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:
- 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.
- His five fingers, symbolic of his actions, also in which he strives for perfection.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
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