Sunday, June 7, 2009
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by Anonymous
When I read my first epic poem (The Odyssey in a horrible prose translation, and only in excerpts, in high school), I remember the teacher telling us that epic poetry was, historically, meant to tell the stories that might inculcate the values of a nation into the people. In other words, an epic poem should tell you something of the character of a nation. The Ancient Greeks believed in universal humanity as shown by their sympathetic descriptions of the Trojans in the Iliad, but also in the penultimate importance of martial prowess in the measure of a man, for example.
If Gawain is a national epic, I'm not sure what this says about the British.
This is not to say the book wasn't good, and in truth, I'm being a little bit facetious. The book quite clearly lays out the conflict between the two romanticized codes of feudal Britain - the law of chivalry, and the law of courtly love. But the fascinating thing is that the book seems to, more or less, say that these two lawas are endlessly incompatible.
The story (Umm... yeah, all spoilers here) walks through the tale of Gawain, an Arthurian knight who is challenged by a mysterious green knight to a strange contest - Gawain can take a swipe at the knight with an axe provided that, in a years time, the Green Knight be allowed to take a swipe at Gawain. Well, Gawain takes his swipe (in chivalry, one does not turn down a challenge. Chivalry is sort of like trademark elementary school codes of honor, except you don't say 'double-dog dare' or 'missed-me, missed-me now you have to kiss me'). He cleaves off the Knight's head, and the green knight proceeds to pick his head up, laugh at Gawain, and gallop off.
So, a year later, Gawain goes to make his rendezvous, and ends up sleeping at a palace close to the chapel where he is supposed to mee the knight. In this castle, the lord of the castle makes a deal with him - the lord is going to go out hunting while Gawain is to stay home and rest. Whatever the Lord captures he'll give to Gawain, and whatever Gawain captures he'll give to the lord.
Well, when you're lying in bed, there's only two things you can catch, and Gawain isn't abstract enough to give a nap to the lord, so you can guess what happens. The lady of the castle comes in and, in no uncertain terms, kisses him and tempts him to other... acts. This goes on for three days, and every knight the lord give Gawain whatever prize he killed that day, and Gawain gives the lord a kiss. The mind reels, btw, over the implications of taht one.
Well, finally on the last day, the lady tries to give GAwain somethign to remember her by, so she tries to offer her girdle. He refuses, until she tells him it's a magic girdle that will make it so he cannot be injured. Convenient...
Of course, chivalry says Gawain needed to keep his promise, and give the girdle he took to the lord of the castle that knight. Yeah, well, he hides it and forgets to mention it. So, it all turns out that the Green Knight was the lord, and when he can't chop Gawain's head off on account of the girdle, Gawain is embarrased and ashamed, and they all have a good chuckle over it. The end (okay, so that's simplified, but I don't want this review to be TOO long).
The interesting thing about this story is that Gawain's taking of the girdle (which is, pretty clearly, MEANT to have some sexual overtones) is actually what keeps him from getting his head lopped off. What is it that this teaches the humble listener? WEll... if you're going to erm... borrow the girdle from your friend's wife, you better make it worth it? There is no possible way to honourable do all the right things in this world without getting your head lopped off? The mind reels...