I’ve reread Gawain & The Green Knight this week for the first time in probably 18 years. If you’re not familiar with this work, it is a lengthy poem with 101 stanzas (2532 lines) that was originally written in Middle English by no one knows who somewhere around the 14th century… we think. While I found the work to be literarily intriguing as an example of work in a time period that is contemporary to Chaucer and while I understood the surface of the story back then, I’m surprised at the depth I see now to the tale that was lost on me before.
I chalk it up to a lifetime of experience and the serendipitous happenstance of my present life’s situation.
As the story opens, we are introduced to King Arthur (yes, the one married to Guinivere) and many of the knights of the round table as they feasted on New Year’s Day, among them his handsome and strong yet virtuous nephew Gawain. This tale is a prime example of chilvalric romance and knightly honor.
Now, I know that many among us now believe chivalry is better off dead because it represents to them some misogynistic and chauvinistic era of the past where women were treated only as property and were likely the victim of every man in one form or another who chose to be anything less than upright and enlightened (by today’s standards). I’d like to say that this is not quite what happens here so don’t just disappear on me, I have a point.
Chivalry is about more than opening a door for a lady and chivalric romance as a genre is about more than love:
It’s about a hero who goes on an epic quest against all odds, defeating internal and external foes, and finally at the end earning the favor of a lady, God, or both by behaving with honor.
Chivalry is about honor and living by a certain moral code. Men who lived by the code of chivalry were expected to be men of war and there was strong emphasis on having the brute strength and tenacity to defeat the enemy in battle or hand to hand combat, but all that aggression was supposed to be tempered on the homefront with chivalric graces. Another epic poem, The Song of Roland (written at the end of the 11th century), tells of the 17 codes a chivalrous knight named Roland lived by that others who wish to be as honorable must also swear to and abide by:
To fear God and maintain His Church
To serve the liege lord (commander) in valor and in faith
To protect the weak and defenceless
To give aid to widows and orphans
To refrain from the uncontrollably giving of offense
To live by honor and for glory
To despise payment for doing what is right (right is its own reward)
To fight (physically or socially) for the well-being of all
To obey those placed in authority
To guard the honor of fellow knights (warriors, soldiers)
To avoid unfairness, meanness, and deceit
To keep faith
At all times to speak the truth
To persevere to the end in any enterprise begun
To respect the honor of women
Never to refuse a challenge from an equal
Only those entries that are bold have only to do with being a warrior in battle, the rest have to do with life off the battlefield as well. In the 14th century the Duke of Burgundy simplified it even further:
Never to turn the back upon a foe
In this list, only valor has a direct application to war and the rest have to do with the character by which a man was expected to live when he was at war but also when he was not at war.
Gawain as a hero would have been thought to be the ultimate hero in living by that code in every area of his life, in perfect faith to God, and even in keeping himself chaste and sinless.
He is in no way any more than what is hoped for in any warrior in any time as being the best in all ways, on and off the battlefield.
I would argue he is exactly what we expect the best warriors of our modern times to be with only the exception to the belief in complete chastity.
And why not? He’s the hero!
So as Arthur and all his honorable men were making merry, a giant green knight rode into the castle on a giant green horse and issued the kind of challenge no chivalrous knight can refuse:
If Arthur is as brave as his fame, in the name of this Christmas season you’ll grant me the sport I’ve come for…
…No, not fighting… These benches are filled with beardless infants.
…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.
Honestly, I’ve known a few warriors in my years on this earth and I don’t know that I could name one who when surrounded by a dozen or more of his best mates wouldn’t wink, grin, and step up to go blow for blow with a bully just because he can. So what do the heroic knights of the round table and Arthur do?
Anyone with the nerve to try it, take this axe, here! Hurry, I’m waiting!
They said and did nothing until the green knight called them cowardly. Only then did Arthur step up the the plate, ready to play that deadly game with the monster, and only when Gawain saw the danger his uncle, the king, was in does he accept the knight’s challenge. Gawain swung the giant green battle axe at the knight and cut his head off which, after rolling and being kicked a little by the other honorable knights of the round table, is picked up by the the big green body with a bleeding stump of a neck before a reminder is spoken by the severed Green Knight’s head that next Christmas Gawain had to sit as honorably still for the Green Knight to give him the same. How do all the knight respond? Laughter and more drinking, of course.
Bro code and man-cards existed even in the 14th century… Apparently.
After most of the next year flew by, Gawain eventually headed out on his quest to locate the home of that ghastly Green Knight to do what he vowed to do because that is what it meant to have honor:
Death before dishonor.
Again, this is exactly what we expect the best of our men (and women) of war to epitomize. The best of them are eulogized drunk to on any given night of the week whether they yet live or not. Even the worst of them are honored when they come home, when they retire, and when they are wounded and survive because of the person they were in that 15 minute firefight.
We call them heroes because of those 15 short minutes among all the minutes of their lives.
Gawain fought dragons along the way, of course, and ogres and trolls. He rode through dangerous wilderness and awful winter weather, camped alone in the frozen cold, unable to even remove his armor for fear of attack from the things that go bump in the night, and he went on day after day alone because he had a foe to face.
The patriotic among us are likely now reviewing the mental images we have of modern men of war, dirt covered, exhausted, full battle rattle, leaning up against a mud wall somewhere over there. Bonus points if some moving song is playing inside your head at this point too, like Riding with Private Malone or American Soldier.
And when he was at his weakest, Gawain finally prayed for that which would give him strength to make it through the rest of his journey: the chance to go to church on Christmas Day to celebrate Christ’a birth! The answer to that prayer was even better than just that:
Gawain stumble across a beautiful, perfect, white castle inhabited by a strong knightly lord, his obscenely beautiful wife, and a plethora of other folk who are completely unimportant except in that they show this is a large place with much wealth and many inhabitants.
Gawain asked to go to church and they welcomed him into their home for the remainder of the week leading up to his appointment with death. They went to church on Christmas Eve and again on Christmas Day before everyone got completely drunk and ate far too much and all while the obscenely beautiful lady paid more attention than was necessary to Gawain. Then before bed on Christmas, the lord proposed a bargain that would allow Gawain to rest warmly and be well fed while still honoring the lord and his wife with his company:
…Lie in your bed, high in this house, till mass is sung tomorrow, and eat when you please, and with my wife: she’ll keep you company, amuse you until I make my way home. I’ll rise at dawn and spend the day with my hounds.
Harmless. Sleep late. Eat food. Keep my wife company while I hunt. I’ll give you whatever quarry I kill.
So the first day came and the lord left early to hunt all the deer as his lovely wife made her way in secret to Gawain’s bed.
Now before I go any further, I’d like to remind you of that list I shared up yonder where it says that it is chivalrous to respect the honor of women. If a man swears an oath to do whatever a lady requests, he must honor that oath.
… And more: we too can make a bargain: whatever I earn in the woods will be yours, whatever you win will be mine in exchange. Shall we swap our day’s work, Gawain?
Gawain had made an oath to be the lady’s servant — her wish was his command. And this lady was commanding Gawain to sleep with her.
While the lord was off hunting, the lady came to Gawain’s bed and laid upon it with him, offering her everything, threatening to tie him up and have her way, asking for his love and attention. When the lord gave him the deer he had killed on the first day, Gawain gave him one short kiss on the cheek for the long kiss on the lips he had had with the lady. When the lord gave Gawain the boar he killed on the second day, he gave the lord two short kisses for the two long kisses he had enjoyed. When the lord came back on the third day and handed Gawain the skin of the fox he had quarried, Gawain gave him three short kisses for the three long, passionate kisses that almost broke his willpower… but he didn’t give the lord the one other thing he had been given:
A magic green belt that would render the wearer safe from death, a final parting gift from the lady that Gawain could not refuse for it offered him the chance to save his skin.
He would not reveal it, dishonoring the lord, because it would dishonor the lady to do so while removing his one hope of survival in the challenge he still had before him.
I won’t tell you what happens in the end because I really think you should enjoy that challenge on your own but also because for the purpose of this prose it doesn’t really matter how the tale turned out because the whole of this story comes down to this:
Honor, character, and truth are not found in words, in weaponry, in oaths, in awards given, in treasures earned, or in action taken on the battlefield, be it literal or metaphoric.
Honor, character, and truth are evident when acting with character, speaking the truth (your truth), and behaving honorably OFF the battlefield.
What good is it to do well at work when you do poorly in your home?
What does it matter what your friends and coworkers say about you when you have no relationship with your spouse and children?
What difference does the car you drive make when you’re dead or dying inside?
What does any of that other stuff matter when your actions are less that honorable and show no character?
Someone once told me that it was the actionable words that were most important in some military motto whose translation we were discussing.
Whatever you please will please your servant here: I surrender at once, I beg for mercy – the best I can hope for now.
The actionable words.
We as a society have always defined heroes by their prowess in battle and success by the fruits of one’s labors at work, but the entire point of Gawain is that what happens on the battlefield is not what defines the honor and character of the hero.
What makes one honorable is not the number of dragons slewed but rather whether one will stand up to the real challenges of life that expose his character,
whether he will speak up when even those around them are being less than honorable in their everyday lives,
whether he will choose to act on those exalted virtues every day at home.
Does it really matter how many dragons and ogres, bears and wild beasts, or enemies you’ve felled on the battlefield of your life when you cannot or will not find peace, honor, truth, and character in the home you’re supposed to be protecting?
Honor, character, and all those noble virtues are not defined by your action on the battlefield because acting right in battle can be trained into automaticity in which case it is not the character that shows but the training.
It is your choices at home that count toward your honor and your character, including the action of speaking up or staying silent when you see one of your own acting outside of that which is right.
It is your actions off the battlefield that decide whether your character is worthy and whether you hold honor.
It is action on the homefront, behind closed doors when there are no glories to be won, that truly defines the hero.
Do you protect the weak and defenseless?
Are you friend to the friendless?
Do you give aid to those in need whether in time, in goods and services, or in constant encouragement?
Do you speak and act in such a way as to not be thought of as offensive?
Do you live by honor and for glory?
Do you stand up for the well-being of all even when it is unpopular to do so or may have an adverse impact on your life?
Do you speak encouragement at every opportunity?
And do you speak up when you see wrong being done?
Do you guard the reputation of your friends above truth and what is right, or do you guard their honor by challenging them when they are wrong?
Do you speak the truth and speak your truth at all times, or are you silent?
Do you persevere to the end in any enterprise begun or do you peter off and disappear?
Do you respect the honor of women?
Once when I was young, I read this poem and thought the ideal character in the heroes of life would be found in those who were the proverbial warriors.
Then I grew up and I saw that one can do all things honorable in the battlefields of life but still not be worthy of the word honor.
I’ve seen those who were supposed to be the brightest and best stoop to horrible lows.
I’ve seen otherwise good people stand by and do nothing when they witnessed or knew of something terrible done to the weak and defenseless.
And I’ve seen good people suffer in unhappy and unhealthy situations in the name of Honor and Duty because of an ideal that says that the only right action is to keep their word even when that right is wrong.
I learned from life, not from books or beautiful songs, that those who really are heroic are not those who fight so furiously in the battles in their lives but those who epitomize those honorable traits at home when there is no battle to fight at all except the fight with the flaws within.