Slowly but surely, like the brave little toaster that I am, I have been hacking away at that good old Master’s Reading Exam List. Today’s conquest, a poem that despite even my own amazement I had never read before, is Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
After Niapaul’s intolerable novel, I wanted something that I knew I would enjoy and preferably something that I could bang out quickly. Gawain really fit the bill. I enjoyed it far more than I thought I would and I have so much to say about it that I’m going to have trouble fitting my reading into a blog-length post, so please bear with me as I digest this.
First of all, if you haven’t read it, you really should. There is a version made available by the University of Michigan co-edited by Tolkien (which really made my inner geek squeal) but it is in Middle English which even I find hard to read. A good modern-English edition is W.A. Neilson’s. Don’t get me started on the differences between “Old” “Middle” and “Early Modern” English, break-down of the history of the English language on another day, I promise.
Most notable within the poem is a tension between Paganism and Christianity, as presented by the title tension between Sir Gawain (a Christian Knight) and the unnamed-until-the-end Green Knight. The story is actually a Christmas story; the Green Knight appears in Arthur’s Court while the Court is celebrating Christmas and the challenge the Green Knight offers is a “Christmas game” (verse 13 line 282). Christmas, the ultimate Christian appropriation of Pagan festivals, thus sets the stage for the poem’s primary contention.
Green, a color long associated with hills, dales, grass, and in general “that nature stuff” seems a fitting color for the champion of Paganism. Anyone with a shrewd eye and a background in fantasy literature will spot the Green Knight’s true identity within the poem’s first fit. When he enters Arthur’s court, he “in height outstripped all earthly men” (verse 7 line 137) and seems to be “half a giant on earth” (verse 7 line 139). He is clearly not a man of mundane or earthly origins, if he was the anonymous poet wouldn’t have taken such care to wrap his imagery in otherworldly qualities. In addition, the bargain which the Green Knight offers is that whomever strikes him shall have “a year and a day’s reprieve” (verse 13 line 96-97) before being struck in return. A year and a day is, traditionally, a fairy bargain. As if there were any doubt of the Green Knight’s supernaturalness, the issue is clinched when, after Gawain chops his head off in one stroke, Mister Green calmly picks his head off the ground and addresses the court Headless Horseman style reminding Gawain of the bargain they have made before riding out gallantly, head tucked underneath his arm. It is revealed at the end of the poem after Gawain receives his due punishment that the Green Knight is Bertilak of the High Dessert in service to Morgan Le Fay who lent him magic and sent him on his journey to Arthur’s court to test the Round Table (see verses 98-99). The Green Knight is definitively a Knight of the Fairies.
The Green Knight’s challenge comes in a suitably Christian/Pagan number: three. For three days does Gawain stay at the Green Knight’s court. Three times is Gawain seduced by the Green Knight’s Lady, and three times does Gawain turn down her advances. Three times does the Green Knight go hunting and return with his kill. And, in the end, it is three strikes of the Green Knight’s axe that are given to Gawain as reward/punishment for his deeds. We all know that Christianity’s big triad is the Father, Son and Holy Ghost and most of us are also aware that this triad was stolen from the Pagan Maiden, Mother and Crone. Three, then, seems to be a very reasonable number for The Green Knight.
What’s been kicking around in my head is how each day of the hunt relates to each day of Gawain’s seduction. The first day, the Green Lady comes to Gawain and (like a good psycho stalker) sits on the edge of his bed while he sleeps. When he wakes, realizing that some crazy chick is watching him, she blushingly yet bluntly spends her morning flirting with him and begging a kiss. That day, the Green Knight brings home a pile of deer. The hunting of the doe (or “hart”) is a frequently used image of courtly love. The lady, wide-eyed and chaste, runs from her knight as he pursues her and eventually slays her with “the bolt of love” (read: slay – little death, orgasm; bolt of love – the knight’s “sword”, distinct phallic imagery). Of course, Sir Gawain, being a just and true Christian Knight who doesn’t believe in things like sex before marriage or sex with his host’s wife, retrieves from the Lady nothing but a single kiss (which, notably, he then gives to the Green Knight in fulfilling their bargain… there is a whole queer studies reading of this poem that I’m not even going to tinker with).
On the second day, the Knight hunts a boar. On this day, the Green Lady comes to Gawain and admonishes him for not remembering the lessons of courtesy she had taught him the day before. She is forward and feisty, and this time gives Gawain two kisses. The boar, a deadly animal, is also an image we find in medieval paintings and stories. Medieval bestiaries reported that the boar had no fear of death since his skin was hoary and acted like armor. He is also the personification of lust, likely because of the large tusks which he uses to gouge his victims (see again: “dart of love”… hey, they didn’t have porn in medieval times, they had to make do with dirty tapestries). Notable also is the use of the boar in the Psalms of David (80:13) who trounced God’s vineyard and thus became the evil antichrist (for more on medieval boar imagery, see Werness 48-50). I’m not certain that we could go so far as to say that the Green Lady is the antichrist, but we can call her a harbinger of lust and an aggressive pursuant of the hunt, unafraid of courtly “death”.
On the third day, the Knight hunts a fox. This third day is Gawain’s “undoing”, as it is on this day that the Green Lady connives him into taking her garter which Gawain then refuses to share with the Green Knight, thus breaking his bargain. The fox is a familiar metaphor for cunning and trickery, an animal that is known in folklore and popular mythology to connive its victims into its wills and whims. Certainly this is the Lady’s task for the day. It is her cunning which finally breaks down Gawain’s resolve, convincing him to accept a gift which he knows he should share but does not. For this, he receives a single nick of the Green Knight’s axe, a testament to his sins which he returns to the Round Table with. Despite great temptation, this is the only misdeed which Gawain commits during the poem.
One could argue that since the Green Knight and his Lady are fairy creatures, the Knight’s hunt is some sort of ritual energy transfer between the totem he kills and the Lady. The Knight’s bargain with Gawain provides the energy for this transfer, a ritualistic link between the Knight himself on the field and Gawain in the castle. The relationship between this triad (The Knight, The Lady, and Gawain) once again echoes the poem’s cardinal power number, perhaps also fueling the power exchange between the hunted animals and the hunted Gawain.
The end message seems to be that, despite any initial animosity between the Christian Knights and the Fairy Knights, their value system remains compatible. Gawain’s good behavior is praised by both sides, and his error is scolded then put into perspective by both sides. Both the Green Knight and the Round Table admit that, despite Gawain’s small indiscretion, in the end he passes the test. The Round Table Knights have earned the Green Knight’s respect and the Green Knight, in turn, is honored by the Round Table in their vow to forever after wear green baldrics to represent Gawain’s trials and tribulations. Can the Green Knight and the Knights of the Round Table live in mutual respect? The anonymous author at least seems to think they can. Then again, he may have been a Green Knight himself, hence his anonymity.
Since I lack a snappy ending for this post, I will leave you with Mister Eddie Izzard and the Church of England. Cheers!
Anonymous. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Ed. Betty Radice. Trans. Brian Stone. New York: Penguin (1974). Print.
Werness, Hope B. The Continuum Encyclopedia of Animal Symbolism in Art. New York: Continuum International (2006). Print.