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.
The gaming strategies of Gawain can be compared with those available on various e-platforms of today, proving that the challenge is irresistible to human nature.
While the tale of Gawain is restricted to the folkloric three challenges of increasing difficulty (those encountered during his stay at Castle Hautdesert; and his host’s whilst out hunting), the modern game player is faced with innumerable levels of challenge. Only the success of one will reveal the challenge of the next, more difficult, conquest. And for Gawain, his host, and modern gamer, the next challenge is a venture into the unknown, albeit along similar lines from the previous.
Players of Angry Birds, Zombies-v-Plants, Plague Inc. et al will be familiar with this concept: the player knows, roughly, what actions are available, but certain strategies must be put into place for each level where the unknown requires a new line of thought to combat the ‘other’. Gawain was under similar duress – he had a good idea of what was required of him, as a representative of Arthur’s court, as a knight in his own right, and under the overall morality of a Christianised society. However, he falls short at one point, losing a ‘life’.
The gamer understands the rules of her game, but has the advantage of being able to play again. However, this perhaps only really concerns the electronic nature of these games. Our conduct in the real world cannot be subject to replay, and we interact as such, with hindsight, apology, or otherwise.
In summary, human nature has not changed – some people are far more likely to take up a challenge. More are likely to play games where their actual lives are not at stake; a very few are likely to become a true adventurer, exploring the world and entering into the unknown. And that’s just the way we are as a global society.
What will always remain curious is how the anonymous author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight would have dealt with inflicting angry, exploding birds onto helmeted pigs, or causing worldwide destruction via necroa virus. Somehow, I think we have gone a little astray.
Bertilak is a Purlieu-man hunting in a high forest, haut desert. It was in the dense high forest of oak, ‘a hundred together’ where deer and wild boar would congregate, they were browsers and not grazers of open grassland. The Cistercians referred to these wooded areas as ‘desert’. The ‘wilderness’ was also a term for the wild uncultivated forest under forest law. When a forest was disafforested it was no longer ‘wilderness’, it was then cultivated land. The Gawain poet is describing Wirral no later than 1376, in this year it was disafforested by order of the Black Prince.
If you read Manwood’s forest laws, you will see that purlieu-men/hunters could only hunt for three days a week. As with Bertilak too, they could only hunt with their own men/servants and only from the rising of the sun until the setting of the same.
There is a lot of historical detail in the poem if you look for it.