From the Endless Knot to the Green Girdle: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Fitt IV

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)

If you enjoyed this series, I’d love to hear from you. Please share, subscribe, or follow me on Instagram or Twitter. Thank you so much for listening. I had a blast thinking through Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and I hope you did too.

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?


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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.

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.