By Leithart, Peter J.
First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life
The anonymous alliterative Middle English poem "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" is one of the gems of Western medieval literature. It gives a colorful portrait of court life, of heaped tables fringed with silk, knights and ladies in stately order, "velvet carpets, embroidered rugs, studded with jewels as rich as an emperor's ransom." Its attention to detail is remarkable. It is a rare poet who sees poetic possibilities in butchering a deer, but the Gawain poet lingers over the slaughter for thirty fascinating lines. Above all, as several of my students have emphasized to me recently, what marks the poem is its tone of utter and undiluted jollity. Everything in the poem is turned into sport, and friendly sport at that.
The sporting begins when Christmas festivities at Camelot are interrupted by the appearance of a strange knight, green from head to toe, who rides his green horse into Arthur's hall and challenges the famed knights of the round table to join him in a bit of fun, "a Christmas sport for the season." As it turns out, the game is a decapitation contest: one of Arthur's knights is asked to swipe an axe at the Green Knight, and the Green Knight will have his chance to return the blow during the holiday season the following year, at his Green Chapel. Not surprisingly, the offer is greeted with stunned silence, until Arthur agrees to take up the gauntlet. Sir Gawain is unwilling to put his liege in danger, and quickly volunteers in his place. He chops off the Green Knight's head, which rolls under the table where the knights kick it around like a football. But the greatest marvel is still to come: in a scene of bizarre comedy, the Green Knight picks up his head, mounts his horse, and then the head opens its eyes to say, in essence, "see you next year."
When the next Christmas season draws near, Gawain sets out on his quest. He arrives at a castle, where he is immediately challenged to another game. While the lord hunts, Gawain stays behind at the castle, and they agree that at the end of each day, they will exchange their winnings. The lord returns each day with his kill--a fox pelt, a wild boar, the meat from a deer. Gawain, meanwhile, lolls around in bed and is visited by the lady of the house, who kisses him each day. In the evening, the lord hands over his goods, and Gawain kisses him. On the third day of his stay, the lady gives Gawain a green belt, which she claims will protect him from the Green Knight's blow, but Gawain doesn't turn the belt over to his host. This is the moral center of the poem: since Gawain breaks his word out of fear of death, he fails to live up to the code of a knight.
Yet the poem does not end tragically. When the fateful day arrives, Gawain faces the Green Knight (who, as the reader has suspected, is the lord of the castle). The Green Knight takes a few swipes, but takes only a nick from Gawain's neck (the charming Middle English word is "nirt"), as punishment for keeping the green belt to himself. Though Gawain experiences some mild shame at his failure, the Green Knight dismisses it and lets Gawain return home. When Arthur's knights hear the tale, they laugh off Gawain's error, and all the knights agree that they will wear the green belt in turns as a sign of solidarity. Gawain may have acted in unknightly fashion, but it does not affect his standing or reputation at all. All is sport, and any violations of the rules are cheerfully forgiven.
Whether it's decapitation, seduction, or a knight breaking his oath, the poem is pervaded by an air of light joviality and playfulness. Little is taken seriously, including the reality of sin and the probability of death. Not even the headless horseman is fearsome: as they watched the Green Knight ride away carrying his head, "Arthur and Gawain grinned at the joke, and laughed at the green man," as if he were some harmless leprechaun. The same point can be made from the other direction: what's missing from this poem of knights and ladies is precisely what you expect from a poem of knights and ladies--tournaments, jousts, damsels in distress, combat to the death, all that Walter-Scottish stuff and nonsense. …