January 13, 2014, by Nicola Royan
Gawain’s New Year trials
Many of us will have ‘enjoyed’ Christmas games over the holiday. Some of these will have become family traditions, others will have arrived on Christmas Day, and in the process of playing them, there’s a fair chance that the players will have discovered something about themselves and about the other players. No matter how tensely fought the game of Risk, or the hatred of capitalism engendered by Monopoly, however, the ‘Christmas gomen’ presented to Sir Gawain by the Green Knight on New Year’s Day still seems a more dangerous activity.
In many of the Arthurian narratives, the king cannot sit down to eat with the Round Table until some marvel has presented itself. This is evident throughout Malory’s Morte Darthur, but can be found in earlier texts, including Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. In this 14th C anonymous poem, Arthur’s court is in its youth, Arthur himself is childgered (childlike or childish, depending on your interpretation), and the atmosphere – until the Green Knight’s arrival – is one of joy and festivity. The Green Knight challenges the court’s view of itself, and threatens its survival – all wrapped up in the game he offers. This game is to allow a knight to slice off his head, on the promise that the same knight will travel to the Green Chapel a year later to offer his head for the taking. Like many Christmas dares, this proves impossible to dodge; Gawain’s skill rests in taking it off Arthur, thereby ensuring Camelot’s survival at quite possibly the cost of his own.
However, in assuming that the challenge is largely about physical courage and strength – what generally comes under the heading of prowess – and that is the one fundamental to his knighthood and identity, Gawain proves to be mistaken. On his way to find the Green Chapel a year later, he finds lodging in Castle Hautdesert, and participates in another Christmas game. This time, he undertakes to exchange with the lord of the castle everything they gain during the day, while the lord goes hunting and Gawain remains inside, preserving his strength for his encounter with the Green Knight. This bond appears much less threatening, but it is in fact the one in which Gawain proves his true identity, as chaste, faithful, and courteous. It is also the one he fails. When his failure is discovered by the Green Knight, Gawain is devastated, because he is not perfect; Arthur’s court is delighted because he has achieved so much.
I always think about Sir Gawain and the Green Knight at New Year, particularly its refusal to see Gawain’s education in any one light. Notions of perfection, perfectibility and general improvement are rife at this time of year: Gawain suggests humanely that even if perfection isn’t possible, then trying for it is not necessarily a bad thing. Even here, I realise that I cannot distil the richness of this fabulous poem (now more easily accessible in Simon Armitage’s translation) into a blog post; I can however try to entice you to read it.