By Mike Foster
In his Andrew Lang Lecture essay “On Fairy-stories”, written in early 1939, about 16 months after the publication of The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkienconstructed one of the finest criticisms of that genre this side of Chesterton’s “The Ethics of Elfland,” which Tolkien cites severally.
In it, Tolkien insists that one requirement is that the magic in such stories “must be taken seriously, neither laughed at nor explained away. Of this seriousness the medieval Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is an admirable example.”
Indeed it is. An Arthurian tale that precedes the French infusion of Lancelot and the Holy Grail, it was written the latter half of the fourteenth century by an unknown poet. Of this author, Tolkien posits that “He was a man of serious and devout mind, though not without humour; he had an interest in theology…he had Latin and French…but his home was in the West Midlands: so much his language shows, and his metre, and his scenery.”
That description would fit Tolkien himself. In fact, although this translation was not published until 1975, two years after his death, fifty years earlier Gawain was Tolkien’s first claim to fame. In 1925 at Leeds University, a Middle English edition of the poem done by esteemed medievalist E.V. Gordon and Tolkien was published. This led to his professorship in Anglo-Saxon at Oxford that autumn.
The tale is told in poetical form, and Tolkien’s translation harkens back to an era when alliteration, not rhyme, characterized English verse. As Tolkien says in his introduction:
- “It is a romance, a fairy-tale for adults, full of life and colour; and it has virtues that would be lost in summary…: good scenery, urbane or humorous dialogue, and a skillfully ordered narrative.”
Though summary shortchanges its virtues, the story begins in Camelot at Christmas-tide, with King Arthur “merry with the moods of a boy” and grey-eyed Guinevere “the gay was with grace in the midst.” Into this New Year’s feast rides a great green giant of a knight “as a fay-man fell he passed, and green all over glowed…with a great beard like a bush.” Brilliant description creates a horrifying image vivid down to the bright gold bells twined in his horse’s mane.
This verdant apparition issues a challenge: he will allow any knight to strike him once with his long sharp axe, provided that he is allowed to return the stroke a year later. Gawain accepts the challenge: the beheading is depicted in ghastly grandeur:
- “The fair head to the floor fell from the shoulders
- and folk fended it with their feet as it went rolling;”
The headless horror retrieves it and holds it aloft; it decrees that he expects Gawain to keep his vow and go to the Green Chapel to receive his due dint on the next New Year’s day.Gawain does, of course, and the colorful cataloging of the arming of this hero and his horse Gringolet, all in red silk and gold down to his spurs, is exquisite as a tapestry. His emblem, the pentangle, indicates his five-fold perfection: in free-giving, friendliness, chastity, chivalry, and piety. Mary is his patroness; her image is painted on inner side of his shield.
Venturing from Camelot to the wild Welsh west, he comes upon the castle of one Sir Bertilak, who invites him in for Christmas feasting until Gawain must go meet his fate. In a rash moment, Gawain agrees to a bargain his host proposes: to swap whatever he might gain while resting in the castle for whatever Bertilak wins hunting in the woods.
But while Bertilak and his men are hunting deer, boar, and fox, his wife is hunting Gawain. Thrice she steals into his bedroom in the morning, and thrice she tempts him with herself: “to my body you will welcome be.” Gawain must defend his virginity without being unchivalrous.
On the first two mornings, he succeeds, and the subtle minuet of her seductive banter and his polite demurral is wonderfully yet chastely erotic. On the third morning, she enters, nude but for furs and jewels; the poet writes:
- “They spoke then speeches good
- much pleasure was in that play;
- great peril between them stood,
- unless Mary for her knight should pray.”
He refuses her again. But he does not refuse her gift of a green silk belt which, she says, makes its wearer invulnerable to “killing by any cunning of hand.”
Gawain accepts her gift. And he does not share it with his host. He wears it on the morrow when he goes out to meet the Green Knight in his Chapel. There he bares his neck for the axe blow. Thus the treachery of the wife of Bertilak is revealed.
Like many of the greatest works discussed in this space, including The Lord of the Rings, Gawain’s story deals with the grave, grim consequences of keeping one’s promises.
“His character is drawn so as to make him particularly fitted to suffer acutely in the adventure to which he is destined,” Tolkien writes in his introduction. Like Frodo Baggins, he proceeds with reluctant courage on a daunting, deadly quest. And like Frodo, he fails at the end.
Gawain is one of literature’s best heroes because of both his bravery and his failure. Chaste in the bedroom but cheating in the wager, he escapes with a scar on his neck that, like Frodo’s lost finger, forever reveals that failure.
Pull this one off the shelf and read it aloud, a few stanzas a night, over the winter. Chestertonians will be chuffed by its vivid vision and entwined ethics. Its intended audience, Tolkien suggests, was “English and conservative, yet courtly, wise, and well-bred—educated, even learned.”