Most of us can respond with deep childhood memories to the line ‘I’m going to tell you a story’, words which we repeat to our own children and grandchildren; and this is the formula applied by the anonymous fourteenth-century author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, perhaps the greatest of Middle English poets, surpassing even Chaucer.
His is a poem which appeals to the ear rather than the eye; its art is oral, and also linear in that it does not encourage its audience to flick the pages, of which there are ideally none; and although the modern reader of a Penguin Classic can do just that, it’s a temptation to which you are unlikely to submit, the suspense being too full of fascination. And as you soon realize, or are asked to believe, that even the narrator himself does not fully understand what is going on but can only relate what he has been told, you readily slip into the spirit of the thing and return to childhood. Even after the Green Knight has initially come and gone, it’s not clear if he is a goodie, a baddie or something in between; or if he’s a ghost, a person in disguise, the Green Man or Death. Anything is possible: so right from the start you are in the midst of a ripping yarn.
How many know the story already? The question takes me back to my last year in primary school, when I was awarded the only literary prize I have ever won. It was for an essay ‘On the Evils of Alcohol’, set by the village Ladies’ Temperance Association – a misnomer, as abstinence, not temperance, was their aim. The prize was Stories of King Arthur and His Knights, retold for youngsters by Barbara Leonie Picard. I devoured this book and was gladdened by the far-away world it created, and saddened at its dissolution. Yet curiously, by the time I re-encountered Gawain a decade later as a student, I had forgotten the drift of the story, so my enjoyment was undimmed, even though we had to translate all 2,500 lines of it from a medieval dialect that was only slightly less daunting than Anglo-Saxon.
But to our tale. The setting: King Arthur’s court; the time: New Year’s Day, with Christmas celebrations continuing unabated; the atmosphere: a delightful one, with happy, well-fed people enjoying the indoor warmth and colour of the festive season in spite of hardship and cruel weather without; a world at ease with itself and a splendid midwinter scene, straight from a Book of Hours. Until suddenly the Christmas party is gate-crashed, by a mounted knight who charges in, right up to the top table, to offer a challenge. Or is it just a Christmas game?
The knight himself is ambivalent: massive but elegant, monstrous but merry, a jovial giant; and, apart from his red eyes and golden equestrian accoutrements, suggestive of lusty youth – skin, hair, beard all green, the colour of growth, of nature; but also the colour of the dead, of devils and fairies, the otherworld, underworld, afterworld which is always liable to break into a Scrooge’s sleep, the skeleton at the feast. What would Christmas be without its visitants?
The rider holds in one hand a bob of holly, evergreen in winter, life in the midst of death. But beware: the holly bears a berry as red as any blood, a prickle as sharp as any thorn, and a bark as bitter as any gall; even if Mary did bear sweet Jesus Christ for to redeem us all; even so, blood and thorns and gall remind you of the cross and a cruel death. And how sure are you of resurrection? Still, the holly is offered in the manner of an olive-branch, presenting the bearer as a bringer of peace; whereas in the other hand, in spite of the soft clothes and absence of armour, he carries a huge battle axe, bristling with alternative implications.
What an opener! And there’s a lot more to come. What he has to say is equally ambivalent. The tone is brusque, that of the hostile challenger, while the message itself is contradictory. He wants them to take part in a merry jest, which turns out to be a deadly test, the sort of jape involving blocks and necks and heads, and hoots of laughter. After all Christmas is just the time for quips and cranks and wanton wiles, is it not?
The game is deadly simple: he invites any knight to step up, take hold of the battle axe, and strike at his neck, while he kneels bare-headed and unresisting . . . the condition being that if he survives the blow, the striker must seek him out a year and a day later in order to receive a return blow. The challenge seems to be without a catch, and yet they all shrink from it, understandably enough – surely there has to be a catch? The fairy-tale year and a day simply sounds like a stay of execution, a temporary reprieve, and the outcome inevitable. Suddenly the Green Knight is, by implication, Death, and Gawain, who accepts the challenge, is Everyman, summoned to meet his end without a friend to accompany him. Nobody wants to go there. We all have to in the end, we know that, but not just yet . . .
And this is exactly how things fall out. The Green Knight submits to the stroke; his head is duly chopped off; he duly picks it up again, holds it by its long green hair to glare at the terrified gathering, sternly reminding Gawain to keep his part of the bargain; and then he leaps back headless into the saddle and gallops off, the hooves striking sparks from the flints of the floor, announcing himself perversely on departure as the Knight of the Green Chapel – the only geographical hint Gawain is given for the journey he must eventually make. And we are at the end of the first part of the four-part poem.
Part Two opens with the passing of the year: winter, the Lenten time, spring, ‘softe somer’, Michaelmas, the back-end days, moving into sombre November, the cycle of the seasons and the liturgical landmarks acting as an undertone of change and decay and eventual death. Gawain’s day of departure to find the Green Knight is the second day of November, All Souls’ Day, when masses are sung for the souls of the dead. The point could not be clearer: Gawain is a dead man; in the minds of his fellow knights he is as good as gone.
Eight weeks later, after an arduous journey, coming up from north Wales and the wilderness of the Wirral, he arrives at an oasis, the castle of Sir Bertilak de Hautdesert, and on Christmas Eve, in time to celebrate the birth of the Redeemer. It has been a penitential journey too: gentle Jesus is also Judge – of those who fail the end-of-the-world test. Testing is one of the poem’s major themes. Merry Christmas then – but bear that in mind. Not that the poem thrusts eschatology in your face, but it’s part of the ground bass of the ecclesiastical year – lost, alas, on most modern readers.
For now Gawain can forget all that. Sir Bertilak turns out to be an extrovert host with an amiable stunner of a spouse; his castle a second Camelot; Gawain is flooded with hospitality, conviviality and relief from the rigours of winter. God rest ye merry gentlemen.
The guests leave – all except for Gawain. The genial host won’t take no for an answer. And it’s no use arguing you’re a man on a mission, when the host says he not only knows the whereabouts of the Green Chapel but that it’s only two miles away. He’ll provide a guide and they can set off at dawn on New Year’s Day and arrive in time to do whatever has to be done there. Nothing, it now seems, can stand between Gawain and his destiny.
Except for the ‘exchange of winnings’ agreement. Sir Bertilak enjoys a joke. Let’s make a bargain, he suggests: you stay in bed for the next three mornings while I go out hunting; you’ll have my wife to keep you company and see to all your needs while I’m away; and whatever prize I take at the hunt will be yours on my return; and anything good that comes your way will be mine. Agreed?
It’s at this point that the alert listener – or reader – will hear a bell ring. Haven’t we been here before – a year ago? And didn’t that contract turn out to have an unwritten clause and a darker agenda? But Gawain goes along with it and we reach the end of the second part.
Part Three occupies the last three days of the year, on which Sir Bertilak and his wife hunt their respective prey: deer, boar and fox outdoors, while indoors Gawain has nowhere to hide as the apparently ardent lady parks herself on his bed, telling him ‘ye are welcum to my cors’ – which, in spite of some scholars trying to pass it off as a metaphor for ‘I am at your service’, means exactly what it says: my body is yours. In other words, take me.
Of course, there’s no steamy stuff, it’s only implied; and there’s comedy in Gawain’s dilemma: the courtly love code insisted that a gentleman should not refuse a lady, but what sort of gentleman would dishonour his host? All Gawain can do is to beg for ‘mercy’. But ‘mercy’ is itself in the courtly romances a euphemism for sex. So the conversation is formally flirtatious and cloaked in double entendre.
Undercutting the comedy however is something more serious. Gawain is under sentence of death. He is not the man to betray his host – under normal circumstances. But if you’re facing execution in three days’ time, what would be your strongest instinct – to stay pure and die a good death, or to say ‘to hell’ (literally) and go out happy, finish up with a final fling? In fact passions do flare up on the third morning (one of the poem’s many strengths is that its hero is not the perfect knight, he is as human as the rest of us), but he holds out and, not wishing ungraciously to refuse her altogether, accepts instead another gift of ‘mercy’. It’s her girdle. Apart from showering him with kisses (three today, up on yesterday’s two and the first day’s one), all to be passed on, in the best way possible, to her husband, she offers him this item. Not a piece of underwear but a costly belt, whose true value lies not in its precious stones but in its life-saving powers: whoever wears it is safe from any assailant.
Some Christmas present! How can he refuse? He has resisted her advances but now she offers him not love but life, sweet life. And he wants to save his skin as much as the fox, to whose behaviour Gawain’s is likened when on the third day he slyly keeps the girdle, while guiltily passing on the kisses as all his day’s winnings. Beneath the fairy-tale surface is reality; keeping your word or keeping your life – the two don’t always come into conflict but when they do you are in a cleft stick, and how you react depends on how human you are.
Next morning, the morning after the three kisses, Gawain awakes to hear the cock crow, echoing Peter’s triple betrayal of Jesus. He huddles deeper under the bedcovers. After all, what was that girdle, really? Supposing it was some sort of trick . . . This is no mere Monday morning feeling; getting up to go to work on an icy morning is one thing: rising to look your executioner in the face is quite another. Gawain doesn’t want to get dressed at all, but he has to go out and keep his appointment with his destiny. And so the story continues . . .
But I don’t. I lay down my pen here, so as not to spoil it, except to say a word or two about the poem. We are fortunate to have it, existing as it does in a single manuscript, one quilled by a jobbing scribe and not by the unknown author who, as a devotee of an alliterative revival which did not catch on, paid the additional penalty of writing in a language which was probably considered ‘dark’ and ‘hard’ even at the time, and generally eludes even those who enjoy original Chaucer, whose language became standard English.
Fortunately there are several good translations, and though great poetry is untranslatable, for those who feel inspired to crack open a great poem, I have given details of some of these at the foot of p. 34. It is well worth the effort and you will not be disappointed.
Not all poems, as Simon Armitage says, are stories, but this one is: a ghost story, a thriller, a courtly romance, a yarn, a morality tale and a myth, and a hymn to nature. For me the chief glory of the poem lies in those passages which contrast the formalities and politesse of court life with nature’s thrilling and frightening wildness and uncompromising cruelty: Gawain sleeping out in his armour at night, half slain by the sleet; the graphic details of hunted animals, trapped, butchered, dismembered; and the cycles of the seasons with which most of us are long out of tune. This poem will bring you back into harmony with a song you may have forgotten how to sing. Above all it meets the criterion of a great work of literature: once you have read it things will never seem quite the same again.
Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 60 © Christopher Rush 2018