Games, Gifts, and Icicles on Armor: Fitt II of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Welcome to the fun, autumnal Fall 2021 series on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. We have arrived at Fitt II of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. We left off Fitt I in Arthur’s court, the poet forebodingly warning Gawain to not lose his nerve as the deadly game’s conclusion draws closer and closer. And I was struck, as I read and wrote this week, with the beginning of this section. Simon Armitage begins his translation with: “This happening was a gift” (491), a gift that Arthur has asked for and received. Armitage’s “gift” translates the medieval word “hanselle.” A hanselle is a New Year’s Gift, given as token of good fortune on the New Year. To begin a section with the gifted nature of this game, as a nod to Arthur’s desire, fascinates me. I don’t know if Gawain would see it as a gift. Instead, this gift is transformed and refitted into a moment to show prowess, from unearned token of fortune to part of an economy of skill and honor. And again, in one minor, easily overlooked moment, the poet cannily reveals something of human nature. We take what is given to us and transform it into a statement on our abilities, worth, skill. 

Next, our poet describes the seamless passing of the year as the gift-game approaches. 

After lavish Christmas come the lean days of Lent
when the flesh is tested with fish and simple food.
Then the world’s weather wages war on winter:
cold shrinks earthwards and the clouds climb;
sun-warmed, shimmering rain comes showering
onto meadows and fields where flowers unfurl;
woods and grounds wear a wardrobe of green;
birds burble with life and build busily
as summer spreads, settling on slopes as it should…

Then autumn arrives to harden the harvest
and with it comes a warning to ripen before winter.
The drying airs arrive, driving up dust
from the face of the earth to the heights of heaven,
and wild sky wrestles the sun with its winds,
and the leaves of the lime lie littered on the ground,
and grass that was green turns withered and grey.
Then all which had risen over-ripens and rots
And yesterday on yesterday the year dies away,
And winter returns, as is the way of the world
			through time.
		At Michaelmas the moon
		stands like that season’s sign,
		a warning to Gawain
		to rouse himself and ride. (502-535, translation by Simon Armitage)

Such a beautiful, evocative passage. And worth especially noting, besides its wild beauty, because one of the oldest ways of reading this poem is with an emphasis on nature versus humankind, or pagan old ways versus Christian new ways, Green Knight as emblem of all this versus Gawain, ambassador of mankind distanced from nature. For this is a question we haven’t thought about yet: what are we supposed to make of the Green Knight’s greenness? Is he, for instance, a pagan manifestation of nature worship and old ways? Is Gawain, the consummate knight, symbol for Christian civilization constantly trying to control the looming power and darkness of what came before? Does the Green Knight “stand for” anything? 

I don’t believe the medieval world thought in dichotomies that way. This dualistic thinking is more reflective of a 18th, 19th, even 20th -century understanding of the world—the destructive, powerful, so-called white man’s burden, that colonial mindset of conquering and “improving” nature, women, other races, and the pagan past and present. Certainly, the Green Knight is a force beyond the ordinary and a challenge to Arthur’s court and way of thinking about the world. But it’s far more complex than simple dualisms. In the passage I just read, both the humanity-focused, Christian liturgical holidays of Christmas, Lent, Michaelmas, and All Saint’s Day blend seamlessly with the stunning natural world. Christianity and nature are not opposed—it’s the unnatural, the head that won’t stay dead, the green-hued skin, that threaten Arthur and Gawain. And again, we today can learn from resisting such dualistic ways of seeing the world.

Now it’s Michaelmas (September 29), and time for Gawain to go, but he tarries until All Saints’ Day (November 1). He declares the outcome of the game, when discussing with Arthur, to be merely a “trifle.” But perhaps we can already sense a clash between his words and his actions as he lingers. Then, the poet goes on another one of his super-detailed fashion descriptions. Gawain is dressed in the absolute height of taste and weapon technology, we learn, as the poet spends line after line describing his clothing and armor.

In the midst of all this admittedly boring, though quite virtuosic description of Gawain’s clothes comes my favorite part of this fitt: the description of Gawain’s shield. On the inside, there’s a painting of the Virgin Mary, to whom Gawain is devoted. On the outside, there’s something that the poet calls “the endless knot,” a five-pointed star we call the pentangle today, or pentagram. Yes, this is the same star that your fifth-grade teacher drew next to your successfully answered math problems. If you were like me as a kid, you at that same age practiced that star crookedly over and over because you thought it was really cool. And no, despite all its associations with witchcraft today, Gawain’s star has nothing to do with sorcery. 

The five points of Gawain’s star stand for many sets of five that the poet lists for us. It’s a “token of fidelity,” of faithfulness, because each line links to the next. So it is eternal, and when one side of the star is taken out, it collapses. The Gawain-Poet, like many medieval folk stretching all the way back to the early church, loved the significance of numbers and their power. The five-pointed star stands for five fivefold things:

  1. Gawain’s five senses, in which he strives for perfection. Medieval people conceived of the senses as not only how you made sense of the world, but also as the gateway for sin and illness or conversely, blessing and health. What you saw, smelled, tasted, and heard potentially affected you in ways little understood. 
  2. His five fingers, symbolic of his actions, also in which he strives for perfection. 
  3. His faith, founded in the five wounds of Christ. The Five Wounds of Christ—his two pierced hands, his two pierced feet, and the wound in his side—were popular images of devotion in medieval England. Meditating on these images of Jesus’s suffering helped one to suffer with Jesus in the midst of their own suffering, remember their redemption by the Cross, and recall their sins in confession as part of what had wounded Christ. 
  4. The five joys of Mary in her son Jesus, another popular tool for meditation. Mary’s five joys included the Annunciation, when Gabriel told her she would bear Christ; when Christ was born on Christmas day; when Jesus rose from the dead on Easter; when Jesus ascended into Heaven; and lastly, when Mary herself ascended into heaven in her Assumption. The Five Wounds and Five Joys were often linked together in medieval Christians’ emphasis on both the suffering and the joy of the earthly life. Take courage, life involves both, these fives tell us.
  5. And finally, the last and perhaps most significant symbol of the Pentangle are five virtues that Gawain takes as his own. Friendship, fraternity, purity, politeness, and pity are how Simon Armitage translates them. In the Middle English, they are fraunchyse (loyalty), felaȝschyp (fellowship), clannes (cleanness), the all-important cortaysye (courtesy), and pity. Note that these are slightly different from the translation. These are knightly virtues. Loyalty to one’s lord was incredibly important, fellowship with other Christians and especially those of the Round Table, cleanness extended beyond purity to include cleanness of body as well as cleanness of mind (another way of distinguishing oneself from the rather filthy peasantry of the time), courtesy included manners and the way one carried oneself, and pity, which was a class-conscious virtue of mercy towards women, the needy, and the oppressed. Gawain has a reputation of being the perfect knight; these are the virtues he must practice to keep that reputation intact. Without any one of these, his knightly perfection collapses just like the pentangle.

It’s also significant that these virtues are on Gawain’s shield. They protect him as knight; they are what he faces out to the hostile world as his representation of himself. Remember, the emblem on a knight’s shield identified him in battle to both his friends and his enemies. So the pentangle, to Gawain, encompasses his identity and protects him from his enemies—it’s more than just a meaningful symbol to him.

My good friend Jessica teaches Sir Gawain and the Green Knight to undergraduates on a regular basis. When they get to this part of the story, she asks them to draw a pentangle and label it with the pentangle virtues of their university’s or their own cultural background. It’s a good, even enlightening question. What virtues does your culture tie tightly together, then suffer when they collapse inevitably? I know that Americans don’t really have one Pentangle, but I think certainly the Left and Right, even the middles and extremes, all have their set of interlocked prized virtues. So do the different varieties of Christianity I see. Episcopalians proudly wear a different pentangle set of virtues than Baptists do. It’s kind of a fun thought experiment to think on what these virtues are, and how something so valuable to one subset of people, integral to their identity to the point of collapse if they fail, is worth so little to another set. What appears on your shield that you face outward to the world? What traits or virtues do you use to protect and portray your identity?

After much bemoaning of Gawain’s fate by the court, he finally leaves among November’s chill and dead leaves. On this journey, he encounters giants and serpents, wolves and wild men of the woods. But his worst enemy is the cold and loneliness. Here’s a snippet of the beautiful Middle English on Gawain’s war with winter:

For werre wrathed him not so much that wynter nas wors,
When the colde cler water fro the cloudez schadde
And fres er hit falle myȝt to the fale erthe.
Ner slayn with the slete he sleped in his yrnes
Mo nyȝtes then innoughe, in naked rokkez
Thereas claterande fro the crest the cold borne rennez
And henged heȝe over his hede in hard iisseikkles. (726-732)

Again, we have a wonderful effect in the alliteration. Can you hear the clattering of the cold water running down Gawain’s helm as the clouds sleet on him, near slain in his cold irons, his armor? The icicles form on his helmet as he hunkers down in the freezing air. “Naked rokkez,” or naked rocks, is also fantastic and just sounds jagged and unforgiving. 

As Gawain and all of nature suffer under the onslaught of winter, Christmas Eve arrives. He prays to Jesus and Mary that they will provide somewhere he can hear Mass on the following holy day. And seemingly miraculously, as he wanders in this freezing wood, a castle appears, complete with battlements and barbican, towers and pinnacles and chimneys built in white stone. It is so perfect that Gawain thinks it looks as though it were cut out of paper and set against the snowy landscape. 

He’s warmly welcomed into the castle, especially once everyone finds out who he is. “Now we will get to learn from the famous Gawain,” whisper the courtiers, “of the best manners and of love talk.” Love talk? Is this 1990s MTV, or perhaps the American Girl book series on boys and flirting that I perused in great secrecy and embarrassment around that same time? Being skilled at “love talk” was an important aspect of chivalric manners. One of the most influential poems of the entire European Middle Ages (and one that I rather hate) was called The Romance of the Rose. The poem concerns the pursuit and courtship of a lady by a knight all set into tortuous garden allegory, with a practically pornographic ending on the consummation of this wooing. It was fashionable for knights to write poetry and pine after a lady of the court, married or not, to wear their colors in tournaments, and yes, to be known as a ladies’ man, but not a brute. Gawain the love-talk-tutor is in town!

We meet Bertilak, the lord of this castle, and two mysterious women. They are a study in contrasts. one is old, squat, and Gawain mentally notes how the immaculate white folds of her headdress contrast with her hoary, ancient face. The other is, as the kids would say, a whole snack. She is blooming, and pearls gleam on her breast and throat like snow on mountain slopes. She’s Bertilak’s wife, but she and Gawain almost immediately begin to flirt at the feast. Their pleasure in one another’s company “surpassed all princely sports by far” (Armitage, 1014). 

Gawain happily stays with them for the Christmas feast, but regretfully announces his intentions to leave the following morning to continue seeking the Green Knight at his mysterious Green Chapel. But laughing, the Lord reassures him that he could sleep in on New Year’s Day and still keep his frightening appointment with destiny, for this Green Chapel is only two miles away. Stay, dear Gawain, and rest in mirth.

And, Bertilak adds, play a Christmas game with me. (Gawain, shouldn’t you avoid Christmas games? Remember what happened last time?) But Gawain, ever the good sport, agrees to play. Bertilak is going to hunt for the next few days. Anything he catches, he will give to Gawain. Remember, in a world with limited food options and one where only a privileged few are allowed to hunt at all, such prizes are valuable. But here’s the catch: anything Gawain “gains” at Bertilak’s castle, he must give to Bertilak. What could go wrong?

Share with a friend if you enjoyed this, or subscribe for emails. Stay tuned for Fitt III, coming next Wednesday. You can also listen to the podcast of this text, if you prefer, on the podcast service of your choice.

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:

A Lovely Brief Introduction to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

An illustration from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight from the British Library.

I’m happily back in my wheelhouse with this new series on the fantastical medieval poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. 

I first want to address the elephant in the room. We all have limited time in our lives. So why read this (or any) medieval poem together, or listen to me discuss it? After all, there’s an endless amount of other things we could be reading or consuming, philosophy, theology, literature, the Bible, the latest work of literary beauty, or a comforting old friend of a novel. Let me make a case to you for Gawain.

I have now been studying medieval literature for a decade. And nothing, outside of Jesus and my family, has more opened up to me my humanity in both its created beauty, community, and profound limitation. The humanities are called the humanities in part because in reading works from a time alien to us, we learn our human selves locked in these fascinating, other human histories and moments. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a profoundly human poem, which is kind of hilarious given that it’s about mythical kings and queens, monsters, sorceresses, beheadings that don’t stick, a strip of cloth that possesses magical powers. But what makes discovering our shared humanity with all its gifts and curses alongside medieval folks more fun is all that magic stuff, and the absolutely stunning poetry which is its vehicle. Plus, it’s spooky season, and this poem is delightfully spooky without being scary. So let’s read Gawain and discover ourselves, consider the image of God and human imperfection, think hard about what we put value in, find friends and teachers who lived seven hundred years ago, and also have a lot of fun in that process. We’re all Gawain, as you shall see.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was written in the late fourteenth century. To put that in context, the poet writes at least two hundred years before Shakespeare writes Romeo and Juliet, at least one hundred and twenty-five years before Martin Luther ignites the Reformation with his theses. He is writing during a particularly calamitous and dramatic time in England. The church is divided over who the pope is in the great Papal Schism, England and France are constantly at war, oh and bubonic plague just killed a third of Europe in what we now call the Black Death. Ethical issues over war and violence? Corrupt secular and religious power? Living through a pandemic? This all sounds very relevant. We can perhaps barely begin to imagine what life looked like when a third of your friends and family had just died from a grotesque and painful illness. Yet none of this appears directly in the poem. It is set in the fantasy of the ancient past, the world of King Arthur and his knights.

It is New Year’s Day, and the court has gathered to feast. Arthur and Guinevere are in their youth, strong, beautiful, full of righteous conviction about what knighthood and virtue mean. Gawain, Arthur’s nephew, is the hot young thing of that hot young court. He’s known for his bravery, chivalry, courtesy, way with women. Into this dazzling setting strides a massive knight upon his horse. And from head to toe, he’s green. And he’s rather rude. Here we begin this strange little poem.

We all know about King Arthur today. The legend lives on. But in the fourteenth century, Arthur was even more wildly popular. Arthurian legends could be best compared to the Marvel Cinematic Universe today, the comic and film behemoth. Within Marvel, there are multiple storylines, wildly varying foci and personalities even within the main characters, even different universes and outcomes, but it’s all understood to be part of the mythology of Marvel Comics. The tales of King Arthur, Queen Guinevere, and the Round Table were the fourteenth-century Marvel, with different storylines, styles, emphases, and characters, but all taking place within this commonly recognized England of the distant, legendary past. Also like Marvel: some of these poems and songs are powerful and well-crafted, and others are definitely more like cheesy B-movies.

Despite the poem’s incredible virtuosity, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was not a blockbuster “bestseller” of its day, like The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer. While The Canterbury Tales survives today in about one hundred manuscripts from the medieval era, only one copy of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight survives, and it rests in precious solitude and solicitude in the British Library. This poem is older than the printing press, so it appears in a handwritten manuscript called Cotton Nero A.X. with three other poems—Pearl, Patience, and Cleanness—that scholars assume are by the same poet(For what it’s worth, Pearl might be my favorite poem in the entire world. I love it so much I named my eldest daughter Margaret, which means pearl. Sometime we will read it together in this space.) You may be able to see the manuscript if you go to visit London, peering in at the precious artifact in its climate-controlled box with bulletproof glass. But for those of us stuck in the States or elsewhere, you can look at the digitized manuscript if you’re curious.

You probably have noticed that I have yet to mention the poet’s name. That’s because we have no clue who wrote this. There are theories but nothing close to definitive. It’s likely that the poet was a cleric of some kind, because he had an education and knew Latin quite well. I do say he, though we don’t know for sure, because of the poems’ content and the high level of education evident in the poetry—sadly, women just did not have the same access to books and education that men did. I would love to get to Heaven and be wrong on that one. Some scholars believe that he had read the latest Italian poetry, like Boccaccio and Dante, and it influenced him. He was not a Londoner nor a Southerner. He lived in the Northwest of England, and he writes in a dialect from that area in Middle English. 

Middle English is what scholars call the English of the Middle Ages, and it looks and sounds very different from today’s English. This English already is fairly difficult for readers today to understand without some training and practice. But one can still struggle through some medieval writers like Julian of Norwich or Geoffrey Chaucer without a ton of experience, because the dialect of these writers was London or close to it, which is the linguistic ancestor of modern standard English. This poet’s Northern dialect makes his writing far more difficult. Today our regional differences in language have become so smoothed out by the dominance of radio and television. But imagine a world where it took days to get from town to town. Neighboring regions in England could sometimes barely understand one another. It’s like when I, a clueless Arizonan, went to Boston when I was twelve and stared blankly when a woman at a donut shop asked me for my order with her thick, incredible New England accent. She laughed at me and said, “You’re not from here!”

In a perfect world, you’d be able to pick up this poem and enjoy it by itself, but the language barrier makes it far too difficult. Here are lines 1998-2005:

Now neȝes the Nw Ȝere and the nyȝt passez,
The day dryuez to the dark, as Dryȝtyn biddez.
Bot wylde wyderez of the worlde wakned theroute;
Clowdes kesten kenly the colde to the erthe,
Wyth nyȝe innoghe of the north the naked to tene.
The snawe snittered ful snart, that snayped the wilde;
The werbelande wynde wapped fro the hyȝe
And drof vche dale ful of dryftes ful grete.

Pretty incomprehensible, right? If you’d like to hear this read aloud, it’s on the podcast. You may have noticed that strange character that looks like a three. It’s called a yogh, and it didn’t survive into modern English. These lines describe a particular moment: Gawain is waking up in bed on the morning he faces potential death, and the world outside, New Year’s Day, is shatteringly cold, snowblown, and unwelcoming. I’ll share a translation with you in a minute, but let’s sit with this wild, snapping, weather poetry for a moment. Did you note the repeating sounds in lines? “The snawe snittered ful snart,” is one of my favorite lines in this poem, with its “sn” repetation sounds like a horse snorting and pawing in the snow, like a man sniffing with drippy nose as snowflakes catch in his eyelashes. The entire poem is alliterative like this, to varying extents. Each line has a letter or sound that it repeats again and again, both at the starts of words and prominently in their middles. 

In English, alliterative poetry is a much older tradition than rhyming poetry. Rhyming poetry in English comes originally from French and Latin sources—languages with an abundance of end-rhymes in their words (as you may remember from high school Spanish or French classes). English doesn’t offer such wealth in rhyming. Instead, early English poets created rhythm and harnessed sound through alliteration, as in the famous poem Beowulf.

Here’s Simon Armitage’s translation of the same lines:

Now night passes and New Year draws nere,
drawing off darkness as our Deity decrees.
 But wild-looking weather was about in the world:
clouds decanted their cold rain earthwards;
the nithering north needled man’s very nature,
creatures were scattered by the stinging sleet.
Then a whip-cracking wind comes whistling between hills,
driving snow into deepening drifts in the dales.

As with any poetry written in a different language, translations cannot fully reproduce the original. But Armitage’s, though not literal, gets very close to the sound and feel. He uses alliteration to great effect. If you’re wanting to follow along with the poem, be careful what translation you use—make sure it’s alliterative to get closer to that original poem. However, that’s not necessary at all. I’ll be working to make this poem accessible to you whether you’re reading or not, so I hope you’ll think with me about this medieval poem regardless.

For those who are going to read: I’d recommend either Armitage, with J.R.R. Tolkien’s as a fun second place. There are also free translations online if you’d like to follow along with ease. For those who are not going to read, welcome! I’m so excited you’re here to think with me and enjoy the Gawain-Poet.

We may never build a time machine that can take us back into the past. Old books are the closest thing we have. Poems like these are a precious gift. Not only is Gawain constantly beautiful and even funny at times, it’s a window back into a time so different from and yet so similar to our own. How are we special today? How are we not at all? How can we confront our hidden biases and beliefs about being in the world? How can we learn to live a virtuous life? How can we face our failures and our triumphs without letting either define us as creatures of God? These are the questions I hope to think about with you, led by our sneaky, anonymous poet-friend from depths of the fourteenth century. Come along with me, let’s enter King Arthur’s castle on New Year’s Day, sidling in behind the giant green knight on his enormous green horse. No one will notice us in his wake.

You can also listen to this series wherever you get your podcasts.

Season Two of Old Books With Grace Begins!

I am very excited to kick off the new season of Old Books With Grace with a fantastic literary guest, author Haley Stewart from Carrots for Michaelmas and the podcast, Fountains of Carrots.

I first encountered Haley on Instagram, though she’s been running her popular blog on parenting, books, and Catholicism for a while now. Recently, she published a lovely piece on Madeleine L’Engle and her vocations of motherhood and writing in Plough Magazine. I truly love L’Engle so I was thrilled to see someone of Haley’s caliber writing very seriously about her influential–and I think underrated–work and spirituality.

In this episode, Haley and I talk about Madeleine L’Engle, parenting young kids with the help of old books, and a LOT of Jane Austen. She has a book on Jane Austen coming out soon, which I cannot wait to read. Haley gives us a sneak peek in the episode on some of its themes and chapters. I also could not resist asking her what she thought the worst Jane Austen adaptation was… listen to the episode to find out our thoughts.

What’s Coming Up on Old Books With Grace…

Be sure to follow me on Instagram, @oldbookswithgrace, for the latest updates and fun little surprises

Happy fall, friends!

I’ve been on hiatus, getting my three kids back to school and working on some other projects. But Old Books With Grace will be returning soon, on September 29th, with new guests and conversations and two new series this fall.

We are kicking off the new school year with a conversation on Sept. 29th with Haley Stewart, of the blog Carrots for Michaelmas and the podcast Fountains of Carrots. Haley is a writer with a passion for her Catholic faith, literature, and being with her family. She is finishing up a book about Jane Austen and the good life–and that’s what we are going to chat about! I can’t wait to continue some of the conversations started through the Summer Old Book Club’s reading of Persuasion this summer (you can catch up on those on YouTube on the Old Books With Grace channel or on the podcast platform of your choice).

Do you like contemplation on human nature, the complex clash of values we all face in our decision-making, and a hefty does of magic in your literature? I am super excited about the fall series that will begin on Oct. 6th on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. It’s just the poem to shiver a bit, think a lot, and curl up with a cup of tea when it’s beginning to get a little crisp outside. A knight, green from head to toe, shows up unexpectedly at the great Christmas feast of King Arthur. Gawain, the young knight, beheads him at the Green Knight’s challenge. The consequences are complicated and cast into question Gawain’s own values and beliefs. It’s spooky, mysterious, challenging, swashbuckling, and provocative. I love it. The recent movie, The Green Knight, is based on this fourteenth-century masterpiece. I thought you might to think with me about the original, real deal poem. It’s in a fairly inaccessible fourteenth-century dialect of English, but thankfully, there are loads of thoughtful translations that you can order if you want to follow along. The renowned poet Simon Armitage has recently done a beautiful copy illustrated by Clive Hicks-Jenkins, if you like your books to be as beautiful on the outside as they are on the inside. There’s also J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic translation. I have an older copy of this one, and the cover is truly hideous, so you can spring for the opposite of Armitage! I will likely use the Armitage alongside the original Middle English in the series, but you can go for whatever translation you’re interested in.

Find the hideous Tolkien and the beautiful Armitage. I’m a little embarrassed at how many copies of this poem I own.

Be sure to sign up for email updates so that you don’t miss a post in this series! Or subscribe on the podcast. I can’t wait to get back into my roots: medieval poetry and theology, and I hope you join me.

Persuasion Week Eight: Ch. 10-12, Vol. II

Welcome to the final week of the Summer Old Book Club! What a journey! Thank you for reading alongside me and some good friends as we explored Jane Austen’s magnificent novel, Persuasion. This week I have a very special guest: my husband, Scott Hamman. He’s never read Jane Austen before, which makes this all extra exciting. Something else that made it exciting: my four year-old got up to go to the bathroom midway through this episode, which made for an entertaining and awkward interlude. Scott and I talk marriage, love, redemption and resurrection, Wentworth’s enviable letter writing skills, and so much more.

The two men in my life, my husband Scott and my son, Simon

Although I’ve said before that Scott is the Elizabeth Bennet to my Mr. Darcy–the fun one at parties, funny, smart, kind but with an edge, strongwilled, attractive–of all the Jane Austen romantic leads he is definitely the most like Captain Wentworth. He figures out ways to get things done. He is undaunted by obstacles that would crumble most people. Among the various amazing things he has done: built an outside couch and table, become an avid sourdough baker, planted a massive garden, cooks like a gourmet chef, installs tile, electric, and plumbing, remodels entire houses, rock climbs giant mountains, including El Capitan at Yosemite, supported me throughout graduate school, changed 80% of our three kids’ diapers before they were three months old. I cannot say enough good things about him. He is a structural engineer. We met our first day of college at the University of Arizona. Bear Down! We have three beautiful children together.

If you enjoy this episode, feel free to share with a friend or to comment with questions or discussion topics you’d like to see. Be sure to subscribe on YouTube, the podcast, or this blog so that you don’t miss the next episode! I always love to hear from you as well. If you have any questions or comments, share below.

Persuasion Week Seven: Ch. 7-9, Vol. II

Welcome to the penultimate week of the Summer Old Book Club! Today, I invited my friend Goodwyn Bell to chat with me about the continuing drama with Mr. Elliot, how where you grew up affects how you read Jane Austen, Anne’s charming, blush-filled interactions with Captain Wentworth, the importance of Bath, the confusing lies of Mrs. Smith, what Jane Austen thinks of friendship, and so much more…

Goodwyn Bell, my dear friend

Goodwyn Bell is a Presbyterian pastor, mother of three, farmer with her husband Jack, and a dear, dear friend to me over the years. Goodie and Jack live outside of Durham, North Carolina on Bell Farm, and if you’re in the market in NC for some delicious eggs and meat, you need to google Bell Farm right away. Goodie and I met through Jack, because Jack is also a medievalist and we were in the same program at Duke. Goodie grew up in Memphis, went to college in Richmond, and eventually settled in North Carolina. She has her masters in divinity from Duke. We have always connected through conversation, ideas, and books, which made inviting her to come chat Persuasion with me a natural fit. Goodie is a gifted, intelligent, and compassionate teacher and speaker—her sermons are excellent. Her twin vocations as pastor and mother intersect wonderfully and inflect her insights into people, faith, and Jesus. I’m so thankful she is my friend.

If you enjoy this episode, feel free to share with a friend or to comment with questions or discussion topics you’d like to see. Be sure to subscribe on YouTube, the podcast, or this blog so that you don’t miss the next episode! I always love to hear from you as well. If you have any questions or comments, share below.

Persuasion Week Six: Ch. 4-6 Vol. II

Welcome to Week 6 of the Summer Old Book Club and perhaps the first ever podcast episode featuring a grandmother and her granddaughter discussing Persuasion in great detail! This episode, my grandmother, Carol Irwin, and I think through Mr. Elliot, Mrs. Smith, the intricacies of rank and society in Bath, what a “good” pride entails, and so much more…

This week I welcome someone very special to me: my 86 year-old grandmother, Carol Irwin. Carol Irwin is originally from Nebraska but has lived in Phoenix now for a very long time. She is an incredible mother and grandmother. She was an English and music teacher for many years for junior high kids, which practically qualifies her for sainthood. Carol is a dedicated volunteer with the food bank ministry, St. Vincent de Paul and an avid reader. I like to partially credit my own obsession with books to her influences. She’s wise, kind, fierce, generous, and smart as hell. I’m so excited she agreed to come on her very first podcast!

My beloved, intelligent, indomitable grandmother, Carol Irwin

If you enjoy this episode, feel free to share with a friend or to comment with questions or discussion topics you’d like to see. Be sure to subscribe on YouTube, the podcast, or this blog so that you don’t miss the next episode! I always love to hear from you as well. If you have any questions or comments, share below.

Persuasion Week Five: Ch. 1-3, Vol. II

We finally hit volume II! And we find ourselves in Bath, meeting the mysterious Mr. Elliot… this week, I welcome Dr. Jessica Hines as my conversational partner. We had a wonderful time talking about Jane Austen’s ideas on virtue, the ethical value of conversation, wondering about mirrors in the Regency period, and so much more.

Dr. Jessica Hines

Dr. Jessica Hines is an assistant professor of English at Birmingham-Southern College where she teaches classes on medieval literature, culture, and gender. Jessica and I met at Duke, where we were both medievalists and shared the same advisors. She received her doctorate there in 2017. We bonded over a love of tea and baked goods, and eventually became working buddies and members of the same writing group. Jessica has a keen, creative mind and wit, and can sniff out even the most meandering argument from miles away. She writes on a fascinating array of topics, including compassion, suffering, gender and sexuality, and the politics of language. She has even taught Persuasion several times in her courses! Jessica is also a cat-mom to cats with wonderful names: Boudicca and Cleo. 

If you enjoy this episode, feel free to share with a friend or to comment with questions or discussion topics you’d like to see. Be sure to subscribe on YouTube, the podcast, or this blog so that you don’t miss the next episode! I always love to hear from you as well. If you have any questions or comments, share below.

Persuasion Week Four: Ch. 10-12, Vol. I

Welcome back to the latest installment of the Summer Old Book Club! Today I chat with Chelsea Swanson about the last portion of volume I, chapters 10-12 of Persuasion. They are rich in subtext–every conversation has multiple levels, and our quite lengthy conversation reflects all these rich layers! We lost track of time and went a bit longer than usual. I hope you enjoy it!

The Incomparable Chelsea Swanson

Chelsea Swanson is one of my oldest friends. We met in kindergarten, when I bossily told her that she shouldn’t touch her eye. Surprisingly after that beginning, we hit it off. We even made a documentary about our senior year of high school called “The MC” (Maricopa County, a somewhat spoof of Laguna Beach). Chelsea radiates intelligence, balance, curiosity, and a great sense of fun. As a video producer and editor, she works on science-oriented documentary projects. She has developed some fantastic Science Fridays for National Public Radio, including segments that spotlight women scientists and explore topics like how glowworms glow and reading the brains of dogs in MRI machines (definitely google her!). She lives in Portland with her husband, Brandon, and daughter, Jo (partially named in honor of Jo in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women).

Don’t forget, she also created this incredible Persuasion personality quiz.

If you enjoyed this episode, feel free to share with a friend or to comment with questions or discussion topics you’d like to see. Be sure to subscribe on YouTube, the podcast, or this blog so that you don’t miss the next episode! I always love to hear from you as well. If you have any questions or comments, share below.