Derek Tillotson

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Lately, I’ve been on a kick where I’ve been reading more classics of western literature. The most recent piece I finished was the 14th century English tale Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (the J.R.R. Tolkien translation). I had a basic familiarity with Arthurian legend going into the tale–Camelot, Merlin, the Round Table, etc. Yet I quickly realized that I didn’t need much background, other than knowing a bit about knights and the middle ages.

The other thing I quickly realized was: It is a very Catholic story.

(Be forewarned, I’m going to spoil a story you’ve had centuries to read)

There’s a chance that Tolkien, a devout Catholic, may have added a coat of Catholic paint. But at the time of the story’s writing, the protestant reformation and the Church of England were a a few hundred years off and the predominant religion in western Europe was Christianity–specifically Catholicism. Tolkien may or may not have done some touch-ups, but I doubt he did a full coat.

A lot of the Christian imagery is obvious: Attending Mass, confession of sins, and comparisons to Biblical figures like Solomon and Samson. It’s easy to pick up on those things as long as you know the basics of the religion, but Sir Gawain marked a first for me: It was the first time I happened to stumble across significantly deeper meanings and parallels while reading the story. I don’t know if that’s because I’m getting more well-read, deeper in my faith, or just smarter over time.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve seen themes in literature before. That’s obviously a key aspect to reading–especially the classics. And even poorly-written modern literature will have some sort of themes on display. Great American novels like Huckleberry Finn and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz are treasure troves of great themes, like the value of community, the yearning to go home, and a sense of adventure.

But Sir Gawain hit me on a different level with deeper meaning. The story has its recurring themes, such as chivalry and chastity, but the deeper meaning of the tale comes at and after the climax of the story.

At the beginning of the story, Sir Gawain chops off the head of the Green Knight with the understanding that the Green Knight will repay the favor in a year. A year later, on his way to the Green Knight’s lair, Sir Gawain comes across a manor and stays with its lord, lady, and other individuals. Before the lord of the manor goes out for his daily hunt, he and Sir Gawain agree to trade whatever they win in each day. While her husband is out, the lady of the manor attempts to seduce Sir Gawain, to no avail. On the final day, she convinces Sir Gawain to take her girdle, claiming it could save him from death. Gawain breaks his end of the deal and does not award this “prize” to the lord of the house.

In the end, after reaching the Green Knight (who turns out to be the lord of the manor), the knight spares Sir Gawain’s life, his attack on Gawain’s head resulting in nothing more than a simple scratch.

That action, and the rest of the story from there, is what turned Sir Gawain and the Green Knight from a beautifully-written story of a honorable knight facing his own death into a deep tale about our sins, forgiveness, and penance.

Sir Gawain’s head should have been taken. His life should have been forfeit. The Green Knight should have taken Gawain’s head, as per their agreement to trade blows with the axe. The lord of the manor should have taken Gawain’s head due to Gawain lying about his prize from the trading game. But the Green Knight, standing in as a God figure, forgives Sir Gawain, knowing that most men in his situation would also do what they could to keep their life, even if they had to lie to do so. That did not mean lying was not a sin–it was and Sir Gawain paid for it with a cut on his neck–but if God immediately put us to death for committing sins, humanity would have never made it out of Eden, let alone to 2022 A.D.

Sir Gawain has his sin forgiven, rejects the other gifts offered to him, and chooses to keep the girdle, wearing it over his shoulder as a badge of shame.

There is a lot more that could be looked at, especially coming from a Christian perspective. I’m not convinced that I’m smart enough to break it all down myself, but I’m sure there are plenty of others who have done so far better than I could.

However, the biggest takeaway I had from Sir Gawain is that I don’t believe I would have enjoyed the tale nearly as much if I hadn’t immediately caught the specifics of Christianity, the church, and penance. When you catch the clearly-intended deeper meaning to a story, there is an extra level of satisfaction that comes with it.

This, of course, is in contrast to developing your own deeper meanings to a story. A major example was people misreading Lord of the Rings as being an allegory for World War II. But that leads into a whole discussion about eisegesis that I’m just not ready for.