Trapped by the Rules: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight


Emily and I just had the distinct pleasure of teaching a tricky and delightful poem called Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Picture this: King Arthur and his noble Knights of the Round Table are busy throwing a Christmas feast, when in through the big double doors rides, you guessed it, a Green Knight. Now, before your 21st century modern imaginations dress an entirely normal, if large, knight in green clothes and call it good, allow me to emphasize a poetic reality: this dude is green. His skin is green. His beard is green. His horse is green. His teeth are green. And not just green - fluorescent! He shines! In one hand, he holds a green shiny holly branch (a symbol of peace or mercy) and in the other, an equally green shiny battle-axe.

Interested? My students definitely were. And so are Arthur and his knights. The feast grinds to a halt as the knight peers around the room, waiting on someone to distinguish himself as the leader of this band of merrymakers. Finally, after a good natured knightly jab or two at the fashionably clean-shaven K’sOTRT, the interloper challenges Arthur to a game as old as time: buffets.

Traditionally, buffets is pretty simple – one guy stands still while the other fetches him a blow of one kind or another. Then, in turn, the striker stands still and receives the same blow as the first man. Rules: Don’t flinch. Winner: The last man standing. Simple enough, yes? Seems like the sort of game knights at round tables would play. The Green Knight, however, throws a couple of crucial twists into the contest this time around. Firstly, there will be only one blow for each man, one year apart. Arthur will strike, and afterwards be bound to appear a year to the day later at the Green Chapel to receive his own blow. And secondly, to whomever is brave enough to play this game with him, he’ll give a gift “to handle as he pleases…”, the beautiful green axe.

Now, before we go into the outcome of this game, I want to point out an important detail that many of my students missed: the green knight mentions multiple times, in very strong language, that he is not here for a fight. He’s just interested in a Christmas game, which is why he wears no armor, and carries his holly branch. As for the axe, it’s a gift for the winner of the game. Furthermore, besides the aforementioned greenness of this guy, the poet spends some time describing his coiffure, and he’s actually a good-looking fella. His beard is beautiful, and well kept. He wears rich clothes. And he’s barefooted, which is a sign of his playfulness. Overall, strange though he may seem, the Green Knight bears all the signs of a person who’s in the mood for a good time.

Having heard the terms of the game, Arthur sweeps down from his dais, and brusquely demands that the knight hand over the axe, which he promptly does, and awaits a blow. Before Arthur can deliver it, however, his nephew, Gawain, begs leave to play the game on Arthur’s behalf.

A note on Gawain before we proceed: this kid is the knightliest knight in all of Arthur’s court, a legend in his own time for his twin virtues: chivalry and piety. Stepping forward to take his king’s place in a dangerous game like this one is what we’d expect from a knight so bold. What happens next, however, presents we readers with an important question: is Gawain as bold or as chivalrous as his reputation would have us believe? Remember, central to the code of chivalry are charity and selflessness.

Let’s review: the Green Knight appears, tells everyone he isn’t interested in a fight, suggests a game instead, and offers a prize to the winner, all the while holding a symbol of mercy and peace in one hand, and a symbol of war in the other. When we put it like that, it starts to look an awful lot like a test, doesn’t it? Will Gawain choose the axe or the holly? What sort of man will he be?

Taking up the axe, Gawain clips off the Green Knight’s head with a single blow, and, satisfied that he has won the game, looks on in horror while the Green Knight picks up his head and turns to address the room. Apparently unmoved by having his head separated from his body, the Green Knight holds it aloft, and reminds Gawain of the bargain – see you in a year! Mounting his green horse, he rides off, leaving a very confused and scared Gawain to rejoin the party.

This may seem like an obvious question, but why do you imagine Gawain is confused? Well, because having one’s head chopped off generally results in death, right? There’s a deeper reason though: Gawain and the rest of the K’sOTRT have just been exposed in public as cowards.

‘Now hang on just a minute!’ I can hear you all saying, ‘Cowards?! Gawain responded just about how I’d expect when faced by a giant, intimidating green man, threatening to chop off people’s heads! And besides, Gawain played by the rules of the game! If anyone cheated it’s the Green Knight; he didn’t tell anyone he was immortal.’

You have a point! He didn’t tell anyone he was immortal – but he did mention that he wasn’t interested in fighting. He was only interested in a game. And he didn’t threaten to cut off anyone’s head. He merely offered to give a pretty green axe to the winner of a game of buffets, a game traditionally played without deadly weapons.

The poet has us right where he wants us. As soon as the game is suggested, Gawain and Arthur have a choice: will they treat the Green Knight with charity, taking him at his word and acting in the spirit of play rather than in earnest? Or will they fear his otherworldly aspect, distrust his intentions, and seize control in an act of self-protection? Gawain chooses. And he chooses to sidestep the issue by neutralizing the problem: the Green Knight can’t use that axe if he’s dead. No matter how we slice it (pun most certainly intended), Gawain has already failed the knightly standard, and the true test of his valor hasn’t even happened yet.

Aside from being shocked by the fact that this guy just rode off, head in hand, Gawain now has problem on his hands. He has but a year to live. Remember, this guy is the pinnacle of perfection when it comes to the code of chivalry, which dictates that any oath must be kept. In taking up the axe and delivering a blow, he agreed to the deal, and now he’s bound to pay up. The poet ends our first episode by admonishing Gawain thusly: “Sir Gawain now take heed/Lest fear make thee refrain/from daring the dangerous deed/that thou in hand hast ta’en!”

This is the point in the class where I turn to my students and ask the all-important series of questions: What does our main character want, and why can’t he have it?

What does Gawain want? Well, for starters, he’d rather like to keep his head! But even more so, he wants to be good, which in this case means keeping his oath. But he can’t have both, right? Keeping his oath means losing his head, while keeping his head means losing his honor. So, roughly a year later, after girding himself about with all the symbols of piety a knight can afford, Gawain hares off into greater pre-historic England, praying God will steel his nerves.

Fast forward a couple of cold weeks, and Gawain is lost in a forest, soaked to the skin, and beside himself with worry that he’s going to die alone. So he prays to Mary to give him a place to rest, and slap bang he finds himself in front of a friendly, if isolated, castle, into which he is promptly welcomed.

The lord of this castle seems like a nice enough fellow, and after hearing of Gawain’s quest he produces some good news – ‘the Green Chapel is only a couple of miles away, and you have four days to make it there!’ So, after some gentle urging, he convinces Gawain to stick around and enjoy the festivities. What festivities? Glad you asked. Bertilak, the Lord, proposes a Christmas Game.

Now, before you begin worrying over Gawain’s already mortgaged neck, this game seems like a lot more fun than the Green Knight’s beheading game. Bertilak will go out hunting each day, while Gawain stays at the castle with Bertilak’s beautiful wife. When the Lord returns, he’ll give Gawain whatever he gains on his hunt, while Gawain, in turn, will give him whatever he “gains” in the Lord’s absence. Sensing a layer of meaning on the word “gain” here? Us too.

Sure enough, for three days, pious, chaste Gawain is forced to resist the increasingly amorous advances of Bertilak’s wife, and on top of that, he must do so without tarnishing either her honor or his own! That’s a tricky business, because, according to the code of chivalry, a lady can be as sinful and wrong as all get out, but a knight must still protect her from embarrassment of any kind. So Gawain can’t just tell her off, and have done with it! He must, instead, be complimentary, kind, and the picture of a gentleman, while refusing to give the lady what she wants.

By day three, Gawain is pooped, which is probably what leads to his lone slip-up: when the lady presents him with a girdle that will protect him from physical harm, he not only takes it, but also keeps it when Bertilak returns, thinking it will protect him on his visit to the Green Chapel the next day. Why is this such a big deal? Chivalry! Gawain made a deal, and ALMOST held up his end. But almost doesn’t cut it in knightly games, as we’ll see.

The next day, Gawain dutifully girds up his loins and heads off to the chapel in the company of one of Bertilak’s servants, who tries a couple times to get Gawain to abort the mission, but to no avail. This guy is simply too knightly. Brave to the last, Gawain stiffens his spine and enters the Green Chapel to receive the Green Knight’s blow.

Let’s review the rules: don’t flinch.

Gawain flinches. And the Green Knight is every bit as condescending as you’d expect. So Gawain, peeved at himself, readies himself a second time. This time, no flinching. But…the Green Knight intentionally misses his stroke!

Now thoroughly flustered, Gawain notes in a very knightly, Middle-English sort of way, that the Green Knight can, at any time, quit being a big jerk and take his stroke already. As he’s had his fun, the Green Knight winds up to finally make the killing stroke. The axe falls, Gawain stands stock still, and the Knight gently taps Gawain on the neck, leaving a small cut.

Gawain, surprised to find his head still attached to his body, immediately prepares himself to fight, but at this point, the Knight, terribly pleased with himself, drops the ultimate truth bomb on Gawain: he has been played for a fool! Revealing himself to be Bertilak, the Green Knight explains to the bewildered Gawain that he was never in actual danger of losing his head. Why? Because Christmas game #2 was a test of Gawain’s honor. Three times Bertilak’s wife tried to seduce Gawain, and three times he resisted. So far so good. But on the third time, Gawain kept the girdle to keep his head. So…he failed. Bertilak, however, feels sympathy for Gawain: anyone would try to keep his head, right?! Thus, rather than take Gawain’s head, he mercifully scratches him on the neck. Gawain is forgiven roundly and soundly in Bertilak’s book. In fact, Bertilak even invites him to come home and feast, just to prove there is no ill-will.

How would you respond to this revelation if you were Gawain? Relief? Exultation? Gratitude? I mean, he had swiped off Bertilak’s head a year earlier, and he had broken the rules in the castle. He deserved death and receives life instead. But Gawain doesn’t see it that way. 

Our young knight is angry with himself. So angry in fact that he refuses the Knight’s congratulations, his invitation to dinner, and his forgiveness for keeping the girdle. Not only that, but he swears to wear the girdle forever as a badge of his great shame.  Bertilak tries over and over to explain that Gawain is forgiven, and that he really did pretty well in this whole thing, but Gawain refuses his friendship, and, perhaps more importantly, refuses his evaluation of Gawain’s character.

Frankly, I can see his point. Can’t you? After all, Sir Gawain has spent the whole story trying awfully hard to meet two different standards: the code of chivalry and the rules of the game. As a knight of Arthur’s round table, and even more so as Arthur’s blood, Gawain’s whole life has been defined by his adherence to the rigid standards of these two laws. And here at the last, he finds he cannot keep them. A chivalrous knight protects a lady from shame, but a Christian one cannot give her what she wants, and in the end the poor guy is only human! He flinched. And on top of all of that, the Green Knight has the audacity, after trapping Gawain in this ruse, to stand over him in judgement and deem him needy of forgiveness.

No wonder Gawain is outraged - the game was rigged! He had no chance. He did ALMOST everything right, but it was too hard. Entrapment! Treachery! Foul play, right?

In this dissent lies the very seed that makes Gawain, and we readers as well, the target of the poet’s ministrations. I submit that we want Gawain to succeed. We feel for him as he’s put in these difficult positions, and we identify with him in his striving to meet these standards. After all, we ourselves are engaged in the very struggle he undertakes. We are aware of the rules governing our behavior, and we too feel the burden of our lives resting on our success or failure. The very idea that the game master would change the rules on us is an affront to our honor. 

Here’s my question to you: what honor? Did Gawain succeed, or didn’t he? Remember, ALMOST doesn’t cut it in beheading games. Neither does it cut it in sanctification ones. Getting 90% of the way there is still failing. One doesn’t get credit for summiting a mountain when one hasn’t made it past base camp. The law provides only absolutes. And we human beings, imperfect as we are, cannot keep it.

The difficult truth of this poem is that Gawain’s efforts are not what earns him his head. By rights, his head is forfeit, rigged game or no. And that is more than he can bear. Returning home, Gawain screws his courage to the sticking point, and willfully passes what he assumes will be the final judgement on his own character: he stands before the court, and confesses that he has failed. He holds up his badge of shame, and wallows publicly in the sorrow of having ruined his own life, prepared to spend the rest of his days clinging lonely to the tarnished standard of his honor.

In this moment, however, the poet delivers a killing blow.

Arthur, having heard Gawain’s story, laughs. And without hesitation, he claims the girdle for himself and his knights as a symbol of their brotherhood.

You see, Gawain’s principle fault lies not in keeping the girdle when he promised to give it up – the Green Knight forgives him this fault! His fault lies in taking up shame when he has been offered forgiveness. Despite Bertilak’s assurances, it takes the familiar faces of Arthur and his knights to make Gawain see his shame for the pride that it is. Gawain, faced with his king, is robbed of the last right that remained to him: the right to deliver his own sentence. His brothers will deliver it instead. The verdict? Guilty. But not alone.

Day in and day out, I look at my Lord, who has changed the rules of the game on me, and offer my own verdict on my performance for His approval. My guess is that you do too. The answer, happily, is the same on good days and bad, yesterday, today, and forever: He has bent His will on catching us in our need and forgiving us our faults, whether or not we have asked Him to do so. And no amount of failure can separate us from His forgiveness. The question only remains whether our own dedication to good behavior will separate us from the community of other sinners we meet along the way.