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.
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.”
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