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.

A Lovely Brief Introduction to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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