Welcome, to another fantastical Let’s Read: This time around it is Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a text which is probably my favorite medieval poem. So, instead of the usual banter, let’s get right into the content. Shall we?
Damn. Look at the horse that knight is riding. It must be a pony or something. Even then, though, do ponies really have that physique? It is so… low to the ground. Then there is the knight—he is just staring at this (female?) figure to the right like some kind of jackass. Seriously, look at those eyes: he be messed up, you just know it.
The narrative opens with about a page and a half of narration concerning the founding of Britain. Or should I say, the falsification of British history; this opening section is clearly an homage to the kind of pseudo-history which Geoffrey of Monmouth espoused: there are many references to the fall of Troy, and how Aeneas’s progeny supposedly continued westward expansion, something which ultimately led to the founding of Troynovaunt, or New Troy (AKA London).
All of it is complete bunk, of course; moreover, it shows a decided lack of interest in the aboriginal Britons who inhabited the island before Roman colonization. If I didn’t know any better and felt like espousing the sort of histrionics which the text likes to indulge in, I would say that this opening is an early moment of ethnonationalism, but that would be taking it too far.
In any case, it does not help that I keep on reading this part of the text in Donald Trump’s voice; I can just imagine him bullshitting out a history of America which follows the text’s obscurantism. I guess this is primarily because that certain strands of contemporary religious fundamentalists, do have this pseudo-historical outline of American Exceptionalism where they trace the founding of America either as a ‘New Jerusalem’ or part of God’s will.
Thankfully, the text stops its Trump impersonation and moves on to the story.
So, King Arthur and his bros are all merrily drinking and eating at Camelot during the Christmas break (…from questing, of course).
“The festival last fifteen long days” (4)
Imaging partying for that long; I mean, yeah, it was not an actual party, but I figure most of those days would have been close enough to a rave. After all, you’re feasting with King Arthur! His long celebration, as the informational note tells me, is either an approximation or a luxury, so it is likely a bit out there in terms of what we can expect from such a feast. But yeah, my Xmas celebration last one or two days, tops. Fifteen days. Pff!
“With lords and ladies pleasing themselves as they please”
It is just my modern—perverted—sensibilities—but I can never read a line like this without falling into the belief that at any moment the whole façade of knightly elegance will fade away and a hardcore porno will take its place. If Arthurian literature took place in the modern, however, then this is definitely what would happen, what with all the emphasis on grimdark nonsense.
“The knights of highest renown under Christ Himself,”
That’s quite the reputation to live up to! I guess this is why things don’t degenerate into a wild, debauched sex orgy. Oh well.
“The loveliest ladies that ever on earth drew breath,
The handsomest king that ever kept court,
All in that hall were beautiful, young and, of
I guess you are not going to be seeing many perverted old men, then.
But, yeah, it feels much romanticized. Like, the people here are living in a bubble or something. Everything is perfect, all are pure and faithful, and their faith is shown in the perfection of their bodies. None are old because this is a kingdom in its prime led by a man—King Arthur—who is the living embodiment of lordly capability, both in the flesh and spirit.
“Queen Guinevere, the gayest of all the gathering,” (5)
[Insert gay joke] Because remember, we are still twelve and must make such a joke every time we see the word ‘gay’.
Oh, the text also waxes eloquently about Guinevere’s personage and ornaments and whatnot; thus, she marks herself as a lover of the foreign; which, in this context, just barely avoids cultural exploitation. Barely.
“But Arthur refused to eat till the rest were served.
He was in a merry mood, like a mischievous boy.” (6)
It seems that Arthur has something that the rest of us do not have—table manners. Truly, this is a medieval tale, especially if the inhabitants have something as antiquated as feelings of unity in regards to eating preparedness. How quaint.
So if he is excited like a hyperactive boy, then does this mean he is about to run around the place hastily and make a bunch of commotion? That would certainly be a sight for sore eyes. Lol.
“His blood burned, his restless mind roused him”
If your blood burns, then you should probably see a doctor. Incidentally, though, I am not sure that I have ever heard of someone’s restless mind as rousing them. Usually, it is the other way around, a restless mind lulls them into unpreparedness. For some reason, Arthur here reminds me of the king who sits on the Iron throne of George R.R Martin’s Dark Fantasy series: just as that ruler is forced into a state of awareness, Arthur’s keen wit forces him into perpetual action. Interesting.
“He had nobly decided to never eat at feats
Such as these, until someone had told him
A strange story or splendid adventure—“
An explanatory note tells me that this is common behavior for Arthur in these medieval legends. So, why on earth is it noble? The note does not say, only that what happens falls short of his expectations. It sounds like dick-ish behavior to me, saying that you will not eat until something fantastical happens; it is like a child saying that they will not eat until you tell them a funny joke.
“Great mounds of steaming meat, so many dishes
There’s little space in front of the lords and ladies” (7)
It is not like I come from a super poor family, but still… every time I read a passage in a text—any text—which describes a luscious feast, I get intoxicated imagining the steam rising from the colorful assortment of dishes. You know how it is these days, what with food make-up artists.
“Each pair has twelve full dishes”
This does not mean that each person is served twelve different meals, it means that a single unit of serve during medieval feasts were two people. So those twelve dishes are split between two people; persons who share the same cup and plate. Sounds unhygienic to me, but I guess this is what happened before the age of science and medicine.
“Well, I won’t tell you more about the meal;
You can be sure, of course, that there was little lacking.”
Hey, narrator, how about you share some of that food with the peasants? Stop being greedy asshats! If there was little lacking then you can afford to share with those whose labor you reap.
At any rate, the feats and Arthur’s knights and ladies are all enjoying themselves on this death-staving-away feast, when, suddenly, a new figure enters the hall.
“Not only was this creature colossal, he was bright green” (8).
This comes after a lengthy description of his size and how he is astride a giant horse and whatnot. He is one imposing figure and not the kind of person you want to cross (though one does wonder how all of this is known if he is such a mysterious chap). As many academics have noted, though, the figure of the Green Knight is a bit of an oddity—though the color ‘green’ was used in many medieval pieces of art and it symbolized things concerning nature and paganism, for a figure to actually be green is something else all together. What he represents we may never know, but he is quite the bloke at any rate.
“They thought it must be a sort of magic, or a dream” (11).
You will be happy to know that this poem is not a dream; that sort of copping out doesn’t come until later in literature where it becomes a definite tool of ‘not knowing how to write’. Though, to be fair, they likely stole it from the medieval ‘dream vision’ genre; but, to bring it back full circle, the dream vision texts told you straight up that they were a dream and usually held moral or religious ideas. So you can’t really compare the two.
“Has the stomach to strike one stroke for another” (12).
So it is at this point that the Green Knight has challenged Arthur’s court to this contest but as an explanatory note makes clear, this is odd even by medieval standards since it mixes violence with pleasure in a mystifying manner. The knight’s idea is to have a knight throw all his might at his head whereupon, a year from the day, that same knight must travel to the Green Knight’s lodging and receive a similar blow. It is all very freaky.
“’And this is supposed to be Arthur’s house,’ he cried. / Whose fame flies through the remotest regions!’” (13)
Talk about throwing some shade! Burn… ah, why is no-one else amused? Oh, I should say this: since this comes after the Green Knight asking who will challenge him, and Arthur’s court is, justifiably, nonplussed, the Green Knight thinks that they are cowards; the association is that Arthur’s fame is undeserved as his knights do not jump at this… challenge.
“’But as you ask a silly thing, I’ll see that you have it’” (14).
I’m glad to see that I am not the only one who sees this as absurd. That even the medieval King Arthur could hear this request and go “What you talking about, Green Knight?” (You must say that in the proper Sit-Com voice.)
“’If I have blundered, let the whole hall, without blame, decree’” (15).
This is Gawain talking and he is speaking like one of those passive-aggressive sycophants who is nevertheless aggressive—essentially, he is saying that if he fails in the Green Knight’s quest, then no shame will befall Arthur, but he says this while reminding everyone that he is of Arthur’s blood. So, as I said, like a smart-ass. But whatevs, cool.
“’Ah, Sir Gawain— what luck! / I am pleased exceedingly / That you will make the stroke’” (16).
Stranger danger, anyone? Gawain and company just met this dude and he is like, ‘yo, bro, great to see that you’ve taken up my weird challenge!’ and Gawain is like, “let’s get to it brah!’ All’s I am saying is that were I Gawain, I would have a bit more caution in matters like these. Then again, I supposed that this is why I am not an Arthurian knight—because I lack a sense of Stranger Danger.
Regardless, the spectacle commences and Gawain strikes with all his might at the Green Knight.
“Blood spurted from the great body and splattered the green, / But still he didn’t fall, didn’t falter at all, / But strode forward steadily on firm thighs, / Reached out fiercely among the ranks of knights, / Gripped his handsome head and quickly picked it up;” (17).
This is the most amazing part of the story and the most fantastical. Gawain strikes and decapitates the Green Knight, but the Green Knight refuses to die and simply acts as nothing at all happened. This is where the reader figures out why the request was so weird—there was no precedent; there is no magic which would allow Gawain to live through such an engagement, so there is no danger in accepting if he is the one who strikes first. But now that he has seen that it will be expected of him to bear a blow, the dramatics begin.
“’Be prepared to do as you promised, Gawain;’” (18).
Yeah, don’t remind him, jackass.
“Though Arthur’s head stood still in wonder, / He showed no sign of it, but said aloud, / To his queen in a most courteous manner, / ‘Dear lady, please don’t be dismayed. / Such deeds are welcomed at the Christmas season,’”
Arthur, what a dick. His knight has pretty much been sentenced to death and the best he can muster is some minced words to his girlfriend. I repeated—what a dick!
Well, after that, Arthur speaks of Gawain not letting fear overwhelm him and whatnot. It is all droll and, in my opinion, rather moot. But hey, if this was not the central quandary then there wouldn’t be much of a plot, eh? At any rate, not too bad of a story for something that was written in the middle ages, eh?