It’s the last installment of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and while I was prepping for today’s post, I was reading the poem aloud. I got all teary-eyed because I just love the poetry here. The content is wonderful and the Middle English is wildly beautiful, even unearthly. I hope that many of you are discovering that same love, truth, and wonder hidden in this 650-year-old gem. Let’s get to it.
Gawain wakes up on the morning of his destiny. He puts on his most dazzling outfit, and makes sure to tightly wrap the green girdle around his waist (the poet comments that it looks good on him, but he wasn’t wearing it for beauty). He saddles Gringolet, his horse, and a guide leads them both into the wilderness. From Simon Armitage’s translation:
They scrambled up bankings where branches were bare, clambered up cliff faces where the cold clings. The clouds which had climbed now cooled and dropped so the moors and the mountains were muzzy with mist and every hill wore a hat of mizzle on its head. (Armitage, 2077-2081)
I love that Armitage gleans so much from the Middle English here. One of the most charming lines of the original mentions these “mist-hats” on the mountains, “Vch hille hade a hatte, a myst-hakel huge” (2081). Next time you see a mountain-top covered in cloud (for me, a regular occurrence, because I live in Denver), you can gently whisper to yourself, a “hello, myst-hakel”!
Gawain’s nameless guide gets him close to the chapel, then uneasily begins to take his leave. He attempts to convince Gawain to join him in fleeing. You don’t know this Green Knight, says the man. He LOVES to murder people! It is his favorite pastime! The servant pleads for Gawain, whom he has grown to love and respect:
for God’s sake travel an alternative track, ride another road, and be rescued by Christ. I’ll head off home, and with hand on heart I shall swear by God and all his good saints, and on all earthly holiness, and other such oaths, that your secret is safe, and not a soul will know that you fled in fear from the fellow I described. (Armitage, 2119-2125)
Gawain refuses, with some irritation, and says he will never be taken for a coward. He adds:
He may be stout and stern And standing armed with stave but those who strive to serve our Lord, our Lord will save. (Armitage, 2136-2139)
Now this is rather interesting to me. Both of these men are doing something which we often do today—talking about God’s work in the world confidently, directly, as if the Lord didn’t use mediums or go-betweens or subtleties in his work. For the servant, it seems that Christ doesn’t have enough power to rescue Gawain if he does something so colossally stupid as following through with his promise to visit the bloodthirsty green fiend. Meanwhile, Gawain seems to have conveniently forgotten about his own compromises he has made—ahem, secretly keeping the green girdle—undermining the strong statements that he makes on finding his fortune on “the grace of God alone” (2159). He sounds like the folks today who triumphantly declare their faith in their God-given immune systems, conveniently forgetting that God has saved lives through the hands and feet of people (including doctors and scientists, and perhaps sexy court ladies) countless times. We all can easily vacillate between perhaps performative assertions of utter trust, and implicit doubt that God himself can deal with the terrible implications of our choices. And we are all remarkably blind in our capacities for self-deception. I see myself in Gawain’s erratic ability to go from sneakily pocketing an item of enchantment for self-preservation and loudly declaring infallible trust in God in the meantime. In this moment, the blame doesn’t rest in his taking the girdle, but in that intellectual dishonesty.
Equally this doesn’t invalidate Gawain’s courage in this moment. He has an out, and he refuses to take it. We the readers know he has been afraid, dreaming dreadful dreams, facing foes seen and unseen to get to what will likely be his death, and yet he goes onward. And boy is that courage about to be tested.
Gawain reaches the Green Chapel. This hill surrounded by frantically rushing water is creepy:
it had a hole at one end at either side, and its walls, matted with weeds and moss, enclosed a cavity, like a kind of old cave or crevice in the crag—it was all too unclear to declare. ‘Green church?’ chunters the knight. ‘More like the devil’s lair where at the nub of night he dabbles in dark prayers.’ (Armitage, 2180-2188)
Then, another moment of wild horror and cleverness. A sound rings out over the seemingly empty, haunted scene. Not a scream, but something close: it is the shrill sound of an axe being whetted. Here, I read in the Middle English, because yet again our poet imitates the sound of steel on a whetting stone, being honed to a fine edge perfect for shearing necks:
What! hit clattered in the cliff as hit cleue schulde As one vpon a gryndelstone had grounden a sythe. What! hit wharred and whette as water at a mulne; What! hit rusched and ronge, rawthe to here. (2201-2204)
Can you hear the noise that clatters and cleaves the cliff? The repetition of what! is particularly ingenious. The word was traditionally used in alliterative poetry as a call to listen closely (it’s the first word of that famous Old English poem, Beowulf) but here it also sounds like the sharpening itself. It’s basically a pun via sound! The sounds used in the alliteration also echo the sharpening, the w’s and the r’s closely resembling that screaming, shearing, rasping noise. It sends chills down my spine.
Gawain has one last chance to lose his nerve, but instead calls out and reveals his presence. Come out, it’s now or never, he calls. And something growls back: “Abide!”
Out of the stones comes the Green Knight, now with a giant new axe in his hand, and the massive green man uses it to vault over the rushing waters and comes to Gawain. He greets Gawain, and notes he has fulfilled his promise. Gawain tries to look unafraid. He bares his neck, and bows before the knight. In a theatrical flourish, the Green Knight draws the axe high above, ready to deal a deathly blow. As he brings it down, Gawain suddenly flinches and shrinks, and the axe-wielder diverts his swing. “You’re not Gawain,” he says. Such a man would never shrink
at foretaste of harm. Never could I hear of such cowardice from that knight. Did I budge or even blink when you aimed the axe?” (Armitage, 2270-2274).
We’ve heard this taunt before. Its presence, as always, is telling. Gawain’s life is at stake, but more importantly to him, his reputation is on trial. Gawain protests that he won’t do it again, but brusquely tells the Green Knight to get on with it. The Green Knight taunts him by repeating the swing, but moving it away at the last second. This time, Gawain is rooted like a tree. With inner fear and outward anger, Gawain demands that the Green Knight just hit him already.
With a great, final stroke, the Green Knight brings the axe mightily down upon Gawain’s neck.
Hoisted and aimed, the axe hurtled downwards, the blade bearing down on the knight’s bare neck, a ferocious blow, but far from being fatal it skewed to one side, just skimming the skin and finely snicking the fat of the flesh so that bright red blood shot from body to earth. Seeing it shining on the snowy ground Gawain leapt forward a spear’s length at least, grabbed hold of his helmet and rammed it on his head, brought his shield to his side with a shimmy of his shoulder, then brandished his sword before blurting out brave words, because never since birth, as his mother’s babe, was he half as happy as here and now. “Enough swiping, sir, you’ve swung your swing.” (Armitage, 2309-2322)
Gawain has lived! He’s ready to fight if the Green Knight follows through on his murderous reputation, but instead the Green Knight looks at Gawain standing aggressively and bravely, and in his heart admires him.
The Green Knight explains his own game, that he had divided his strokes into three. “Had I mustered all my muscles into one mighty blow, / I would have hit you more harshly and done you great harm,” he explains, but instead, he feinted with his first blow, for Gawain’s truthful behavior had won his trust (2343-2344). He missed Gawain again with his second, “and this for the morning / when you kissed my pretty wife then kindly kissed me” (2350-2351). Wait—the Green Knight is Lord Bertilak?!?! Yet this hardly has a chance to hit us because he keeps going with his explanation. The last time he hit Gawain for real, and shed his blood, because of that very green girdle which belongs to the Green Knight himself. I sent her to test you, he acknowledges,
“As a pearl is more prized than a pea which is white, in good faith, so is Gawain, among gallant knights. But a little thing more—it was loyalty that you lacked: Not because you’re wicked, or a womanizer, or worse, but you loved your own life; so I blame you less.” (Armitage, 2364-2368)
This was all a trick, engineered by the enchantress, Morgan le Fay, to tempt and weaken the great King Arthur. Gawain stands speechless, absorbing the shock. The blood rushes to his face and he shrinks in shame. This moment stretches out in time—the cringing, handsome young knight with his sword beginning to sink downwards, the smiling, giant green man looking at him with triumph and also, strangely, some love and understanding.
Gawain breaks the silence. Like a child throwing a toy that hurt them, he fumblingly unties the girdle and flings it at the Green Knight in an agony of anger and shame. He cries out:
My downfall and undoing; let the devil take it. Dread of the death blow and cowardly doubts meant I gave in to greed, and in doing so forgot the freedom and fidelity every knight knows to follow. And now I am found to be flawed and false, through treachery and untruth I have totally failed. (Armitage, 2378-2383)
At first, Gawain’s words are disorienting. Why is he confessing all these crazy sins, when it seems that his only mistake was a lie of omission in a game? This seems like an overreaction. But do you remember Gawain’s personal emblem on his shield, the endless knot, the pentangle of virtues that characterized his face to the world? Gawain’s endless knot has utterly collapsed. The vices he cites are the opposites of those virtues. His understanding of himself, and the way he is in the world, is crumbling in one moment. The Middle English here is especially interesting. Gawain is “taught” by “cowardice” to “forsake” his “kynde” (2379-2380). Kynde is a central word here. We still use some word-ancestors of it today: our modern “kind” as in kindness, appropriate and attentive behavior to one another, and our modern “-kind” in mankind, or type or category (as in I like that kind of candy). Medieval people used it in those ways as well, but it was a far more powerful word. It’s a multivalent word that means identity, a deep nature inherent to a person. With the discovery of his girdle-theft, Gawain feels as if he has forsaken his deepest nature as a knight and as a man.
In contrast, the Green Knight argues this only means that Gawain loved his life, an understandable weakness in the face of death. In this sense, it is in accord with an even deeper kynde for him to betray these values, these ideals of knighthood and manhood. But Gawain isn’t having it. He’s so frustrated and ashamed of his failure. So he asks the Green Knight to forgive him, and the Green Knight absolves him, in a secular parody of confession, penance, and absolution. The Knight even invites Gawain back to the castle, to meet his wife now as friend and not foe. Gawain refuses, and enters on a tirade against women worthy of the most virulent friar of the Middle Ages. I hate to give it airtime, so to sum up: ever since Eve, women have been the source of man’s downfall.
Do we take this vitriol against women seriously? Is Gawain echoing what the poet truly believes to be true about women? We could. This speech is part of a long tradition of medieval writing and thinking, especially from friars and other religious men committed to chastity. Some readers do. I do not. I think the poet is having a last bit of fun at people when their values collapse into a heap in a moment of failure. Surely it can’t be my own fault! Gawain is desperately casting about for something to blame when the world isn’t as it should be according to him. As it so often does, the hammer of blame falls upon women (we also see unfair blame cast at persons of color regularly). All of this is in line with Gawain’s general overreaction, shame, and anger with himself. It is also apiece with the poet’s keen awareness of the fragility of some types of masculinity—Gawain’s overweening interest in his reputation, especially with women, Arthur’s advice towards greater violence in a game, and the Green Knight’s interest in cutting them down to size.
The Green Knight tells him to keep the girdle, and Gawain swears he will wear it always, as a sign of his sin and failure and frailty of flesh. It will act as a check to his prowess, his pride in his skills and abilities, and a reminder of his humanity. And Gawain rides, green girdle tied aslant his chest, back to Camelot:
So he winds through the wilds of the world once more, Gawain on Gringolet, by the grace of God, under a roof sometimes and sometimes roughing it, in valleys and vales had adventures and victories, but time is too tight to tell how they went. (Armitage, 2479-2483)
I think the ending of the poem is perhaps the most curious and interesting, and I still vary in how I interpret it, despite having read it so many times. When Gawain arrives back at Arthur’s court, everyone rejoices to see him alive. He shows them his scar from the axe, and the girdle, and tells them the story of his failures. “I was tainted by untruth,” he announces, and shows his new knot, the knotted lace that he wears around his human body. The court comforts him, then laughs and they all agree to wear a green girdle themselves. Each knight who wore the girdle was honored ever after, and the girdle becomes a symbol for honor and for the great court of King Arthur.
Who is right about the girdle? Gawain, in his shame, as a symbol for sin? The court, as a symbol for a knight who was brave and managed to live? Either way, isn’t it amazing that the knot of perfection is replaced with this new knot? I have three main interpretations that I see as possible, and will tell you all.
The first is that Gawain is right, and he is now a truth-speaking man within a court of frivolity that cares little for the failures of man. The court acts like a certain American ex-president: something that should be shameful becomes part of the pageantry and excitement of a political party, a shallow and unethical way of being in the world. If we celebrate failures and dishonestly turn them into triumphs, we don’t have to deal with their consequences.
The second is that Gawain is being overscrupulous about his sins. He is self-flagellating, punishing himself too severely for something that he should feel properly guilty about and move on. The court sees the girdle as a symbol of common humanity, of honor even in weakness. Gawain needs to lighten up and recognize that he fails like everyone else.
Either of these last two are extremely viable interpretations, but the third is my favorite. Both Gawain and the court are a little bit right. We all wear the girdle of our mortality, in the form of our crumbling and glorious bodies. We need both Gawain and the court, both the girdle as reminder of weakness and the girdle as reminder of bravery and honor in human limitation pushed to its limit. We mourn our sins and we rejoice that we live in a world with the beauty of courage and great action.
I wrote this on Halloween, and it occurred to me that this is what Halloween, celebrated properly, is about. Facing, and celebrating, our littleness in the face of so much unknown. Our merry rejoicing against the darkness, combined with a little healthy fear and respect for the vastness and vast unknowability of our world. Our simultaneous reclamation of the knowledge that we are made to live well, in the image of God, and knowing that we aren’t the people of the righteously perfect eternal knot though we would like to believe so. We make decisions not knowing their outcome, but we try to practice the virtues. We, like Gawain, are learning. We are learning where we have imbibed toxic cultural untruth, where we are haunted by grand ideas of ourselves that hold us to suffocating unreality. What is our kynde? We are not the people of the pentangle, the glorious, perfect, intertwined crown of virtues, yet—but the people of the green girdle, bound to fail in our big and often dark world, yet learning who we are and how to live.
Let’s end this series in the words of the poet of 650 years ago. I’ll first read Armitage’s translation, and end with the Middle English.
…once the siege and assault at Troy had ceased, our coffers have been crammed with stories such as these. Now let our Lord, thorn-crowned, bring us to perfect peace. Amen. After the segge and the assulte watz sesed at Troye, Iwysse, Mony aunterez herebiforne Haf fallen such er this. Now that bere the croun of thorne, He bring vus to His blysse! Amen. (2525-2531)
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