This is the fourth and final column about Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, that splendid and seminal work of fourteenth-century poetic romance. In the earlier installments (part 1, part 2, and part 3), we've covered giants and questing, castles and flirtation, and kissing, hunting, and beheading games—as well as a daily dose of potentially adulterous erotica from the sexy wife of Lord Bertilak, who's been creeping, every morning, into Gawain's guest bed, trying to seduce the chaste knight.
This week, in the fourth and final fitt, we'll find out how the story ends. After staying a week in Lord Bertilak's castle, it's finally time for Gawain to ride out to the ominous Green Chapel, where, on New Year's Day, he must finally keep the covenant he made with the enigmatic Green Knight last Christmas . . . and where, if Lady Bertilak's magic girdle doesn't turn out to be the protective talisman she claimed, Gawain stands to lose his head to the giant's green-gleaming axe.
As you'll remember, the third fitt closed with wine, meat, and merriment in Bertilak's hall, on Gawain's final night as a guest there. "[W]ith meals and mirth and minstrelsy / they made as much amusement as any mortal could . . . those merry men and laughing ladies" (ll. 1952-4).
Then Gawain, who has now been a guest in Bertilak's hall since the day before Christmas—that is, nearly a week—says his farewells and makes his way slowly off to bed. He needs to be up at the crack of dawn, to put on his armor, mount up on Gringolet, and, with one of Bertilak's servants as a guide, make his way to the mysterious Green Chapel. Given what waits for him on the morrow, it's hardly surprising if Gawain's sleep is troubled by dark thoughts . . . But maybe we should back up a little bit, to recap what exactly Gawain's headed into, and why his dreams might be so uneasy.
As we'll all know by now, Gawain's troubles started a year ago, when a giant green knight rode into King Arthur's Christmas feast, and challenged any knight of Camelot to take him on. Gawain accepted, and learned the rules of the giant's challenge: he would take a swing at the strange knight's neck with the stranger's own axe, and then—if the green knight survived—Gawain would have to come find the stranger at his own home, and accept a return stroke to his own neck, in one year's time. Gawain's axe-stroke was true, and he struck off the stranger's head cleanly . . . but the giant simply laughed, retrieved the head, tucked it under his arm and rode out of the hall. Now Gawain is obliged to meet the knight on the New Year's Day to come, and take his medicine.
The seasons have turned, it's winter again, and—after two months of wandering in the wilderness, seeking the Green Knight's home—Gawain has stumbled across Lord Bertilak's castle, where he has been able to spend the Christmas holiday in comfort. What's more, Bertilak knows where the Green Knight lives, so it's been decided that Gawain will stay until New Year's Day and then be taken there by a guide in the morning. To while away the time, meanwhile, Gawain and Bertilak have been playing a peculiar Game of Exchanges: Each man vows that, each night, he will give to the other everything he's "gained" or "won" during the day. For Bertilak, who's a hunter, this means awarding Gawain the spoils of the deer, boar, or fox that he's run down in the winter woods. But for Gawain—who's been staying home in Bertilak's castle to relax and recuperate—a different sort of hunt has been going on: every morning, Lord Bertilak's young and beautiful wife creeps into Gawain's bedroom and, through coyness, flirtation, or out-and-out seduction, tries to get Gawain to sleep with her.
Thus far, Gawain has managed to resist and emerge with his chastity intact—with the exception of a few kisses: one the first morning, two the second, and three on the third and last. In observance of the bargain, Gawain has dutifully been "giving these back" to Lord Bertilak every evening in the hall (although he has declined to tell the lord exactly where he got the kisses from).
On the third morning, though, something else came to pass. Unable to get Gawain to accept a valuable ring or any other token of her affection, Lady Bertilak prevails upon him to accept an embroidered girdle. While the girdle (which, at this period, means a woman's belt) is a highly intimate gift, Lady Bertilak tells Gawain that this one also has magic powers: it will protect anyone who wears it from danger or death. His mind fixed on his deadly encounter with the Green Knight's axe on the morrow, Gawain is finally ready to set aside any scruples he might have had. He accepts the gift.
Lady Bertilak's girdle is folded away now, carefully hidden among Gawain's own things. He didn't mention it to Lord Bertilak at this evening's exchange, much less offer it to the lord. At least by certain definitions, that means Gawain has violated the terms of his compact—which, game though it might be, is supposed to be binding on a knight. After all, Gawain lives by chivalry; in his line of work, values like "courtesy" and "loyalty" mean everything. This is a guy who has the Virgin Mary painted on the inside of his shield. What with his uneasiness about the girdle, plus the giant in the morning, it's little wonder is Gawain is experiencing dark dreams this night. What do you think the morning is likely to bring . . . ?
The fourth fitt opens in darkness, with winds and storms whipping the castle's walls, as Gawain lies awake waiting for dawn. Before daybreak, he's up and dressed, buckling on his armor with the help of a servant. Naturally, he doesn't forget to put on the lady's girdle, which he wraps around his waist over his armor but under his fur-lined coat. (He apparently does this while the servant has gone out of the room to ready his horse. Which seems to me like a sneaky thing to do, if, perhaps, natural enough under the circumstances.)
Gawain mounts Gringolet—who has been stabled and well cared-for while Gawain was getting his feast on, and has apparently now been curried, saddled, and re-armored himself—and, along with his designated guide, he rides out of the castle. It is an icy winter dawn, and the world is barren, silent, and, like Gawain, seems more than a little withdrawn and depressed. "They scrambled up bankings where branches were bare, / clambered up cliff faces crazed by the cold . . . / . . . [T]he moors and the mountains were muzzy with mist, / and every hill wore a hat of mizzle on its head" (ll. 2077-81).
Finally, at the top of a hill, the servant stops his horse. He says to Gawain: "I have taken you faithfully almost all the way to the place you're looking for. The Green Chapel is very close. But, my lord, listen to me now: if you go there, it's certain death. The man who lives there isn't really human. He's a monster—he's huge as four warriors put together, and he'll kill anyone he can get his hands on. Priest, peasant—he's bludgeoned 'em all! He's been lurking and brooding there too long. He has no humanity left, if he ever did. He lives to kill! So please, don't throw your life away. Take another path, follow another road down this hill. I swear I'll never breathe a word to anyone—your secret will be safe."
Gawain, as we might imagine, appears to have mixed feelings about this offer. "Thanks," he says, in what Simon Armitage translates as a "terse tone of voice" (the Middle English tells us Gawain is "gruchyng"). "But I really have to go do this. Otherwise, I'd lose my honor and be branded a coward, which is quite inexcusable in knightly circles. Not that you'd necessarily know that," he adds. "In any case, I'm going to go talk with the guy, and we'll see what happens. I mean, I know he's strong, and armed, and everything. But I try to be good with God. I figure that will pull me through."
"Okay, man," says the servant, "your funeral," and he wheels his horse around, jabs in his spurs and is off.
"All right, now," says Gawain to himself. "I'm not going to freak out. God will help me. God will help me. Not going to freak out." And he presses Gringolet onward, down the path that will lead to the place he's looking for—the Green Knight's home: the Green Chapel.
The landscape we are in is an extremely wild one, even by medieval English standards. There's no sign of any human settlement; instead, the valley Gawain is riding through is flanked with high, spiky stones "of such sharpness / no cloud in the sky could escape unscathed" (ll. 2166-7). Gawain knows he must be near the place he's seeking, and that that place is called the Green Chapel: after all, that's the address the Green Knight gave on that fateful night at Camelot, and that's what Lord Bertilak and the servant have directed him to.
But there's no sign of any kind of buildings around here at all. There is only
at mid-distance what might be a mound,
a sort of bald knoll on the bank of a brook
where fell water surged with frenzied force,
. . . as if it had boiled . . .
a hole at one end and at either side,
and its walls, matted with weeds and moss,
enclosed a cavity, like a kind of old cave
or crevice . . . it was all too unclear to declare.
Gawain dismounts, tethers his horse and takes a closer look. Now, he is clearly pretty disturbed by this place: while to a modern reader it might seem like an innocuous, even pleasant, nook in the woods, it strikes Gawain as positively Satanic. "This is a soulless spot," he cries, "a ghostly cathedral . . . overgrown . . . This is a haunted house—may it go to hell. . . . Satan himself has tricked me in this tryst, intending to destroy me. . . . I never came across a church so cursed[!]" (ll. 2189-96).
(I admit that, personally, I'm taken aback by the vehemence of Gawain's reaction. I'm not quite sure what causes it, but I have a couple of hypotheses: One is that there is something about the place which is indeed not obvious, and cannot be conveyed in words, but which gives the onlooker or intruder a horrible feeling of unease. We might want to imagine a horror-movie context here, with something in the ambient atmosphere making the simple setting of the woods seem more frightening than it really is: scary music among the treetrunks, perhaps, as in M. Night Shyamalan's The Village, or jittery camera work and grainy film stock, like in The Blair Witch Project (is Maryland really that scary? The camera makes it so!)
(A second hypothesis is that the mound means something different to Gawain than it does to me. After all, I am a modern person who enjoys nature and finds descriptions of English wildlands—overgrown mounds included—evocative of the peace and tranquility of the natural world. Gawain, on the other hand, was a medieval person from a world where humans were far from comfortable in their dominion over nature. Perhaps wildness in general—like, for example, the wilderness through which he has spent two months slogging in mud and rain—presents to Gawain a menacing contrast to the circle of firelight, court, and civilization. After all, the modern idea of nature as a place to get away from urban life pre-supposes the existence of cities.
(Finally, the idea that nature encodes spirituality is a pendular one, that rises and subsides. In the U.S. and Europe, this way of thinking was most recently popularized in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as a reaction to the industrialization that was altering both natural environments, and the folklore and ways of life associated with them. But this revived interest in folkways, and folklore, itself hearkens back to customs which, in the Middle Ages, the Church considered to be remnants of wrong-minded pagan traditions, and did its best to eliminate. This "overgrown . . . cathedral," then, might have evoked to Gawain a blasphemous juxtaposition of the icons and images of the civilizing Church with the forces aligned against it. For him, perhaps, those forces might have included nature rampant; the idea of pagan rites and holy places; and Satan himself.)
In any case, and in a word: Gawain finds the place frightening. But he does not flee—that would, I suppose, run counter to his principles as a knight, and in any case, he has perhaps come too far to turn tail now. With his lance in his hand, he scrambles up to the roof of the mound. Suddenly, now, a terrible sound now begins to echo in the valley: the shriek of metal rasping on stone.
"My God!" cries Gawain. "My host is grinding his axe in my honor!"
And then he gets it together. All right," he says. "Let's get this over with." He cries out to the air: "Where are you? Show yourself. I have come to keep our pact."
"You just wait there," answers a booming voice, "and I'll be right with you." Gawain waits, fidgeting, until the appalling noise stops—and out of a hole in the crags steps the Green Knight.
He is as terrible as Gawain remembers him to be from last Christmas at Camelot. He's green from head to foot, including his beard and hair. His face is dark and foreboding, and he's swinging a massive, newly sharpened four-foot axe. The Knight walks toward him, casually whirling the axe; then vaults across a narrow stream separating them, and comes to stand by Gawain.
"Welcome to my domain, Sir Gawain," he says. "You've done well to keep your word."
"I'm here to keep our covenant," says Gawain, "as I promised."
"We are alone in this valley," says the Green Knight. "No one can see us, and only we decide what we will do. So take off your helmet, Sir Gawain, and accept my axe-blow as calmly as I did a year ago, when you struck off my head in King Arthur's court."
"By God," says Gawain, "I won't weep or complain. Make it one strong stroke, as you took from me, and I won't flinch from the steel." Gawain takes off his helmet, and—trying, of course, his very best not to look afraid—he bends his neck for the blow.
The Green Knight raises the axe, and begins to bring it down for a bone-crushing blow. Hearing the whistling as it races down toward him, and catching the gleam from the edge of his eye, Gawain flinches involuntarily, pulling away with his shoulders.
The Green Knight swerves the blow, bringing it harmlessly to earth. "Do you call yourself a knight?" he taunts Gawain. "I accepted your blow without flinching. But you're terrified, and you haven't even been touched!"
"I did flinch," Gawain acknowledges. "But only once: it will be the last time. I won't shy away again. You have my word. Go on."
"All right, then, have at you!" says the Knight. He lifts the sword again, and brings down another shattering blow—but pulls back at the last moment. Gawain stands perfectly still, waiting.
The Knight laughs again. "Well!" he says. "I see you have finally managed to get your courage up. Now I can get my real swing in! Let's see if that knighthood Arthur gave you can protect your pretty neck."
Gawain's annoyed now (the best way to rile a Round Table knight is always to drop some slighting reference to Arthur), so he shoots back: "You're not frightening anyone but yourself. Get on with it."
"All right," says the Green Knight. "Since that's the way you want it, we'll have done with joking. We'll finish this now. And I will break you into a thousand pieces."
Indeed, all his jesting seems to have dropped from him. His face has gone terribly calm. Standing over Gawain, he raises the axe, and once more lets the blade fall toward his neck.
This time, it hits home. But not squarely: instead of slicing through Gawain's spine, the blade skews aside, just barely nicking the edge of his neck. No bones are shattered, no arteries severed—but the blade "skim[s] the skin / and finely snick[s] the fat of the flesh / so that bright red blood [shoots] from body to earth" (ll. 2313-14).
Feeling the flash of pain, and seeing the blood on the snow, Gawain springs into sudden action. He leaps away and, grabbing his helmet, rams it onto his head, then brings up his shield and draws his sword—all in one swift (if perhaps not terribly graceful) movement.
"All right, sir!" he shouts at the Green Knight. "I've taken your blow: I've felt your blade's edge, just as we agreed in Arthur's hall. No more free swings! If you want to keep after me with that axe, you'll face my shield and sword in return. Now stick to our original bargain, sir, and set your weapon down!"
The Green Knight responds by doing the most remarkable thing. He plants his axe-haft in the soil, props his elbow on the blade, and leans comfortably against it while considering Gawain. (The poet is very explicit about this—that's exactly the pose he strikes.) Then, in a voice still impressive but less frightening than before, the Green Knight begins to talk:
"Calm down, Gawain," he says, "there's no need to take offense. Nothing has happened here that went beyond the agreement we made in your king's court, and you can now consider yourself released from your debt.
"As for the blows," he goes on, "—well, you can be sure that if I had struck you with all my strength, you'd be dead now. But my first strike didn't hurt you, which was only fair, because on the first night that you were a guest at my court, you were true to our contract and returned to me the pretty kiss you'd gotten from my wife. And the second blow swerved away too, for the second evening, when you gave me back both my wife's kisses."
At this point, you can imagine, Gawain is completely speechless, staring like WHAT.
It is possible that you, gentle reader, have instantly gathered what all this implies, and where it is going. Possibly you saw it coming long ago. But let us give Sir Gawain the benefit of the doubt, shall we? After all, he hasn't read as many romances as we have, after all—he lives in a world of romance. And he has just gone through a near-beheading.
"Those first two times," the Green Knight goes on, "you paid up what you owed, so you never had anything to worry about. The third time, though—that time you strayed, and that's why you felt my blade's edge in your neck.
"I know that girdle you're wearing around your waist, Sir Gawain: my wife wove it herself. Oh yes, I know everything that happened between you—it was all at my instigation!
"But you know, Sir Gawain, really, all in all, you passed the test with flying colors. I'm not sure there's a more virtuous man than you on the face of the earth. Even the third morning, when you held onto the girdle that my wife told you was magic . . . well, you didn't do it out of lechery, or evil, or lust for power. It's just that you love your own life and didn't want to die. You lacked a little loyalty, maybe, but I can't blame you much for it. And you never gave in to her seductions. All in all, Sir Gawain, you've proved yourself a shining exemplar of knighthood, and a paragon among men."
Gawain is rooted in place. He's been turning bright red as he listens. Now, when the Green Knight/Sir Bertilak is done—for now, of course, we can finally identify them as one and the same—he grabs the girdle, fumbles the knit untied and flings it toward Bertilak. "A curse on cowardice and covetousness!" he says. "The devil take the girdle! My fear of dying overwhelmed my sense of loyalty and duty. I have betrayed myself—I have engaged in deception and treachery," says Gawain, "I have been found false! You, Sir, are the witness and wronged party. Tell me what I can do to clear my name."
(A note: From everything I can gather from the critical writing, this is viewed as a reasonable, even a commendable, reaction on Gawain's part: We can see how seriously shaken he is by the revelation that he has failed a test of virtue. To me, though, it doesn't seem to speak particularly well of Gawain at all. Is he upset because he's realized his error, or is he upset because he's been shown up? Does his self-rage stem from a sense of personal failing linked to his profoundest beliefs, or to feeling he's lost face before another knight?
(If anything, Gawain's behavior here strikes me as indicating a serious pride problem. There's something adolescent about it, too: this feels like the kind of intense rage you find in a sixteen-year-old boy, who will adopt a rictus of self-focused fury and who you'll overhear muttering to himself for the next four hours: "I screwed up, I screwed up, I screwed up! God, I'm such an idiot!"
(But apparently this is not the medieval, nor the general critical, take on things. Which, perhaps, tells us some other things about chivalry and cultural change. In any event:)
The Green Knight laughs on hearing Gawain's little speech, though I think we're meant to take it more kindly this time. He says: "Your confession of your faults has purged them, Sir Gawain; you're as pure as you ever were. Here," and he offers it, "take the girdle back. I present it to you as a gift. It will be a reminder of me, and of the challenge you met at the Green Chapel.
"Now, sir, why don't you come on back to my castle with me? There's plenty of New Year's feasting yet to come—and besides, you'll see my wife again! She'll be your friend this time, though, not your enemy."
I've never been able to decide if the Green Knight means this seriously or is just having a last jab at Gawain. In any case, you can imagine how Gawain reacts. "No thanks," he says, grabbing his helmet (he "sese[s]" it, or seizes it, according to the poet [ll. 2407]); "I really have to get home. God's blessing on you," he adds, "and on your wife, and on all the ladies of your court . . . even though she tricked me . . ."
And at this point, we get another unexpected insight—if that's what it is—into Gawain's personality: he suddenly snaps, and goes off into a tirade of condemnation: "No wonder if a man is deceived by a woman!" he shouts. "After all, it's the way of the world. It happened to Adam, and Solomon, and Samson—and King David! Look what Bathsheba did to him! All those men were from noble families, and paragons of virtue—and they were all brought down by women! If they could be seduced and deceived," he adds, "maybe what happened to me isn't so bad."
(Once again, I have a disjunctive moment here relative to conventional perspective. There is considerable critical argument about whether the poet meant us to take this tirade at face value—in which case, the implication is, it expresses the poet's own feelings—or whether it's a tongue-in-cheek gesture, meant to cast doubt on Gawain's claims of adherence to his own value system, or even on that value system itself. For me, this tirade furnishes something like concluding evidence that Gawain's purportedly heroic mindset is more like that of a twelve-year-old. When faced with evidence of your own shortcomings; of your failures to live up to your projected or internalized self-image; and even, by implication, of potentially fatal contradictions in your value system . . . what's the mature way to respond?
Blame someone else! Preferably girls!
(This seems like another good reason to be dubious about the chivalric code.)
"In any case," Gawain goes on, "I'll keep this girdle as a memento—not out of pride, but to remind me of what the touch of filth can do to my resolve." (Nota bene: he does actually say "fylthe.") "As for you, sir," he goes on, addressing the Green Knight, "my only question is: would you mind explaining to me just a tiny bit what's going on?"
"Sure thing," says the other. "I've kind of been waiting for you to ask!
"The main thing you need to understand is that I have Morgan le Fay living in my castle. You know, King Arthur's half-sister? The semi-divine sorceress who learned magic from Merlin, back when they were supposed to be sleeping together? She lives with me—you actually saw her: she was disguised as the elderly lady who chaperones my wife. Actually, since King Arthur's your uncle, that makes Morgan your aunt, doesn't it, Gawain?
"Anyway, she got a bee in her bonnet to upset Arthur's house. So last Christmas she used her magic to transform me into a giant green knight, and sent me off to invade your revels. I think she was hoping that Guenevere would be so frightened by the sight of me carrying my own head that she would just keel over and die, or something.
"Anyway, Sir Gawain—" (we should probably imagine a friendly shoulder-clap here) "—come on back to my house! Stay for the New Year! Morgan will be delighted to see you, and so will my wife!"
But Gawain says no thanks. ("No way would he go[!]," as Armstrong puts it [ll. 2471].) Instead, he presses his thanks once more upon Lord Bertilak, a.k.a. the Green Knight. So they "clas[p] and ki[ss] and ma[k]e kindly commendations / to the Prince of Paradise" (ll. 2472-3). And then Gawain turns and heads for home, leaving the Green Knight, as the poet says, to head home or, if not, to wander "whither-so-ever he would."
Once again Gawain makes his way back through the wilderness. By the time he arrives at Camelot, the nick in his neck has healed. But he has taken to wearing the girdle "bound . . . as a baldric," as a sash across his body. Greeted with great joy by his fellow knights, Gawain recounts the story, showing them the scar on the side of his neck and explaining the tale behind the girdle. In keeping, perhaps, with what we've seen revealed of Gawain in this last Fitt, this seems to turn into something of an exercise in self-humiliation: "He grimaced with disgrace, / he writhed in rage and pain. / Blood flowed towards his face / and showed his smarting shame" (ll. 2501-4).
The court laughs with (or at?) Gawain, but also comfort him. Their take on things—like that of the Green Knight—seems to be that, after all, even a Round Table knight is only human. And, "in friendly accord," all the company of the Round Table agree that they will all wear a similar belt, in solidarity with Gawain (a resolution that has been associated, though not with definitive historical evidence, with the actual English order of chivalry known as the Order of the Garter).
And thus, within the circle of the court—surrounded by firelight and celebration, a little more than a year after the story began—the tale ends, in peace, triumph, and order restored. Gawain is home safe; he's learned a lesson; and the mystery of the Green Knight has been thoroughly explained. Wrap, cut, end story.
Of course, this is really where the interest and intrigue of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight begins. Because—fascinating story though it is—there's quite a lot about it that the ending doesn't really seem to satisfactorily resolve. This is part of the story's enduring interest, to be sure: it's part of the reason that—particularly since the poem's twentieth-century repopularization by an academic linguistics nerd called J. R. R. Tolkien—scholars, students, and first-year English Literature majors alike have been asking: what exactly does it mean?
This poem has been interpreted in dozens, if not hundreds, of ways. Many centre on the nature and extent of Christian allegory in the work; others are more interested in its status as a romance, or what it has to say about moral virtue. (While chivalry, morality, and Christian values are all clearly major themes, what the poem ultimately has to say about any of these things—indeed, even the extent to which it is serious as opposed to satirical—is the subject of much debate.)
The twentieth century has expanded its analytical perspective, to look at other topics of interest to modern readers: the poem's take on medieval gender relations, for one, or, for another, its labyrinthinely complex implications about homosociality and sexuality in this culture. Colonialism comes into it, too: although the area of Gawain's travels is, today, bounded entirely and peacefully within the United Kingdom, at the time of the poem it was marked by frequent conflict between the native Welsh and the English, who were trying to expand into the region. Since the Gawain poet himself apparently came from this area, there has been much speculation about what symbolism might be contained by Gawain, the visitor from Camelot, and his encounters with Bertilak's enigmatic borderland court.
Perhaps among the most vexing questions is: who is the Green Knight? And what was that game—what were those two games—really all about? Certainly, Bertilak does provide an explanation, albeit a brief one, for what has gone before. To some readers and critics, however, it hardly seems sufficient to illuminate the entire foregoing body of the poem. The very first mention of Morgan le Fay comes on almost the very last page—four stanzas from the end—and no explanation is given for why she is living in Bertilak's castle in the first place. True, Morgan would certainly have been known to anyone familiar with the Arthur legends, but her invocation here has something of a deus ex machina feeling to it. Nor is the real purpose of her scheme made particularly clear: if Morgan really wished to injure Guenevere, it seems as if, as a sorceress of power, she must have more reliable methods at her disposal. (Based on what the poet tells us, Guenevere seems to have suffered no serious ill effects from what she witnessed in the hall.)
Indeed, relative to those who have been primarily involved in this drama—notably Arthur, Bertilak and his wife, and Gawain himself—its effect on Guenevere seems minimal at best. And, then, what of all Gawain's trials, his testing by Lady Bertilak, and his encounters with the Lord (both as himself and in disguised form)? If the only point was to startle Guenevere with that head-chopping display back in Camelot, at the story's very beginning, then have all Gawain's subsequent hardships and triumphs been without meaning?
Even if we do take Bertilak's explanation at face value, it offers an account of only one aspect of the story. That overarching, underlying question—what does it mean?—persists whether or not the reader feels that Morgan's motives make sense. (We might, of course, say that this is also a universal characteristic of a really good story, particularly one that is so strange, in so many ways, as this one.) A galumphing, green, apparently immortal giant knight on horseback who lives in a mossy "chapel" in the woods and spends his time sharpening an enormous axe . . . What on earth is that about? Setting aside the whole Morgan business, what is this?
The range of answers that have been put forth in response to this question suggests the cruciality of the question to interpreting "Sir Gawain." And for readers of the fantastic (like us! hi y'all!) this may seem particularly consequential, since the Green Knight is basically the embodiment of all that's strange in the story, the embodiment of the magic that comes rampaging (or "irrupting," if you like eight-dollar words) into the civilized world of Camelot.
Suggestions regarding the Green Knight's "true" nature are as varied as the theories about the poem as a whole. On the Christian side, he has been compared to Satan, for reasons that may be obvious, and also to Christ, for reasons perhaps more obscure (he has "triumphed over death"; he has the power to forgive; unlike Gawain, he represents pure faith rather than rationality). Other perspectives see him as the energetic remnant of a fading tradition, perhaps a hero of Celtic folklore—some critics see one or more pre-Christian stories figuring in the work at a fundamental level—while others see a version of the so-called Jack-in-the-Green. This is a figure with many faces, prevalent in British and European folklore in general, a liminal personage with the habit of sticking his head into Christian stories—in some ways like, and often viewed in connection with the leafily sculpted "Green Man" heads so common in British churches.
Like many a reader, I find great pleasure in skimming through, nodding at, and disagreeing with the range of critical interpretations that this strange story has inspired. I think the line I like best at the moment, though, comes from the introduction to a small book by Ross G. Arthur, a professor at Canada's York University, entitled Medieval Sign Theory and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. After praising the value and usefulness of single-perspective critical interpretations—even those that take a specifically allegorical decoding approach—Arthur adds the following caveat:
"Even when taken singly, however, such readings are unsatisfactory. When the critic has completed his work, the poem often seems diminished or even trivialized, as the shimmering complexity of the surface of the text is replaced by schematic patterns that are not only less complex but also less interesting" (4).
I know few works of fiction more "shimmering" than "Sir Gawain," and I agree with Arthur's assessment here on an emotional level, as well as an intellectual one. Reductionist analyses cannot, in the end, hurt or reduce a text itself; and in fact through their accrual they actually build up a fascinating new set of meanings, that subsequently become accessible to contextualize and illuminate the original work. I'm hardly opposed to critical analysis—in any case, I spend far too much time doing it myself to have any right to be.
But one of the things I really love about "Sir Gawain" is how hard it is to come up with any analytical scheme that you can honestly convince yourself is correct. What does the poem mean? I don't know! It ripples, it shimmers: you can't put your finger on it. You can look into that fascinating surface for a long time. People have been doing that for centuries, in fact. And, I suspect and hope, will for centuries to come.
This concludes our medieval British voyage with Sir Gawain. Considering the text for final things to take away, I find myself wondering this: What lessons, if any, can contemporary readers and/or writers of fiction— "fantastic" fiction, folkloric fiction, straight-up fantasy—learn from thinking about Sir Gawain and the Green Knight? And are there other texts that evoke for you, in similar ways, a "shimmering complexity" that, lying across a full and satisfying story, still seems to both demand and defy straightforward schemes of understanding?
Stay warm, everyone, and be careful of giants on horseback. Next time: to warmer climes, and other gods.
WORKS CITED / REFERENCES:
Armitage, Simon. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2007.
Arthur, Ross G. Medieval Sign Theory and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. "An authorised reproduction of the 1987 University of Toronto Press edition." Cambridge, Ontario: In parentheses Publications Middle English Series, 2002. York University Web site. Dec. 2009 http://www.yorku.ca/inpar/arthur_mstsggk.pdf.
Jokinen, Anniina. "Anthology of Middle English Literature: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Essays and Articles." Luminarium. Dec. 2009 http://www.luminarium.org/medlit/medess.htm#gawain. (Warning: This site sometimes makes noise.)
"Green Knight." Wikipedia. Dec. 2009. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Green_Knight.
"Green Man." Wikipedia. Dec. 2009. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Green_Man.
"Jack in the Green." Wikipedia. Dec. 2009. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jack_in_the_green.
"Morgan le Fay." Wikipedia. Dec. 2009. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Morgan_Le_Fay.
"Order of the Garter." Wikipedia. Dec. 2009. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Order_of_the_Garter.
"Sir Gawain." Wikipedia. Dec. 2009. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sir_Gawain.
"Sir Gawain and the Green Knight." Wikipedia. Dec. 2009. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sir_Gawain_and_the_Green_Knight.
(We all use Wikipedia, but most of us don't acknowledge it. It's like reading