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“Arthurian legend” is an evocative term for those with even the faintest grasp of the subject (as in, they have at least heard of Arthur, the Knights of the Round Table, Merlin, maybe watched The Sword in the Stone when they were five, whatever). Coming across the term on a syllabus might lead one to imagine that they will be reading about the epic adventures of chivalrous knights, whether they be engaged in glorious battle against various agents of evil (dragons, giants, knights who went over to the dark side, etc.
) or courting ladies fair, kissing their hands and reverently wearing their handkerchiefs off to war as though they were holy scapulars or talismans able to guard them against all harm, or some such romanticized fluff. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (by an unknown author simply referred to as the Pearl poet) certainly contains elements of this, although it is far from what I would have imagined it was going to be like.
The first major “what the ever-living fuck” moment for me came with the entrance of the Green Knight himself. The poem itself opens with King Arthur and his noble homeboys (aka Knights of the Round Table) partying it up in celebration of the Christmas season. For Catholics, the Christmas season is a big deal because not only is it a celebration of God becoming Man, it is a major feast that comes after a penitential season of prayer and fasting (Advent). I don’t know if you have ever personally fasted, but if you haven’t, take my word for it: it sucks.
So, obviously they wanted to eat and drink and make merry after over a month of being miserable. An interesting sidenote for you: while the actual feast of Christmas is 12 days, which means some Catholics and presumably Arthur and his royal retinue exchanged gifts for 12 days— take that, Hanukkah! — the Christmas season technically lasts from Christmas Day right up till February 2nd (according to the traditional liturgical calendar) and so it comprises a big part of people’s lives during the church year.
Back to the point, all this well-earned carousing is going on, and Arthur says he’s not going to eat until he gets a story (a rather boneheaded and, dare I say, youthful thing for someone who’s just gotten out of penance to say, but ok) and as though on cue, this jolly green asshole and his equally green horse come busting up in the joint to challenge someone to a rousing game of “you whack mine and I’ll whack yours, neck edition.” I chuckled at the description in the text because it made me picture one celebrity in particular:
“a mountain of a man… a hulk of a human from head to hips… long and thick in his loins and his limbs…handsome, too, like any horseman worth his horse, for despite the bulk and brawn of his body his stomach and waist were slender and sleek. In fact, in all his features he was finely formed… no soul had seen a knight of such a kind— entirely emerald green” (lines 137-150).
I wonder if anyone else pictured Jason Momoa looking like the Incredible Hulk? I also wonder, why green? I mean, I suppose if you’re going to be monochromatic in ever fiber of your being, green is as good a color as any, but I wondered if there were a deeper symbolism to it. I have heard of someone having a “green thumb,” meaning they are good at growing things, and that green is a color often associated with both springtime and inexperience (calling someone a “greenhorn” or “green” means they are a total newbie). And yet it is not the knight but Arthur and his men who are being accused of inexperience.
In true asshole fashion, he demands to know who is the “governor of this gaggle” (nice alliteration, jerk) and starts laying down the smack talk like someone who must have balls the size of coconuts. One of my favorite lines of the entire poem is when he says he doesn’t feel at all threatened by Arthur’s men because they are a bunch of “bum-fluffed bairns” (line 280); my adoration of all things Scottish is giving me the understanding here that he’s basically calling them babies who still get their butts powdered by their mommies (burn!). I can just imagine being one of the knights or the ladies sitting around the table at that very moment, thinking “what the fuck did this green goon just call us?” It’s a surreal moment for someone to accuse one of being a wuss for not wanting to get their head cut off (imagine that). Even more of a wtf moment is when Gawain takes him up on it and then, after cutting his head off, Jason Momoa— I mean the Green Knight— just picks his damn head back up and keeps talking.
The next biggest “what the fuck” for me is the lack of action. Sure, there is a lot in the form of the sick, twisted beheading game into which the titularly verdant villain goads Sir Gawain in defense of Arthur’s honor, but otherwise, we get a lot of dialogue and verbal play interjected with occasional descriptions of Bertilak pursuing and killing game, one revolting paragraph regarding field dressing a deer (I have been present for such an activity in real life, and I can attest to the author’s accuracy in how graphically this is done), and about half a paragraph’s mention that Sir Gawain fought real baddies on his way to meet the Green Knight. Essentially, some mention is made of wolves, serpents, giants and wild men called “wodwos” (which to me sounds vaguely racist, although I’m not quite sure why), but it’s all just waived off with a total cop out of a line: “so momentous are his travels among the mountains to tell just a tenth would be a tall order.” All I could think was, “well that’s some weak bullshit.” I thought half the point of an Arthurian legend was to illustrate the characteristics of an ideal Christian hero by showing just how much ass he can kick while still retaining his honor and personifying brotherly love, courtesy, chastity, and generosity.
I expected him to be looking for the Holy Grail or trying to help Arthur avoid another one of Morgan le Fay’s sinister plots (well, actually, that one is at least partially correct), or trying not to piss off Merlin, lest he turn him into a newt. Instead, I found myself reading about the seasons changing (a metaphor for the different emotional states Gawain went through during the time leading up to what he presumed would be his death), long descriptions of Sir Gawain getting dressed, descriptions of how seemingly pious he is supposed to be (he’s got a pentagram on one side of his shield representing how he is “fully faithful in five ways five times over,” in his senses, his fingers, his faith in Christ and Mary, and his devotion to the chivalric code), or him engaging in some weird game of conquest with Bertilak, leading to a lot of seduction, sexual wordplay, and kissing Bertilak’s wife (more on that later), all concluded with some of the most misogynistic tripe I’ve ever had the misfortune to read outside of Facebook.
I wanted to like Gawain as a character, and as a lapsed Catholic, the first connecting point for me was the passing mention of his private religious devotions, with which I happen to be intimately familiar. Devotion to the wounds of Christ and to the joys and sorrow of the Virgin Mary were some of my personal favorites when I was still practicing my faith. Both practices come with prayers and meditations that aim to help a person comprehend more of the humanity of Jesus and His mother, the Son of God and the only woman without sin, each of whom one might otherwise struggle to understand or find relatable in any way. It led me to believe that Gawain, for all his gleaming armor and immaculate reputation, probably needed that more human element to hold onto faith-wise and was likely less perfect than he was initially portrayed (an assumption that proved correct, as it seems like all his pious observances fell by the wayside once he was safely out of the elements and resting in Bertilak’s castle, not to mention the borderline adultery).
Let’s talk about that for a moment, shall we? To test his moral mettle, Bertilak convinces Gawain to have a strange contest of their own (huge foreshadowing moment and one major ass clue that Bertilak and the Green Knight are one and the same, although Gawain doesn’t even have the faintest suspicion of such). Basically each day Bertilak will go hunting and Gawain will sleep in and hang with the ladies, and each night both men will give each other whatever prize he has claimed that day. Which leads to our next “what the fuck” moment, Bertilak’s wife and her attempted seduction of Gawain. Earlier, mention is made of Gawain checking her out (there’s talk of her beauty, and of her neck and breasts). She sneaks into his bedroom on the first morning of the contest while he’s still laying naked in his bed, and starts flirting with him, going so far as to start talking about binding him in his bed (ooo, kinky) and plays equal parts innocent (claims to only want to sit and talk a while) and outright sexual (says in lines 1237-1240 that he can basically make free with her and he can do whatever he wills with her). She accuses him of discourtesy in his efforts to retain his chastity (one is strongly reminded by this point of Sir Galahad and the Castle Anthrax in Monty Python and the Holy Grail) and he grants her a kiss. That night when he and Bertilak exchange prizes, he gives him the kiss, which immediately makes me stop and say, “hold up! Just what in the hell is going to happen if Gawain were to sleep with his wife? Is this some weird threesome fetish Bertilak and his wife are playing at? Or perhaps some homoeroticism being channeled through the wife since this is the Middle Ages and homosexuality is most definitely a big no-no at this point?”. It definitely struck me odd.
This goes on for three days, till he gets the green sash that will come to symbolize his failure to resist temptation (not in the form of sex but rather lying for self-preservation). The biggest “what the fuck” moment of all is that Gawain ends up not dying of having his head chopped off, he learns that Bertilak and the Green Knight are one and the same, and it all turns out to be some wackjob plot by Morgan le Fay (surprise, surprise). He goes home a humbler man. Yay.
Overall, it wasn’t a bad poem. In fact, it was a lot more my speed than Beowulf (I am not a fan of gore). Nevertheless, I’m still walking away thinking “what the fuck did I just read.”
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