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Book Report: Sir Gawain e il Cavaliere Verde

I was at the airport with some time to kill and so, as intended by the designers of the airport, I found myself wandering around the airport bookstore. My eyes, groggy as they were, managed to catch the words "JRR Tolkien" quickly followed by "Sir Gawain", and my next two months of reading were decided.

The Green Kinght would be a contender to appear in my list of top movies of all time. It was fresh, dark, weird, beautiful. It was a movie I had to watch multiple times to feel like I got what there was to get. Behind the superficial story of a juvenile knight being sent on a quest to face his certain death I found an overarching theme of humility and reverence of nature. It's a compelling and challenging movie. I'd wanted to read the book (poem? epic? odyssey???) at some point, and now here it was, staring at me.

You may have noticed that the title of this post is not really in English. I have been living in Italy for almost two years, and was at an Italian airport, and so the book on sale was actually a side-by-side printing of Tolkien's translation of the original 14th century manuscript on the left, and an italian translation of that on the right. A great exercise for someone learning a language.

The book also comes with the stories of The Pearl and Sir Orfeo, also translated by Tolkien. I loved Sir Orfeo, but I did not finish The Pearl. More on those later.

More than anything this book was very challenging for me on a basic comprehension level. The english side of things, while not old english, certainly doesn't resemble modern english, and I found myself frequently lost in a sentence or an unfamiliar word. Do you know what a "chine" is? I don't know what a "chine" is. The italian side is written in a similarly antiquated italian, with lots of words which aren't used anymore, contractions you don't see ever, and sentence structures that really stretched my limits. On the whole I found myself referencing the english to understand the italian about as often as the vice-versa.

The exercise took two months, but I am here to say it was worth it. Sir Gawain and The Green Knight is a beautiful story with themes and characters that, like it's movie counterpart, left me with something to chew on for some time after.

More than anything the story is an exploration of the relationships between duties. Duty to your king, duty to your host, duty to a woman (this was the age of chivalry, afterall), duty to your word, and, though a bit hidden, duty to God. Sir Gawain is put in an impossible bind where all of these are put in conflict with one another, and the task is put on him to safely navigate his way out with his honor (and soul) intact.

The bind that Sir Gawain is put in is comprised mainly of games which he enters into, not because he wants to, but because some other existing duty compels him to. The story opens on the Christmas feast at King Arthur's court, everyone merrymaking and eating and congratulating themselves on how honorable and brave they are. Into this scene rides The Green Knight, a monster of a man who glows green and carries an enormous war axe. He issues a challenge.

Yet if thou be so bold, as abroad is published,
thou wilt grant of thy goodness the game that I ask for by right.

The game is thus: The Green Knight will loan his axe to the challenger, and he will allow the challenger to cut him once with that axe without offering any protest or defense. In return, a year from that moment, the challenger must present himself at the Green Chapel to receive an equivalent strike in kind.

As a modern reader you initially wonder if this perhaps seemed less insane at the time. But by the reaction of the court you realize that no, it was just as insane then. When no one jumps to accept the challenge Arthur is almost forced to, until finally Sir Gawain steps in the ring.

This is the first of many games or challenges Gawain enters into without any choice in the matter. For Gawain to stand by and let Arthur, his king, uncle, and elder, put his life on the line while he sits safely by would be a dereliction of multiple duties, and so Gawain offers his life instead.

The Green Knight hands Gawain his axe, and Gawain chops off the Knight's head. I wondered why he doesn't just deal a small scratch to the knight, so as to only receive a small scratch in return later, but I realized this too would be a betrayal of his duty. In this challenge he is representing his king and countryman to an outsider; he must be ready to sacrifice his life, and moreover he must prove that he is ready to do so, or risk the entire kingdom being considered cowardly.

The Green Knight is not dissuaded much by losing his head. He picks it up off the ground, gets on his horse, and wishes everyone a merry christmas. Gawain is celebrated, a year passes in a hurry, and all of a sudden it's time to get a move on to the Green Chapel.

Gawain's journey to find the Green Chapel is incredibly brief. I think more detail is given to the outfit he's given before he sets out than the journey itself. These lines are nearly all that's said of it:

So many a marvel in the mountains he met in those lands
that 'twould be tedious the tenth part to tell you thereof.
At whiles with worms he wars, and with wolves also,
at whiles with wood-trolls that wandered in the crags,
and with bulls and with bears and boars, too, at times;
and with ogres that hounded him from the heights of the fells.

Where the movie makes out Gawain's journey to be probably half of the story, the original story notes it in passing. It's merely a detail that must be accounted for on the way to the real story.

Gawain arrives at a castle. In his commentary afterward Tolkien notes that Gawain's total time in the castle comprises nearly a half of the story, and therefore we can say that this point is where the real story begins. He is welcomed in and immediately wined and dined by the Lord of The Castle, even before he is asked who he is. When the castle inhabitants discover who he his they celebrate that they now have a real knight to show them courtly ways and manners. This celebration seems initially to be a show of humility, but really it binds Gawain further. Now he really can't act up.

Some time passes, Gawain meets the Lady of The Castle and ingratiates himself to her. More feasting and merrymaking. Gawain asks the Lord if he knows where the Green Chapel is, and the Lord replies that he does, it's not far, and he will take Gawain there on the day of his appointment.

The Lord then enters into a game with Gawain, one as mysterious and strangely constructed as the game with The Green Knight. The Lord challenges Gawain to an exchange: the Lord will go hunting the following day, and Gawain will remain in the castle. Whatever each one gains during the day they will give to the other in exchange. Of course, being a guest in someone's home, and a representative of King Arthur's court besides, Gawain cannot refuse.

The next morning, the Lord already out hunting, the queen slips quietly into Gawain's room and wakes him up. She sits on the side of his bed and they banter a bit. The Lady comes onto Gawain while he tries to maintain a balance between being polite, witty, chivalrous, and not sleeping with a married woman (married to his host, besides!). In the end she lets him go free, but not before gaining a kiss from him. Apparently kisses did not count in those days.

The Lord returns from his hunt with much to show for it, and asks Gawain what he has to show for his day. Gawain responds by kissing the Lord "with all the kindness that his courtesy knew". When the Lord asks from where he gained this kiss Gawain responds that the rules of the game don't compel him to say, and so he won't. Thus the game is concluded, but Lord suggests they play again tomorrow. Of course Gawain agrees.

The story continues this way for two more days. Graphically detailed scenes of the Lord hunting, killing, and dressing his prey are interspersed with scenes of Gawain desperately defending himself from the advances of someone he cannot tactfully refuse. In the end he only gives up two kisses on the second day, and three on the third, while the Lord returns home victorious in his hunt always.

That third day is interesting because it is the day that the Lady finally gives up. Gawain has successfully overcome the challenge, skillfully navigating the conflicting duties and games he's found himself a part of, when the Lady of the castle thrusts yet another challenge on him. She wants to give Gawain a gift, a token of her love for him. Without anything to give in return Gawain cannot politely accept any gift, and yet she continues to insist, invoking her own honor which would be impugned if he does not accept.

They negotiate a few different possibilities, finally settling on him accepting a magical green sash. The Lady tells Gawain that the sash will keep him safe through any trial. Gawain agrees to take the sash, it seems, because he feels it may help him when he goes to the Green Chapel (an event which is coming up soon!)

When the Lord returns from his hunt that day, Gawain regifts him the three kisses, but he does not regift the sash.

The big morning finally arrives, and Gawain must go to the Green Chapel. He stops off at the castle's own chapel to receive mass and absolution. Tolkien, in his commentary after the poem, makes a big deal of this. He says Gawain could not receive absolution in good conscious unless he felt himself to be in good standing spiritually. This means that everything which came before, with the games and the kisses and the sash, while being important to Gawain on an earthly level, were not important to him on a spiritual level. In particular Gawain did not commit the mortal sins of coveting and adultery. In this way and others the story helps to delineate the hierarchy of duties in the world the author was living in.

Upon arriving at the Green Chapel, Gawain finds The Green Knight. When he bows to accept his strike from the axe he flinches initially, and The Green Knight heckles him for it. Eventually Gawain stands firm for his due, and The Green Knight delivers nothing but a small scratch, saying they are even. Gawain, rattled, is on his way out as fast as he can when The Green Knight calls him back.

The other trial for the morning, man, I thee tendered
when thou kissedst my comely wife, and the kisses didst render.

Turns out the Lord and The Green Knight are one and the same! There is some storytelling about Morgan le Fay casting a spell to turn him into The Green Knight in order to put the court of Arthur to the test. I was surprised to see a twist like this in a story from the 1300's, but that said I felt like this was mostly "for show". It helped to wrap up the story at a superficial level, but the real conclusion comes later.

The Green Knight calls out Gawain for not regifting the sash. Gawain goes into a fury, in an uncharacteristic display of emotion, mostly at himself for failing to uphold his own honor. Essentially he's mad that he lost one of the games, even though he had won all of the others. The Green Knight's challenge was faced through to the end and the Lady's challenge had been thwarted. Even The Green Knight lets Gawain off for the sash, mostly poking fun at him for not being so perfect as he presents himself.

Gawain does not let himself off for the sash. He returns to Arthur's court with it wrapped around him, and he recounts his story to everyone in full detail. At the end he hangs his head in shame at his failure to uphold his honor, and declares he will always wear the sash as a token of his unworthiness.

At this Arthur, and the rest of the court, laugh. Arthur declares that from then on everyone at the round table would wear a green sash, in honor of Sir Gawain. This ends the story.

Beyond being a magnanimous gesture on Arthur's part, to give Gawain his own honor back and more, this also resolves the questions around conflicts of duty which are presented. Arthur's gesture is an acknowledgement that when it came down to it Gawain handled himself better than anyone could have; in a situation where he was forced to betray a (relatively minor) duty in favor of another he made the best choice he could manage, all while upholding his higher obligations to his King and his God.

Celebrating the fallibility of the hero is an uncommon take, even amongst modern stories. The movie version of Gawain is similarly flawed, but those flaws are not overtly celebrated. They are presented as human, sure, but in that story they act to teach Gawain humility. The book presents Gawain's failing as a source of pride, an ethical and spiritual battle scar of sorts. I can't think of any modern story which offers an analogous ending.

Beyond the story of Sir Gawain, the book also contains Tolkien's translations of The Pearl and Sir Orfeo. The Pearl is thought to be written by the same author as Sir Gawain and The Green Knight, though its structure and meter are completely different. The Pearl tells the story of a man (presumably the author) whose young daughter has died. His grief is limitless, until she visits him in a dream and they begin speaking of the afterlife.

The Pearl is heavily laden with theology and questions about the afterlife and God's justice and all these things. In all honesty I didn't finish it. The last book I read was on a similar theme, and I didn't get the sense that this one, however beautiful, was going to break new ground for me. So I skipped it. Sorry, not sorry.

Sir Orfeo is a whole 'nother matter. This "lay" by an unknown author is short and sweet. It tells an allegorical version of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, with Orfeo as poet king and Heurodis his loving wife. Orfeo is most known as being the greatest harpist in the land, one of such skill that birds and forest creatures come to listen when he plays. One day Heurodis is snapped up into thin air by a fairy king, leading Orfeo to abdicate the throne in grief and lead the life a wandering hermit, keeping his harp as his only possession.

Ten years go by, and Orfeo is no longer recognizable as his former self. He is in the woods one day when he sees hundreds of women go by (unaccompanied!) on horseback, apparently engaging in falconry. He goes up to one and realizes it's Heurodis. They are so affected by seeing each other that the other women realize something is up, and whisk Heurodis away. Orfeo follows them on foot, passing through a passage in the mountains to a magical underground kingdom. He follows them into a gilded castle, seeing Heurodis sleeping on the ground along the way.

When he enters the castle he makes his way to its king, with an offer to play his harp as a traveling minstrel. The king is intrigued and agrees, noting that he's never had a mortal minstrel travel all the way into his realm. When Orfeo begins playing he attracts the entire castle to his performance, and the king is so impressed by the end that he says he will grant Orfeo any wish he desires. Orfeo declares that he wants Heurodis. The king initially tries to back out, but Orfeo pressures him into keeping his promise, and is allowed to leave the kingdom safely with his wife.

Orfeo and Heurodis return to their own kingdom, regain the throne from the loyal steward who had held it for all this time, and live happily ever after.

The poem is strange for multiple reasons. The most obvious is that the ending is completely different from the original, where Hades (the fairy king) allows Orpheus to take Eurydice only on the condition that he does not turn to look at her before they leave the underworld. Orpheus fails this test in the original, trapping Eurydice in the underworld and giving the myth a tragic ending. The author of this lay apparently decided to keep things unambiguous and simple, giving it a happy ending.

Another oddity that I didn't notice myself, but which Wikipedia instead pointed out to me, is that the story is more modern in its simplicity. A story of that time would expect that Orfeo would be motivated by chivalric duty towards his wife and his kingdom and undergo some kind of hero's quest, but Orfeo is apparently motivated only by a base grief for his lost love. He has no plan or quest in motion when he runs into her, it is simple happenstance. The fairy king does not take Heurodis for any particular reason, not for her beauty or as a test or spite on Orfeo, but simply because he wants to. The story overall is more steeped in forces of nature than in human motivations or divine interventions.

For that reason I think Sir Orfeo is a good foil to Sir Gawain and The Green Knight, a story which is very much grounded in human motivations and the questions which arise from them.

This book was a huge challenge for me, which can be seen in how long it took me to read it. I will continue including books I read in italian as a part of this series, but probably most of them will be more contemporary and therefore easier to work through. My next book, however, will be neither italian nor literary (unless I get nerd sniped by something else before I get it started).

Happy reading!

Published 2024-04-23

This post is part of a series.
Previously: Book Report: The Consolation of Philosophy

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