Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Sir Gawain and the Sin of Self-Preservation (LMM #3)

(By Unknown - http://gawain.ucalgary.ca, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=621711)

This is the third installment in my slow-to-develop “Literature for the Modern Mind” series. For an overview of what it’s all about, see here.

Lately I’ve been thinking about the role Catholic education plays in helping students understand the ways in which our Christian inheritance comes into conflict with the modern technocracy. My recent article on “St. Midas’ Prep” deals with this subject directly, and as I’ve thought about it more and more, I’ve come to conclude that everything at stake here can be boiled down to one essential question: Does the world exist for us, or do we exist for the world?

The modern world by default trains students to think of their academic pursuits largely in terms of self-interest: What’s my grade? What skills can I acquire? What will look good on my resume? How will this affect my earning potential? and so on. The Christian vision, on the other hand, remains tied to the cross, hung with the body of a man who, in that great paradox, gained everything by giving of himself. One work of literature which attempts to give shape to this paradox is Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, an Arthurian romance in which the title character must learn the virtue of true humility by submitting himself to a radical act of abnegation.

First, some context. The medieval chivalric romance is a familiar genre even to those who have never read a proper one, thanks to its narratives of knights in shining armor rescuing damsels in distress. In the English-speaking world, especially, the King Arthur stories and others of their type have permanently fixed themselves in our cultural architecture, though their inheritance is a mixed bag. The medieval genre paved the way for Harlequin paperbacks, trashy romances with some shirtless Fabio on the cover holding a long-haired lady with head thrown back. Yet comparing corporate smut to the medieval form is like comparing Christian-bookstore kitsch to the Chartres Cathedral. Though there were usually beautiful ladies involved in most of these stories, winning their affection or rescuing them served a higher goal. The real purpose of a knight’s quest was inner transformation, usually effected by the pursuit of noble ideals, and manifest in dragon-slaying, lady-winning, and confrontation of all kinds of evil.

Perhaps it’s easier to understand the genre by its most famous parody, Don Quixote. Written by Miguel de Cervantes at the turn of the 17th century, Quixote set out to make fun of the narratives of “knights-errant” (adventure-seeking knights), which by that time had become all the rage in the publishing industry. Most people can recall the premise of the story: an aging Spanish bachelor has read so many of these stories that he himself decides to become a knight, and saddles up an arthritic steed and goes off in search of adventures, with a roly-poly drunk by his side (Sancho Panza). Quixote creates adventures where there are none. Through his eyes, homely Spanish maids become beautiful women in peril, an inn becomes a high-walled castle, and, most famously, windmills turn into long-armed giants. Nearly all of the adventures end with some combination of Quixote, Panza, and Rocinante (the horse) bruised and humiliated, but Quixote remains undaunted, and they push on to yet another adventure (the complete book, published in two sections, runs to nearly 1000 pages).

Something strange happens over the course of the story: the audience, always laughing at Quixote, also starts to laugh with him. There’s a certain joy in him; a man so earnest and committed to his own imaginative vision is hard to dislike for long. Quixote’s apparent folly turns out to be his success. Though he fails at every point along his journey we realize that his real achievement lies not in his actions but in his way of seeing. His eyes are like those of a child; his imagination directs him to see the world as charged with meaning.

The resilience of Quixote the character, I think, speaks to the resilience of the chivalric romance itself. The genre, at its best, links inner and outer realities by suggesting that the only way for a knight to grow in spirit is to test himself in deed, to measure his actions against ideals that at times seem impossible.

The story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, written in the late 14th century, is the exemplar of this type. Though the story is perhaps the most anthologized of all the Arthurian legends, I imagine that most do not have its details close at hand, so allow me to provide a synopsis:

It all begins on New Year’s Eve in the court of King Arthur. The knights are deep into their wine and wassail, in celebration both of the New Year and the Christmas season (Dec 31st is the Seventh Day of Christmas). Before the dinner begins on this particular day of feasting, a large and imposing knight arrives and rides his horse into the hall. The rider and his horse are strange to behold, for they are both bright green in color. The knight holds a wood-cutter’s axe but neither carries a sword nor wears a suit of armor. He is not here to fight. Instead, he offers a challenge: one knight from the round table will get one swing at him, and then, in a year and a day, the Green Knight will return the favor.

King Arthur rises first to accept the challenge, then Gawain, his nephew, volunteers to take his place, proclaiming that his own unworthiness makes him more expendable than Arthur and so more fit to risk his life in this wager. As Marie Boroff translates it, Gawain holds the axe high and           
Brought it down deftly upon the bare neck,
That the shock of the sharp blow shivered the bones
And cut the flesh cleanly and clove it in twain,
That the blade of bright steel bit into the ground.
The head fell to the floor as the axe hewed it off 
The unthinkable then occurs: the Green Knight (what’s left of him, anyway) picks up his head calmly and holds it in his hand like a lantern before him. He remounts his horse, “as [if] he had met with no mishap, nor missing were / his head.” The head then speaks to Gawain, telling him to come seek him out in a place called the Green Chapel in one year and a day. The Green Knight rides off, leaving Gawain and the rest of the round table stunned.

Gawain’s quest really begins when he steps forward to offer himself in place of Arthur. It’s an act of self-sacrifice, for one, and also a display of faithfulness—to his uncle and lord and also to his own word, his own promise to hold up his end of the contest. The quest therefore, will test these virtues specifically. As he ventures out to find the Green Knight and face his own death, he will also search within himself to find the true measure of these virtues.

Later the following year, true to his word, he sets out to find the Green Chapel. On Christmas Eve he finds a house and is welcomed by its Lord, in the midst of a Christmas celebration. In the spirit of the season he and the Lord agree to an exchange of gifts: over the course of three days, the Lord will go out hunting and present Gawain with what he kills; Gawain must in return give the Lord whatever he receives at the castle that day. The Lord happens to have a young, lusty wife, who does her best to seduce Gawain. She enters his bedroom scantily clad each morning, wondering aloud how she will pass the time with her husband away all day on the hunt. Gawain resists her advances with the grace of an esteemed knight. Out of courtesy he exchanges kisses with her, which he then gives to the Lord at the end of each day (the Lord smiles and laughs when he receives the kisses). On the last day, Gawain receives from the lady a magical green girdle, which protects the wearer from harm, thinking that it will be useful when he meets the Green Knight. In order to wear it out of the castle, he does not give it to the Lord, thereby breaking his promise.

Armed with his special protection, Gawain finds the Green Chapel on New Year’s Day one year and a day after the Green Knight’s challenge. The knight has just finished sharpening his axe blade, and is ready to return Gawain’s stroke. Gawain bares his neck for the Green Knight, but flinches when the knight raises the axe. The knight chastises him, and Gawain gathers his courage. The knight then feints a blow, to test him, and then Gawain grows angry, and chastises the knight. The third time is for real:
He gathered up the grim ax and guided it well:
Let the barb at the blade’s end brush the bare throat;
He hammered down hard, yet harmed him no whit
Save a scratch on one side, that severed the skin;
The end of the hooked edge entered the flesh,
And a little blood lightly leapt to the earth.
Gawain, largely unharmed, sees his own blood spurt onto the white snow, springs up and grabs his weapon, his part of the bargain fulfilled. The Green Knight laughs and explains that he himself was the lord of the castle, and his wife was the one who tempted Gawain. The two feigned blows were a fair exchange, he explains, for the two mornings Gawain kissed his wife; the third cut was for breaking the terms of the bet by not giving the lord the green girdle. The knight explains:
Yet you lacked, sir, a little in loyalty there,
Bu the cause was not cunning, nor courtship either,
But that you loved your own life; the less, then, to blame.
For this little fault, for not exchanging the girdle in an attempt to preserve his own life, Gawain receives a small cut whose scar, along with the girdle, he will wear as a reminder of his failure on this quest. He returns to Camelot ashamed, but to his surprise Arthur and the knights greet him with joy, and, “with gay laughter and gracious content,” the court decides all of Arthur’s knights shall wear a green girdle for Gawain’s sake.

As I said way back at the beginning of this post, this story hinges on the central Christian paradox of giving up one’s life in order to save it. The Christmas season is where I begin when trying to explain this to my students.

It’s difficult for a modern reader to fathom just how oriented the medieval worldview was towards the vertical. They were constantly reminded of the Christian mysteries in the feasts on the calendar and the cycles of nature. We have a hard time remembering now that the Christmas season begins, rather than ends, on December 25, and we immediately identify December 31st as New Year’s Eve before we associate it with the Christmas feast. But it is significant that the Green Knight arrives during the twelve-day-long bash of Christmas celebration. He is appropriately dressed for the party in the everlasting color of life—not just green, but “bright green,” the color of spring tubers and new growth. When his head is hacked off the poet makes no mistake to tell us that his blood flowed in perfect Christmas color scheme—“the blood gushed from the body, bright on the green.” This linking of death and new life (of course, the ever-green knight cannot be killed) is precisely why Christmas colors are red and green, for the holiday celebrates the joining of the opposites of life and death. The infant, safe from the cold in a manger where he was warmed by the cow’s breath and his mother’s milk, has come into the world only for the purpose of dying by being fixed with iron nails to the hard wood on a rock outcrop called the skull. Christ the person embraced these opposites for the purpose of defeating them, by showing them to be, through his Resurrection, in the end, unopposed. The Green Knight’s challenge to Gawain serves as an invitation into this mystery, the starting point of a quest that will lead him into some deeper understanding of this paradox.

Gawain does pretty well in his quest until he stumbles on the problem of the girdle. He resists the lady’s advances valiantly, but when she offers him the magical garment on the evening before he sets out to face his death, he can’t refuse. Who could blame him for taking the one thing which was supposed to provide him with immunity from harm?

When one practices a faith which holds up, as an exemplar of love, a lifeless body on a cross, self-preservation is a foundational sin. This does not mean it is not natural. On the contrary, as Darwin made clear, staying alive is the most natural instinct we have. This also does not mean that self-preservation is not understandable. But it does mean that it moves us in the opposite direction from love. Gawain, full of shame after realizing his mistake, speaks of keeping the girdle as a reminder of his error:
But a sign of excess it shall seem oftentimes
When I ride in renown, and remember with shame
The faults and the frailty of the flesh perverse
How its tenderness entices the foul taint of sin;
How can sin come from “tenderness,” from the instinct we have to protect ourselves and soothe our wounds? Isn’t this an unreasonable definition of sin? Not for a knight whose actions are measured by certain ideals, no matter how lofty or unachievable. By accepting the Green Knight’s challenge, Gawain pledges to pursue the quest to the end, and it is clear that it invites him deeper into the Christian paradox: that it is Christ’s death, and Christ’s death only, that gives us life. For Gawain to experience the bright green of the knight he also must experience the red—he must give up his life, without flinching or protection.

That is, in order to succeed he must fail in the eyes of the world and human instinct.

One crucially important detail of the story escapes most modern readers, including myself the first several times I taught it. The final encounter with the Green Knight occurs on January 1st, which is both New Year’s Day and the Eighth Day of Christmas. Up until the 20th century, this day was also celebrated as the Feast of the Circumcision of the Lord—now in the Catholic Church it’s celebrated as the Feast of Mary, Mother of God (which after a little Googling I discovered was what the feast was called in the earliest days of the Roman Church as well). For most of the last millennium, and for the Gawain poet and all of his or her original readers, January 1st would have been associated with the circumcision of Christ, which according to Jewish law, took place eight days after his birth.

In this context, Gawain’s slash on the neck takes on new significance. The poet carefully describes the cut as one that “severed the skin” as “the end of the hooked edge entered the flesh, / And a little blood lightly leapt to the earth.” The Green Knight might as well be a moyel. Gawain’s mock beheading is a kind of circumcision, not of the usual organ but closer to what Deuteronomy (and later St. Paul) calls the “circumcision of the heart”: “circumcise the foreskin of your heart, and do not be stiff-necked any longer” (Dt 10:16). Gawain will bear his scar as the Jews bore the mark of circumcision as the sign of their covenant. When he arrives at Camelot after his journey, he shows Arthur the girdle, and calls it the “blazon of the blemish that I bear on my neck.” Both the scar and the girdle are reminders of his sin of not being open to love—of having an uncircumcised heart. The sin is small—certainly understandable—but it brings him shame no less.

The contrast between Gawain’s dejection and Arthur’s joy is striking and significant. It speaks, I think, to the inevitability of Gawain’s sin, despite the guilt it brings him. Arthur and his court accept the symbol of the girdle with “gay laughter and gracious intent” and the whole incident folds into the twelve-day-long Christmas feast. Joy, then, is the proper response to Gawain’s (and our) inability to give of ourselves in the way that Christian love demands. Joy is the emotion proper to commemorate the birth of a child who will one day die. Joy is necessary to accompany us, like Gawain, on our quest not just to understand but to enter into the Christian paradox of gaining by giving.

I think it's no coincidence that you'll find an unbreakable joy at the heart of the chivalric romance, a joy so strong that even a parody of the genre like Don Quixote turns into a kind of unwitting homage. A quest narrative—that is, a story of going out in order to be transformed within—begins in the hope that the world has something to teach us, and that we are built for its order, not the other way around. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight presents this vision better than any romance I know, and can serve as a guidepost for students who are wandering in our modern fog. The world trains them to think that they are built for achievement, whereas in truth, like Gawain, they—we—are built to experience the deeper joy of fulfillment.

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