Today’s post is on the sport of hunting (I’ll get to the Super Bowl next week). I should warn you that some of the passages you will encounter will be graphic. They are taken from the 14th century romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which I am teaching at the moment.
As I’ve noted in past posts, SGGK is one of the most profound meditations on life and death that I know. (A year and a half ago I wrote a series of posts, beginning with this one, on how it helped me cope with the death of my oldest son.) It is also, I believe, a wonderfully optimistic work, showing us how we can live rich and fulfilling lives. To do so, it must also show us the fears that hold us back, especially our fear of death. As I read the poem, Sir Gawain is on a quest to confront the question of mortality, embodied in the axe-wielding green knight.
At one point in the poem, feeling lost and discouraged, Gawain prays for help. As if in response, he is presented with a glorious castle. He spends three days there, during which time two sets of events occur: the lady of the castle tries to seduce him while the lord engages in a series of brutal hunts.
I interpret these two figures as the Lord of Death and the Lady of Life. She is trying to get Gawain to open himself to life’s sweetness while the lord is reminding him that death awaits as all. The lessons that I take away from the poem are the following:
1. Although death is a matter-of-fact affair that will get us in the end, nevertheless we refuse to admit that we will die and exercise a considerable amount of ingenuity in avoiding this truth. If we are to live full lives, however, we must transcend our fear of death, acknowledging it as an inevitable part of life.
2. Life is also an intense affair that seeks us out, yet we spend a lot of ingenuity seeking to avoid it as well. Perhaps we even play games with it, hoping that if we hold back on our love, we won’t be so badly hurt when we have to give it up. But living a full life must be a no-holds-barred kind of affair. In the words of Tennyson’s Ulysses, we must drink life to the lees.
For those who tie themselves into anxious knots over their desire to control and who allow their fear of death to taint their appreciation of life (this may be most of us), these insights are potentially life-changing revelations.
On to the hunt. Because it is so difficult to accept our ending, we invest death with all the horror of our fears. Yet the poem challenges our normal perceptions of death by describing it in as unsentimental and matter-of-fact way as possible. I find myself both repulsed and fascinated by the casual brutality with which the deer are slaughtered in the first of the three hunts:
At each bend under boughs the bright shafts flew
That tore the tawny hide with their tapered heads.
Ah! They bray and they bleed, on banks they died,
And ever the pack pell-mell comes panting behind…
Equally casual is the way the poem describes handling the deer after they are killed. No attempt is made to soften the facts of the case:
They flayed the fair hide from the legs and trunk,
Then broke open the belly and laid bare the bowels,
Deftly detaching and drawing them forth,
And next at the neck they neatly parted
The weasand from the windpipe, and cast away the guts.
The poem, I think, wants us to experience death in all of its material finality. It also shows, through the three hunts, three different ways people deal with death—or more accurately, avoid dealing with death.
By becoming aware of how we respond, we can begin to challenge the fears that keep us from living more fully. Are we a deer or a boar or a fox? Do we, like the deer, go through life pretending that death doesn’t exist? Do we, like the boar, avoid thinking about death by fiercely lowering our heads as we “bore” forward, believing that through sheer will power we can toss aside any doubts that tear at our flanks? Do we, like the fox, leap nimbly from one distraction to another. Of course, it doesn’t matter what coping strategy we opt for: the lord of death always gets its quarry.
Using the poem’s detailed descriptions of the hunt as my framework, I’ve come up with the following reflection exercise. As I say, if it seems a bit grim—death is about as big a challenge as we face—keep reminding yourself that there’s a wonderful payoff. By coming to see death differently, we can intensify the sweetness of life, which beckons to us from within the castle.
Reflection Exercise – Evading Lord Death
If we are to open ourselves to death, it helps to first identify our avoidance strategies. Which of the following responses do you recognize when you have encountered death—whether it was your own brush with death or the death of an acquaintance or a friend undergoing a loss. Perhaps you had different responses at different times:
Deer response – Having previously closed your eyes to death, you felt caught off guard, helpless and confused, when death made an appearance in your life. You experienced panic and lacked any coherent means for dealing with the arrows that flew at you from the underbrush
Boar response – You felt deeply angry at the fact of death and tried to charge through the emotions that came at you with their teeth bared. You hoped that doing so meant that you didn’t have to deal with your fear.
Fox response – Unlike the deer, you acknowledged death but your jumpy mind found a series of ways to elude the knowledge that you feared would tear you apart.
The poet knew death, having probably lived through one of the most cataclysmic natural calamities in human history (the black plague of 1348-50). But that just makes Sir Gawain and the Green Knight all the more remarkable. If, despite having seen all that he has seen, the poet can still compose a colorful and vibrant poem that is in love with life, how can we refuse to join him?
Coming next week: Seduced by the Lady of Life.