Monday, December 26, 2011

I'm Dreaming of Green Christmas: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight's Most Dangerous Christmas Game

In honor of the holidays I thought I would talk about my favorite Christmas story – Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Much ink has been spilt about Gawain and his verdant foe, but I thought today I would try and pull a Christmas message – and maybe some cheer – out of the notoriously grim story. The poem, an anonymous fourteenth-century alliterative tale, begins, fittingly enough, with a Christmas party, and no tacky office party, but a feast to go down in the history books. In the spirit of the season, the Green Knight bursts in on the party. Unlike Santa, though, he chooses to come in while everyone's awake, and to use the front door rather than the chimney. And instead of toys for the good and coal for the bad, he brings with him a bow of holly and an axe. Holly, which blooms bright red amid the frozen winter landscape, is a fitting gift of this holiday, a reminder of the hope that comes with the cycle of the seasons. Spring will come again, and color will return to the land. The axe, however, is a far more chilling gift. Even more dangerous than a Red Ryder BB Gun, it's a violent offering in conjunction with a violent game. While the young knights and ladies of the court have been playing flirtatious games where the stakes are kisses, the stakes of the Green Knight's game are life and death, severed head for severed head. (Of course, the Green Knight's game turns out to be a kissing game, too, but one with serious repercussions.) The light, superficial tone of the opening celebration is shattered as the Green Knight confronts the court and asks to test their pride. He offers the axe to anyone who will play his beheading game. He'll take a blow from a Round Table knight this evening in return for a blow from him in one year at the mysterious Green Chapel. When Gawain takes the challenge, he has no way of knowing that the Green Knight can pick up his head and keep talking once the blow is given. When the Green Knight departs, however, severed head in hand, the court returns to its frivolous ways.

As the year passes between that Christmas and the one in which Gawain will need to seek out the Green Knight and fulfill his promise, the court maintains a polite, artificial veneer. They are thinking that Gawain doesn't stand a chance, but they tell him that he'll be fine. They continue with laughter and games as Gawain's journey looms near. And when the day arrives for Gawain to set out, they spend pages and pages arming him beautifully, setting up a hard and beautiful exterior meant to define him as a knight. Little do they know that the true test is an interior one, and that the armor will not help him at all for that. As if to hint that Gawain's preparation is faulty, barely a line is given to the great monsters and foes that Gawain meets on the road. He dispatches dragon and troll with ease, but finds the cold harder to bear (armor doesn't provide much protection from a blizzard). When his prayers are answered and a castle appears, he thinks of it as a welcome respite from his trials. He doesn't realize that the true test will occur within the safety and warmth of the castle walls. In fact, he moves ever more into the interior of the castle – first to a private chamber and then into a curtained bed – signifying his personal move toward the interior as the test continues. The lord of the castle greets him warmly, as does his lady wife, a mysterious old woman, and everyone else in the castle. They've heard stories of the courtly Gawain and are pleased to welcome him to their holiday celebrations. The host tells Gawain to rest up before his continued journey. The Green Chapel that he seeks is near, and he can sleep away the days until the new year. In fact, the host will add some Christmas cheer with a game. He will hunt each day for three days and exchange his winnings for whatever the knight can win inside the castle.

While the lord's away hunting, the lady of the castle tempts our valiant hero in his bedroom, and the stakes of that temptation rise each day in conjunction with the stakes of the hunting going on outside the castle walls. The emotions Gawain feels during these scenes of temptation are many -- fear, anger, annoyance, lust. Yet he shows none of these. He remains diplomatic and polite, managing to refuse the lady without insulting her. Each day Gawain escapes with a chaste kiss (one more for each day), and passes those kisses on to his host in exchange for the fruits of the hunt. The last day, however, the lady manages to give him a gift as well, a green girdle. He refuses all her love tokens and rich offerings, but finally gives in when she tells him that the girdle will protect him from all violence. His love for his own life and fear of death win out, and he accepts the gift. He even promises not to tell anyone. That evening, when the lord asks him if he won anything besides kisses, seeing no way to honor both his word to the lady and the lord, he tells him that he did not. The next morning, he heads with a (terribly frightened) guide to the Green Chapel, which could perhaps be more aptly called a Green Mound, to meet the Green Knight. The Green Knight makes Gawain wait and listen while he sharpens the axe with which he'll behead him, and then comes to complete the year-long beheading game. He moves to strike Gawain with his axe, but stops when Gawain twitches. He moves to strike again, and stops again. He moves to strike a third time, and this time nicks Gawain on the neck. [SPOILER ALERT] Gawain is confused, but quick, and moves away to put shield and sword between himself and his giant opponent. Having fulfilled his obligation to the game, he'll not take another swing without a fight. But the Green Knight laughs and reveals himself to be the same man who has graciously hosted Gawain for the last three nights. The old lady in the Castle was Morgan La Fey, and she used her magic to transform him. The first two swings were for the first two days, in which Gawain resisted temptation and kept his word. The third swing, resulting in a cut, and a scar, was for the third day, in which Gawain failed just a little in not telling of his gift. A small cut for a small failing. Yet Gawain responds with shame and anger. His blush in response to the Green Knight's words is a physical response which can neither be hidden nor controlled. Its speaks of his shame in a way none of his carefully measured words could do. His angry outburst that follows his blush continues with the trend. Gawain finally has a completely honest communication, and though it's not pretty, it does signal a move to a new kind of authenticity.

When Gawain returns to his court, he wears the scar and the girdle as badges of his failing. Though he left as a representative of the court, his journey has taken him on an individual path that his fellow Round Table knights cannot fully understand. They all adopt the green girdle as a fashion statement, an act of seeming solidarity. But no one can truly comprehend what Gawain's been through. Maybe Gawain's too hard on himself, and maybe he misunderstands the lesson. It may even be that his attempt to render his newfound authenticity externally, the only way he knows how, is doomed to fail. The poem has been read as a social critique, as fatalistic, and even as apocalyptic. And it is all of these things. Yet there is something hopeful as well as dreadful in a story of one person's journey set against such a large backdrop. Seasons change, cities rise and fall, and yet amid all this we focus in on a single knight's struggle to know himself. Maybe he is too hard on himself, and maybe no one else in the court understands or learns anything. But Gawain learns. He learns some humility. He learns some honesty. He learns something about himself and about the kinds of battles that really matter in life. His is not a story of the knight in shining armor fighting a dragon, though that surely takes place on his journey, but rather the struggle of an individual to be a good person. Gawain grows introspective over the course of the poem. He reexamines his values and his intentions as well as his actions. Yes, this is a painful process, and he can't go through it for anyone else in the court, but it's a process that leaves him more aware of himself and the world. Perhaps we could all take some time this holiday season to be a little introspective, to take a moment's break from shiny wrapping paper and colored lights and think about what we've learned this year, what we've done well and what we could work on. And though Gawain doesn't seem to change the course of Camelot, perhaps his story can help make us think a little bit. And maybe that is the best gift of all.


  1. Kristi, what a PERFECT post for the Christmas season! My comments have gotten a bit long, so this is part one!

    SGGK has been my reading choice of late as well given the season (it's my absolute favorite too, but you know that already :-D). I have such fond memories of reading this romance as I studied for my exams. It was my third time sitting down with it, and I remember spending that afternoon, as snow fell gently outside, all curled up in my comfy, golden velvet (less hideous than it sounds and hey it was a garage sale find!) office chair, with a cat and tea for company. I let myself get completely lost in the story in a way that I had a hard time doing with other texts as I feverishly preparing for my comps. It was magical.

    This ability to get lost in the story comes in part, as you explored so well here, from the SGGK's keen sense of pacing, characterization, and interlaced symbolism and imagery. The progression of Gawain's journey, its cyclic nature, and (my favorite) the juxtaposition between Bertilak's hunting and the amorous fox and hound game played by Gawain and Bertilak's lady have always fascinated me with their symbolic potential and the cumulative effect that they have on the Gawain's internal development.

    As you wrote about the discovery of the Green Knight's identity and his testing of Gawain – where Gawain's self-perception is finally upended, I couldn't help but thinking – weirdly, I'll admit – about the climactic reveal in Super 8. I'll confess that this connection is likely due to the fact that I just watched the movie a mere 48 hours ago! Up until the end, we've seen the alien in shards of light and shadow, never fully. It's only when Joe, the young protagonist, offers himself up as a sacrifice for the sake of his friends that we see the beast in full and realize, in the process, how deeply vulnerable the creature is as well. We're invited (I think anyway) to understand our inability to reconsider the alien. The creature has been misunderstood and maligned for the vast majority of its tenure on earth; fittingly, Spielberg chose to hide the creature in shadow for much of the film in order to commenting, perhaps, upon the powers of (mis)perception and it's all-too-frequently tragic consequences.

    Bertilak is also maligned at the outset of the romance, but by his own choosing. He, unlike the alien in Super 8, is fully in control of his fate and of the tests he offers to the humans in Arthur's court. The differences are certainly obvious and important, but in a bizarre way, both works share in the exploration of self and of what it means to be a feeling, caring, individual (human or no). They both reveal, through their protagonists' encounters with foreign and highly powerful creatures, the fragility and failure of temporal beings and also a human's capacity to transcend his/her limitations and perceptions. Like Bertilak, the alien becomes a lens through which we see humanity's weaknesses and ethical failings. It reveals humans' frailty and vulnerability as well as their capacity to transcend previously cultivated perceptions. Bertilak, in a similar fashion, pokes holes in the polite veneer of civility at Arthur's court throughout the whole of the romance, revealing in the process the imperfections that lie beneath the surface of court culture and chivalry. Gawain and the protagonist of Super 8's worlds get a lot bigger after their respective encounters with the Other and, in the end, I like to believe that both characters (however bad Gawain might feel about himself) are better off for the experiences.

  2. The failures revealed and displayed by the others of these tales certainly, as you point out, allow for a deeper kind of authenticity in the protagonists. Like you and others among our Rochester cohorts, I have always been struck by the emphasis that romances like SGGK place on failure and how the awareness of one's failings allows a character (at least the opportunity) to reach for, as you put it, a new kind of authenticity. To go back to Super 8 for a second, the encounter between the boy and the alien towards the end is, in a way, allows both to reassess each other because both are willing to admit (at a certain basic level) the failures in the series of events that have happened in the past. Both had many choices that they could have made in this final scene, but both chose – fortunately – not only to accept each other's difference but to be vulnerable in the process; this is the only time you see the alien in full, and actually get to see the creature's remarkable eyes (which have previously been covered up by either a protective or rage-induced film). Failure in SGGK is highly subjective, and deeply painful, and the end of the romance the revelation of the hero's failings leaves us with no guarantees. Unlike the tidy ending of Super 8, we will never know in SGGK whether Gawain will always view himself as marred, or whether or not he will become a better person for having been forced to face his failings and limitations as a human being. In the end, the text's suspension at its conclusion invites us – as you pointed out at the end of your post – to make such choices for ourselves. Particularly as the days grow short and the year winds its way to a close . . .

    My point, in making this unabashedly wackadoodle comparison is to posit that these (VERY different) works of fiction demonstrate the instrumental potential of a constructed Other. Unlike, say, a fair number of crusades romances who set up the cultural others as destructible straw men, the Others in both SGGK and Super 8 serve as a means of teaching humans (both real and fictive) about their limitations and foibles but also about our capacity to learn from them. I am going to have SO much fun with this in the classroom! And speaking of, do you mind if I ask my students to read this post as part of their work during our SGGK unit? I think they'd get a lot out of it.

    P.S. As I was typing up my response, I realized that if they ever decide to do a musical version of SGGK (which, um, someone really needs to make happen) The Green Knight (perhaps even just its head) should absolutely sing “All I Want for Christmas is You” to Gawain. Bertilak's wife could even do a reprise. Like Gawain's guilt-via-the-green-girdle it could be the one thing he just CAN'T get away from, much as he tries. I think that would be perfect. And with that, I leave you!

  3. First of all, I apologize for taking so long to respond. Your comments are so thought-provoking, Kate, and I've really appreciated and enjoyed them. As always, you mix the erudite and the fun in ways few can, and I love it. Certainly feel free to have your students read my post (or anything I've written), and please let me know how that goes.

    In terms of the ways you discuss the Green Knight here, I am really fascinated by the alien comparison. I haven't seen Super 8 yet (thought your post makes me want to watch it a.s.a.p.!), but I find the connection compelling. I wonder if the ways that we discuss extra terrestrials now might form an interesting comparison with the ways that people in the Middle Ages discussed the so-called monstrous races. Those fictional groups of people lived far away in places almost unreachable to most, and there was debate not only about whether they existed but about whether they were even human. As people came to know certain areas better, the monstrous races were relocated farther and farther away. Once India, the traditional home of such peoples, had been fairly explored by westerners, the groups were said to be in Ethiopia. Similarly, humans have travelled to the moon and found no one there to greet them, and we've sent rovers to Mars as well, pushing the possibility of alien life farther away. And there are also constant concerns that aliens may be coming to get us, similar to the ways in which Middle English romance evokes such a sense of anxiety about heathens coming to get us (as you've written about so eloquently in the past, Kate). In any case, the monstrous races are certainly not equivalent to aliens, nor are the socio-historical contexts which produced the debates about these two totally parallel. Yet I think that the comparison could nonetheless be fruitful, especially when discussing such unfamiliar medieval subjects with undergraduates.

    The Green Knight is, of course, quite different from the monstrous races. He is, first of all, much closer (though there is a lot to say about his location in Wales, and some interesting postcolonial readings of the way Wales is used in the poem). Further, he is more clearly human. He's described as the largest of men, meaning that he's pushing the boundaries, but still a man. He's dressed beautifully; he speaks the same language and eats the same food. In fact, the first time we hear a description of him, we hear all about his features and clothing before we even learn that he's green (like the ending of the story, this forces the reader to re-examine the information in light of a surprising new detail). He's strange, and his green chapel is disturbingly unlike any chapel Gawain has seen, but he spends most of his time as Bertilak, a decidedly human fellow. Perhaps the story would be easier if the Green Knight were a clear monster, if he were obviously a villain and we could call the romance "Gawain vs. the Green Knight." What makes the romance so challenging is that human and monster, good and evil are so unclear. The surface turns out to be a poor measure of a man, and attempts to get beyond the surface are challenging and perhaps even futile. Unlike the alien you describe from Super 8, the Green Knight is a purposeful intruder, a challenger of Round Table customs as well as pride. Yet like that alien he doesn't fit squarely in a monster category either, and subsequently forces those willing to accept his challenge to reexamine themselves and their world.


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