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The Upside Down: ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’

John Mitchinson explores how a 600-year-old poem by an unknown poet can reset our moral compass

Gawain and the Green Knight. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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Medieval alliterative poetry might not strike everyone as a welcome respite from the unrelenting grimness of the news cycle, but I’ve spent all week reading and re-reading one of the great masterpieces of English poetry, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and, readers, it has helped. 

It has one of the great openings. 

It’s Christmas at Camelot, a 15-day feast “with all the meat and mirth that men could dream”, when the party is interrupted by a large and unexpected interloper.  

A massive knight has ridden into the feasting hall on his horse, breaking all manner of courtly protocols. But, what really stands out about him, apart from his size, is that everything – his skin, his hair, his horse – is “greener than the growing grass”. 

In one hand, he holds a branch of holly, in the other a “monstrous” axe. 

After insulting Arthur (“who is the governor of this gang?”), he issues a challenge: an invitation to play a new kind of Christmas game. Whoever fancies it can strike him once with the axe, on the understanding that he will return the same blow in a year and a day’s time (plus they get to keep the axe). 

To preserve the family honour, Arthur’s young nephew Gawain volunteers and severs the knight’s green head from his shoulders in a single blow. Whereupon – and this is the good bit – the knight picks up his own severed head, reminds Gawain and the rest of the shocked court of the deal, “meet me at in a year and a day at the Green Chapel and I’ll return the favour”, and then rides off “to where none could say”. 

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What follows is a very different kind of medieval romance, one in which the usual battles and tests of chivalry are transformed into a profound psychological thriller, a kind of medieval film noir, with Gawain as the hapless gumshoe who travels up to the “wyldreness” of the Wirral in search of what he is sure is certain death.

Without giving away the entire plot – I want you all to read the poem – the real test happens well before the final showdown, while he is being lavishly entertained by Lord Bertilak and his beautiful wife at the remote but sophisticated castle of Hautdesert (“High Wasteland”). 

In some of the most thrillingly erotic scenes in all of English literature, Gawain somehow resists Lady Bertilak’s advances while her husband is out hunting (“you are welcome to my body to do with what you will”). Finally, he cracks and accepts her gift of green silken girdle, which she assures him will protect the “wearer from being slain by any sleight on Earth”. A classic femme fatale move.

And it costs Gawain dear. By accepting this gift and not admitting he has done so to her husband, Gawain shatters his own chivalric code. 

Yet, at the poem’s climax, when he once more confronts the Green Knight at the Green Chapel, his decision to choose life over honour earns him not death, but absolution from his terrifying opponent.  

But Gawain is so mortified by his own shortcomings that he waves away the suddenly affable knight’s invitation to rejoin the New Year’s party and strike up “a new accord” with his hot wife (spoiler: the Green Knight is – or appears to be – a transformed Bertilak).  

Instead, Gawain takes the girdle, his “token of untruth”, and returns to Camelot a sadder, wiser man. Arthur’s court might acclaim him as a hero, but he knows he must wear his girdle as a mark of shame for as long as he lives.

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It seems remarkable that so profound and subtle a writer should remain nameless. 

All we know of the Gawain poet is that he was well educated, had a deep knowledge of the Bible and courtly French literature, and wrote his powerful rhythmic verse in the dialect of the north-west Midlands. 

I like to think of him as a self-consciously northern rebel who saw through the clichés of the Arthurian mythos and sent the real hero of his poem – the Green Knight – to challenge the soft southern indulgences of Arthur’s court.  

The Green Knight is a wholly original invention, a strange fusion of the old green magic and the rugged Celtic Christianity which had taken root in the wilds of the north and west of Britain. 

With his bright green cloak richly trimmed in ermine, he reminds me of the original Father Christmas, a kind of warrior Santa, with holly in one hand and an axe in the other. He comes to test us, to teach us hard lessons about responsibility, and yet is also there to fill the horn of plenty when, inevitably, we fall short.

You don’t have to be a Christian, a neo-pagan, or a medieval scholar to find some solace and inspiration in that.

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