Hark! The Herald Angels Sing: An Advent Meditation

Yes, I know this is technically not an Advent song. But I’m going to discuss it anyway!

art by Gayla Irwin, gaylairwin.com

Today’s Christmas song is, as the youth say, a banger (in stark contrast to the Coventry Carol last week). It’s the wonderful “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” and again unlike the previous other two carols, it has a distinct writer, Charles Wesley. It also has a distinct best version, that on Amy Grant’s classic 1983 Christmas album, A Christmas Album. It’s on the Spotify playlist. And yes, fight me on that, I am willing to die on that Christmas carol hill. 

As it turns out, and as I did not know until this series, Charles Wesley is not the same person as John Wesley, founder of Methodism (clearly I am not a Methodist). They were brothers! And Charles Wesley wrote about 9000 hymns, some of which include our most beloved besides “Hark”: “Christ the Lord is Risen Today,” “And Can It Be,” “O For A Thousand Tongues To Sing,” and many more. Hymn-writing was how Charles Wesley processed just about everything in his life, from the deaths of friends and family members, to holidays, to historical events like the Jacobite uprising. 

What cracks me up a little bit about this song is that Wesley originally wrote it to have a slow, solemn melody behind the lyrics. He really wanted that regal, majestic feel. But no one really liked that version, and eventually some folks instinctively put the wonderful lyrics to a far better tune by the great Austrian Jewish composer Felix Mendelssohn. 

Here it is, in all its glory. Listen to it, or sing if you’re able:

Hark! The herald angels sing
“Glory to the newborn King”
Peace on earth and mercy mild
God and sinners reconciled

Joyful all ye nations rise
Join the triumph of the skies
With angelic host proclaim
Christ is born in Bethlehem
With angelic host proclaim
Christ is born in Bethlehem

Mild He lays His glory by
Born that man no more may die
Born to raise the sons of Earth
Born to give them second birth

Veiled in flesh the Godhead see
Hail the incarnate deity
Pleased as man with men to dwell
Jesus, our Emmanuel
Pleased as man with men to dwell
Jesus, our Emmanuel

Hail the Heaven-born Prince of Peace
Hail the Sun of Righteousness
Light and life to all He brings
Risen with healing in His wings

Christ, the highest heaven adore
Christ, the everlasting Lord
Come, Desire of Nations, come
Fix in us Thy humble home
Come, Desire of Nations, come
Fix in us Thy humble home.

The very best hymns have both good sound and sound doctrine. This is a robustly theological song. The three verses (there are more, but I chose to focus on these) each set us to think in a particular way about the Incarnation, much like the New Testament itself. The first verse places us in Bethlehem, in the historical moment. It is like the gospel of Luke, with its vivid account of the nativity. Listen to the angels singing to the shepherds. The second verse draws back a little, like the gospel of John, for the bigger picture. The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, Emmanuel. In the third verse, we look forward to Christ’s eternal kingship, to the righting of the universe, to his dwelling in our hearts and his gift of abundant life, as in Paul’s letters and Revelation.

My favorite of these verses is the second. “Mild He lays His glory by / Born that man no more may die”: that first line brings into my mind a vivid picture. A great king strips off his heavy, glorious robes and gleaming crown, laying down his scepter and great seal, the trappings of total power, to reveal a fragile and very human body, what we all share. “Hark” holds the tensions of God’s great power and great humility, of Jesus’s lordship and manhood together. 

It reminds me of the famous fourth-century bishop and theologian, St. Augustine of Hippo, who almost compulsively could not stop exploring that overwhelming tension of the Incarnation, and what it means for us as embodied creatures. His pseudo-biography, Confessions, depicts how as a young man, Augustine tried out religion after religion, philosophy after philosophy, seeking satisfaction and finding none. Though born to a Christian mother, Monica, he rejected her Christianity as provincial and embarrassing due to the bodily nature of the Incarnation and of miracles. The hip religions and philosophies of the day were more invested in transcending the crude limitations of the body in order to reach the purity of Spirit (this sounds an awful lot like some of the philosophies of our day too, not least the worship of technology). The incarnation, God becoming human, intentionally limiting himself, seemed positively stupid. In a world where things seem so wrong, where we need the power to right them, why would God make himself smaller?

Augustine narrates how he stumbled out of one religion into the next, as he tries to reach God through his own willpower and prodigious mind. He writes to God, later in his life:

Accordingly I looked for a way to gain the strength I needed to enjoy you, but I did not until I embraced the mediator between God and humankind, the man Christ Jesus, who is also God, supreme over all things and blessed for ever… for the Word became flesh so that your Wisdom, through whom you created all things, might become for us the milk adapted to our infancy. Not yet was I humble enough to grasp the humble Jesus as my God, nor did I know what his weakness had to teach. Your word, the eternal Truth who towers above the higher spheres of your creation, raises up to himself those creatures who bow before him; but in these lower regions he has built himself a humble dwelling from our clay, and used it to cast down from their pretentious selves those who do not bow before him, and make a bridge to bring them to himself. He heals their swollen pride and nourishes their love, that they may not wander even farther away through self-confidence, but rather weaken as they see before their feet the Godhead grown weak by sharing our garments of skin, and wearily fling themselves down upon him, so that he may arise and lift them up. 

Confessions VII.18, 24

Augustine plays with the idea of weakness in this passage. What if what he considered weak, babyish, embarrassing—his mother’s belief that God became a man and embraced the needy human body to share life with them—was actually the source of profound, communal strength? What if what he had always considered powerful—philosophical prowess, popularity, intellectual capability, rejection of the body’s limitations—was actually weak in its stubborn refusal of human need, Augustine’s own neediness for God’s humility? As Augustine recognizes that his own insistence on knowledge and power keeps him from truth, he also discovers that the ability to confess need and ask for help is at the root of all kinds of learning. A combination of desire and confession of need fuels spiritual transformation. To admit human need in the face of God’s humanity is, for Augustine, to paradoxically weaken and strengthen as you are lifted up by sharing the flesh with God. 

To return to the song: God’s act of “laying his glory by” is mild, gentle, humble, the opposite of wrath or irritation or frustration with how we’ve bungled things here. The brilliance of Wesley’s words, married to the equal preaching power of Mendelssohn’s melody, leads us to sing “Veiled in flesh!” and “Hail the Incarnate” loudly and triumphantly while “Godhead” and “deity” slide, surprisingly, into the quieter part of the verse. Augustine preaches to us what this second verse is all about.

Despite God’s infinite bigness, infinite power, infinite goodness and beauty, he did not force us through that power, through that hugeness, even through that goodness and beauty, to receive him, which is basically what hugeness does, even huge goodness. You can’t ignore it. You can’t sideline it because it dominates the entire skyline. Godzilla, each skyscraper in a downtown, even something massively beautiful, they all assault your eye with their immensity.

In the incarnation, God instead became smaller to meet us, as an adult stoops down to meet a child’s eyes instead of running them over or shouting over them. He hid himself to become findable. 

And yet we still implicitly believe that by making ourselves bigger, and others smaller, we can reach God, happiness, wealth, whatever it is that we want. Culturally, we inhale an overwhelming amount of messaging daily from advertisers, so-called Christian leaders, political figures, all of whom tell us that we are not enough. If we had more power, more strength, more money, more beauty, more whatever, we would be better, be able to handle it all, be able to fix things. But the immanent, infinite Word became weak, frail flesh. Augustine discovers that embracing his own weakness leads, paradoxically, to more fully comprehending God’s strength to heal in Jesus’s weak, mortal body. Jesus has healing in his wings, and shockingly he invites us into that healing process with all our weakness, if we can face it with him. 

If I have one message that I hammer home in nearly everything I write, annoyingly, over and over, it’s this one. Once I wrote on this very passage from Augustine in graduate school, and someone commented that they didn’t really like the word “weakness.” Couldn’t you use something else? It’s too vague. But that’s what I like about considering weakness. It can encompass so many things: my weak mortal body’s need for glorious tea in the morning; the humiliation of when I yell at my children because I’m tired; the sin of my pride, which is the weak rejection of my weakness; the divine gift of human weakness and need for others that impels me to seek out friendship, one of God’s greatest gifts. 

Stop for a minute to consider the radical nature of this idea. It was the part of Christianity that blew apart the classical ancient world. Other doctrines—virgin birth, even God transforming into a human, coming to save the world, all these were old hat. Aristotle writes that the most virtuous man has no weakness, that he saves his friends from giving their energy to himself. When he is in trouble, he is strong enough to stand alone. I also use “he” very purposely, because Aristotle figured a woman, or an enslaved person, could never fit that category. The Incarnate God shows us in contrast that true friendship, true fellowship comes to perfection in the sharing of intimate weakness.

I’m giving you a hard set of questions for your Advent practice this week. What does God’s weakness have to teach you? What does your weakness have to teach you? And don’t shirk the question by being overly general or by doing the “interview” answer (oh, I’m too nice to people, etc.). That may be true; but do the harder, sometimes agonizing work of looking into yourself to fully identify and embrace your weakness. Where are you most weak in your life—in your body, in your spiritual practice, in your relationships, mentally? What can that teach you about yourself, about Jesus’s embracing of weakness? Where is it a gift to you? Again, let’s listen together to this song about Christ’s strange intermingling of weakness and power.

The Coventry Carol: An Advent Meditation

Art by Gayla Irwin, gaylairwin.com

Some people, like me, love Christmas music because the sounds are so familiar and comforting. We know them like the back of our hand, and we think they are beautiful. Others, understandably, feel differently. Christmas music and its repetition each year are grating. Either attitude can sometimes obscure the meanings and feelings of the song. So, to shake you out of whichever category you fall into, I chose a song for this week that most of us aren’t singing on a regular basis, and that certainly is not playing in the mall at any point anywhere in America. It’s a song that is basically the opposite of Let It Snow or any other holly, jolly holiday song. It’s the haunting, weird, unsettling Coventry Carol. 

The song, originally from the fifteenth or sixteenth century, consists of the lullabies of the mothers whose children are about to die in the Slaughter of the Innocents, when Herod ordered the murders of the baby boys of Bethlehem. The song was written to accompany the traditional plays that depicted the life of Jesus, the mystery plays, in the town of Coventry in England.

The Mystery Plays were a longstanding tradition in medieval England, only brought to an end by the Reformation and its profound discomfort with portraying Christ onstage. The most famous, whose scripts survive today, were those that took place in York at midsummer on the feast day of Corpus Christi, the holy day that commemorated Christ’s holy body present in the Eucharist. These were plays that told the stories of the Bible, bit by bit. This how I described them in a previous podcast episode:

Guilds—the organizations of different tradespeople and artisans—performed plays depicting the Bible, from Creation to Revelation, outside, on elaborate floats and sets that moved through the streets of the towns. An especially charming feature of these plays is that the content of the play often loosely determined the guild in charge of it. For example, the “fysshers and marynars,” fishermen and sailors, put on “The Flood” at York. More soberly, the “shermen,” the folk who sheared cloth, performed “The Road to Calvary,” in an echo of the sheep sheared before slaughter. The “pynneres,” the makers of pins and nails, and the painters depicted the raising of the cross. The butchers, who certainly had access to a lot of blood, put on the mortification of Jesus on the cross and his death. Some plays were elaborate, and some were simpler. All were performed over the days commemorating Corpus Christi, the summer feast of the Body of Christ that especially honored the Eucharist…These plays brought liturgy to life; biblical history unfolded in your time and place, enacted by and through your neighbors’ bodies before your eyes. Perhaps your friend was Jesus on the cross, or your enemy was Jesus teaching in the temple…When you stop to think about it, such representations were profound, particularly on the feast of Corpus Christi. The Body of Christ in God’s broken earthly kingdom of fifteenth-century York, England reenacted the saga of Christ and his body in first-century Palestine. These plays vividly remind their viewers through their strange literality—you are Corpus Christi, and so am I. Through the miracle of the Eucharist, we are united in Jesus’s resurrected body.

Grace Hamman, “Jesus as Us,” oldbookswithgrace.com

The song today does not come from York, but from Coventry, a smaller town whose plays no longer survive. But we do have this song, the Coventry Carol, embedded in the Nativity Play. Between Mary’s annunciation to the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt, the bereaved mothers of Bethlehem sing this song in anticipation of the death of their baby boys. It’s based on Matthew 2:16-18:

16 When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. 17 Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:

18 “A voice was heard in Ramah,
    wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
    she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”

 Now listen to the song, either on whatever music streaming service you like (Sufjan Stevens has a good version, and there are several choral versions out there) or on the podcast:

Lully, lulla, thou littell tine childe, 
By by lully lullay, thou littell tyne child, 
By by lully lullay! 

O sisters too, 
How may we do, 
    For to preserve this day 
This pore yongling, 
For whom we do singe 
    By by lully lullay. 

Herod the king, 
In his raging, 
    Chargid he hath this day ; 
His men of might, 
In his owne sight, 
    All yonge children to slay. 

That wo is me, 
Pore child for thee, 
    And ever morne and say ; 
For thi parting, 
Nether say nor sing, 
    By by lully lullay.” 

See: Francis Douce, Illustrations of Shakespeare and Ancient Manners. Volume Two of Two Volumes. (London: Longman, Hurst, Reeds and Orme, 1807), pp. 114-115.

You might be thinking, Grace, why would you pick this song for Advent? Advent is not a feast day, like Christmas itself. It’s part of the church’s ancient cycle of feasts and fasts, rejoicing and lamenting, laughing and weeping. If we focus too much on one or the other, we miss the full picture of what it means to follow Jesus here on earth. Historically, Advent was a time for fasting, for penance, for remembering our shared bodily limitations and the ways we have wounded one another before the marvelous, celebratory excess of Christmastide. And this song reminds us of our need for lamentation and for weeping in the Body of Christ. 

Medieval people believed in weeping for God’s love and for the world’s sorrows as a spiritual gift. They called it “the gift of tears,” and saw in it the presence of the Holy Spirit. The medieval mystical writer, Margery Kempe, wept (or as she illuminatingly called it, roared) all the time, loudly and in public, for her love of Jesus and her sorrow for the world. 

Then, of course, there’s also just ordinary tears, the tears of grief and loss and loneliness and despair. When I listen to the Coventry Carol, I consider not only the women weeping in Bethlehem, but Mary weeping at the foot of the cross. And I think of today’s mothers who mourn the unjust or cruel deaths of their children. It’s worth remembering for us that Herod was both religious and an arm of the Roman state. I remember the weeping mothers of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and all other mothers whose children have died through state violence. I recall the mothers who have died with their children crossing the border, out in the desert near where I grew up. I think of the mothers whose children have been unjustly imprisoned. I think of the mothers whose children have been harassed, beaten, or driven to self-harm. And not to mention the countless mothers across the world who lose their children to war, famine, and disease. There are so many reasons to weep like Rachel in Ramah. 

In November 1940, the town of Coventry, the origin of this song, was heavily bombed by the Nazis. 30,000 bombs were dropped, hundreds, maybe even a thousand people killed, and 41,000 houses damaged or destroyed. On Christmas, 1940, the provost of the destroyed cathedral broadcast a short sermon on BBC radio, and as he put it, “whoever was left” of his ruined choir sang this tune. It’s a haunting thing to listen to. Here’s a small quote from Provost Howard, from the 25th of December, 1940:

Early this Christmas morning, here under these ruins, in the lovely little stone chapel built six hundred years ago, we began the day with our Christmas communion, worshipping the Christ, believe me, as joyfully as ever before. What we want to tell the world is this: that with Christ born again in our hearts today, we are trying, hard as it may be, to banish all thoughts of revenge… We are going to try to make a kinder, simpler, a more Christ Child-like sort of world in the days beyond this strife.”

Provost Howard, Christmas 1940 sermon in the ruins of Coventry Cathedral

If you keep listening, you will hear the provost, standing among the ruins of his church and town, urging his listeners, including us across the divide of years, to fight the desire to become like Herod. For that is our great temptation—we want to rule and we are tempted to destroy any threat to our supremacy as individuals, as ethnic groups, as cultural leaders, as nations. You may be scoffing right now. Of course in 1940 the Nazis were spitting images of Herod, destroying the newest generation of Jewish children. Yet the provost at Christmas 1940 wisely calls us to attend to our own desire for dominion. “How could I be a Herod?” is a fair question. Yet I know, if I am honest with myself, that the Herodian temptation acts in my soul. And it is a temptation on the lowest as well as the highest levels. It’s easy to see the Herodian impulse in the political party that you hate, or those you profoundly disagree with. It can be harder in the Herod-littered realms of history, especially if it’s the history of your own ancestors or nation. It’s hardest to see Herod in myself, in the ways I sideline voices who threaten my carefully curated world of safety, or how I attempt to control situations to ensure that what I want to happen does happen (spoiler, it doesn’t work). From the depths of WWII, at one of its lowest moments, Provost Howard urges us to reject the Herod in us, even when we have been bombed to oblivion by our enemies, and become like the tiny infant Jesus to create a kinder, gentler world. And take comfort, the medieval Corpus Christi plays remind us: he is already with you, deeper than your skin, present in the sacraments and even in the body of you and your neighbor.

When God became a little baby, he shared our embodiment. All embodied folk are no longer only his creation, they are his holy kindred, his beloved family. The image of God is in each one of us, and no longer just in our souls but in our very bodies, through the Eucharist we consume, but also through the reality and totality of his Incarnation. This was one of the messages of the Corpus Christi plays in medieval Coventry. When your neighbor that you didn’t even like played Jesus, it reminded you of how you aren’t just part of Christ’s body with the people you like or approve of. The Body is bigger than you can dream, larger than your judgment, even than your hope.

As Christians, we say we believe in the tired but true phrase of the sanctity of human life. Let us lament together this week on how we have managed to live out unbelief in the holiness of every person, have been like Herod and not Jesus. Practice waiting with hope and lament for Jesus by meditating or reaching out to a grieving friend or family member. If you’re feeling extra medieval this week, you might feel called to pray for Margery Kempe’s gift of tears as we meditate on the Coventry Carol.

But let’s go further, as well. The action for this week of Advent is to give. I encourage you, in a time filled with the fun and weariness of purchasing gifts for our friends and family members, to also use your money to honor our Incarnate God by giving to an organization that seeks to honor bodies that may be different than your own, with lives different than your own, but no less share the beauty of Christ’s embodiment. Many of us tithe or give to churches or particular ministries, but take a moment to contribute to a place you don’t normally give. Give to organizations that support groups that have faced the wrath of powerful Herods pretty personally. Some thoughts for giving: groups that advocate for immigrants and refugees, like the Holy Family themselves, groups that advocate for prisoners and those on death row, groups that provide safe housing and help for pregnant women, groups that tell people rejected by their families and churches because of their sexuality or gender that they are still worthy of love, and groups that advocate for people of color, especially children and impoverished folks. Here are a few organizations you could look into, or find one you feel particularly drawn to:

Advent Series: Meditation on O Come O Come Emmanuel

Advent Art by Gayla Irwin. You can see more of her work at gaylairwin.com

Let’s begin with a story. My great-grandmother, Gma, had a mental decline towards the end of her life. She had forgotten almost everything and lived in an assisted-care facility. My family visited her in Truth or Consequences (yes, real name), New Mexico. I was in high school, and dreaded it. It was awkward, she certainly would not remember us, I was uncomfortable with emotion and the closeness of death. 

My mother is an idea woman. She comes up with ideas and boldly tries them, often to great success, sometimes to her detriment (but mostly success). Her idea when we visited Gma was to sing to her. She had heard that music memories are stored in a different part of the brain, and that even when language had been lost to the ravages of Alzheimer’s, sometimes singing could unlock memories of words in song. I don’t think any of us, especially the teenage contingent, wanted to sing in a random nursing home when we thought that Gma wouldn’t even respond. 

But something beautiful and strange happened that day in Truth or Consequences. In a sterile, beige-colored room set aside for visitors, my family fumblingly began to sing “How Great Thou Art” a capella. And Gma, though she hadn’t been able to speak and certainly did not know who we were, in her tiny, quavering voice, began to sing with us. It was an unforeseen, mysterious moment of communion beyond the bodily ravages of illness and time, beyond the ugliness of a rural nursing home in New Mexico, beyond language and reason, facilitated through song.

This podcast inclines toward the intellectual, towards words and stories and critical thinking about their forms and meanings. This is how I naturally operate and of course I won’t entirely abandon it (for any Enneagram nerds, I’m a five). But Advent is mysterious. Like in the liturgy itself, time unravels. Though Jesus came 2000 years ago, in Advent we wait for him again. Though we are redeemed in his precious body, we call out for the redemption of our time, of our current bodies and places and spaces and beloved friends and family. Music can help us move beyond time and intellect’s limited grasp towards something of this mystery. When you sing O Come, O Come Emmanuel, you lift your voice alongside 1200 years of Christians welcoming the Incarnate God, the tiny baby, savior of the world. I can hardly think of anything so tangible, other than the sacraments, that connects us to the great cloud of witnesses, our ancestors, as singing these songs of the past. So this Advent series focuses on Christmas and Advent carols, one at a time.

Our song for today is one of my favorites, O Come O Come Emmanuel. I love it partially because it is so ancient. Like so many of our songs, it was first crafted by monks, all the way back in the eighth century. In the liturgical order right before Christmas Eve, they chanted something called the “O Antiphons,” or the “Great O’s.” This was a list of addresses to Jesus by different names in the Old Testament, very popular in early and late medieval poetry and song:

O Sapientia (O Wisdom)

O Adonai (Hebrew name for God, the giver of the law)

O Radix Jesse (root or branch of Jesse, in the lineage of Jesus)

O Clavis David (key of David)

O Oriens (Morningstar or daystar)

O Rex Gentium (King of the Gentiles)

O Emmanuel (self-explanatory, from Isaiah’s prophecies)

There’s another thing about this list that makes me smile, because it’s such insight into the medieval character, those folks who loved puzzles and allegory and layer and layer of meaning more than almost anything. Do you remember acrostic poems? Those dreadful poems you’d write for your mom on Mother’s Day that spelled out her name with the initial letter of each line? Well, these original Latin verses of O Come O Come Emmanuel create a reverse acrostic in Latin: ero cras, which translates to “I shall be with you tomorrow.” So the song was often sung on December 23, the night before Christmas Eve, to fulfill Christ’s promise in the acrostic! It’s Jesus’s inside joke with his own nicknames!

Obviously this sounded very different than the version we sing today. How did it become the familiar tune we know and love? In the nineteenth century, the Victorians got very into all things medieval. In 1851, A man named J.M. Neale translated a thirteenth-century metrical version (i.e. poetry) into English and set it to music. From the sound of it, he was rather a disorganized man and did not tell what the source of the tune was. For a while, no one knew where this haunting, lovely melody that so fits the waiting, yearning themes of Advent—the same tune we sing today—came from. But in the twentieth century, a woman with two of the most amazing name associations discovered its origin. Mother Thomas More—birth name Dr. Mary Berry, in a fabulous martyrdom/Great British Bake-Off name collision—found its source, a fifteenth-century processional for French nuns. So when we sing this song, we sing in Victorian English, to a Renaissance melody for nuns, ancient Hebrew words with origins in the deep and distant past of the Old Testament, first strung together by Latin monks in the Dark Ages, and set to poetry by someone unknown in the Middle Ages. It’s a song that embodies the history of the Western Church. When my six-year-old sings it with Sufjan Stevens in the backseat of our car, she joins in with the unknown voices of ages. How beautiful, big, and transcendent is the body of Christ.

On the podcast, I sing O Come O Come, accompanied by my dad on the guitar, for the meditation. I suggest if you’re reading instead of listening, to sing the song to yourself, to reap the benefits of the music. I also have made a playlist, Old Books With Grace: Advent & Christmas, that you can check out on Spotify.

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here,
Until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free
Thine own from Satan’s tyranny;
From depths of hell Thy people save,
And give them victory o’er the grave.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Thou Dayspring, come and cheer,
Our spirits by thine advent here;
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Thou Key of David, come
And open wide our heav’nly home;
Make safe the way that leads on high,
And close the path to misery.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Adonai, Lord of might,
Who to Thy tribes, on Sinai’s height,
In ancient times didst give the law
In cloud and majesty and awe.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

Which of Jesus’s titles stood out to you, upon this reading or singing?

I have recently responded most strongly to the idea of Jesus as Dayspring. Sometimes it seems like my people and nation are captive to an implacable, devouring darkness. Often it seems like hate captures imaginations more than love, or like tearing something down is easier than constructing something beautiful. Pride, fear, injustice, and refusal to acknowledge one another as full people dominates the public arena. I struggle with insomnia and anxiety, and at times it seems like the literal night will never end. But to name Jesus as the Dayspring is an act of hope that one day this present darkness will disintegrate in the light of the dawn and all motives and actions, ugly and beautiful, will be laid bare and exposed for what they are. It reminds me of the ending of C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters, where the human, tempted throughout the novel, dies in an air raid during WWII and suddenly sees everything in his life illuminated like the dawn, his rights and wrongs, his good and bad loves, his lies and the ways he’s been lied to, the beauties and joys of his life.

But the other titles too all illustrate a hope for what Jesus came to set right. Emmanuel—God With Us—he redeems our bodies, and our bodies matter, they are not merely our flesh trap while we wait for eternity. Rod of Jesse—this could also be root or branch of Jesse, but to describe him as a rod reflects both rootedness and the absolute justice of God. The Rod of Jesse beats off the thief of life. The Key of David opens heaven and fully realized communion with God and his saints, while locking the misery of sin away. And finally, Adonai, the lawgiver, fulfills the law of love. All of Christ’s titles reflect an active reality, not an abstract, passive hope for the next life. They are the fulfillment of “Thy kingdom come, on earth as it is heaven,” which reminds us that this life is not just a vale of tears and oppression, but a place where we are privileged to work the love of the Incarnate God. This song marries our future promise of heaven and the real end of misery to our concrete acts of love and justice as Christ’s pierced hands and feet in the world. There’s a real tension there that defies easy boundaries and simple answers. Sometimes you will be active in the work of love and it will feel good and come easily with rejoicing, sometimes you will cry out in the pain of the laboring world and all its hatred.

O Come asks us a serious question even as it yearningly praises our savior: as we wait for the Dayspring, who are you loving this week, with words or deeds or both? Is it just those easy to love, those like you or those you already like? Where are you doing your tiny part to make way for the justice of the Kingdom? On the flip side of that coin, where have you taken burdens upon yourself that don’t belong to you, that instead rest with Adonai, the Key of David, the Rod of Jesse, Emmanuel, and require you to wait, in stillness and silence?

The Advent Action for this week is to carve out a space for yourself in expectant solitude, away from holiday busy-ness and bustle, to meditate upon these questions. Go on a walk on your lunch break, even if it’s cold. Take a bath. Play quiet music in your room while hiding from your children. Pray to each title of Jesus in O Come and see if one particularly speaks to you at the moment. If you’d like to soak in some poetry about these names of Jesus, the O Antiphons, the poet Malcolm Guite has a beautiful series with both poetry and commentary to check out. And do not be afraid: he tells us in this song, ero cras, promising his presence with us.

The Annunciation and Art with Victoria Emily Jones

This week, I welcomed Victoria Emily Jones, the writer and creator of the website Art and Theology, to join me on Old Books With Grace. You can either watch the YouTube video of our discussion (right below this paragraph), or listen to it on the podcasting service of your choice. Below I’ve included the art and poetry that we discuss in this wonderful episode! I hope it encourages you in your preparations for Advent and imitating Mary in receiving the Christ child.

https://open.spotify.com/show/4W2Iaz9lP98gBIQQgGKM7J


Martin Schongauer, Altarpiece of the Dominicans (aka The Mystic Hunt), ca. 1480. Oil on pine, each panel 116 × 116 cm. Musée d’Unterlinden, Colmar, France.
Fra Angelico, The Annunciation (main panel from an altarpiece), ca. 1426. Tempera on wood, 162.3 × 191.5 cm. Museo del Prado, Madrid.
“Our Lady’s Salutation” by Robert Southwell (ca. 1561–1595) (spellings modernized) 

Spell Eva back and Ave shall you find,
The first began, the last reversed our harms;
An angel’s witching words did Eva blind,
And angel’s Ave disenchants the charms;
Death first by woman’s weakness entered in,
In woman’s virtue life doth now begin.

O virgin breast! the heavens to thee incline,
In thee their joy and sovereign they agnize;   [agnize = acknowledge]
Too mean their glory is to match with thine,
Whose chaste receipt God more than heaven did prize.
Hail, fairest heaven that heaven and earth doth bless,
Where virtue’s star, God’s sun of justice, is! 

With haughty mind to Godhead man aspired,
And was by pride from place of pleasure chased;
With loving mind our manhood God desired,
And us by love in greater pleasure placed:
Man laboring to ascend procured our fall,
God yielding to descend cut off our thrall.
Henry Ossawa Tanner (American, 1859–1937), The Annunciation, 1898. Oil on canvas, 57 × 71 3/4 in. (144.8 × 181 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Jyoti Sahi (Indian, 1944–), Incarnation within the Anthill, 2019. Mixed media on canvas, 28 × 10 1/2 in. (71.1 × 26.7 cm). Victoria Jones has written more about this piece at https://artandtheology.org/2019/12/08/he-comes-comes-ever-comes/
“Annunciation” by Scott Cairns, from Idiot Psalms: New Poems (Paraclete Press, 2014)

Deep within the clay, and O my people
very deep within the wholly earthen 
compound of our kind arrives of one clear,
star-illumined evening a spark igniting 
once again the tinder of our lately
banked noetic fire. She burns but she
is not consumed. The dew lights gently,
suffusing the pure fleece. The wall comes down.
And—do you feel the pulse?—we all become
the kindled kindred of a king whose birth
thereafter bears to all a bright nativity.

The land lies open: summer fallow, hayfield, pasture. Folds of cloud mirror buttes knife-edged in shadow. One monk smears honey on his toast, another peels an orange.

A bell rings three times, as the Angelus begins, bringing to mind Gabriel and Mary. “She said yeah,” the Rolling Stones sing from a car on the interstate, “She said yeah.” And the bells pick it up, many bells now, saying it to Mechtild, the barn cat, pregnant again; to Ephrem’s bluebirds down the draw; to the grazing cattle and monks (virgins, some of them) eating silently before the sexy tongue of a hibiscus blossom at their refectory window. “She said yeah.” And then the angel left her.

Mysteries of the Incarnation: “She Said Yeah” by Kathleen Norris, from Little Girls in Church (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1995)

More resources on the Annunciation and art, suggested by Victoria Emily Jones:

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.

The Hunter and the Hunted: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Fitt III

A cozy reading scene with Simon Armitage’s translation of Sir Gawain, beautifully illustrated by Clive Hicks-Jenkins

Here we are in Fitt III of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the wondrous, thoughtful, magical fourteenth-century poem. If you’ve missed the previous three installments, I’d recommend reading those first, because we are now on the downward slope towards the exciting conclusion. Gawain has found himself in an enchantingly beautiful castle in snowy, distant woods, just in time to celebrate Christmas and the New Year. And much to his relief and trepidation, he has learned that the Green Chapel, where he must meet the blow given by the mysterious Green Knight, is only two miles distant. Despite all Gawain’s negative past experience with games offered by strangers, he has entered into yet another one, with the host of the castle, Lord Bertilak. Bertilak is going hunting for the next few days, and anything he kills in his hunt he will give to Gawain—if Gawain gives him anything that he has received at the castle in Bertilak’s absence. 

Fitt III is constructed in a really interesting way. It’s split, between scenes of Bertilak hunting and scenes of quite a different kind of hunt. I will be frank with you: this is my least favorite fitt. Hunting scenes are not my jam. However, hunting was an elaborate, important medieval ritual for the nobles of the time. I say nobles, because that’s mainly who hunted. The King owned forests for the most part in medieval England, and he granted permission to hunt in them. Otherwise, anything caught in those forests belonged to him. Peasants were even killed for daring to hunt for food in those areas. 

Hunting was also another area in which to display your aristocratic, well-bred courtesy and expertise. There were entire handbooks written for the correct way to kill and then process a deer. There were entirely different rules for the hunt of each kind of animal. And so this passage is another chance for the Gawain-poet to show his aristocratic audience that he’s in the know. The hunt was a place to show your style as much as the court was. We can still see the ancestors of this idea today, in England, with fox hunting. Fox hunting is an elaborate ritual, with the right kind of gear, the best horse, and its own vocabulary, incomprehensible to the uninitiated… or the not-so-high-class. 

The Gawain-poet writes with a savage, bloody beauty in these hunting scenes, deploying that correct vocabulary with precision. It’s unbelievably skilled, but more difficult to appreciate today due to our distance from that culture and taste. Maybe if you’re a hunter you would enjoy it more; I am not one. Also, it seems to me that hunters and poetry folk might not coexist in the same Venn Diagram. I’d be happy to be proven wrong! Listen, briefly, to Simon Armitage’s translation of the hunting of the female deer:

But the hinds were halted with hollers and whoops
and the din drove the does to sprint for the dells.
	
Then the eye can see that the air is all arrows:
all across the forest they flashed and flickered,
biting through hides with their broad heads.
What! They bleat as they bleed and they die on the banks,
and always the hounds are hard on their heels,
and the hunters on horseback come hammering behind
with stone-splitting cries, as if cliffs had collapsed. (Armitage, 1158-1166)

From this loud, hacking, driving scene, the poet leads us into a quiet bedchamber back at the castle. Exhausted after all his journeys, Gawain sleeps late in a room dappled with sunlight. He awakens when he hears the door gently open. He quietly peers to see who the intruder is. It’s the lady of the castle, and Gawain decides to pretend like he’s still sleeping, and meditates on what this visit might mean. She’s gorgeously arrayed, beautiful as ever. Gawain decides he should stop pretending to sleep and ask her what she’s doing here, and this part cracks me up:

So he stirred and stretched, turned on his side,
lifted his eyelids and, looking alarmed, 
crossed himself hurriedly with his hand, as if saving 
                   his life.
 (Armitage, 1200-1204)

I love the fake crossing himself with shock. I think the poet is having a little laugh at Gawain’s bad acting, especially with the glimpse into his thought processes. And by the way, we take such interior monologuing in literature for granted, but this is a really early example of “interior consciousness” in poetry. This is also why you should roll your eyes at anyone who thinks modern people are more conscious or self-aware than medieval or ancient people.

Gawain is “trapped” as the lady laughingly announces, just like the deer driven down towards the water then slaughtered by the hunters in wait. Gawain carefully “loads his words with laughter” as he asks permission to rise and put on his clothes (we think perhaps he is sleeping naked, making this scene all the more vulnerable!). The Lady winkingly refuses—she notes she has pinned the famous Sir Gawain, and now she and he are left all alone, she suggestively emphasizes. “Do with me what you will.” Not very subtle!

Thus begins a game of romance chess. Each player in this game counters the other. The Lady moves with overt seduction, layering each speech of hers with sexy innuendo. Gawain, too, layers his speech. He flirts with her, compliments her, but avoids her seduction at all costs, determined not to betray his host. But he is truly trapped, more than just being caught in bed with his pants down. Both know that one of the chivalric values of knighthood is that very love-talk we discussed in the last episode. So Gawain is effectively caught between two facets of his identity: the knight Gawain and the Christian Gawain are at odds. The knight Gawain is expected by his society and tradition to woo and court this beautiful lady (whom, the poet makes perfectly clear, Gawain does desire). The Christian Gawain, with Mary on the inside of his shield, must not commit adultery nor betray the person who took him in from the bitter cold, Bertilak. 

Finally, the Lady taunts Gawain into giving her a kiss: 

“May the Lord repay you for your prize performance.
But I know that Gawain could never be your name.”
“But why not?” the knight asked nervously,
afraid that some fault in his manners had failed him.
The beautiful woman blessed him, then rebuked him:
“A good man like Gawain, so greatly regarded,
the embodiment of courtliness to the bones of his being,
could never have lingered so long with a lady
without craving a kiss, as politeness requires,
or coaxing a kiss with his closing words.’ (Armitage, 1292-1301)

And yes—Gawain enfolds her in his arms, and kisses her. Alarm bells should be ringing right about now. The original verse of Gawain as the embodiment of courtliness to the bones of his being clues us in to some big problems: “Cortaysye is closed so clene in hymseluen” (1298), or courtesy is closed clean in himself. Remember Gawain’s shield? Cleanness, or purity, and courtesy, or impeccable knightly manners, were both points on the pentangle. And now they are at odds with one another. 

As so often happens in real life, parts of our identities clash with one another. Difficult choices or foolish mistakes reveal the selves we desire to be, and who we really are. We see this all the time in public apologies, to make a brief point. I hate the phrase “that’s not really who I am” after someone messes up publicly and has to apologize. Though you may not like that you did that, and now see the error of your ways, it was you who wrote that stupid tweet, made that ill-advised comment, and so on.

This poet lived before public apology was really a thing. But he sees that the values we build up around ourselves—the public and private identities, the shields and self-portraits—simplify deeply complex motives and fragile ecosystems of inner peace. This, of course, doesn’t mean that virtue isn’t real, or undesirable. But it does indicate that when we use them to construct ourselves, to portray ourselves to the world, they can be just as breakable as anything else. Any virtue, as every medieval theologian knew, can be susceptible to that ultimate corruptor, pride. Gawain is actually not proud at all, the way we are used to thinking of it. He’s constantly aware of the others around him, serving those he needs to serve, not trumpeting his skills or flaunting how much people love him. But Gawain, like any of us, can become so aware of, so enchanted with, this ideal, wonderful version of himself that he presents, that it becomes the driving force behind all his actions. Gawain so desperately wants to live up to his reputation as the perfect knight that he can resist this breathtaking woman who so clearly wants to sleep with him—up until she invokes that very identity as the perfect knight. 

Once he kisses her, she leaves him, to his great relief. He attends mass and feasts joyfully with her and the old crone who is her companion. No damage has truly been done yet. In a famously homoerotic moment, the two men exchange their winnings at that night’s feast. Gawain merrily kisses Bertilak after receiving what seems like countless deer corpses. And onto the next day.

Yet again, Bertilak happily slaughters. Today, instead of deer, he pursues a ferocious, massive wild boar. I thought of this scene recently when a wild boar attacked the pop singer Shakira in a park in Madrid, an absolutely wild headline that sounds generated by the web. It really happened though! Too bad Bertilak wasn’t there. And by the way, wild boars can be extremely dangerous. He handily kills the great, savage beast, again in the flawless, brutal web of specialized hunting poetry woven by this poet.

And yet again, the Lady sneaks into Gawain’s room in the morning. And again, when he does not follow up on her more explicit advances, she challenges his identity, and suggests he could take what he wanted anytime by force. If you are truly Gawain, use those muscles to get what you want. Interestingly, just like in the last game, we see the inherent connection between knightly identity and the violence always just one step away. Gawain rebuffs her, saying that while he does have nice big muscles, he doesn’t take gifts not given freely. If she demands a kiss, he will courteously supply it. And so she does, and he does. And she teasingly doubts him again, wondering aloud why such a renowned knight is not schooling her in love-talk while her husband is away. Gawain cleverly says that he should be learning from her, not vice versa, and dodges the attempt. And so finally they kiss again, and she leaves, and he heads off to mass.

Bertilak and Gawain exchange their winnings again, kissing twice and proffering boar meat. But at the feast that night, the Lady is so flirtatious with Gawain, that he is 

maddened and amazed, 
but his breeding forbade him from rebuking a lady, 
and though tongues might wag he returned her attention
	all night. (Armitage, 1660-1663)

Dawn of the third day. Bertilak hears mass and leaves to go hunt a wily fox. And the wiliest fox, Gawain, finds himself again with the Lady in his bedchamber. He had been in fitful sleep, dreaming of the Green Chapel and the coming blow. This time, the poet tells us, the Lady is dressed to truly impress. I read in Middle English:

No hwef goud on her hede, but the hayer stones
Trased aboute her tressour be twenty in clusteres;
Her thryuen face and her throte throwen all naked,
Hir brest bare before, and bihinde eke. (1738-1741)

That naked expanse of skin dazzles Gawain with flowing, warming joy. And the poet warns us that he stands in great peril, unless Mary will save her knight. Gawain knows the boundary between chivalrous flirtation and adultery is thin, but he swears he won’t pass it. They kiss, and the lady begs him to give her a gift to remember him by, or at least to take a gift from her. 

You may be familiar with this system of knightly behavior. Think of a movie you’ve seen with a tournament scene. The one I embarrassingly immediately think of is Disney’s Robin Hood, with the archery tournament. Fox Robin Hood in disguise takes Fox Maid Marian’s handkerchief and wears it proudly as a token of her esteem and affection. Knights wore the token of their lady, secretly or proudly, and in return they won whatever tournament in her name. Often, such tokens signified fealty to the wife of their lord—sometimes they signified more.

The Lady tries to give Gawain a ring, and when he refuses, she offers something smaller. She unties a girdle, a belt or lace, from around her body. It is green, trimmed with gold, and tries to give it to him. But she urges him to take it: “If you know, Gawain, of the power this girdle possesses, you wouldn’t say no.”

‘“For the body which is bound within this green belt,
as long as it is buckled robustly about him,
will be safe against anyone who seeks to strike him,
and all the slyness on earth wouldn’t see him slain.”
The man mulled it over, and it entered his mind
it might just be the jewel for the jeopardy he faced…’ (Armitage, 1851-1856)

The one condition upon taking this green, life-saving girdle is not telling her husband. Gawain agrees, and kisses her. He hides the girdle away, and goes to confession so that if he dies on the morrow, he will be clean. Fully and frankly, the poet tells us, Gawain confesses his sins. 

This part always confuses me. The priest pronounces him clean. But did Gawain tell the priest of his lie of omission in keeping the girdle? Does it not count as a sin? The poet gives us no clear answers. 

And he and the Lord exchange winnings, and Gawain merrily feasts. He believes he has weathered the temptations of Bertilak’s castle without dishonoring his host and damaging his own reputation. Yet in the back of his mind, he cannot escape the recognition that he will face his doom the next day. Will he live? Will he die? Is the girdle truly magical? He has broken the rules of one game. Does it matter? Only tomorrow can tell.

If you have questions or thoughts, I’d love to hear them. You can tweet at me or comment on Instagram, or even send me an email at oldbookswithgrace@gmail.com. If you’re enjoying this series, I’d really appreciate it if you shared, or subscribed, to help others find this series more easily.

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:

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 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.