image from the one surviving manuscript of the poem
My friend Adam Roberts has some thoughts about this poem I’ve been considering and if he doesn’t commit them to writing at some point I’ll eat me wee woolen cap. But in the meantime I’ll just say that Adam thinks that Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a poem about circumcision. He wrote to me (and I post this with his permission),
But isn’t this the larger structure of Gawain and the Green Knight? First, an as-it-were public symbolic circumcision, in front of the whole court, in which the mighty phallic knight somehow does and doesn’t get his top chopped off; and then the second act, in which the struggle is private, internalised, to do with Gawain resisting the temptations of Lady Bertilak, in the private space of a bed rather than the public space of a royal court; a struggle that has to do ‘with the heart’ in the romantic sense, but also in the sense that it’s about a different sort of danger than the sort in which a warrior puts himself in the way of battlefield harm. An inward danger. And it’s this latter danger that really defines Gawain’s courage. In a similar way Christ has to both put himself physically in the way of bodily pain and death, but also has to overcome his inner struggle, “let this cup pass” and so on. And really the passion marks a shift in emphasis from the former to the latter in the broadest sense, doesn’t it? Not that martyrs won’t suffer physically, but that physical pain, like physical purification, becomes less important than spiritual suffering and redemption…. Likewise judgement: before, transgression was physically punished, adulterous women stoned to death — and maybe the Green Knight’s axe is an executioner’s rather than a warrior’s axe — but after the punishment of transgression gets turned about, made into a focus for self-reflection on one’s own transgression, “let him who is without sin chop the first head off” as it were. So the Giant is OT justice, big and obvious and fatal; and Gawain’s journey leads him to a NT understanding of justice as forgiveness of sins, and inner fidelity.
How interesting, in light of this argument, that Gawain’s decisive encounter with the Green Knight happens on New Year’s Day, or, as it is known in the timekeeping of the Church, the Feast of the Circumcision.
When I read Adam’s comment I immediately thought of Harold Bloom’s famous early essay on “The Internalization of Quest-Romance”, which sees that internalization as something that happens in the Romantic era, but Adam’s reading shows it already at work in the 14th century, as part of the inevitable outworking of the logic of Pauline Christianity (which moves from external circumcision to the “circumcision of the heart.”) Gawain’s real quest is not the one that takes him through a wintery English landscape, but rather one that leads through the darkness of his own inner life.
I think Adam is exactly right to say that the poem is about law and grace, but I may read that relationship somewhat differently than he does. I want to emphasize again that Morgan le Fay accuses the Arthurian court of pride: they really do believe that they perfectly embody Chivalry. But Chivalry is a kind of code, a law, and the Green Knight comes to show that the best of Arthur’s knights is unfaithful to that code. In other words, he functions precisely as Paul says the Law does in Romans 7:
What then should we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet, if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” But sin, seizing an opportunity in the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. Apart from the law sin lies dead. I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin revived and I died, and the very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. For sin, seizing an opportunity in the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me. So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good. Did what is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, working death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure.
In order that sin might be shown to be sin — this is the key. Paul was, as he says of himself, “a Pharisee of Pharisees,” a “blameless” man — or so he thought. But eventually the law taught him his own ineradicable sinfulness, and so he died, so the law killed him. Had it not been for the law, that fierce instructor, he would have gone along in self-satisfaction to his grave. But the law that killed him “is holy and just and good”: it killed what had to be killed in him, “in order that sin might be shown to be sin.”
And Gawain too experiences this — because of Bertilak and Morgan le Fay. They, though seeming to be his enemies, have in fact been his best friends, for they have shown him the truth about himself. He therefore wants to make sure he always remembers the lesson he has learned at the Green Chapel, and chooses the green garter the Lady gave him as an emblem of it:
“But the girdle,” he went on, “God bless you for this gift.
Not for all its ore will I own it with honor,
nor its silks and streamers, and not for the sake
of its wonderful workmanship or even its worth,
but as a sign of my sin — I’ll see it as such
when I swagger in the saddle — a sad reminder
that the frailty of his flesh is man’s biggest fault,
how the touch of filth taints his tender frame.
What I find especially noteworthy about Gawain’s response is what is absent from it. Paul’s account in Romans 7 of what sin taught him culminates in an outcry: “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” Which is immediately answered with: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” Gawain seems to stop with “Wretched man that I am”: if he rejoices in the divine grace extended to him he does not say so.
Thus when he returns to Camelot, he bitterly confesses his failings:
“Regard,” said Gawain, grabbing the girdle,
“through this I suffered a scar to my skin —
for my loss of faith I was physically defaced;
what a coveting coward I became it would seem.
I was tainted by untruth and this, its token,
I will drape across my chest till the day I die.
For man’s crimes can be covered but never made clean;
once entwined with sin, man is twinned for all time.”
This doesn’t sound good: “never made clean”? “Twinned for all time”? (Note also that, to return to one of Adam’s points, the physical “defacement” — a cut on his neck — is nothing compared to Gawain’s internal suffering. His martyrdom is happening inside him.) Is there no one to rescue him from this body of death?
But if Gawain is trapped in despair, that can only be made worse by the invincible frivolity of the court:
The king gave comfort, then laughter filled the castle
and in friendly accord the company of the court
allowed that each lord belonging to their Order —
every knight in the brotherhood — should bear such a belt,
a bright green belt worn obliquely to the body,
crosswise, like a sash, for the sake of this man.
So that slanting green stripe was adopted as their sign.
For Gawain that sash marks a profound wound; it is not something to be celebrated, not an element of festivity. “Laughter filled the castle”? Gawain must have been wondering what there is to laugh about.
So if the court does not understand sin, Gawin, it seems, does not (yet) understand forgiveness. Which means that none of them at Camelot has escaped the realm of Law, with its inevitable oscillation between self-satisfaction and self-loathing. Another way to put this point is to say that none of them understands Christmas — and that, I think, is what this poem is all about. Let’s be reminded of the meaning of Christmas by Charles Wesley:
Hail the heav’nly Prince of Peace!
Hail the Sun of Righteousness!
Light and life to all He brings,
Ris’n with healing in His wings.
Mild He lays His glory by,
Born that man no more may die;
Born to raise the sons of earth,
Born to give them second birth.
God bless us every one!