A Beheading at a Feast: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Fitt I

The beheading. Take a look at this image in the digitalized manuscript.

Today we dive into Sir Gawain and the Green Knight! I’m so excited to journey through this wonderful fourteenth-century poem with you. On the last post, I discussed some of the background and context of the poem, so you can go check that out if you missed it. 

Welcome to what the poet calls Fitt I, the first part of the poem. And we are plunged into—Troy? Isn’t this poem set in England with King Arthur? From Simon Armitage’s translation:

Once the siege and assault of Troy had ceased,
with the city a smoke-heap of cinders and ash,
the traitor who contrived such betrayal there
was tried for his treachery, the truest on earth… (Armitage, 1-4)

This traitor, the poet writes, is Aeneas. The poet goes on to do some serious namedropping: post Troy, Aeneas’s ancestors go on to found Rome through Romulus, someone named Ticius builds Tuscany, Langobard builds Lombardy, and finally, Felix Brutus founds Britain in this mythology of civilization-building. What in the world are we doing here?

Our medieval poet would have heartily agreed with the 20th century Southern gothic novelist William Faulkner, whom I heartily hated as a youth: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” As Faulkner’s characters are haunted by their past, so Arthur’s court, we understand before even meeting him or his round table, is haunted by its legacy and forebears. What is this legacy? Treachery and violence. Hm, rather ominous.

We begin every story, every life, with echoes of the old behind it. My culture likes to forget this. Americans do not wish to remember the haunted past, but our poet reminds us that we are never without it. It matters because it shapes how we see the world, how we make decisions, and the substance of our values. Though as we will see, Gawain and his friends of Arthur’s court, including Arthur himself, frame themselves as the pinnacle of chivalry, constantly striving for perfection as men and as knights, they have been born from betrayal. The poet won’t let us forget it. 

To get uncomfortably theological for a minute: this is another portrayal of the hard reality of original sin, the doctrine that we are born into sin. Medieval people had loads of theories on why this was, including some regrettably bonkers ones, like that sex itself transmitted sin. But I think this poet illustrates it better. We simply can’t escape, through our own good deeds or perfection, the evils of our forebears, whether those are literal or cultural ancestors. I must face, by the grace of God, the evils that my ancestors visited upon the earth, rather than pretend the damage is over and confined to that past. My ancestors, not that long ago, practiced slavery. My cultural forebears, until very recently, used asbestos and polluted freely. I as a person face the consequences of those intentional and unintentional sins today. So the treachery of the ancient past hangs over Gawain in his quest to be the consummate knight:

And wonder, dread and war
have lingered in that land
where loss and love in turn
have held the upper hand. (Armitage, 16-19)

It’s Christmas at Camelot. Feasting, jousting, jokes, singing, and gifts abound around the Round Table. Queen Guinevere is radiant; King Arthur is young and strong. The names around the table are already renowned for their acts of daring. And among them is Sir Gawain.

The poet launches into a genre we are familiar with—at least if you read People Magazine. He spends a LOT of time describing the feast, from the clothes worn to the food consumed. He is showing how wonderfully stylish and up-to-date the court is—important for an obscure poet of the Northwest, not London, to show that he’s up to speed with the latest fashion in clothing and food. The Gawain-Poet is very fond of that move, and we will see it time and time again. He has a lot of fun with description. It’s probably the part of the poem least to our modern taste, but only because we don’t have the fourteenth-century sense of what is cool. It is like me describing to a current thirteen year-old the aesthetic of MySpace in 2004—slightly wasted.

But into the marvelous, elaborate description comes something from another world, with the impact of a volcanic eruption. The doors of Arthur’s Great Hall open suddenly, and in trots a massive warhorse, with an enormous knight astride it.

a fearful form appeared, framed in the door:
a mountain of a man, immeasurably high,
a hulk of a human from head to hips,
so long and thick in his loins and his limbs
I should genuinely judge him to be a half-giant,
or a most massive man, the mightiest of mortals.
But handsome, too, like any horseman worth his horse,
for despite the bulk and brawn of his body
his stomach and waist were slender and sleek.
In fact in all features he was finely formed	
		it seemed.
		Amazement seized their minds,
		no soul had ever seen
		a knight of such a kind—
		entirely emerald green. (Armitage, 136-150)

I have to give you a little dose of Middle English, because it’s just too wonderful:

For wonder of his hwe men hade,
Set in his semblaunt sene;
He ferde as freke were fade,
And overal enker grene.

Overall pure green! And moreover, unlike the portrayal in recent movie on this poem, this knight is handsome, broad of shoulder and slim of waist, sounding like a massive, graceful professional athlete. He’s not Shrek; he’s emerald-toned Lebron James. The poet goes into another of his long descriptive passages that reveal the elegance and coolness of the Green Knight’s raiment. His armor is impeccable, rich fur spills out of his cloak, gold edges brighten the green fabric. He wears no helmet, meaning that he’s not literally about to fight someone. Yet in one hand, he holds “the mother of all axes,” as Armitage memorably puts it, a giant, gleaming, green weapon. In the other, he holds a branch of holly, both appropriately festive and declaring his current lack of interest in killing someone.  

However, the Green Knight is rather rude. “Who is the governor of this gang?” he laughingly snarls into the faces of the startled knights. This question is more meant to offend then to discover—clearly he showed up at the Round Table and expects to find King Arthur. The guests sit in silent shock. All he wants, the Green Knight insists, is to play a game. If the knights of Arthur’s court are as worthy as he’s heard (and he notes they don’t look particularly impressive), then they will happily grant him this game. 

if a person here present, within these premises,
is big or bold or red-blooded enough 
to strike me one stroke and be struck in return,
I shall give him a gift of this gigantic cleaver
and the axe shall be his to handle how he likes.
I’ll kneel, bare my neck and take the first knock.
So who has the gall? The gumption? The guts? (Armitage, 285-291)

In twelve months and a day, his game-playing partner will have to meet him for his side of the blow, announces the Knight. The hall is dead silent. Wouldn’t you be, if green Lebron challenged you to strike him and twinklingly announced he’ll strike you in return afterwards? Green and grinning, the Knight announces that he knew they were all cowards. 

The young, brash king leaps up in anger and says he’ll happily do it. But our Gawain intervenes, speaking for the first time. “It’s not fitting for a great king to respond to the challenge, let one of his lesser men do it instead,” gently argues Gawain as he talks Arthur down. 

What’s the big deal? It’s just a game, right? Why not let Arthur do it, or why not laugh the Green Knight out of the hall and refuse to play this psychotic game (warily and from a distance, of course)? But here we begin to touch on something that will run through this poem, in a vein to its heart: the question of honor, closely related to what the poet calls courtesy. 

For medieval knights, courtesy was far more than opening the door for a woman or saying please and thank you. It was part of the chivalric code of honor, part of knowing what was appropriate for a knight to say and do. From large issues (like when it was appropriate to kill someone) to small issues (conversation at the table), honor and courtesy ruled their behavior. It’s unfitting that Arthur answers this challenge when he has knights, lesser in importance, to do it for him. So Gawain steps up.

Arthur tells him to hit cleanly and then he won’t have to worry about the following blow, because the Green Knight will be dead. Bold assumption that he can die, Arthur, given that the man is green and seems a little out of the ordinary. Gawain introduces himself and takes the ax. The Green Knight bows, baring his neck. Gawain takes a mighty swing and—“The scharp of the schalk schindered the bones.” (424) What a bone-chilling, brilliant piece of poetry! “Scharp” is sharp, an adjectival noun that describes the axe blade, schalk is man, and schindered broke. But the cleverness comes not from the mere fact of alliteration—think of the swooshing noise that a blade makes as it whistles through the air, the shear as it encounters wind, then flesh, then bone. We can hear Gawain’s deadly stroke in those creepy “sh” sounds of the very line. But that’s the thing, his mammoth swing is not deadly at all.

The handsome head tumbles onto the earth
and the king’s men kick it as it clatters past.
Blood gutters brightly against his green gown,
yet the man doesn’t shudder or stagger or sink
but trudges towards them on those tree-trunk legs
and rummages around, reaches at their feet
and cops hold of his head and hoists it high,
and strides to his steed, snatches the bridle,
steps into the stirrup and swings into the saddle
still gripping his head by a handful of hair. (Armitage, 428-436)

What a vivid scene! The head literally rolls around the floor and the lords and ladies of the court kick at it. I’ve always wondered whether that was in arrogant mockery, or in horror, like kicking when you see a mouse, that a head was bouncing about on the rushes of Camelot. It doesn’t matter too much, because that head does not stay there. The massive, tree-trunk legs stride forward uncommanded, and the headless torso scoops and gropes for the head. He grabs his head by his own hair and swings gracefully back into the saddle. 

I just adore the creepy cleverness of this poet. For from then on, he refers to the body as “he” but the head as “it”:

For that scalp and skull now swung from his fist;
to the noblest at the table he turned the face
and it opened its eyelids, stared straight ahead… (Armitage, 444-446)

If I wasn’t worried about bursting your eardrums as you listen, I’d scream in delighted horror right now. Happy Halloween, everyone!

The ominous “it” reminds Gawain that he must get to the Green Chapel, to receive his just desserts in this terrifying little game, next New Year’s morning. The body with the dangling head gallops out of the hall, putting even Washington Irving’s headless horseman to shame, as the horse’s hooves strike the stone of the floor and bring forth fiery sparks. 

But the spirits of this group cannot be dampened on Christmas. After a moment of awkward silence, laughter and excited chatter fill the air again, and people feast and dance until dawn. The poet’s voice of the poem warns Gawain: you must not forget your appointment nor delay, no matter how overwhelming your dread.

I have one major, looming question about the Christmas game. Did Gawain have to behead the Knight? I can imagine an alternate world where Gawain nicks the Green Knight’s skin with the giant blade—a blow, and an answer to the challenge, but without the excessive violence. After all, the giant knight uses words like blow, barlay, strike, stroke. He never actually uses the specific language of beheading. Did Arthur’s advice to end it without fear of retribution unduly influence him towards more bloodshed, more violence? And of course the Green Knight implicitly condones Gawain’s choice by deliberately baring his neck. Gawain takes these suggestions and controls his fear, the fear of the return blow, with what he thinks ensures his safety: a blow so final that it makes a return impossible. He’s wrong about the finality of his beheading, of course!

But I want us to tuck this question away and to ask what it might mean. How lethal should this game be? Is it more like a duel to the death, a grim game in its own right, or more like twelve year-olds shooting each other with paintball guns? Does the game have imaginative flexibility, where that answer—the amount of violence—depends on the ear, the fear, the company, and the values of the person being challenged? I find it brilliant and fascinating that the poet gently links Gawain’s growing fear and the court’s challenged pride with a parallel, unnecessary increase in violence. We only see and ask these questions retrospectively. In the moment, Gawain feels like he has to behead him. Yet I think by leaving this space in intention, the Gawain-Poet means us to ask such questions. He’s a playful poet, one who asks his reader to remember, and to question. We the readers play our own game of interpretation.

Coming up in Fitt II: some super medieval fashion and a journey into the wild with our hero Gawain. Of course we will talk about those things, but we are also going to think hard about how our lives embody our values, or don’t, and how we handle that conflict. You can listen to the podcast of this text below:

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