One of the most delightful mid-14th century works is a mock romance called Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. In it, Sir Gawain steps in to support King Arthur when a strange Green Knight disrupts Christmas at the Round Table and challenges the knights to a head-chopping contest. When Arthur hesitates, Gawain gathers his noble courage, steps up, and chops first. Although now headless, the Green Knight is unharmed. He picks up his head, gives Gawain a year and a day to come find him at his castle so he can chop Gawain’s neck, and rides off on his green horse.
When the year rolls around, noble Gawain gathers his noble knightly valor, his favorite horse, and some pretty fancy armor, including a shield with a pentangle on the outside and an image of the Virgin Mary facing him. The points of the pentangle represent knightly virtues and are associated with five joys in the life of the Virgin Mary. The pentangle is also a womb symbol. Off he goes to honor his promise. It’s cold. He weeps, he suffers, and he prays, and eventually he comes to a castle, whose robust and sanguine lord offers him succor before Gawain must go to have his head chopped off in a game. During his three days there, the lord hunts, while his lady hunts Gawain.
The events of the hunt are intercut to parallel the lady’s attempts to seduce Gawain. But Gawain is stalwart, and craftily walks the line between refusal and insult, as he parries her advances. He resists temptation. Or so he thinks. On the third day, she offers him her green girdle, saying it will protect him from any injury. He hesitates, but takes it, and lies to the lord of the castle when asked if he took any gifts from his wife. In a reveal that surprises no one but Gawain, this lord turns out to be the Green Knight.
He takes two practice swipes with the ax, and on the third swipe, nicks him for his small sin. Instead of being really happy about this, Gawain cannot get over himself and his shame. When he gets home, the other knights tease him. Was this all a set-up?
This is another text that is wonderful for guided reading. If you examine this superb tongue-in-cheek story, told from the perspective of innocent Gawain, with an impressively muted satirical tone, you find that Gawain’s “sin” seems to be a peculiarly male one consisting of a seriously misplaced sense of honor and hubris. Did the Virgin Mary and the lady of the castle save him? By offering him a way out with symbols pointing to the womb, they remind him that no life should be sacrificed to a vanity contest. In fact, the preservation of human life is a main teaching of Christianity, Islam and Judaism. Of course Gawain doesn’t get it, even in the end. Which is why, perhaps, women should rule.
As a writing assignment to analyze author’s intent and tone, students can critically examine scenes where Gawain’s over-developed sense of male honor, lust, and loyalty get in the way of his brains. How does the text seem to mock warrior culture?