On Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
[The following is the text of a lecture prepared by Ian Johnston for students in Liberal Studies at Malaspina University-College, Nanaimo, BC, Canada (now Vancouver Island University), in December 2001. This text is in the public domain and may be used, in whole or in part, for any purpose, without permission and without charge, provided the source is acknowledged. For questions, comments, corrections, please contact Ian Johnston. This lecture was last revised in December 2001]
[References to the text of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight are to the edition translated and introduced by Brian Stone (Penguin, 1974)]
Introduction: Observations on Heroic Quest Narratives
By this point in Liberal Studies you should be well equipped to recognize the main narrative features of a story like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, because they bear an obvious resemblance to other stories we have read together, especially to Gilgamesh and the Odyssey, stories which involve a heroic journey away from the community into uncharted territory, where the hero experiences a range of unusual experiences not available within the community, followed by a return back to where his adventures started.
A major source of the appeal of such stories (if well presented) is obvious enough—they take the reader into fascinating places, provide a rapid and varied succession of adventures, and permit the poet considerable freedom to explore many imaginative possibilities. And a good deal of the pleasure we derive from reading this book emerges from our delight in the details of the strange places the hero explores and the way he is forced to cope with many unexpected events in places where the customary rules by which his normal society functions simply don’t operate (the same will be true for two other very different but similarly structured books we read later—Dante’s Inferno and Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels).
But such a narrative structure frequently also brings into play important thematic concerns, because the hero undertaking the journey takes with him his own character, his own social, physical, intellectual and moral resources which are inevitably put to the test in various encounters, so that the adventures also enable us (as readers) to appreciate the importance of his different qualities—his courage, ingenuity, restraint, powers of endurance, self-confidence, and so on, those features of his character which we usually sum up with the word virtue. In that sense, such quest narratives are almost always a exploration of human virtue—not just as the presentation of a particular character but also as a study of what it might mean to be a virtuous person.
This exploration may be (in fact, often is) a celebration of the heroic virtues manifested in the hero (as in The Odyssey, for example), but it may also involve a growing awareness in the reader and perhaps in the hero himself of some important inadequacy with or limitation to his heroic virtue. Hence, the heroic figure may himself become a vehicle for a critique or a satire of his own virtues.
Some of the most thematically interesting heroic quest stories are often those in which the heroic character learns something about himself, so that he returns home significantly different from what he was when he set out. The opportunities for such learning obviously present themselves in an intense way because typically the hero is alone and in unfamiliar territory outside the normal civilization to which he is accustomed, without the support of a status group of peers who can reinforce the traditional codes (even if, like Odysseus or Gulliver, he starts with a group of comrades, in many cases these people will disappear). Hence, the hero has to come to grips with his own character in a unique manner—his inner commitment to the values he believes in is challenged repeatedly and he becomes aware of them in a new way. For obvious reason, a hero’s failure to benefit from opportunities to learn about himself in such experiences—or (as I shall argue about Sir Gawain) his willed refusal to acknowledge an opportunity to learn—also can carry important thematic weight.
If the hero does learn something important, if he changes in some way, then almost inevitably a major thematic point of the story is going to be nature of the change in the hero’s virtue: What has he learned? How has that changed him? Why is that change significant? This issue of the education of the hero through the experiences of the journey bears the major weight of the ending of Gulliver’s Travels, for example, since Gulliver has become totally transformed from the man who set out on his first voyage—and however we assess the ending of his fourth voyage (and the significance of the entire book), we have to address that transformation. Gilgamesh also learns important things about life and about himself on his quest, and so perhaps does Odysseus (although in his case that transformation may not be so clear). If the hero fails to learn in circumstances where we sense he should have learned something important, then the poem may offer something of a critical insight into some important limitation in the heroic virtues, both in the hero and the society to which he returns.
Such heroic quest narratives do not usually end with the hero’s return home but with the reaction of his society to his return and with his reaction to that society (which he may now be equipped to see with new eyes). Such a reaction is particularly important if the hero has changed significantly, because then we witness something of a clash between what that society believes about itself (its faith in its own virtues) and someone who has, through his own personal experiences, come to something of a new understanding of those virtues (this, of course, is a central point in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave). This clash may be minor, and the hero may quickly readjust to normal life once more, or the clash may create major difficulties, since the hero has great trouble going back to a normal life, now that he has come to a different understanding of himself and his society. In either case, the ending of the heroic quest narrative invites us to make some final reflections on how the people in that society’s understand themselves and their value system.
This social dimension to the heroic quest narrative is particularly evident in those stories in which the hero is clearly established as the finest example of the virtues the society admires and has a high rank in that society (like Odysseus or Gilgamesh), because then he doesn’t carry out into the wilderness simply his own character, his own virtue. He brings with him the faith of an entire people. In a sense, the adequacy of their faith in the system he represents is on trial in his personal adventures. In such a case, the story can have interesting political ramifications (either as a celebration or a critique of existing political systems) for a society in which the basis of political order and social justice is the virtue of the ruler (so that the just use of the power he possesses depends upon the qualities of his character). It’s no wonder that celebratory heroic quest narratives are so popular among aristocratic political orders eager to promote a traditional faith in the virtue of its leaders and ironic quest narratives popular among those who wish to offer a critique of the values in such a social order).
One other thematic concern typically raised by these heroic quest narratives (and an obviously important feature of Sir Gawain) is the relationship between the civilized social group and the wilderness beyond the city or castle walls. For the hero’s journey almost always takes him beyond those walls into the woods, mountains, seas, or desert—into nature untamed by the rules, habits, customs, and so on of society—and thus forms the basis for a vision of nature (in contrast to the world of the city or court). In fact, the main character’s status as a hero often depends upon his willingness to undertake such a journey beyond the walls of civilization (into a world most people within those walls never have to confront). Such a vision, of course, may serve to highlight the importance of certain social values (and of those who exemplify them best), as in The Odyssey or Robinson Crusoe, or it may serve to direct critical or satirical insights into the limitations of certain social arrangements, as in Gulliver’s Travels or Huckleberry Finn, or it may do both.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight as a Heroic Quest Narrative
As I mentioned at the outset, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight clearly falls into this narrative pattern. The story begins with Gawain in his normal social environment, and he is quickly established as a pre-eminent member of that aristocratic elite. The poem explicitly and repetitively identifies the particular qualities which define his virtues. Once his journey begins, these qualities are put to the test again and again, and Sir Gawain consistently demonstrates his excellence (I’ll have more to say about these qualities later), until near the end.
Gawain’s double failure to honour the rules of the game between him and his host and to take the axe blow without flinching expose the limits of his virtue and teach him something important about himself. He brings this knowledge back to Camelot, shares it with his fellow knights, and is re-integrated into Round Table, so that the poem seems to end with the society we saw when we started. But, as I shall mention in a little while, we may need to look at this ending carefully, to see if we can determine just how the ironies latent in this return and the society’s response to Gawain might serve to undercut the celebration of the hero’s virtues.
Given this overall structure to the narrative, I propose to explore the story sequentially, considering, first, the nature of Gawain’s society as we see it at the start of the poem, second, the testing of the hero through that part of the story until he reaches Bertilak’s castle, third, the testing which goes on in the castle, fourth, Gawain’s failure to live up to the highest standards of his virtue, and, finally, the return. I don’t want this to be a re-hash of the story, but such a chronological approach seems to make sense here (as in other similar narratives).
The poem opens by holding up Arthur’s court as a place of the highest honour, not simply in Britain or at a particular period, but through world history. The opening link to the Trojan War may be a conventional narrative device, but it serves to link the heroic life here with the greatest classical models. And the opening description invites us to see Arthur’s celebrations, not merely as appropriate to the holiest day of the Christian year, but also as a manifestation of his court’s wealth, magnificence, joy, and civility. It is a symbolic evocation of a happy, rich, and well-ordered society, governed by a shared sense of joy in the season, material well being, spiritual discipline, and hierarchical rank—all this is stressed at the very outset (above all by the repetitive insistence on communal feasting and the attendant celebrations).
But there’s an interesting hint of something amiss. Amid the sophisticated joy, fine manners, abundant food, and general merriment, Arthur seems bored. He has no appetite for the feast and requires something more, some reminder of danger, of something beyond the careful social rituals of an abundant civilized life:
His noble announcement that he never would eat
On such a fair feast-day till informed in full
Of some unusual adventure, as yet untold,
Of some momentous marvel that he might believe,
About ancestors, or arms, or other high theme;
Or till a stranger should seek out a strong knight of his,
To join with him in jousting, in jeopardy to lay
Life against life, each allowing the other
The favour of Fortune, the fairer lot.
Arthur craves novelty, the sharp edge of new experience, the reminder (or the experience) of something less predictable and well ordered than the world of his royal court, something that will give him an appetite to enjoy its most important social-religious ritual—without that, he cannot enjoy himself fully, his zest for living is depleted.
His desire is answered, of course, by the sudden arrival of the Green Knight himself, who in contravention of any accepted social rules, simply bursts into the room on horseback, issues his challenge, taunts Arthur into a reply, offers them all the sight of his own marvellous beheading and departure, and, in the process, gives Arthur a hearty appetite, so he can now enjoy the feast.
It strikes me that this connection between Arthur’s dissatisfaction in the midst of his civilized abundance and the Green Knight’s initial entry is worth exploring for a moment, because it may point to some useful ways we might like to interpret the precise significance of the Green Knight.
The Green Knight
Commentary on Sir Gawain (to judge from the relatively little I have read) often seems to spend a disproportionate amount of time linking our understanding of the Green Knight with, for example, references to castration complexes, pagan nature rituals, various literary ancestors, and so on. Such studies, no matter how interesting, may well over-complicate the issue. I’m not sure that diverting our attention away from the poem into such material is all that necessary, for the poem itself surely makes clear the importance of the Green Knight, especially if we see him as some sort of answer to Arthur’s dissatisfaction.
The most obvious qualities of the Green Knight are the most important—he is huge, powerful, marvellous to behold, and green. And, on his initial entry, he has little respect for polite civility. He barges in, issues a challenge, and taunts Arthur and Gawain into a response. He is thus, first and foremost, an invading force, a foreign intruder into the sophisticated world of the Round Table—something uncivilized from beyond their immediate experience, something from the world beyond Camelot which the normal procedures and institutions of that society do not acknowledge or know about. We can, taking our cue from the intruder’s colour, associate that “something” with the raw forces of nature (that seems obvious enough) or with the mysterious wilderness beyond the control of civilized manners and experience (“a phantom from Fairyland”).
What’s particularly interesting here is the reception he gets. Rather than being upset at the intrusion or with the bold, uncivil challenge (although the Green Knight’s opening speech is civil enough, he quickly moves to a more contemptuous attitude when his challenge is not at once accepted), Arthur welcomes it (he “sensed an exploit”) as something that will break the routine of the Round Table, will provide something new, something invigorating and strange.
Near the end of the poem, we learn that the Green Knight has been sent by the witch Morgan the Fay, Arthur’s half sister, who has a very hostile attitude to Arthur’s court, especially to Guinevere, whom she wants to scare to death. This fact might suggest that the Green Knight is some diabolical agent hostile to the civilized world of the Round Table and that the world of Morgan the Fay and her brother Arthur are locked into some permanent enmity. That may be so. But, given the effect of the Green Knight on Arthur and the later events in the poem, I prefer to see the Green Knight (and the actions of Morgan the Fay which prompt his invasion of the court) as something necessary, as something healthy—a recurring way of holding at bay (or slowing down) the inevitable decay of an overly sophisticated society which is degenerating into a state where it has lost contact with nature and is failing to understand the limitations of its own most cherished beliefs. More about this later.
The Testing of Sir Gawain
Arthur, of course, is prevented from taking up the Green Knight’s challenge personally by Gawain’s offer to respond to the Green Knight, and from this point on, the central issue in the story is the testing of Gawain’s virtue: Has he a sufficiently noble character to live up to the conditions of the agreement he has entered into?
The poem explicitly describes for us the particular qualities which are on trial, for Gawain carries out into the wilderness the symbols of his virtue—the pentangle on the outside of his shield (in gold)—a figure indicating the seamless interlocking of his spiritual, intellectual, and social virtues—and the picture of Mary on the inside. These establish Gawain’s virtues as pre-eminently those of a Christian knight—especially his commitment to piety.
Now, what’s interesting about the testing of Gawain is that certain elements are emphasized above the rest. For example, the story provides very little detail about the physical obstacles he encounters and the qualities he requires in order to deal with them. We learn, in a very interesting but relatively short part of the poem (Sections 30 to 32), about all the hardships he faces while on his journey, but the poet does not linger here over any potentially amusing or thrilling encounter—he simply mentions how Gawain copes with the intense loneliness, bitter weather, and hostile animals and monsters by an concentrated spiritual commitment which does not waver.
The Seduction of Gawain
The first really difficult test occurs in Bertilak’s castle with the actions of Lady Bertilak in her attempts to seduce him—something to which the poet gives unusual prominence. Here Gawain’s stout faith in Mary faces a challenge apparently much more difficult for him to cope with than ogres, wild beasts, and nasty Welsh winters. The events are, of course, very amusing, but is there a more important point being made here?
If Gawain were nothing more than the knight of the Pentangle, the fullest embodiments of all the virtues summed up in that symbol, these scenes would never have taken place—for his interest in the lady and his commitment to her company would not have been sufficient to keep him in that compromising situation where his erotic feelings get engaged so quickly.
The difficulty stems from Gawain’s commitment to Courtly Love, from the expectations that he, as a knight of the Round Table, has a duty to “courtesy,” to engage in a complex linguistic convention of love, in which erotic urges are translated into a vocabulary of flirtation with only occasional physical actions (like kissing)—in which, that is, the most basic natural urges are sublimated into sophisticated courtship rituals. Such a requirement is much harder to put into practice than the simple devotion of a faith in Mary, Mother of God, since there are no simple rules for negotiating one’s way between preserving one’s chastity and offending the lady. The obligations to his host Bertilak require Gawain to respect his wife—and that means he must not commit adultery with her but also that he must participate in the courtship-seduction game without offending her. The sophisticated artificiality of Gawain’s position, especially the language he has to use in order to deal with the issue (for language is his only defence here) is naturally very funny, because, in a way, the scene is absurd. And that absurdity may well be part of the point (perhaps), if we want to see in the poem some sort of attack on courtly love as part of the knightly code of honour.
Let me linger on this point a moment, because how we interpret it will affect our understanding of what follows. The lady is appealing to Gawain’s most powerful human instincts in contravention of accepted social practice (adultery), and he is responding by carrying out the linguistic ritual his social ideals require, while at the same time experiencing a sense of the lady’s obvious attractions (he finds her more appealing than Guinevere, who sets the standard for civilized beauty in Arthur’s court). The tension may be amusing, but it’s real enough—for what Gawain’s faith requires him to do is to be linguistically erotic (flirt and kiss), but abstain from anything more physical. His artificial language, that is, must contain and restrain his human urges (either to flee or to have sex with the lady).
So it’s interesting to ask ourselves what we find amusing about this scene, other than its immediate human drama. One definite possibility is that we are laughing at the absurd contradictions in the ideals Gawain is striving to live up to. And this we might construe in at least two different ways: we might see the Courtly Love convention as amusingly incompatible with Christian vows of chastity and their combination in the knightly ideal as an inherently unnatural displacement of powerful feelings into conventional and highly artificial words, or we might (following Gawain’s response near the end of the poem) simply blame the lady as one more manifestation of the inherently uncivilized behaviour of lecherous women who cannot leave noble knights alone but have to get them to break their faith in order to satisfy their sexual feelings (which they, unlike the knight, make little attempt to control) or act out their diabolical wishes.
At any event, the lady fails to seduce Gawain. Or does she? The fact that he does finally agree to take her “girdle” suggests that she has awoken in him sufficient erotic desire for life that he is prepared to deceive Bertilak (by not telling him of the gift) and to accept Lady Bertilak’s girdle (a symbol of her sexuality) as the token he will take into the encounter with the Green Knight. For it’s made clear to us that Gawain does not accept the girdle out of politeness or courtesy, and he does not put it on because it looks good or is valuable or because he harbours any special feelings for Lady Bertilak. He puts it on because he wants to save his life. At this point, he has a priority higher than living up to the virtues on the Pentangle or the image of Mary on the back of his shield. And that priority has come to him as a result of his experiences with Lady Bertilak, which, while they may not have satisfied her erotic desires, certainly aroused his.
There is thus a direct link between the seduction of Gawain and his flinching at the Green Knight’s blow (his second failure to live up to his own standard)—in both cases Gawain acknowledges (once voluntarily and once involuntarily) an attachment to something beyond his piety, over and above his civilized virtues—a fundamental and irrational desire to live, even at the expense of contravening his honour.
The Green Knight recognizes this response of Gawain’s as something entirely natural and understandable. It may constitute a breach of the knightly code Gawain strives to uphold, but in the Green Knight’s eyes, that is no reason for special reproach:
But here your faith failed you, you flagged somewhat, sir
Yet it was not for a well-wrought thing, nor for wooing either,
But for love of your life, which is less blameworthy.
What the Green Knight seems to be concerned with, however, is that Gawain learn from the experience—he has the scar from the third blow and the girdle to remind him of the limits to his faith, of something his own conduct has revealed as more fundamental and important to him than the virtues he carried out with him at the start of his quest. That, indeed, seems to be the Green Knight’s main concern and the basis of his good-humoured politeness to Gawain after the beheading ritual.
What’s particularly interesting here is Gawain’s reaction (or over-reaction) to his own failure. He is overwhelmed with shame. Instead of seeing his response in the same way the Green Knight does, he turns against himself with an intense bitterness. Throwing away the girdle, he cries out:
Lo! There is the false thing, foul fortune befall it!
I was craven about our encounter, and cowardice taught me
To accord with covetousness and corrupt my nature
And the liberality and loyalty belonging to chivalry.
There’s a sense here that, in his first response, he has failed to listen to what the Green Knight has been telling him about the point of the entire exercise. In taking the girdle and flinching, Gawain is responding to his nature, not corrupting it. The fact that he sees those reactions as corruption raises some interesting questions, not just about Gawain, but also about the “liberality and loyalty belonging to chivalry”—just how life affirming are these if they encourage in Gawain that sort of response?
Such questions become all the more prominent once Gawain displaces his anger at himself onto women in general—seeking to excuse himself by an appeal to the inherently duplicitous nature of women. Some commentators on the poem seem to take this as a standard example of the long tradition of misogyny on the part of the poet. Well, maybe. But it strikes me, given the context of the speech, that this reflex response to his own failure is far more an indication of Gawain’s failure to learn from the experience he has been through. He’s defending himself from having to grapple with how his own behaviour may have exposed some deficiencies or unnatural requirements of the chivalric code he so desperately wants to live up to.
The fact that this diatribe against women begins with a peremptory dismissal of Bertilak’s invitation to Gawain to return to the castle, reacquaint himself with Lady Bertilak, and sort things out in a new spirit of accord is also important. What Bertilak is offering here is an interesting possibility for Gawain to explore the complexities of what he has been through and to learn from it, to make, if you like, the personal acquaintance of Morgan the Fay and her agents and thus extend his understanding of the world, himself, and his own culture. Gawain’s reaction is, as I’ve already said, defensive in the extreme: he wants no more intercourse (social or otherwise) which a world which has taught him his own limits.
It’s true Gawain keeps the girdle. But, in doing so, he neutralizes the most important thing it might serve to remind him of. He’s going to keep it to remind him of his sin, of “the fault and faintheartedness of the perverse flesh/ How it tends to attract tarnishing sin”—he wants to transform the girdle from a reminder of the importance of life into a reminder of his own sin. And, of course, even that doesn’t last, because once Arthur’s sophisticated court gets a hold of the girdle, it turns it into a decoration honouring Gawain—without any critical sense of how the complete story of the girdle might challenge the adequacy of the code of the Round Table. A vital insight into Nature is here transformed into mere fashion.
Arthur’s court, in other words, appropriates the girdle for its own decorative purposes—without delving into what it might really have to reveal— just as it takes reminders of the wildness of nature (e.g., wild animals) and turns them into gorgeous clothing or rich banquets. Here there is an interesting contrast between Bertilak’s court and Arthur’s, for in Bertilak’s court, the hunting is a vital part of the life of everyone, not merely as a vital social activity in which everyone participates, but as a common source of food for lord, servant, and domestic animals. The lengthy description of the treatment of the dead deer, for example, is more than just a fascinating description of a procedure. It is also a social activity in which an entire social group acts together for their mutual benefit in traditional and acknowledged roles in order to explore nature with the hunt, find what the human community needs, bring it back to the court, process it appropriately, and celebrate their success. No one in such an arrangement lacks an appetite.
In Arthur’s court, by contrast, there’s very little sense that much goes on other than the consumption of rich goods by the aristocratic elite in a sophisticated society far removed from the natural origin of the living energies from which everything emerges, the wilderness. No wonder Arthur seems bored at the start of the poem, and no wonder the women in Bertilak’s court are so much more important and vital than the women in Camelot (as depicted in this poem, the latter are hardly present). In Arthur’s court, greenness is a nice colour to have on a decorative piece of clothing—there seems to be little sense that the colour green, as represented in the person of Green Knight or his wife’s girdle, might be a reminder of something more important than courtly clothing.
A Final Word
What does this add up to? What I have been suggesting as an interpretative possibility here is that the poem is based on a clash between a particularly sophisticated civilized society (Arthur’s court) and the forces of nature, a clash engineered by the magic powers of Morgan the Fay. Such a clash is essential to providing a sense of vitality and purpose for that civilized society, because it requires it (or one of its members) to respond, to engage the powers beyond the court, and, in the process, to explore the limitations of its own faith—to come up against the irreducible facts of life beyond courtly conventions. It is incapable of doing this on its own, because its very success has separated it too much from the sustaining powers of nature—and the code of honour it prides itself on simply makes access to such nature all the more difficult.
His experiences on his quest (undertaken in the name of that code of honour) force Gawain to confront that sustaining power of nature—both in the figure of the Green Knight and within himself. But the ending suggests that both he and the civilized society fail to benefit from the experience—Gawain and Arthur’s knights close themselves off from seeing how the adventure with the Green Knight calls into question the living adequacy of its most cherished ideals and habitual practices, how what they believe creates a gap between them and what they most need. In other words, the ending of the poem directs some critical attention onto the ideal apparently being celebrated in Gawain’s honour.
If that is the case, then the reference to Troy at the end of the poem, a reference which links the development of the royal aristocracy in Britain with the fall of an ancient city and civilization, may carry a certain ironic resonance. It clearly does not have the force of an epitaph or an indictment, but it serves as a final reminder that the attractive civilized glamour of Arthur’s court, together with its high ideals, may carry an inherent flaw which it is incapable of recognizing or accepting (even when confronted by it directly) and which may well bring about the same historical downfall as happened with Troy. There may even be a sense that the high civilization of Arthur’s court has to deal with nature that way in order to maintain itself: turning reminders of nature into courtly decorations is an important way of keeping nature away from the court, where it would upset everything.
If we find this approach to the poem persuasive, then, to go back to the comments I made at the start, it raises some interesting interpretative possibilities about the testing of the hero. For I’m suggesting here that Gawain, in a sense, fails the most important test--that he learn from his experiences. The fact that he and the society he represents seem more concerned with protecting themselves from what the Green Knight has revealed about their shared code than with learning something important about the limitations of that code points to an important weakness in the code itself. That weakness would seem to indicate that at next year’s Yuletide feast, Arthur will still require some novelty to alleviate his boredom and might invite one to wonder what will sustain the knights’ interest in life if Morgan the Fay ever stops sending them challenges from faery land.