buried with coins on their eyes so they would be able to pay Charon, the ferryman who conveys souls across the River Styx to the afterlife. Similarly, lily flowers are of course traditional floral arrangements for funerals.

“Excalibur” contains a soft, wistful variation of Arthur’s theme for viola de gamba and quiet chorus as Gawain accepts the legendary sword and becomes king following his uncle’s death, while the song “O Nyghtegale” is initially performed in character by actress Atheena Frizzell as Gawain’s sister singing at his wedding. Eventually the piece emerges into a harsh explosion of Zadok-the-Priest like choral harmony, which is clearly another allusion to British culture as Handel’s famous anthem has been performed at the coronation of all British monarchs since 1727, albeit here it is being applied 700 years retrospectively. The string harmonics underneath the piece give it a tone of uncertainty, and add a level of intensity to the final scene in which Gawain – having been revealed to be a terrible ruler without honor or compassion all these years – finally removes the girdle that has protected him his entire life, and his head falls off.

The final cue, “Now I’m Ready, I’m Ready Now,” is a delicate combination of chorus, harp, undulating strings, and the quietest and most subtle allusions to Morgana’s ‘magic chorus’ and the Green Knight textures, imbued here with a sense of warmth, reflection, acceptance, and relief, as Gawain passes the test set by the Green Knight and prepares to return home an honorable man. The whole thing ends with a final song over the end credits, “Be Merry, Swete Lorde,” an upbeat, playful, enticing piece again performed by Katinka Vindelev, with lyrics and pronunciation straight out of Geoffrey Chaucer’s playbook.

The Green Knight is not an easy score to get into. Its unusual combination of English folk music, religious plainsong, medieval orchestrations, modern string textures, and aggressively dissonant electronica sounds like a recipe for disaster, but in Daniel Hart’s hands the music becomes a perfect representation of Gawain’s world, where the solid and the real blends seamlessly with the magical and the supernatural in a way which the people of that time completely accept. Furthermore, the level of detail Hart brings to his score is astonishing; his use of strict period-specific instruments is laudable, the original songs could all easily have been written 1,000 years ago, and the research that went into them – not least the Hildegard von Bingen/Lingua Ignota influences on the giant sequence – is brilliant. And, you know, there’s something timeless about this music. As someone who comes from the north of England, and has a splash of Old Norse/Viking, Welsh/Brittonic, and Saxon blood in my DNA, I somehow connect with this music as a part of my cultural heritage, my ancestry. I can feel it in my bones. These stories of honor and courage, of chivalry and romance, have lasted for a millennium, and Daniel Hart has tapped into that history with his music and emerged with a score which somehow feels very modern, but also very, very ancient, and that’s not an easy balance to achieve.

Buy the Green Knight soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • In Stori Stif and Stronge (2:02)
  • Christ Is Born Indeed (1:29)
  • You Do Smell Like You’ve Been at Mass All Night (2:34)
  • Tell Me A Tale of Yourself, So That I Might Know Thee (2:50)
  • Shaped By Your Hands (2:02)
  • O Greatest of Kings (2:57)
  • Remember It Is Only a Game (2:28)
  • One Year Hence (3:01)
  • I Promise You Will Not Come to Harm (3:15)
  • Child Thou Ert a Pilgrim (2:18)
  • Rest Them Bones My Brave Little Knight (3:34)
  • A Meeting With St. Winifred (1:08)
  • Your Head Is on Your Neck, My Lady (2:00)
  • Are You Real, Or Are You a Spirit? (1:20)
  • I Will Strike Thee Down With Every Care That I Have For Thee (1:34)
  • Aiganz O Kulzphazur (2:31)
  • The Giant’s Call (2:58)
  • Brave Sir Gawain Come to Face the Green Knight (1:58)
  • Should Not a Knight Offer a Lady a Kiss in Thanks? (1:04)
  • Hold Very Still (2:31)
  • Do You Believe in Witchcraft? (3:07)
  • You Are No Knight (1:23)
  • I Never Asked For Your Help Anyway (2:48)
  • Gawain Runs and Runs (1:41)
  • Blome Swete Lilie Flour (3:08)
  • Excalibur (1:55)
  • O Nyghtegale (5:24)
  • Now I’m Ready, I’m Ready Now (4:02)
  • Be Merry, Swete Lorde (1:30)

Running Time: 70 minutes 19 seconds

Milan Records (2021)

Music composed by Daniel Hart. Recorded and mixed by Jake Jackson. Edited by Mark Jan Wlodarkiewicz. Album produced by Daniel Hart.

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