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.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Writing through Grief (or, How I got over critical distance and just started writing)

Kate's recent post on grief was inspiring and honest and brave, and the fact that it led to so much wonderful discussion, both in the blog comments and in other forums, indicates that others found it inspiring as well. Her ideas on grief specifically struck me, since grief has been a powerful force in my graduate career thus far, but I was also interested in her combination of the personal and the professional. I admire those people who admit their personal connection to their work, those people who admit that they have lives and loves and families and that those things don't just take away from their work but actually inform and influence it. Finding a way to do so can be tricky, and can also be scary, especially to grad students who are trying desperately to professionalize. However, I do think it's important and rewarding, so I will try it out here and see what people think.

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In my second year of PhD work, my father died. The loss was crippling. I didn't know how to function in the world, no less to go on with my work. My dad had believed I was intelligent, capable of anything, but I didn't know how to be these things once he was gone. Yet I simply returned to my courses and my work and tried to understand how to exist in a world without my father. I had been writing a seminar paper on a 15th century play, the Digby Mary Magdalene, and, though I forced myself to continue with my coursework, I couldn't return to that paper right away. I took an incomplete (something I would warn other grad students to avoid at all costs), and focused on my other work. When I came back to that paper, I saw it in a new way. Near the play's opening, Mary's father dies suddenly. I had previously seen this plot point as a clumsy bit of writing. Right after a perfectly nice conversation with his children, the father is struck down by death with no warning and no explanation. Before, this seemed far-fetched. But after my own father's death, I suddenly understood. Death is sudden, inexplicable, and terrible. Even in cases of lingering illness, death itself rarely feels anything but shocking. The timing is seldom right. I had been writing vaguely about the positive way in which Mary Magdalene is depicted in the play, but I was now able to understand what was so different about this depiction of the saint.

Though Mary Magdalene is meant to represent the redemption possible to every sinner, many medieval sermons discussed her early life in a decidedly misogynist way. Her early sins (completely fabricated, by the way -- there's no mention in the Bible that she was a prostitute) were represented as evidence of female weakness and wickedness. Fathers and brothers and husbands were warned not to give their daughters and sisters and wives too much freedom. If the Magdalene was any example, an unchaperoned woman couldn't help but turn to sin. (For more information on these sermons, see The Making of the Magdalen: Preaching and Popular Devotion in the Later Middle Ages by Katherine Ludwig Jansen.) But that's not how it was depicted in this play. In the Digby play, Mary's a sweet but naive young woman, a dutiful daughter. She grows lost not because of female weakness but because of human grief. The playwright never denigrates Mary, something that I'd noticed in my initial readings of the play. Yet now I saw something more. Mary says that grief has wounded her. She's struck down by the loss of her father and no longer knows how to exist in the world. Most everyone in the audience would have experienced some kind of grief. Her heartache would have made sense, particularly at a time when the infant mortality rate was high and the Black Death was still in recent memory. Mary's fumbling to recover from her loss and reclaim her identity, perhaps making a few mistakes along the way, would have evoked sympathy, not derision. Her mistakes are not those of a wicked woman, but a grieving human. What I had written off as an awkward side note turned out to be the key to Mary's positive characterization. Anyone who has experienced any kind of heartache can recognize a bit of him or herself in Mary, a point I find crucial for the play's message.

This is not to discount rigorous research or careful examination of the evidence in the play, but rather to demonstrate how I could see important aspects of the play better when I approached it as a human who had experienced loss as well. My attempt at critical distance had blinded me to those features of the play meant for a very human audience. Combining my own personal response to my research and analysis brought me a much fuller picture of the play, and allowed me to clear up my incomplete. That paper has turned into several presentations, an article, and a dissertation chapter. I had discovered a new way to engage with my sources, and people seemed to be responding to it as well. I used a similar tactic when writing about Joan of Arc. My own horror at the sight of my father's ashes turned into an examination of the symbolism of Joan's execution. Joan was burned twice, and her ashes were thrown in the river, and I wondered what to make of this horrifying spectacle. I found a great deal to say about the way in which Joan's enemies attempted to annihilate Joan's body and keep peasants from making relics out of her. More to the point, I found a great deal of fascinating evidence. By the time I finished, I felt better about my father's ashes, and about my research. Joan was a real human who lived and who died, and it seemed right to take her death seriously (and even a bit emotionally). Instead of keeping me from doing careful scholarship, my human response to Joan aided me once again.

I am not saying that I have any real answers. I'm still sometimes overwhelmed, confused, scared, sad. I'm still not sure how to write a dissertation. And I am not saying that my father died so that I could learn something or so that I could write better papers, but rather that the only way for me to survive the rush of emotion that flooded me in the wake of my father's death was to allow it to flow into my work. The texts I read were written by humans for other humans. I am, after all, in the humanities, and admitting that I was a human with all of my faults and feelings was a relief. Pretending to a kind of objectivity which I simply cannot (and don't really want to) have is neither honest nor productive. It's scary to admit my emotional connection to my work, but it feels right, too. It is not necessarily narcissistic to focus on one's own experiences. It may be self-centered to wallow indefinitely (though a little wallowing can be quite helpful), but I think that bringing personal emotions and experiences and traumas into a larger conversation is quite the opposite. It's a way that we can all connect and gain a greater understanding. We can't say that people or literature were just the same in the Middle Ages as they are now. We can't say that people around the world or even in our own neighborhoods experience anything in the same way as we do. Grief is particular, to be sure. Neither can traumas be compared. One child experiences war or genocide while another loses a beloved family pet. No, these situations cannot be equated. Yet anyone who has experienced heartache of any kind, from a first break-up to the death of a parent, has a share in human suffering. Such heartaches are soul-crushing, and yet they contain within them a gift: human empathy. All grief is different, and yet those who have experienced any grief can understand the depth of human emotion and therefore feel for others who suffer. Not everyone can accept this gift. Some turn inward and never look back out. Nor does this gift bring any final answers. But there's a beauty in caring for others. There's a beauty in bringing our own human vulnerabilities and offering them up to others and accepting their vulnerabilities in return. There's a beauty in caring about one's work enough to let it be emotional, imperfect, human.