The world has watched in horror as ISIS militants have beheaded hostages, which in turn have generated copycat beheadings. At the moment, I am teaching one of the great literary works about beheadings although this one has a happy ending. Nevertheless, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight gives us some insight into why this act horrifies us so much more than other forms of lethal violence.
I should note that I am entering into the gruesome task of distinguishing between degrees of barbarity because I fear that our visceral reaction to the beheadings will lead to irrational decisions. In deciding whether or not to strike back against ISIS, it is imperative that we retain a cool judgment. Understanding the nature of our gut horror will help us find a calmer place on which to stand.
In Part I of the poem, the Green Knight strides into Camelot and challenges the knights to a beheading context. They can cut off his head with the large axe he has brought and then, in a year’s time, he will return the favor. At first he is greeted with “a swooning silence…as all were slipped into sleep”—in other words, a state of shock—but then Sir Gawain steps forward and delivers the blow. The Green Knight retrieves his head, which instructs Gawain to show up at “the green chapel” at the appointed time.
In the poem, the beheading carries a lot of symbolic significance. The Green Knight, a version of the legendary “green man” of Celtic tradition, can be seen as a stand-in for nature. He is essentially telling Christian Europe that it has lost connection with nature and the natural body and lives too much in its head. By contrast, he himself is so connected with nature that the mind and body cannot be severed. After all, if we cut down vegetation, it simply grows back again.
As we are individuals and not generalized nature, however, we cling to our separate identities. A key part of this identity is our head, which is the primary marker of who we are. It contains our features, our windows to the soul, our brain. Without it, we are an unidentifiable slab of meat. If ISIS wants to goad America into its war, it’s hard to imagine a more provocative act than beheading James Foley, Steven Sotloff and David Haines.
By way of contrast, shooting someone in the head, while also awful, doesn’t seem to strip us of our personhood in the same way.
To make this point a different way, one of the most humane forms of execution is the guillotine, which offers sure and instant death. But in America, those who favor the death penalty prefer electrocution or medical injection, even though those can go horribly wrong. That’s because they are easier to rationalize, seeming to align the justice system with impersonal science. Cutting off someone’s head, on the other hand, makes the execution seem personal.
In short, we see the ISIS beheadings and we ourselves feel eradicated. We respond with fury.
In the medieval poem, the Green Knight loses some of his aura of horror when he tells Sir Gawain his name. He is Sir Bertilak and the entire beheading game has been a plot to bring Camelot down a peg. It sounds as though British Intelligence is close to identifying the ISIS executioners and, once they do, the beheading will no longer appear quite so much as a natural force stripping westerners of their personhood. It will be one person killing another. The evil will not be undone but it’s almost as though some kind of order will be reintroduced. Our justice system knows how to perceive murder.
I see one other way to apply the poem to the beheadings. Despite his critique of Gawain, the Green Knight says he is impressed with his knightly qualities, by which I suspect he means his self-discipline and his willingness to face up to danger. While Gawain needs to acknowledge his natural impulses, there is also something to be said about his ability to control them. In addition to a warm heart, one needs a cool head.
In other words, Gawain needs to balance reason and passion, mind and body. If he does, Camelot will remain powerful.
In his well-known poem “If,” Kipling talks about keeping one’s head while all around are losing theirs, a line which I hope it is not tasteless to quote. We are hearing a lot of hysterical responses to the beheadings by senators like John McCain, Lindsay Graham, Ted Cruz and others, and we need to keep our heads. Otherwise, we will get pulled into the darkness of the terrorists.