Monday, December 26, 2011
I'm Dreaming of Green Christmas: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight's Most Dangerous Christmas Game
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.
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.