Student gifts arrive daily when one is a literature teacher. I received such a gift recently from Matt Alexander, a former Marine twice deployed to Afghanistan, which has caused me to see Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in a new light.
A discussion of John Keats actually sparked the conversation about the medieval romance. We were talking about Keats’ relationship to death in “Bright Star,” “Ode to a Nightingale,” and “Ode on a Grecian Urn” in a British and American Lit survey class, and Matt opined that Keats, who died at 25 of tuberculosis, was overly obsessed with mortality. Marines in Afghanistan, Matt said, just acknowledged that death was a possibility and then pushed it out of their minds.
I said in response that his comment reminded me of Sir Gawain’s reaction to the fact that, he is embarking on a doomed mission. I had in mind the moment when Gawain’s fellow knights are urging him to forego his appointment with the Green Knight, even though he has promised to receive a return axe blow. Here’s Gawain’s response in the Marie Borloff translation:
He said, “Why should I tarry?”
And smiled with tranquil eye;
“In destinies said or merry,
True men can but try.”
I explained that, as I interpret the poem, Gawain may think that he can shrug off his death, but this may just be a knight’s way of coping. In fact, if the Green Knight stands in for nature, including our internal nature, then he knows us better than we know ourselves. He knows that we are just playing “head games” in our denial (thus the significance of the beheading contest). The Green Knight goes on to prove that Gawain does indeed care for his life.
My brief comment sent Matt to the bookstore to buy a copy of the poem. He then proceeded to stay up all night reading it and, as a consequence, missed our class on Jane Eyre. I told him that, in 32 years of college teaching, I had never heard as good an excuse for an absence.
The two moments where Gawain reveals that he cares for his life is when he surreptitiously accepts a green girdle from the knight’s wife after being told that it will save his life and when he flinches before the descending axe. Here are the two relevant passages, the first delivered by Lady Bertilak:
“For the man that possesses this piece of silk,
If he bore it on his body, belted about,
There is no hand under heaven that could hew him down,
For he could not be killed by any craft on earth.”
Then the man began to muse, and mainly he thought
It was a pearl for his plight, the peril to come
When he gains the Green Chapel to get his reward:
Could he escape unscathed, the scheme were noble!
Then he bore with her words and withstood them no more,
And she repeated her petition and pleaded anew,
And he granted it, and gladly she gave him the belt,
And besought him for her sake to conceal it well,
Lest the noble lord should know—and the knight agrees
That not a soul save themselves shall see it thenceforth
In the second passage, Gawain has his head on the block:
But Gawain at the great axe glanced up aside,
As down it descended with death-dealing force,
And his shoulders shrank a little from the sharp iron.
Abruptly the brawny man breaks off the stroke,
And then reproved with proud words that prince among knights.
“You are not Gawain the glorious,” the green man said,
“That never fell back on field in the face of the foe,
And now you flee for fear, and have felt no harm…”
The scene where Gawain takes the girdle struck Matt like a thunderbolt. Looking back at his time in Afghanistan, he said he now realized that his actions contradicted what he told himself. For all his fatalism, he still was very careful to don his Kevlar body armor every day. Or as he put it to me in a follow-up e-mail,
[For Gawain] the belt is his safety net in a way, and even though he didn’t care about dying, the belt gave him a sense that he wouldn’t, much like the way that Marines, or any combat person, pick up their helmets before going out.
There were other points in the poem that struck Matt as well. Camelot as it is depicted is a youthful court and Gawain is the youngest of the knights. Their youth, Matt noted, means that they don’t think much about the future:
The Vietnam War was fought by kids that kept going up hills and through forests just to go back home again. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are the same: fought by kids, won and lost by kids. I heard once from a psychology teacher that that is a quality found in young men. They want to prove themselves, they want to help their unit in any way possible, so they run up those hills, walk through those jungles, or in our case, find those IEDs [Improvised Explosive Devices], to make things better, whether or not it’s helping a country or slowly tearing it apart.”
I had never thought, in reading Sir Gawain, to focus on the youth of Camelot and how Nature, in the form of the Green Knight, might be jolting young men out of their sense of being invulnerable.
About the seductive lady in the castle, Matt said that a Camelot reference was actually applied in instructions to him and his fellow (male) Marines: “No Guineveres.” The commanders feared that having women in combat would disrupt troop unity. As I think about this perspective in the framework of the poem, I wonder if thoughts of women threaten the denial of death that seems central to a combat soldier’s mental make-up. Although Gawain never gives in to Lady Bertilak’s sexual advances, maybe it is the sweetness of life that she represents that causes him to accept her belt. Have been softened up, he turns from an automaton blindly moving forward into a human being.
Put another way, maybe the concern with having women in combat patrols is not so much that women can’t handle the situation. Maybe it’s that commanders are worried that the presence of women will cause men to start thinking about, and caring about, life.
Matt also enjoyed the poem’s ending. Gawain returns to Camelot ashamed that he hasn’t lived up to the perfection that he expects of himself. Matt saw this as paralleling the way that Marines internalize the ideals of the corps, and he appreciated the way that Gawain’s fellow knights demonstrate solidarity by donning versions of the green girdle, symbol of his failure. This solidarity, he said, is central to being a Marine.
He then told me a story about how, after losing a comrade, his unit all donned black armbands. Again thinking about it in terms of the poem, it’s as though this death, like Gawain’s stumbles, is a reminder that they are all vulnerable. The solidarity is a way of both acknowledging their fears and then reminding themselves that they have the corps to help them rise above those moments when they experience doubts.
As I say, Matt presented me with a gift.
Added note: I had forgotten when writing today’s post that I once applied Sir Gawain and the Green Knight to my father’s own experiences with sex and death in World War II. You can find it here.