My latest essay was on the new fantasy film The Green Knight, a retelling of the famous Arthurian tale. The film was very well received by movie lovers for its unusual mix of beautiful imagery and modernism. The movie looks like a mystery to the ordinary viewer, almost a ghost story, but to the reader of Arthurian tales it reads like a T.S. Eliot pastiche. Every image or detail—the ghosts, if you will—is a quote, a reference to other, usually Arthurian tales, which the viewer should pursue in order to compare them and thus try to reconstitute for himself an older tradition of storytelling.
I promised a sequel on the 14th-century poem we call Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which is altogether more beautiful than the film, and a great way to tempt young people to learn poetry. It also might help them to learn to think about the paradox of honor, and I will keep my word. The original poem is both striking, since it’s based on alliterations rather than rhymes, and fun to read. It’s written in an older, more robust English, spoken honestly, so that important words tend to be stressed. At the same time, the poem speaks honestly about the passions of that long-departed age when beauty inspired people to detailed accounts of feasts and hunts, of clothing and weaponry, of castles and countries.
It should be not merely read, but spoken aloud and imagined. It would be a wonderful book for children in an adequately illustrated edition, especially since in our age we have a curiosity for the past and a need to learn many forgotten things. All these poetic details matter, too, and you gradually become aware that they are all tied up with honor, which is primarily treated as having honorable things: Every knight and lady have the wealth necessary to show off the virtues that make for greatness, and the poem describes this splendor at length. Today, this would be called luxury, since no one believes possessions relate to character—we neither earn them nor are they earnests of our beliefs; we just buy things. But looking to Sir Gawain, we can begin to ask what possessions are necessary for a way of life, not mere objects of whim, and how an honorable man acquires possessions.
Knights Playing with Death
Now, the story is simple: At Christmas, the mysterious Green Knight comes to Camelot to challenge King Arthur to a duel. Sir Gawain accepts instead and decapitates the Green Knight after binding himself to accept the same blow in return from him one year hence. Next Christmas, he goes questing as he promised, spends the holidays at a remote castle, in feasting and games, then meets his fate at the Green Chapel, where he learns he has faced a test of his proud chivalry and passed, though not unblemished. It ends invoking Christ’s crown of thorns on the word Amen.
The poem is about 2,500 lines in 101 stanzas and you could read it with your friends or family in the evenings over a long weekend. The Tolkien translation arranges it in four parts, according to its setting: Camelot, the journey, Bertilak’s castle, and the Green Chapel. Tolkien refrained from interpreting the poem, so we have to make the trial ourselves. We should ask three questions: first of all, why does Gawain keep his word? His quest almost gets him killed wandering in the wilderness in winter until he ends up helplessly hoping in divine aid and prays to the Virgin—so why he keeps his word is a very serious matter.
The Knights of the Round Table don’t know the Green Knight, but must accept his challenge—their honor is involved. They’re not fools, they just know better than the rest of us that we all take our lives in our hands fairly frequently in this life,—our beliefs to the contrary offer only the illusion of safety. So, they decide it’s better to die on purpose than by accident. After Gawain triumphs, they kick around the decapitated head. The knights are obviously pleased with his victory, but perhaps also repelled by the deadly game, the duel, They are interrupted by the fantastic: the giant knight picks up his head and speaks to them. Surely, this should put an end to the game, since he has cheated, being immortal! A duel means nothing to him who risks nothing.
Sir Gawain was compelled to accept by his duty to his king and kinsman, for whom he should face danger. Arthur’s honor should put him beyond challenge in his own court. Honor itself is invisible, a matter of belief and speeches, and the future is uncertain hopes and fears, so the mystifying immortality of the Green Knight offers no grounds to break one’s promise. Faith in God and king leads Sir Gawain into a trap—but so do his desire for glory and his fear of this dangerous intruder. Arthur is the cause for which he kills, but so is his fear of being killed by his enemy. The Green Knight’s test brings out this tension between self-sacrifice and self-preservation.
Knights don’t live in the same world the rest of us do—they are treated with the most artful courtesy, and the behavior of the court is beautiful and pleasing. However, these men of honor also stand to lose everything should they once fail. Beautiful words and deadly words rule their lives as surely as idle gossip and nice, pleasant deceptions rule ours. We owe nothing to anyone, but knights owe even their lives to whomever honor binds them. We live longer.
The Test of Chastity
Sir Gawain, after praying to the Virgin, whose image he bears in the inside of his shield, finds a castle where he can restore his strength, attend Christmas services, and continue his quest. His joy at his wonderful reception at this castle soon becomes a puzzle for us. Why should the story have almost nothing to do with Sir Gawain’s adventures, which are mentioned in passing on his way out of Camelot and then again on his return, but talk at length, in the longest section of the poem, about his chastity? For three days, while the lord of the castle hunts many deer, a great boar, and a clever fox, Sir Gawain is tempted by his lady, yet he never breaks propriety. This is crucial to the poem, and it is traduced by the otherwise beautiful Lowery film adaptation, as I said in my previous essay.
The poem emphasizes in the first part how young everyone in Camelot is; from this, we sophisticates reason that the young will be slaves to their sexual desires like animals in the wild—but the poem is instead premised on Sir Gawain’s chastity, which is sorely tested in Bertilak’s castle. Men may be hot-blooded and yet control themselves, because beauty is a better guarantee of dignity than pleasure. There is a unique pleasure in taking control of oneself, in not being beastly, which is a necessary precursor to taking an oath and becoming willing to die for a cause.
Sacrifice may be beautiful, but not pleasant. Sir Gawain is received as though he were already a living legend, his every gesture and word a joy to his hosts because he is a perfect knight and behaves as one ought in court. He is invested with Camelot’s reputation and must live up to it. Courtesy is one of the words we have left from this old aristocratic order. To us, it means fine behavior, often unexpected, always unnecessary; but the behavior of the court is taken for granted in an aristocratic order and it is hardly ornamental, but instead a continuous spiritual discipline, a refining of spiritedness and ambition made possible by the strict identification of the household and the political community typical of the aristocracy. Perhaps we see the same distinction with regard to manners—mannered behavior strikes us as artificial and insincere, yet we remain pleased to be treated to good manners. Sir Gawain proves that his manners are not merely a public display, but govern his private behavior as well. His belief in honor is as much a secret as it is an outward show, governing love as much as meeting perfect strangers.
Shame overwhelms Sir Gawain when the beautiful lady of the castle secretly enters his bedroom, his first thought is to feign sleep; as active as the lord of the castle is with his hunting, so passive is Sir Gawain. Even in courtship, it is the lady who pursues him. This does not preclude the pleasure of conversation, which revives his love of life and will eventually weaken him enough to be called a coward. Falling in love would mean losing self-control, which is why this is the test he must face. Faced with danger, he had decapitated the Green Knight. Strange as that duel was, Sir Gawain proved fearless, but faced with love, fear begins to grow in him until the lady’s love leads him to accept a green girdle whose enchantment promises to protect him from harm.
Woman, after all, is as much a reminder of nature as a knight green in winter. We all have mothers, were once born, powerless and without honor, since we had neither reason nor self-mastery. More, in woman is mortality tied up, or men would not feel protective about women. Sir Gawain hides this girdle from the lord who hosts him and thus breaks his word; finally, he becomes interesting to us as a man: He now has a secret.
Fear of Death and Woman’s Temptation
The laughter of the Knights is the last question we must raise. Sir Gawain is humiliated by the Green Knight, but spared because he proves willing to face death to keep his word, even though he also broke his word by taking the green girdle against the agreement he had made with Bertilak to trade winnings at the holiday feasts and games. When Bertilak reveals how he has tested Sir Gawain, that he, although very generous as a host, also set his wife to tempt his guest, Sir Gawain blames the woman for his covetousness regarding the green girdle and his cowardice in flinching before the deadly blow. He quotes the Bible: How many great men, from Adam to Solomon, were undone by woman! We may say, a woman wormed her way into his heart, and he finds the fact unbearable. Yet when he reveals this shame to his fellow Knights, they mock him.
Remember, these are all very young men, and youth is an ambiguous mixture of openness to wisdom and inexperience. The poem as a whole educates the audience not to make too much of manliness, of fearlessness in face of death, since even perfect knights may secretly flinch. But it also suggests wisdom, or self-knowledge, is very rare. Instead of ruling by wisdom, aristocracy is based on a claim to justice, on suffering punishment for one’s misdeeds or even mistakes: Those who make the political decisions die if they get them wrong. Knights aren’t perfect, but in facing death in battle, they are all the protection we can have politically. Aristocracy was entirely dependent on knights, but we’re not beyond them, either. In our very democratic modernity, we still find it necessary to have dangerous men fight our wars, but we no longer dare to look at them or what they do. They get almost no stories, no honor, yet we depend on their sense of honor. Just like Camelot was threatened in the person of Arthur, we also felt America itself was threatened after 9/11, which got many young men to enlist, Gawain-like. Honor and shame connect the personal and the political while keeping them apart. They allow for different levels of public service, but they require that we take honor seriously. Our shame in privatizing war as much as we can is Sir Gawain’s perplexity with regard to his own cowardice.
So we, too, need an education regarding mortality. Sir Gawain takes the green girdle for a protective charm, yet he flinches when the Green Knight prepares to decapitate him, so he doesn’t really believe in charms. It’s merely a sign of his natural love of his own life; neither his Christianity nor aristocracy can make him act as though he were immortal. But it is only this pagan-seeming knight, nature embodied, that can reveal the truth by orchestrating a plot. It is a deception revealed by the poem which orchestrates its own deception in making us take this made up story seriously, as though it really happened.
But the truth about Sir Gawain is more complicated than this revelation. It must include his willingness to face certain death, too. Our nature reveals itself only in this contradiction, that shame reveals both courage and cowardice, a willfulness that is uniquely human although so often unwise. The adoption of the green girdle by Arthur’s Knights is a political image of this complexity in the soul, the need to face up to death even though we cannot quite face it down, the building up of a mature courage on the disappointment of youth’s beautiful hope that men prove perfect. Idealism is not enough, heroism is not all there is to human nature, but it is the origin of both political freedom and poetic education, and the origin of both the Round Table and of our poem. We must return to this origin.