Lessons and Carols: Sir Gawain, a Green Knight, and Us

December 16, 2019 Updated: December 16, 2019

Many of us approach the holiday festivities with high expectations, rose-colored visions of the pleasures the festivities might afford us.

Those who celebrate Christmas, for example, imagine parties with friends, a fir glowing with lights and ornaments, a hillock of presents beneath the boughs, a meal shared around a table laden with traditional holiday foods, a family gathering to watch “It’s a Wonderful Life” or to listen to Christmas music. In the mind’s eye, we paint a picture of our Christmas celebration worthy of the brush and palette of Norman Rockwell.

In reality, of course, things often go awry. The cat knocks a family heirloom from the tree and breaks it beyond repair; Johnny throws an hours-long tantrum when the toddler pitches his new race car down the basement stairs; your visiting niece, a college student, spends the dinner lecturing you and her parents about the glories of socialism; a power outage on Christmas Day sends everyone to an early bed, with you and your spouse feeling as if you’ve been hit by a bus rather than blessed by a birth.

A Long-Ago Yule Offers Revelry

Take heart. If we really want a look at a Christmas where the celebration took an unexpected turn for the worse, we have only to hop aboard that time machine known as literature, head back to the Middle Ages, and visit the court of King Arthur during a fortnight of festivities.

In the opening of “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” written by that most prolific of authors, “Anonymous,” the king, his good knights, and the royal court’s glamorous ladies have gathered for Christmas. Just for fun, let’s first step into the past with four lines as originally written in this Yuletide tale:

This kyng lay at Camylot upon Krystemass
With mony luflych lorde, ledes of the best,
Rekenly of the Rounde Table alle tho rich brether,
With rych revel oryght and rechles merthes.

Which is rendered in modern English by writer Simon Armitage as:

It was Christmas at Camelot—King Arthur’s court,
where the great and the good of the land had gathered,
all the righteous lords of the ranks of the Round Table
quite properly carousing and reveling in pleasure.

From Idylls of the king, Sir Gawain
Medieval merrymaking at Christmas. A detail from “Every two had dishes twelve” from “Idylls of the King,” 1898, by George Woolliscroft Rhead and Louis Rhead. The British Library. (Public Domain)

In Arthur’s court, bejeweled, as Armitage puts it, by “the most chivalrous and courteous knights known to Christendom/the most wonderful women to have walked in this world,” the feasting and festivities resemble our own. With the exception of political disagreements, we no longer joust as those knights did with “leveled lances,” but we still hope to have our homes “lit with happiness” and our visitors and family to be “luminous with joy.” Just like today, bountiful banquets mark Christmas and Christmastide in Arthur’s court, and “Noel” rings through the king’s hall as it does through our churches. On New Year’s, the knights present gifts to the ladies, and the banquet following that ceremony brings “flavorsome delicacies of flesh” and “the freshest of foods.”

Enter a Stranger

These descriptions end with the arrival of the mysterious Green Knight. He challenges any of Arthur’s knights to strike him with an ax if that same knight will take a return blow from the Green Knight in a year and a day.

Goaded by the stranger’s taunts and fearing that Arthur himself will throw down his glove, Sir Gawain elects to swing the ax, whacks off the Green Knight’s head, and like everyone else, is shocked beyond belief when the intruder remains on his feet. The Green Knight picks up the head and mounts his horse, and the head speaks, reminding Sir Gawain that he must keep his part of the bargain and meet him at the Green Chapel “just as January dawns” for his own test of courage.

The following year, after a long journey and many adventures, Gawain arrives at the castle of Bertilak de Hautdesert on his way to the Green Chapel. Bertilak assures Gawain that he is within an easy ride of the chapel and invites him to spend Christmas in his castle. Once again we are treated to a medieval Yule, where “banquets and buffets were beautifully cooked,” where “they drank and danced all day and the next,” and where “There was feasting, there was fun, and such feelings of joy/as could not be conveyed by quick description.”

The Bargain and the Green Chapel

Bertilak plans three days of hunting, but enjoins the travel-weary Gawain to rest and recover his strength at the castle. He then strikes a bargain with the knight, pledging to give him what he brings back from the hunt for whatever Gawain gains while in the castle.

“Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” from original manuscript, circa 14th century. (Public Domain)

When he returns, Bertilak gives Gawain venison and Gawain gives him in return a kiss, delivered to him by Bertilak’s seductive wife, though Gawain keeps her identity a secret. The following day, two kisses are exchanged for a boar. On the third day, Gawain bestows on Lord Bertilak three kisses for a fox, but he conceals the additional gift of a magic green belt, which can keep him from harm, given to him by Lady Bertilak.

When Gawain arrives at the appointed time at the Green Chapel, the Green Knight appears, tests the knight’s fortitude three times with swings of the ax, allowing only the third to scratch Gawain’s neck. He then reveals himself as Bertilak, and accuses Sir Gawain of failing to honor their bargain by not telling the truth about Lady Bertilak’s gift of the belt, hence the cut of the ax on the third swing.

The two part as friends, but the shamed Gawain returns to Arthur’s court and vows to wear the green girdle till his death, a sign of being “tainted by untruth.” All the other knights then decide to honor Gawain by wearing such a belt as a sign of solidarity and a reminder always to be honest.

The first page of only surviving manuscript of “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” anonymous, circa 14th century. (Public Domain)

Lessons for Us

So what can we moderns take from this bizarre Christmas tale?

Besides the delight we may discover in stepping into a world so different from our own, we find in that distant past a reverence for truth and for the four cardinal virtues—prudence, justice, temperance, and courage—as well as for the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity. Yes, “Sir Garwain and the Green Knight” is fiction, a poem to entertain and educate a medieval audience, but it reminds us, as it did those knights and ladies of so long ago, that we, like Sir Gawain, can honor and practice these virtues.

Moreover, the poem celebrates festivity and revelry. The nannies of our age—politicians, certain commentators and bloggers, environmental activists, and some ministers—decry Christmas as too commercial. Though I agree to an extent (Black Friday riots at Walmart boggle my imagination, and I avoid chain stores and malls in December), part of our commercial bent has to do with the exuberance of the season. Like the knights and ladies of King Arthur’s court, we derive great pleasure from celebrating a season of light in the dark of winter.

The lords and ladies of “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” relish the good cheer of Christmas, and their example should keep at bay those who wish to make our own holidays as dour and gray as the winter landscape.

So raise a glass, be of good cheer, and in a spirit of tradition link hands with those long-ago revelers.

Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C., Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.