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.
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.
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