The Weight of ZIllenialism and The Green Knight

Written by Benjamin Wiebe

Introduction

This is the first part of a series of articles introducing the concept of Zillenialism and how we perceive art and film through the lens of lost identity. The challenge with covering this topic, for me, has been the dread I feel in interrogating my own ways of processing loss. In August, I wanted to write a version of this article that was a tribute to my five friends who passed away in July. By October, I wanted to do an entire study of art about loss and grief and talk about the seven stages of grief. By November, I didn’t want to write this at all – it was easier to ignore my own anxieties surrounding loss than it was to interrogate them. In the months since, this article has been a weight, transforming into an article reflecting on worldly anxieties and how, more than ever, our current generation is both without an identity and given the responsibility to right the wrongs of history. It’s a heavy burden to carry alone, and some of the great films of the twenty-first century are all about this burden. I wanted to interrogate those anxieties, the ties to loss, and search for hope in this writing. I hope you enjoy taking this journey with me.

Reflecting on Star Wars: The Force Awakens – A Fresh Yet Familiar Journey

It has been 9 years since Star Wars: The Force Awakens was released to theatres,  back in December 2015. I remember watching the film with my family during Christmas break from school and having a blast. It was a fun Star Wars movie; derivative of A New Hope (1977), and yet, it introduced a new cast of characters that were fundamentally distinct from their Original Trilogy counterparts. Rey, Poe, and Finn each have character traits which rhyme with the legends of old, but they have their own traits and desires which make for a distinct story. The characters who stick with me the most are those like Rey and Luke. Joseph Campbell’s “Hero of a Thousand Faces” is the blueprint for these protagonists, who seek something greater than the life they are born into. 

Crafting a Zillential Hero

Over the course of 4 years, we would follow these characters on their journeys of self-discovery. Poe and Finn became central leaders of the Resistance. Yet Rey is by far my favourite character of the three. Rey, as Glendon Frank writes, “… embodies the Millennial hero, someone who has to find that strength of self amidst a world begging for your attention” (Frank, 2020). The idea of Rey being a “Zillennial” hero has been consistent throughout my discussions with Glendon on the sequel trilogy. After meeting at a summer camp 7 years ago, our friendship started out of a shared passion for the sequel trilogy, and that understanding of Rey, fully encompassing what it means to be a Gen Z/Millennial, entrances me.

Up until this past year, I have had encounters with media that often depicted these millennial troubles, and they often were pieces of art that entranced me. But I didn’t feel that these were applicable to me – while I was largely unsure of where I was going, I knew there was a place for me somewhere. I had a deep empathy for these stories, and I cared deeply about them, but they were solely stories. This year, these stories ceased to be just stories for me… and I want to talk about what they mean to me now. 

Nothing Left for You, but Demanding Everything From You

The Green Knight (2020) is a fascinating adaptation of the medieval poem of the same name. While it may have the aesthetics of a high fantasy production, featuring a roster of recognizable cast members, it isn’t a daring adventure with intense action and terrifying lows. The Green Knight isn’t like The Lord of The Rings (2001-2003). There is not a moment where Sam proclaims, “I may not be able to carry the ring… but I can carry you.” That level of blunt and courageous emotion isn’t what The Green Knight is about. 

The Green Knight is something else…

Something deeper…

Something colder… Lonelier… and isolating. 

The Green Knight is a contemplative tale of nobility, knighthood, and of identity. It’s a collection of fables surrounding Sir Gawain, a ‘green’ knight whose knighthood was bestowed upon him for an ‘ignoble’ act. This is the story of a kingdom that is waning; its legendary knights have grown old and frail, and the kingdom is certain to pass into history. Entering this kingdom is Gawain, the nephew of King Arthur, who is content with his current responsibility: nothing. Gawain spends his days drinking and his nights at the brothel. His carelessness isn’t without cost; his mother, who many interpret to be Morgan le Fay, is quick to scold Gawain for his adolescent behaviour, and Essel, the prostitute whom Gawain fancies, often asks if he would make her his Lady. 

Responsibility is thrust upon Gawain during the Christmas feast when he is invited to sit at the right of the King. When asked to share a story of himself, Gawain flounders – he has no story to tell… until a mysterious Green Knight arrives and challenges the King to a duel in a winter’s game. The rule of the game is simple: The challenger may inflict any wound on the Green Knight, and in one year’s time, the challenger must go to the Green Chapel and have the wound inflicted upon them by the Green Knight. Arthur, too weak to wield Excalibur, asks if any of the knights of the Round Table would partake in the challenge on his behalf, and Gawain, in search of a story, accepts hastily. In his haste, Gawain beheads the Green Knight… and the Green Knight picks up his head, leaving his axe as a prize for Gawain, before riding off to the Green Chapel, laughing. For his act, Gawain is knighted, and the haunting laughter of The Winters Game follows Gawain.

This all happens during the first 15 minutes of the film. For as exciting as this seems, The Green Knight isn’t focused on the epic duel or the mythic legends of Arthur’s Round Table. Rather, it’s intently focused on Gawain’s quest to journey towards the Green Chapel. So much time is dedicated to watching him move across environments, unsure of what will occur when he finally reaches the chapel. Gawain wasted away the year that he was a knight, and with death on the horizon, he is struggling to find something to attach to – struggling to survive, to leave behind a legacy worth remembering. 

The most haunting moment in the film happens when Gawain is ambushed by Bandits early in his journey. They take his horse, his shield and axe, and most importantly, the magical green girdle created by his Mother that is enchanted to protect him from all harm. Upon being stripped of everything, Gawain is tied up and abandoned in the forest… then the camera pans away, rotating 360 degrees, revealing a forest that has aged many years… and showing Gawain’s dead skeleton, still tied up. This is, of course, a vision of a possible future, and it spurs Gawain to action. But its impact isn’t forgotten.

Gawain, as a character, exists in a state of flux. Time passes through him, and despite his yearning for importance, the world he exists in seems to deny the ability to be important. Camelot has lost its importance as a kingdom. King Arthur admits to not paying as much attention to Gawain as he should have, and the inability of Arthur to produce an heir for the throne leaves Camelot in a position without a true king. Gawain has been thrust into the role of next in line for the throne, and that brings with it many ‘kingly’ responsibilities that contrast with Gawain’s wants. As it’s revealed later in the film, through another vision, Gawain’s reign as King isn’t one of nobility; it’s a reign that tarnishes the legacy of the kingdom, of Gawain’s family, and of his own character. Gawain fathers a bastard with Essel, and yet he marries a proper woman and takes the bastard son to be his own. His reign as king is dominated by a fear of death and the weight of responsibility, and it leaves him only capable of harming the world. The film’s ending is ambiguous, as Gawain accepts The Green Knights’s blow and allows the ‘self’ to die so that his honour may be his legacy.

The Green Knight has stuck with me because it shares the ‘Zillenial’ anxieties of living in a world that has seemingly left nothing for you, but demands everything of you. It poses the question: “How do you live in a world after the legends have passed away?” In response, it also asks the viewer to live with nobility and honour… even when living with honour means dying to the self. 

What to Expect in Part 2…

Part one of Zillenialism and You is introspective in its challenge; the fear of the Green Knight is secluded from the world. Gawain’s journey is uniquely isolating. But not all Zillenial art is isolated… 

The Last of Us is a series about finding a purpose outside of the self in a world that strips you of everything except your body. The Last of Us is a series about clinging to humanity in the face of nihilism and loss. In Part 2 of Zillenialism and You, I will dive into this series of Video Games and television episodes and what we can take away from the story of Ellie and Joel. 

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