Minding the Truth
What does Gawain and the Green Knight offer The Heights freshman? What might it offer you this Lent? The tale has much to offer. It’s a tale of Arthur and his knights. It’s a fairy tale with a surprise ending. (This article does contain a spoiler, so if you don’t know the tale, please read Gawain or at least a children’s version before proceeding.)
In addition to all that, perhaps the central gift the poem offers is its presentation of the human being as the one who speaks the truth. Readers find themselves faced with the questions: Does the truth matter? Is it ever fitting to lie?
In the opening chapters of De Officiis, Cicero, writing to his “college age” son, observes in the nature of human beings a love of others, a love of the truth, and an accompanying love of independence. These are the fountains of fortitude and magnanimity. He continues,
And it is no mean manifestation of Nature and Reason that man is the only animal that
has a feeling for order, for propriety, for moderation in word and deed. And so no other animal has a sense of beauty, loveliness, harmony in the visible world; and Nature and Reason, extending the analogy of this from the world of sense to the world of spirit, find that beauty, consistency, order are far more to be maintained in thought and deed, and the same Nature and Reason are careful to do nothing in an improper or unmanly fashion, and in every thought and deed to do or think nothing capriciously. It is from these elements that is forged and fashioned that moral goodness which is the subject of this inquiry—something that, even though it be not generally ennobled, is still worthy of all honor; and by its own nature, we correctly maintain, it merits praise, even though it be praised by none. (I.xiv)
Cicero’s observation is helpful in understanding the Gawain we meet in our poem. He is the knight known for living out this consistency in thought, word, and deed. He is an honest man; and he is worthy of praise so long as he keeps this consistency, even if the world does not praise him. It is a consistency, an integrity in interior life; only human beings have such a life, and only human beings have to work to maintain its beauty, consistency, and order. We want to know things as they are and not be deceived by appearances; we want our thoughts and words and actions to correspond with the truth. This is a fitting time to enter the story.
The Gawain poet takes us through the course of a year. He begins his tale in the Christmas season, and the year-and-a-day fairy tale formula runs us through each season before returning us to Christmas again:
A year runs fast, and always runs different;
Start and finish are never the same,
So Christmas goes by, and all the swift year,
Each season racing after the other:
Christmas pursued by uncomfortable Lent,
Trying men’s flesh with simple food
And with fish; then fair weather fights with foul,
Clouds fill the sky, the cold shrinks away,
Rain falls clear in warm showers,
And the flat earth opens into flowers
And fields and plains grow thick and green,
Birds start their nests and sing like angels
For love of soft summer, creeping across
And hedgerows swell tall,
And blossoms blow open,
And glorious woods are all
Echoing joy and hope. (491-515)
While we continue in Lent this week, we can look back — and ahead — to Christmas and to the Annunciation. At the Annunciation in March, we celebrate the Incarnation of our Lord. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Our Lord’s body is our focus at Christmas and all year long in the Eucharist. By our fasting in Lent, we embodied souls pray with our own bodies, in grace, seeking to live consistency in body and soul. This union of body and soul is a topic for a poet to explore in this setting. So let’s return to Christmas at The Heights for a moment.
Just before Christmas break in Freshman Core at The Heights is when we read Gawain and the Green Knight. It is the third book of the semester for our freshmen, after The Aeneid and Beowulf. We reach the end of Beowulf right around the feast of All Saints in November, the month of prayer for the dead. Gawain takes us into Advent in December, and at first the difference between the two months and two stories is a stark contrast. Beowulf’s adversaries don’t speak; they kill and eat or burn. Beowulf faces mortal combats of strength; it’s pretty serious. But Gawain’s test is very different. It’s a game, a sport. It does not seem to be a serious subject at all. Things aren’t always what they seem. In it our hero faces a test of his faith, and his soul is in mortal peril. Or perhaps the question of whether there is any mortal peril for the soul, or whether there is a soul, is what lingers in the background of the test.
Gawain and the Green Knight is a medieval tale of King Arthur’s Court, in England,
Where war and marvels
Take turns with peace,
Where sometimes lightning trouble
Has struck, and sometimes soft ease. (16-19)
The Christmas season is one of “soft ease” — no dragon attacks, no enemy army invades. In the tale a Green Knight visits Camelot, come to test the reputation of the Knights of the Round Table with a Christmas game. The mysterious stranger says:
It’s a game
I want to play, a Christmas sport
For the season. Your court sings of its daring;
If they’ll dare it, any of these eager knights,
Rise so boldly, so fierce, so wild,
And give a blow and take a blow,
I’ll offer this noble axe and let them
Swing its weight as they like, and I’ll sit
Without armor and invite them to strike as they please.
Anyone with nerve to try it, take
This axe here. Hurry, I’m waiting!
Take it and keep it, my gift forever,
And give me a well-aimed stroke, and agree
To accept another in payment, when my turn
But not now: a year
And a day will be time
Enough. So: is anyone here
Able to rise? (282-300)
How is this a Christmas game — a game fit for the season that celebrates the Incarnation? And what does it offer the reader? To approach these questions, let’s take up the motif of beheading.
A Christmas Game?
John the Baptist heralds Our Lord’s coming, and John’s story is included in what we hear at Mass in the weeks leading up to Christmas. This is when the freshmen approach the climax of the story when Gawain has to receive a blow from the green man a year after beheading the green knight. Arthur accepts the ax-blow-for-ax-blow exchange game; Gawain stands in for him and beheads the Green Knight. These moments in the plot can remind us of St. John. We all recall that when Herod promises Herodias anything for which she asks, she asks for John’s head. At times this is the cost of bearing witness to the truth at the hands of a worldly man.
Herod liked to hear John preach. “When he heard him speak he was very much perplexed, yet he liked to listen to him” (Mark 6:20). There is a delight for the man of the world in the man of the spirit’s words. Similarly, the Green Knight is delighted to learn that it is Gawain who will take up his challenge for Arthur.
Sir Gawain, no one could do
What you’ll do, and delight me
More — no man alive.
“By God,” he swore, “Sir Gawain, I’m glad
To have what I wanted at your hands.” (387-391)
Gawain is the knight known for his words, his courtly conversation, his soothing words, words that mean something. Is Gawain a man of his word as his reputation suggests? This is exactly what the games test, for more than one game is being played. First in the game in Camelot: is Gawain brave enough to keep his word and receive the ax-blow he gave? Then in the trading game in the mysterious castle a year later, a game which seems so easy: Is Gawain true enough to give all that he receives in the castle?
The poet frequently repeats for us Gawain’s reputation: he is the knight of speech and words, not just a man of arms. Once the men of the mysterious castle learn it is Gawain who is their guest, they whisper to each other:
What lessons we will learn in noble speech,
What marvelous words, what practiced methods
Of converse, now that we welcome this model
Of perfect breeding! God has been good,
Truly, to grant us a guest like Gawain,
In this season when men sing and rejoice
In his birth.
This knight will lead us to the meaning
Of manners, will work
Miracles for us to see
In the soothing of lovers’ hurts. (915-927)
“God has been good, truly,” they say. The men note Gawain’s reputation for truth and honesty in his words and in the soothing of lovers’ hurts. This is a curious motif in the tale. What is so important about the words of lovers?
The Lady of the castle speaks of Gawain in this way as well:
I know who you are, Gawain himself,
Honored all over the world. I’ve heard them
Praise your perfect chivalry, pure
To lords, to ladies, to everyone alive. (1226-29)
She and her husband are testing his purity and his word; it is a diabolical test. She pretends to love Gawain, but she is conspiring with the lord of the castle to ensnare Gawain. The end of the poem reveals that she is part of the test intended to destroy this reputation, to prove it false. The Green Knight first came to that honest court at Morgana le Fay’s bidding in hopes that Guinevere would die of fright. The game was posed to subvert Camelot, and Gawain is the knight known for his courtly speech — his true word. This word lived out in real circumstances, not word only but deeds, this is what is being tested in the games.
The penultimate trial of Gawain’s word comes in the counsel from the porter of Bertilak’s castle. He brings Gawain to the Green Chapel but before he faces the Green Knight, he urges him to flee:
He kills as he chooses:
Fight without fear,
Gawain, but you’re bound to lose.
And so, good sir, leave him in peace,
In the name of God pick some different
Path! Ride wherever Christ takes you,
And I’ll hurry home, and I promise you, knight,
I swear by God and all His saints,
I’ll swear by any oath you ask,
That I’ll keep your secret, conceal this story
Forever, keep it from everyone on earth. (2115-2125)
I think we can safely assume the porter has no intention of keeping this oath. Or perhaps he would keep it, and think it acceptable to do so, to protect the reputation of the famous knight — his reputation for truth and daring — the very reputation he would not be worthy of if he excused himself from the game in secret.
In the end, the Green Knight is not just revealed to be Bertilak, lord of the mysterious castle, but also a man of this world (not one passionately in love with the world like St. Josemaria). Rather, the Green Knight is a man who judges on matter and courtly behavior but courtly behavior detached from the truth. The Green Knight is a man of appearances, not a man of truth; he does not strive for consistency between thought and deed but separates them and deceives. It is this man’s judgment that Gawain cannot trust. It is such a man’s judgment that no honest man can trust. Bertilak says Gawain passes the test (2347-2349); he even absolves him of his sin (2390-2395). What can absolution from such a man mean? What is truth to him? He reveals in the end:
I planned it all, to test you — and truly,
Not many better men have walked
This earth, been worth as much — like a pearl
To a pea compared to other knights.
You failed a little, lost good faith —
Not for a beautiful belt, or in lust,
But for love of your life. I can hardly blame you. (2362-2368)
This is the motive of which the Green Knight approves — life, material existence, extending that to him is worth breaking faith a little. But this is not Gawain’s standard, nor is it St. Thomas More’s or Socrates’ standard. Nor John the Baptist’s. And it is Our Lord who praises St. John in the Advent readings: “I tell you, among those born of women, no one is greater than John; yet the least in the Kingdom of God is greater than he” (Luke 7:28-29; see also Matthew 11:7-11). In the end, Gawain offers us an example of contemptus mundi — not a dour, sour-faced contempt for festivity, but a contempt for a “spirit” that claims that truth matters not. The world’s standard cannot be man’s. And Gawain quietly bears witness to this by returning home to Camelot and declining the invitation to the castle of the Wirral Forest where words are lies and traps meant to test the troth of the man reputed to be honest (2407-2409).
A Gift for the Reader
It seems in every age, the world is intrigued by the truth speaker, the courteous one, and would test if he means what he says, and if he will stand by his word when faced with the worst the world can threaten, even if only in sport. But the world is not a truth speaker. The world’s judgment cannot be trusted. While the world may promise to readily forgive a breach of faith to save a life (a promise we would be prudent to be suspicious of), Gawain repents of that very thing and has a nick in his neck to remind him of it. A Lenten penance for every season. We would be wise to follow his example in our Lenten practices. If we are honest with ourselves, in seeking consistency in thought and deed, we find great cause for humility. Going without that snack or remembering to smile as we greet our family at the end of a long day — these little efforts for the sake of love are often very difficult. Oftentimes, we are the only ones who know what the sacrifice is and the only ones who would know if we omitted it. It is at just such a time that we can remember Gawain and St. John, giving an honest effort, and when necessary, beginning again.