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. The poet tells us briefly that Gawain encountered the standard adventures and adversities on his way to the Green Chapel, but he passes over them in a few lines, so eager is he to get Gawain to the castle and his next game.
“Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” is hardly typical of medieval romance, which can be as full of illicit sex and edge-of-the-seat adventure as any contemporary film. But the very existence of the poem is testimony to the achievement of Western Christendom. That a civilization should produce such a “hero” and such a “heroic” poem says something profound about the character of that civilization.
Comparison with the heroes of antiquity is especially striking. For Achilles and other Homeric heroes, life affords a few passing moments during which the hero has a chance to achieve immortality. Every hero knows he will die, and soon, and knows too that the world of shades holds no attraction. If he is going to survive, he must live and die so as to achieve an eternal reputation. Man-killing Achilles, as Auden said, “will not live long,” but if he leaves mountains of corpses on the battlefield during his brief life, at least his name will endure. Similarly, the worst fate that Odysseus can imagine is death, alone, without witnesses or glory, floating on a plank of his ship in the open sea. Lives of ancient heroes were infused with a palpable anxiety that life would not provide sufficient opportunity for immortality, and this heroic mentality did not die with the last of the ancient warriors. The “cosmic resignation” (Paul Tillich) of the Stoic was ultimately a Socratic resignation before death, and the apparent joy of the Epicurean “eat, drink, and be merry” was a philosophy of life only because it was followed by “for tomorrow we die.” Ancient warrior culture is a culture built on the fear of death.
In “Gawain,” by contrast, there is no fear of death, and the games, unlike the agonistic sports of the ancient heroes, are just games, without ultimate consequence. Something happened between the Iliad and “Sir Gawain,” something that left a profound mark on the Western soul, something that no amount of political or social change can account for. Somehow, sometime, a shadow lifted, and in the light of day, men and women began to play, and play joyfully, in the face of death. Somehow, somewhere, men (especially men) learned to smile and even, like Hamlet’s gravediggers, sing at the edge of their graves. This is more than a variation on Epicurean hedonism, with its frenetic efforts to cheat death. It is something new, something that allows men to admit the inevitability of death, and to relax.
From this angle, “Sir Gawain” is not only a classic of medieval poetry but has a role to play in a Christian apologetic. The central Christian event is the Resurrection, and the central Christian announcement is that by the events of Easter, death has been defeated, and because it has been, it will continue to be defeated. Noting September 11, African famines, AIDS, volcanoes, and floods, however, unbelievers naturally demand evidence that Easter did what Christians claim. And Christians cannot duck the question, or retreat into a noumenal gospel according to which death was defeated in some “spiritual” realm. If Life really did struggle with Death, there must be some traces of the battle in the historical record; if this battle really took place, we should expect to find not only splintered arrows, shattered spear points, and crushed bones littering the field; we should expect to find some relics of the victor.
Athanasius insisted that the Resurrection did leave traces everywhere, especially among those specifically Christian heroes, the martyrs, men, women, and children “who, before they believe in Christ, think death horrible and are afraid of it, [but] once they are converted despise it so completely that they go eagerly to meet it.” Hardened skeptics doubtless were unconvinced even by martyrs, and may not find a literary proof of the Resurrection much more compelling. Yet “Sir Gawain” remains a witness of some weight, a trace of Easter, an objective sign of the defeat of death embedded in Western literature. And it is a trace of peculiar value because it shows that the Easter message that “He is Risen” translates not only into a martyr’s taunt—“Death, I now decry you””but into a festive invitation—“Let the games begin.”
Peter J. Leithart teaches theology and literature at New St. Andrews College in Moscow, Idaho.