“Tiny” and Tuukka

Cecil “Tiny” Thompson played goalie for the Boston Bruins for 10 seasons, from 1928-29 through 1937-38.  Five games into the next season, he was traded to the Detroit Red Wings, where he tended the twine for two seasons before retiring.  During most of his career he started every game of the season for the Bruins, 468 in all, and he won 252 of them.

Tiny thompson

“Tiny” Thompson, Bruins goalie 1928-1938, 252 wins

Tuukka Rask has been a Boston Bruins goaltender since 2007-08.  He is into his 6th season as top goalie and has never played for another NHL team.  In his career he has played in 474 games and won 252 of them.  His next victory will make him the winningest goalie in Bruins history.


Tuukka Rask, Boston Bruins Goalie, 2007-present. 252 wins.

Today, they stand together at the pinnacle, ahead of such notables as Frank “Mr. Zero” Brimsek, Gerry “Cheesey” Cheevers, Tim Thomas, and even Terry Sawchuk, a career Red Wing, who spent a couple of years in Beantown during which time he saw more rubber than he probably did during his entire Detroit career and suffered a nervous breakdown.  But Thompson and Rask could not have had more different careers, and gotten to their 252-win pinnacles by more diverse routes, if they’d tried.

When Thompson played each team carried one goaltender.  So that man started every game.  The league schedules during his career in Boston were 44 games per season (8 teams), and then 48 games per season (7 teams).  If a goalie was injured during a game, the home team was obliged to have a spare goalie on hand to fill in for either side.  (No word on how they handled it if both goalies were too injured to continue; perhaps that never happened.)  That person was usually a team trainer or other staffer.  Rask has played in the era of a grueling 82-game schedule in a league of 30 teams, until Las Vegas made it 31 last season.  In that environment each team absolutely needs two goalies, though Rask has made as many as 67 starts in a season.  Luckily, the Bruins’ current alternate goaltender, Jaroslav Halak, is also highly skilled.  In the current system Rask can rest and recover from minor injuries while remaining on the roster.

Thompson was born in Canada, as was practically every NHL player then.  He hailed from Sandon, British Columbia, now a ghost town in a mining district in the southeastern corner of the province.  His name reflects his Anglo heritage.  There were also, of course, myriad French Canadians in the league (the Montreal Canadiens, by league agreement, had the first choice of prospects from Quebec province, giving them a major advantage).  And there were many players of European descent, mostly East European, whose ancestors had immigrated to Canada, often as farmers.  Rask comes from Savonlinna, a charming town in a lake district in southeastern Finland, with 33,000 people and a castle.  He typifies the influx of European players who are drawn to the NHL by the salaries, and who are needed to fill the rosters of the 31 league teams.  Many are from northern and eastern Europe, where there is natural ice in the winter.  There are now many players from the United States in the NHL as well, so the whole feel of the league is more international.  Coincidentally or not, no team representing a Canadian city has won the Stanley Cup since the Canadiens did it in 1993, a quarter century ago.

But the most telling contrast is revealed in the attached photos.  Thompson may have been nicknamed “Tiny,” but he stood 5’ 10” tall, and weighed 160.  Rask, though, stands 6’ 3” and weighs 176, so he’s even skinnier.  Nevertheless, Thompson had a much trickier task in blocking the puck than Rask does because of his primitive equipment.  Just look at it!  His right hand, that holds the stick, is not guarded by a blocker pad.  His left hand has a glove that’s more like a standard hockey glove than the glorified catch glove, like a first baseman’s mitt in baseball, sported by Rask.  And look at the leg pads.  Thompson’s are OK, but Rask’s are enormous, heavier, and squared-off.  They extend much farther down over his skates.  Rask’s equipment might weigh almost as much as Thompson himself did.

The most obvious and stunning difference, of course, is that Thompson has no mask.  He and all goalies of the era were expected to stop pucks with their faces and still not miss a game.  That extended right up through the era when I was first a fan.  I saw Al Rollins, the Blackhawks goalie, get a stick cut near the end of the 2nd period one night.  It opened up one whole cheek; there was blood all over the ice.  They ended the period early, adding the time to the last period.  That allowed Rollins time to get 28 stitches in his face and come back to finish the game.  They were tough dudes.  Tuukka’s biggest worries, on the other hand, are peripheral vision, which must be an issue sometimes, and what the artwork on his mask should look like.  The change, by the way, came through the legendary Jacques Plante of Montreal, the first to wear a mask in a league game.  Cheevers used a molded white mask, and every time it was hit with a puck he painted stitches on the spot that was hit.  By the end of his career his mask, rather than his face, was a network of scars.

On the other hand, Rask faces rival forwards who are significantly bigger and faster overall than players of the 1930s.  They are better trained, and are in better shape.  They skate on ice surfaces that are more uniformly hard and smooth than those in the old rinks.  They use carbon fiber sticks that flex more than the old wooden ones, and thus launch pucks at enhanced speeds.  And those sticks have curved blades, that allow better puck control and harder shots on the forehand, though they challenge puck control on backhand shots.  The rules have changed as well, so that now forwards can get breakaways through long lead passes, and odd-man rushes are easier to facilitate.  Consequently, it’s hard to read too much into comparative save percentages and numbers of shutouts over the two eras.  They didn’t keep shots against stats in Thompson’s time, but odds are that those numbers were lower in his defense-oriented game.

Rask could surpass Thompson by grabbing his 253rd win as early as tomorrow night against the Rangers in the Gahden.  And whenever it happens, he will have surpassed a great player from an earlier NHL epoch, who will retain his distinct identity even as Rask exemplifies excellence in the new NHL of 31 teams, carbon fiber sticks, and massive catch gloves.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2019.


DANGER: May Result in Injuries or Death

One of the great gifts I got this Christmas was a step stool.  We really need one in our kitchen, where the top shelves are beyond the grasp even of my 6’3” frame.  The gift is especially cherished because thoughtful relatives noticed at Thanksgiving that we were resorting on occasion to standing on the seats of kitchen chairs to grab stuff.  They saw a genuine need, and met it splendidly.

step stool

Our new step stool in its functioning environment

The two-step stool has a bottom step 7” off the ground and 3” wide.  The top step is 7 ½” above the bottom step and thus is about 16” off the ground, including the thickness of the step.  The top step is a comfy 7 ¾” deep; the bottom a narrower 3”.  It stores inconspicuously next to the fridge, and we use it daily.

It is easy to use; how could it not be?  You open it up in front of the cabinet you need to access; you separate the front and the rear legs.  You step up two steps to get what you need, and reverse the process to get off.

But this diminutive, convenient piece of equipment comes with seven stickers on its five members (four legs and a crossbar).  They identify, they warn, they caution, they advise.  And when they’re finished, they repeat it all in Spanish.  You can barely see the finish on the steel because the surfaces are so plastered.  Here is the complete text that comes with this device.  From the length and complexity, one could barely guess that the thing is just one notch more complex than a milking stool.

Lower left rear leg: [barcode and number] 11024PBL Unit / 2 Step Steel Step Stool

Upper left rear leg:  [red oval, white letters] Danger / Electrocution Hazard / [circle with black background, white up arrow] WATCH FOR WIRES / [lightning bolt with downward arrow] THIS LADDER CONDUCTS ELECTRICITY

Left front leg: [blue rectangle, white letters] NOTICE / Step Stool Size: 2 ft, ¼ in (67 cm) / Highest Standing Level: 17 ¼ in (43.5 cm) / Light-Duty Household Rating Working Load: 200 lb / Model 11-024-PBL  Cosco® / Home and Office Products / 2525 State Street / Columbus, IN 47201 /1-800-263-1996 / Made in China / MFG. Date 13 MAR 2018 / MANUFACTURED TO / [oval logo] TYPE III DUTY RATING PER ANSI STANDARD / ANSI SPECIFICATIONS / 10-YEAR LIMITED WARRANTY / 4360-3226B


Crossbar right: [black rectangle, yellow letters] CAUTION / KEEP BODY CENTERED BETWEEN SIDE RAILS. / DO NOT OVER-REACH. / SET ALL FOUR FEET ON FIRM LEVEL SURFACE. / WEAR SLIP-RESISTANT SHOES. / BEFORE USE, BE SURE ALL LOCKS ARE ENGAGED AND STEPS ARE COMPLETELY UNFOLDED. / [drawing of a male standing in the middle of the bottom step of a two-step ladder, reaching up]


Step stool, showing labels galore

Right front leg: [green rectangle with white letters] SAFETY FIRST / STEP STOOL – FOR YOUR SAFETY READ CAREFULLY / INSPECTION / 1. Inspect upon receipt and before each use; never climb a damaged, bent or broken step stool. / 2. Make sure all rivets and joints, nuts and bolts are tight; steps, spreaders, and braces are secure; spreaders function properly. / 3. Keep step stool clean, free from grease, oil, mud, snow, wet paint and other slippery material.  Keep your shoes clean; leather soles should not be used. / 4. Never make temporary repairs of damaged or missing parts. / 5. Destroy step stool is broken, worn, or if exposed to fire or chemical corrosion. /  PROPER SET-UP / 1.  DANGER! METAL CONDUCTS ELECTRICITY! Do not let step stools of any material come in contact with live electrical wires. / 2.  Make sure step stool is fully open and spreaders secure. / 3. Place on firm surface and a secure footing. Do not use on slippery surfaces.  Do not place on boxes, unstable bases, or scaffolds to gain additional height.  Do not place in front of door opening toward step stool. / PROPER CLIMBING AND USE / 1.  DO NOT USE STEP STOOLS if you tire easily, are subject to fainting spells, are using medicine or alcohol, or are physically impaired. / 2. To protect children do not leave step stool set up and unattended. / 3. Face step stool when climbing up or down. Keep body centered between side rails. / 4. Do not overreach, move step stool when needed. / 5. Do not “walk” or “jog” step stool when standing on it. / 6. Do not overload.  Step stools are made for one person.  Do not use as brace, platform, or plank. / 7. Keep step stool close to work; avoid pushing or pulling off to the side of step stool. / PROPER CARE AND STORAGE / 1. Store step stool in safe and dry place. / 2. Properly secure and support step stool when in transit. / 3. Never store materials on step stool. / 4. Keep step stool clean and free of all foreign materials. / MAINTENANCE / 1. Clean step surface only with soapy water. / 2. Do not use products that degrade the plastic material such as acetone and trychlorethlene.

Right rear leg: [red oval with white letters] DANGER / Failure to read and follow all instructions on this ladder, including those under the steps, may result in injuries or death.

At first I thought that these over 550 words were a perverse manifestation of the “nanny state,” a society that assumes we lack the wit to use low step stools without proper instructions.  But I think it’s instead the “litigious state,” a society in which every manufacturer knows they have to preclude any possible claim that users didn’t understand that electricity is dangerous, or that it’s better not to lean way over on one side, or that it’s not good to get on a step stool with somebody else.  I am surprised that they don’t warn ballet dancers not to assume the arabesque position on the upper step, or that newlyweds should not use it as a place to consummate their union, or that a ballplayer should not take batting practice while standing atop the device.  After all, there’s a fool born every minute, and with that comes potential corporate liability.  Because it’s a corporation’s responsibility to prevent people from doing dumb things involving their products.  Freedom from individual responsibility: isn’t that in the Bill of Rights?

I at least appreciate the advice “do not overreach.”  Keep all things within the limits of reason, indeed!

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2019

The Christmas My Mother Pranked Me

As a young adolescent kid in the early 1950s, I was a nut about aircraft and aviation.  I subscribed to Air Progress and even the industry’s journal, Aviation Week.  I had files of pictures clipped from those and other magazines.  I went to airports and air bases whenever I could, in an era when going to airports was not a common thing to do.  On my 50-mile bike ride for by Boy Scout Cycling merit badge, I journeyed from my home in Arlington, Massachusetts to the Naval Air Station in South Weymouth, just to get a long-distance glimpse of a few dark blue radar planes.

Me and models '53

Me and some of my airplane models, May, 1953.

But above all, I made scale model aircraft.  I spent many hours with my balsa wood, Xacto knives, Duco cement, Testors dope, and decals of all kinds.  They were solid models, not for flying but for display.  I especially liked military aircraft, the new fast jets and the plethora of prop-driven planes created over the prior two decades to fight World War Two.  Magazines like Air Progress featured three-view drawings from which one could fashion splendidly accurate models simply by transforming them on graph paper to the desired size, and rendering them in balsa wood.  By checking my file photos, I could refine details and markings.  There were also some pretty good kits by Guillow and Strombecker (Monogram and Revell made plastic kits, of no interest to true scale modelers), but especially Dyna-Model, which featured die-cast metal parts for things like the wheels, propellers, engine nacelles, and the rockets attached to underwings of some fighter aircraft.  The latter models were wonderful fun to make, but quite expensive.  Sometimes I saved up my allowance and walked to the hobby shop about a mile away, in Belmont Center, to buy a kit.  But they were also great gifts for birthdays and Christmas.

I think the Christmas my mother pranked me was 1953.  I would have been 14, and I was in my model-making heyday.  Old enough to have some serious model-making skills, and young enough to enjoy using them, just before girls, driver’s licenses, and (in my case) cool jazz jumbled my priorities.  Our home family Christmas morning routine was well-established.  My younger brother Jim and I shared a bedroom for most of those years, and we’d keep ourselves up as late as we could, listening to Christmas music at low volume on the big short-wave and standard broadcast radio my dad had re-installed in a hand-made modern case that also served as a table between twin beds.  We’d always fall asleep eventually, but we’d somehow wake up by 6:00 a.m. in the midwinter dark.  That was the statutory limit on how early we could wake Mom and Dad to go see what “Santa” left, check whether he’d consumed all his milk and Christmas cookies, and open family gifts, including the ones that arrived in a big box mailed from Kalamazoo.


Lockheed P-38 “Lightning”

This particular Christmas I had asked for a model plane; I’m pretty sure it was the Dyna-Model P-38, the Lockheed “Lightning,” a slick twin-engine WW 2 fighter that looked super-cool because of its twin-boom construction, and was a difficult model to make for the same reason.  I was playing “Santa” that Christmas morning, distributing gifts.  Thus I could assess my different gifts based on their size, shape, and weight.  Like most boys of 14, I was far less passionate about the clothes and other “practical” gifts that were part of our giving and getting.  Even though my mother could and did pick out great shirts for me, a skill she practiced all her life.  So I set aside one soft, flattish rectangular gift for me, that felt for all the world like a heavy winter shirt, with a gift tag written in her inimitable hand.  But where was that P-38?  One gift after the next was too narrow, too heavy, too small.  At last everybody had gotten their gifts, and though I had opened some nice things, no new scale model project.  Finally the shirt was all that was left.  Though I knew what it was, I had a pro forma requirement to open it.  It felt like a shirt, it looked like a shirt, it was a shirt.  Off came the wrapper, but it was no shirt.  It was a big padded mailing envelope instead.  And inside the padding was, of course, the Dyna-Model P-38.

Mom had me dead to rights!  She knew me too well.  She was not known for her sense of humor; one of her tag lines was a disapproving “’Taint funny, McGee,” taken from an old radio show featuring a wife (Molly) much put upon by her feckless husband (Fibber McGee).  The phrase was the midcentury, mid-American version of Victoria’s “we are not amused.”  But that morning she gave us all a good laugh—even me, once I got over the embarrassment of being so cleverly skewered by my own mother.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2019

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Part IV

The weather of North Wales turns nasty again before New Year’s dawn, the sleet and snow reflecting Gawain’s emotional turmoil.  “Raw” is the word I learned for it.  There’s a briefer dressing and arming scene, including his wrapping the magic girdle twice around him.  Then he leaves with a prayer-blessing for his host and hostess: “May Christ this house maintain / And guard it from mischance.”  This tone may seem odd, but it is as if Gawain subconsciously recognizes that, despite the magic and temptation, the intentions of the lord and lady revealed in the events of his visit will work to his good.  Gawain travels over hills, slopes, moors, steep banks, and waterfalls before the sun even dawns.

gawain travels

Gawain travels to the Green Chapel in full “Victorian Gothic” mode

The guide who is leading him gets Gawain near the Green Chapel and warns him of the “villain” who lives there, a giant who will easily dispatch any foe.  He urges Gawain to go home quickly, by another route.  Gawain of course rejects the easy way out.  He, like every questing hero since Gilgamesh ignored Siduri’s common-sense advice, is determined to see it through and keep his word.  Readers of Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With A Thousand Faces will have recognized all the steps of the quest thus far; the confrontation of the father-figure is about to occur.

But when he gets to the Green Chapel it is not what he’s been expecting.  It looks rather like a barrow, a Celtic burial mound, a hollow pile made out of stones and rough turf, nothing like the elegant castle at which he’s just been a guest.  “Can this be the Chapel Green,” he muses, and likens it to the hell-like residence of the arch-Fiend.  In fact, it turns out to represent the elemental essence of material existence, where all our essential conflicts must be resolved.  Our hero hears the Green Knight before he sees him; the din is the edge of a huge Danish battle-axe being sharpened.  None of this is reassuring or comforting in the least.

green knight

“Green Knight” © Malcolm Brown, accessed at his deviantArt page here

Gawain wins the reader’s respect just by having the strength to remain calm and “scorn[ing] to seem afraid.”  The two men acknowledge matter-of-factly what their business is, the Green Knight praises Gawain for showing up, and Gawain bares his neck.  The axe is raised, the blade starts downward, and . . . Gawain flinches!  The Green Knight, with what must have been very powerful wrists, stops the axe’s descent in mid-stroke, and sneers “You are not Gawain the glorious!”  Exactly what the lady of the castle had been telling him for the previous three mornings.  He’s failed as a lover; now he’s failed as a knight.

Gawain gets a mulligan after he beseechingly promises “I shall stand to the stroke and stir not an inch / . . . on my honor I swear it!”  He desperately wants to prove his honor as a knight, even if it means sure death.  Then the Green Knight feints a blow to test Gawain, who does not move, and follows with a full swing that intentionally misses, or almost.  The blade’s edge just nicks his skin, and a few drops of blood fall on the snow.

With angry words Gawain leaps up, asserts that he’s fulfilled his side of the bargain, and admonishes his adversary to desist.  But the Green Knight is completely congenial. He reveals that he was the host in the castle, that is was his wife that Gawain had kissed, and his belt that he is still wearing.  It was all a test, he said.  They knew Gawain was the most faultless of all men, “as pearls to white peas.”  Gawain “lacked a little loyalty” to him by taking his wife’s love token, but was “less . . . to blame” because his motive was self-preservation, not deceit or lust.

Gawain, however, is enraged and devastated at his own imperfect behavior.  He curses his own heart as cowardly and covetous, with “virtue laid low.”  He rips off the belt and returns it, contrasting his fear of death and desire to live with the true knightly virtues of generosity and loyalty.  The relaxed Knight, acting as a kind of secular confessor, declares him free of sin because he has understood his own faults and repented them.  To him Gawain is “polished as a pearl, as pure and as bright / As you had lived free of fault since first you were born.”  Gawain, somewhat emotionally recovered, wishes his host and his lady well, receives the girdle as a gift, and excuses himself with a misogynous litany of men deceived by women, from Adam to Solomon, Samson, and David.  He declares he will wear the girdle ever after to remind him of his moral frailty resulting in sins of the flesh and excessive pride.  Finally they get around to introductions!  The Green Knight and host is called Bercilak de Hautdesert, and yes, that was Morgan le Fay, who lives at his castle.  She gave Bercilak his magic look and power.

Gawain declines an invitation to stay on as a guest.  He’s obviously still enraged at himself, humiliated by his moral failings, and he wears the girdle as a badge of disgrace diagonally across his front.  Back at Arthur’s court he tells them his story and makes it abundantly clear that he is morally devastated.  Arthur and the others laugh it off, recognizing instead the elemental humanity Sir Gawain has manifested in his behavior, and they all wear the green sashes as a gesture of unity and affirmation.

In the structure of Campbell’s archetypal hero quest, Bercilak acts as Gawain’s spiritual father, judge, and model.  What Gawain is taught is that he is mortal, and in that mortality he cannot behave honorably to all people at all times.  It is human to covet one’s own life, and even when that distorts one’s honorable intentions to others, it’s a forgivable failing.  Gawain still must forgive himself as the poem ends; there’s a dissonance between the ideals he holds and the more human standards of Arthur’s court.  That unresolved tension remains at the heart of the human condition.  The girdle is the “boon” Gawain brings back to his community, but the character of that boon is neither simple nor clear.

The poem also manifests the late medieval realization that the feudal code and the courtly love code are at odds.  Gawain cannot be entirely truthful to Bercilak about his relationship with his lady.  But at the same time he cannot respond to her desires as he should do in the innately adulterous courtly code because of his pledge to Bercilak.  Both of these codes were on the wane in the fourteenth century; the feudal code disappeared with the onset of mercantilism, and the courtly code changed at the inception of Puritanism, fragments of it remaining as an idealized expression of chastity.

Why the Christmas / New Year context for the action of the poem?  In the Christian liturgical year, Christmas is the time of incarnation, the “Word made flesh.”  There’s much to do with spirit and with flesh in this story.  Gawain encounters challenges to his moral idealism and has to understand that the Holy Spirit in us humans is a perfect presence in a flawed being, a “treasure in earthen vessels.”  But we are at our best when we aspire to what lies beyond our grasp, exactly as Gawain does.  The New Year brings new resolve to pursue ideals.  We are born again.  Our failure is our success.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2019

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Part III

As Gawain’s quest moves toward its climax, thematic patterns shape the narrative more and more.  There are three days of hunting.  The host hunts in the forest: deer, boar, and fox.  The hostess hunts Gawain in the bedchamber.

On the first day, echoes of British wintertime abound.  The old carol “The Holly and the Ivy” sings of “the rising of the sun and the running of the deer,” the processes of nature that go on while evergreens thrive in the snow.  We learn all about hunting in this poem.  It takes “a hundred brave huntsmen,” some mounted on horseback, some beaters in the brush, plus a large pack of baying hounds, to bring down a single non-aggressive wild forest creature.  Male deer are spared by law in this realm, a practice that’s hard to understand, especially since the deer have just passed mating season and pregnant females should assure a healthy population.   But if you ever wanted to know how to field-dress a deer, this poem has very detailed instructions.  The same kind of passage is found in Gottfried von Strasburg’s Romance of Tristan, so apparently the process was significant in the Middle Ages.


John Waterhouse, “Lamia.” This image is often used to illustrate the temptation scenes in “Sir Gawain,” though it pictures a topic from classical myth. Note the “scaly” pattern of her dress, evoking the Serpent of Eden.

The castle activity is sandwiched between the poem’s description of the departure of the hunters and the narrative of the kill.  Gawain is sleeping in, under a coverlet and surrounded by the curtains of a canopy bed.  He hears the latch lifted, peeks out of the curtains, sees the hostess, and promptly pretends he’s still asleep.  Discretion is the better part of valor.  But she “cast aside the curtain and came within,” a very dramatic breaking of a social barrier and an invitation to intimacy.  Gawain is freaked out; he can’t discern her motives or intentions, but finally decides to pretend to wake up and engage in conversation.  As if he has much choice; she’s sitting on his curtained bed!

His first move is to cross himself as if in total surprise.  Then he suggests that she allow him to get dressed so they can have a proper conversation.  But the lady is having none of it, and she vows that he will not get up.  She pointedly defines the situation: her husband and his men are away hunting, the servants and her handmaidens are asleep, the bedroom door is secured with a “well-driven bolt.”  Just in case Gawain misses that phallic analogy, she proclaims “My body is here at hand, / Your each wish to fulfill.”  Apparently she’s not there to chat.

Their ensuing conversation is a torrent of mutual admiration and commendations to Mary and Christ.  She says many women would give the anything to lie beside him, and that her dearest hope in life would be to marry a man as perfect as Gawain is.  He praises her to the highest, says he is not worthy of her admiration, and mentions that she is married to a better man (a delicate reminder of the moral issue at hand).  She suggests that Gawain is not living up to his reputation as a lady’s man, but the poet emphasizes a subconscious drag on his passions; he’s aware that “he must bear the blinding blow” of the Green Knight’s axe in two days’ time.  Then she departs, but not before claiming one kiss as a matter of courtesy.  Afterwards, Gawain can’t get dressed and to the chapel for Mass quickly enough.

At the end of the day the host and his hunters return to the music of hunting horns and baying dogs, with a huge sack of prime venison.  This goes to Gawain, and Gawain responds by kissing the host.  He won’t disclose where or how he got the kiss, however.  There’s much joy, feasting, and jesting before bedtime.

Over the next two days, the routines repeat themselves.  Each hunt is executed according to the traits of the prey: the brute strength of the boar and the cunning of the fox.  The pattern is in ascending order of difficulty, with the physically weakest but wiliest prey providing the biggest challenge.  In the bedchamber the same patterns prevail.  On the second day the lady argues that Gawain, being a strong man, could have his way with her.  The unspoken implication is that she wishes he would overpower her with passion.  She faults him for not speaking any words of love, thereby being discourteous.   He only says his intent is to please her, and gives her another kiss.


The Magic Girdle

On the third morning, Gawain experiences the lure of sex, if only figuratively: “His heart swelled swiftly with surging joys. / They melt into mirth.”  But that’s after he has awakened from “the black dreams” about his upcoming confrontation.  After yesterday’s appeal to Gawain’s brute strength, the hostess has shifted to vulpine wiles.  Gawain tells her he has no lover and has no plans to take one; she seems to accept defeat and offers the exchange of love tokens.  After refusing an expensive ring, he accepts her cloth belt, or “girdle,” which is green with gold ornamentation.  Gawain misses the color clue.  But he takes the girdle because she explains that it has magic powers that prevent the wearer from coming to any harm.  Gawain thinks it could be of great value the next day.  She admonishes him to keep the exchange secret from her husband, and ends up kissing him three times before she goes.   When he exchanges gifts with the host that evening, he gives the three kisses, and says “all that I owe here is openly paid.”

Dramatically, suddenly, Gawain has compromised himself morally and ethically.  He has trusted in magic rather than in God and his own valor; he has dishonorably betrayed his host by accepting a gift from his wife, and he has lied about it.  Gawain went to confession at chapel that morning, and at night there is much mutual admiration and thanks.  The host provides a servant to guide him the next morning, while the whole household “commend[s] him to Christ with disconsolate sighs.”  But Gawain is disquieted; all he can do is lie in bed and wait for dawn to come, when he must take a journey to a confrontation he fears he will not survive.

©Arnold J. Bradford 2018

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Part II

This part of the poem takes the reader all the way through the following year as far as the fourth day of the Christmas festival, with a series of catalogs, rituals, and merriment.  The year, defined by the structure of Gawain’s quest and the shape of Christian liturgy, fuses these two inevitable processes into a focused enactment of faith and duty.  One must remember that one important purpose of literature in the late Middle Ages was to entertain.  Not all nobles were literate, and long winter evenings were enlivened by the reading of stories to the assembled residents of a castle or manor by a scholar or other person of letters.  Embellishment, significant detail, formal actions all gave richness and energy to the basic story.

In a couple of stanzas, the poem gets Gawain and Arthur’s court to All Hallows Day.  There is the process of the church’s year from the rich warmth of Yule through the “cold cheer of Lent,” to Michaelmas and beyond.  Then there’s the cycle of the seasons, through the harsh winter to the slow, uncertain coming of an English spring and summer, when “Zephyr sighs low over seeds and shoots” (is it the poet or the translator channeling Chaucer?) to the colder winds of harvest time.

When November comes, the courtiers become even more compassionate toward Gawain, and our hero knows he has to prepare to travel to fulfill his vow to the Green Knight.  He and his friends keep a cheerful demeanor, saying “with tranquil eye: / ‘In destinies sad or merry, / True men can but try.’”  More than two centuries later, a melancholy Dane similarly said “readiness is all” and accepted his own fate.  But for Gawain, the odds of survival look long indeed.  No medieval romance is complete without a description of the arming of the hero, so in due course Gawain’s clothing from top to toe and back, his horse (Gringolet), his helmet, and his shield get intricate attention.


Pentacle on Gawain’s Shield

Most important is the decoration of his shield, particularly the five-pointed star in which “every line is linked and locked with the next,” in an endless over-and-under weaving pattern.  The detailing of the mystical significances of the number five goes on for quite some time: five senses, five fingers, five wounds of Christ, Mary’s five joys in her Son, and the five ethical virtues that Gawain followed—generosity, brotherly love, pure mind, perfect manners, and compassion.  Five fives.  Interestingly, they begin with the physical, touch on the spiritual, and end up in the ethical realm.  Gawain’s actions are predicated on his control of his own mind and body, and on his embodiment of the principles of his religious faith.  They involve honesty, honorable motives, and humility.  All of these things will be tested in the adventure to come.

At last Gawain is on his way through the wilds of North Wales.  He keeps the islands of Anglesey on his left, so he’s tracking through Anglesey itself, northward deep into the Celtic land where place names begin with the dreaded double “L” and the only “vowel” is often “y.”  That land is filled with challenges from the rugged terrain, hostile men, and wild beasts of many kinds.  “Now with serpents he wars, now with savage wolves, / . . . And giants that came gibbering from the jagged steeps.”  He’s pelted by freezing rain, surrounded by frosts and icicles.  And he’s sleeping outdoors, where the “birds unblithe upon bare twigs / . . . peeped most piteously for pain of the cold.”

gawain castle

Gawain Rides Toward Magic Castle

Christmas Eve comes, and Gawain is alone, freezing, lost, and miserable.  And then comes one of the most enchanted magical moments of medieval literature.  As night falls, in his desperate straits, fearing he will miss Christmas Mass and Matins, he prays to God and to Mary for “some harborage” for proper Christian worship, not his own physical comfort.  He crosses himself and “cries / On Christ in his great need.”  And all of a sudden, as he crosses himself for the third time, he becomes aware that where there had been nothing there was something, “a wondrous dwelling, / Within a moat, on a mound, bright amid boughs.”

Thanking Jesus and Saint Julian the Hospitaller, he approaches to find “a castle cut of paper for a king’s feast,” a place as delicate, fine, and fanciful as those illustrated in Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry.  There follow three days of piety, feasting, and merriment, worth reading for their fine details projecting warmth and plenitude.  Gawain is treated as an honored guest.  He meets the host, a well-spoken middle-aged man of “massive mold” with a beard, and the lady of the place, whose flesh, hair, face, and body are all “toothsome.”  Before long she’s greeted him with a light embrace and a “comely kiss.”  Her companion is a short, bleary-eyed, black-browed old crone, who somehow radiates the essence of Morgan le Fay, dangerous and enchanting sorceress of Arthurian legend.  So a warning symbol intrudes among all the elegant, warmly joyous socializing.  Gawain, however, is too bedazzled by the genteelly seductive hostess to see it.

After the third day of Christmas reveling, the Day of St. John the Evangelist, the guests prepare to “go in the gray morning.”  The host pulls Gawain aside and asks him to stay on, but Gawain explains his quest, his need to find the Green Chapel by New Year’s Day.  The host assures Gawain that the Chapel is nearby, and he won’t have to leave until the morning of his appointment.  He then proposes a “Gift Exchange” game (no, not what we do in department stores on December 26) for the following three days, up to and including the eve of the new year.  The host will depart early to hunt, while Gawain, the guest, sleeps in.  At the end of the day, the two will exchange whatever they have won, on the hunt or in the castle.  As with the beheading game, it seems that our hero is in a contest he can’t lose.  But the reader remembers that the first game did not turn out as expected.   All the “threes” that are set up in this Part reflect symbolic folklore motifs (cf. Goldilocks’ bears, Cinderella and her two sisters, little pigs, and so on): three signum crucis gestures, three days of Christmas revelry, three days to come in which gifts are exchanged, three hunts, three mornings in the castle, the threesome of host, hostess, and guest.  The reader has been alerted to look for significant patterns in the next Part.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2018

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Part I

One of the best of all Christmas stories is a medieval chivalric romance, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.  It is written by the “Pearl poet,” an otherwise unidentified writer in the English Midlands, specifically Cheshire near the Welsh border, in the fourteenth century.  He was thus roughly a contemporary of Chaucer in time but not in place and culture.  He wrote three other poems, Pearl, Patience, and Purity.  The common authorship is established largely through internal evidence of linguistic usage.

Beheading game

The Beheading Game, from the original MS of the poem

I decided to write about this poem largely because it is so good in so many ways, and because it reminds us of the early, long, and complex celebration of the Christian midwinter festival in parts of Europe.  Two centuries after this, separatist Puritans in England ceased to celebrate Christmas, and they brought non-Christmas with them to America.  We had thus to re-initiate our own festival as time went by, and we did so erratically and unevenly.

My intent is to be selective in focus and non-pedantic in approach.  Nevertheless, to start I must say that I rely most heavily on the Marie Borroff translation just because it is good, literate, lucid, and the one I first read as I got into the poem in my university studies.  It’s also probably useful to know that the poem uses the Old English rhyming scheme of alliterative verse, in which there are four stressed syllables and any number of unstressed syllables per line.  Three of the stressed syllables alliterate, and there tends to be a “break” (like a musical rest) between the first and second half of the line.  There are also a few passages of end rhymes mixed in.  But because the stanza structure is “bob and wheel,” meaning a longish narrative stanza ending with a few briefer lines, the short “bob” at the end has just two or three stressed syllables per line.

The poem is in four narrative “Parts,” or “Fyttes.”  It begins on a Christmas Day and ends a year and a week later, on New Year’s Day.  I will present the four sections so that my comments end on New Year’s Day, 2019.

The First Part occurs in Arthur’s court at Camelot on Christmas day, at the Christmas Feast.  The well-to-do in the Middle Ages tended to have large feasts on special occasions, mostly holy days.  Arthur is in his youthful prime; Lancelot and Mordred lie in the far future (or in the distant past if you’re Merlin, I suppose).  The poet says of the king that his “lordly heart . . . [was] a little boyish, / His life he lived lively . . . / So busy his young blood, his brain so wild.”  And he got his fill this day, because just as the music was over and the first course had been served, a giant warrior bursts into the hall riding on a huge steed.  The poet goes on for several lines describing just how big and imposing both horse and rider are, slyly saving for the end the one thing everybody there would have noticed first: he and his horse are green!  Green raiment, green skin, green hair, green everything—with a little gold trim.  The original readers would have recognized several interconnected connotations in the green color: it was the hue of the faerie world, the color of nature and natural cycles, and of hope.  It expresses all the pre-Christian values of the Winter solstice: life enduring the powers of death, the magical force of the turning of the season, the expectation of life’s return from the “dead of winter.”


Victorian image of Sir Gawain. The 19th Century loved medieval lore.

This magic giant knight rides up to the dais and asks which one is the famed King Arthur, as if that was not quite obvious.  And he offers a challenge in the form of a common medieval folklore motif called the “Beheading Game”:  he will allow any knight one free swing at his neck with the huge axe he is carrying, if that knight will agree to meet him the following winter and allow him, the Green Knight, one free swing in return.

Such a challenge seems a no-brainer, but no knight rises to accept it, thereby defending and protecting the king from risk.  The callowness of Arthur’s court is vividly exposed.  Finally Gawain, though a younger, lesser knight, does meet the Green Knight’s dare. And he beheads the challenger with one mighty swing.  The bloody head rolls on the floor between the banquet tables, so that “people spurned and parried it as it passed their feet”; the image of refined lords and ladies toeing the gruesome visage like some demonic soccer ball has always struck me as a fine detail.

But then the magic kicks into overdrive.  The Green Knight’s torso walks over, picks up the head, holds it out to the stunned revelers.  It looks around the assembly and at Gawain, uttering the medieval equivalent of “see you next Christmas—my place.”  He mounts his steed, tucks his head under his arm, and thunders out of the banquet hall, having sucked the gaiety out of the feast and given Gawain much to reflect on in the year ahead.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2018