Yep. I read Tolkien’s translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. It’s been around for a while, but I never got around to reading it. I have been focused on contemporary fiction for the majority of my academic life and I only started digging into old school literature recently. So I picked up the Tolkien translation of Sir Gawain because a) I can’t read it in the original language, and b) I really like Tolkien’s style of translation (see Beowulf).
I loved it!
I’m not a stranger to Gawain as a character. I read Malory when I was younger and I liked the BBC’s Merlin series despite it being a cheesy, camp interpretation of the Arthurian story. In that series, Gawain was a cheeky, flirty nobleman masquerading as a commoner who (like every other knight in Camelot) was probably in love with Merlin.
Gawain has also appeared in the film versions of Arthur’s story over the years, plus the Camelot TV series. He’s a staple of the King Arthur story, and I would argue that his characterisation tends to be rather fluid and dependant on what the adaptation needs.
Despite this, reading the Green Knight story was the first time I’d really gotten a sense of the character as he was when he was first written.
In this story, Gawain is a self-sacrificing, naive kid who just wants to be a good knight. It starts with a feast with Arthur, the knights, and some members of the court. Then, in comes a literal green knight who offers to play a little game with the people present: he’ll let anyone in the room have one shot at him with an axe, and then in a year he’ll return the favour. Gawain steps up and cuts the guy’s head off. Then the Green Knight stands up, picks up his head, and tells Gawain that he’ll see him in a year.
Gawain is resolved – after twelve months, he saddles up and starts riding around the wilderness, looking for the Green Knight to let him cut Gawain’s head off.
The knight ever made good cheer, saying, ‘Why should I be dismayed? Of doom the fair or drear by a man must be assayed.’
So that’s something we know about Gawain from the outset: he’s the kind of person who keeps promises even when they’re inconvenient, and tries his best to maintain the moral standards he’s learned about.
The latter comes up again when he meets Bertilak – who owns a castle and will happily let Gawain stay with him. Bertilak has a hot wife, by the way.
Bertilak, like the Green Knight (hint, hint), proposes that he and Gawain play a little game: Bertilak will go hunting every day and give Gawain everything he kills, and in exchange Gawain will give Bertilak everything he gets. That doesn’t make much sense, as Gawain isn’t sure what Bertilak expects him to get while he’s hanging around the castle. But remember… Bertilak has a hot wife. When Bertilak goes out for his hunt, the hot wife immediately starts trying to get into Gawain’s pants.
So Gawain is in a bit of a pickle now. He can’t sleep with her, because she’s married and that would be wrong (take note, Lancelot!). On the other hand, the rules of chivalry mean that he can’t insult her by turning her down outright. As a compromise, he lets her kiss him. Then Gawain transfers that kiss to Bertilak when he gets home.
Gawain’s awkward compromise earns him two kisses the next day and three the day after. On the third day, he gets a girdle as well, which the wife tells him will definitely save his life when the Green Knight tries to cut his head off.
This is the point when Gawain really compromises on his morals and proves the fallibility of the character. Gawain might want to be a great knight who fears nothing but the loss of his pride, but he’s not. He’s human, young and scared. So he keeps the girdle and only gives Bertilak the kisses before leaving to fight the Green Knight.
When he and the Green Knight catch up, Gawain kneels to accept the Knight’s return swing. But he does something that no self-respecting knight would ever do.
But Gawain on that guisarm then glanced to one side, as down it came gliding on the green there to end him, and he shrank a little with his shoulders at the sharp iron.
Basically, the kid is scared.
The Green Knight gives him a hard time for it, and Gawain promises not to flinch a second time. So the Green Knight tests him once to make sure that’s true, then brings the axe down for real…
… and nicks Gawain on the neck.
Turns out, the Green Knight never had any evil intentions. He was hired by Morgan Le Fay to scare Queen Guinevere to death but he never wanted to hurt Gawain. He just wanted to give Gawain a hard time for hooking up with his wife.
Oh, yeah – the Green Knight is Bertilak. Who is none too pleased to see that Gawain kept her girdle instead of handing it over as per their agreement. Gawain agrees that it was a dick move and promises to wear the girdle “as a token of my trespass” (p. 117).
I like Gawain. He’s not perfect, but he’s trying his best which is all any of us can do. He’s not like the other knights in the Arthurian legends who occasionally ‘accidentally’ kill women on their little adventures and then feel hard done by when they have to deal with the consequences of that. Gawain holds himself to a high standard – higher, it seems, than Arthur and his knights hold him to considering how hard they laugh when Gawain tells them how bad he feels about the whole thing.
I think Gawain is very relatable in this story. We all want to be better than we actually are. We all try to juggle our morals with social expectations (though I sure hope that few of us have to do it in quite the same way as Gawain – coercion is not consent, folks!). We all flinch at the thought of doing the hard thing.
I wish there was a really good modern adaptation of this story. I believe there was one in the seventies, but I googled it and immediately took offence to Gawain’s hair so I couldn’t watch it to find out how accurate it is.
I’d like to see a modern take on the idea of trying and sometimes failing to be morally perfect. There’s been a big push towards callout culture and attacking people for the tiniest things. A friend of mine was recently horribly harassed on twitter for the crime of ‘tone-policing’ – a big problem for her, considering her first language is not English and she had been looking for clarification in something, only to cause unwanted offence. People are calling each other out for still using straws, ‘cancelling’ organisations for using resources that aren’t renewable, and deriding media that isn’t 100% aggressively PC. It’s something that is truly troubling considering how difficult it is to live a truly, unambiguously good life.
(BTW, this is something that came up in the Good Place and it’s super interesting from an ethics perspective)
Gawain is not perfect, but he does what he can with what he has. I think most people do the same. And I think it would be nice to see more of these kinds of characters actively celebrated.