Friday, October 28, 2011

Romance Tale: Green Knights and Severed Heads



Last week, I introduced the characteristics and themes of romance tales. This week, I wish to review romance tales again, this time with one of the earlier ones, one from the Middle Ages, a tale titled Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. As you read, note the characteristics and high ideals (refer to last week’s post as needed) in evidence.

First, the facts:

·      Gawain is a knight in Arthur’s court.
·      He is Arthur’s nephew.
·      He is physically smaller than the other knights, and he has fewer wins in his column.
·      Morgan, Arthur’s half-sister, is a powerful sorceress, often cast in the role of antagonist.
·      Morgan casts a spell that transforms a distant Lord into a large Green figure in order to test the Knights of the Round Table and thereby, Arthur himself.
·      Gawain agrees to represent Arthur and all of Camelot by submitting to the Green Knight’s challenge.
·      The Green Knight makes his entrance during a banquet on one of the Twelve Days of Christmas.

The story begins when the Green Knight rides in on a mighty steed, its shod hooves making sparks upon the stone floor. No one recognizes him—after all, he’s green, and green giants are not common in Camelot. Furthermore, he appears in a show of force, riding his huge steed into the banquet hall, wielding an enormous double-bladed axe, his unnatural green flesh and fiery red hair terrifying. The Knight then invites Arthur’s men to engage in a challenge: use the axe to strike a blow against the Knight’s neck, then kneel to accept an identical blow in one year plus one day.

Of course, Arthur’s men are slow to agree. They know that a single blow will kill any mortal and thus are reluctant to accept until Arthur himself stands and steps forward. This, if the story were to end there, would have satisfied Morgan. She would have her proof that Arthur’s men do not really have the right stuff. After all, they swore oaths to serve and honor God first and King second; in thinking of their own lives above all else, the men failed. Their own survival overshadowed their duties, and the Green Knight is quick to point out their cowardice. He mocks the legend of Arthur until Gawain takes charge. He accepts the Green Knight’s challenge and asserts that his life is inconsequential when compared to Arthur’s. Thus, his demonstrated loyalty, courage, and humility redeem Arthur’s court.

The Green Knight’s head falls and rolls toward the feet of the banquet guests, spraying blood, grotesque against the verdant skin. Yet the Green Knight lives to retrieve his head, mount his steed, and while holding his own head by his own hair, speak before the horrified guests that Gawain must seek him out no later than one year and one day hence.

How quickly those days must have passed for Gawain, especially because there is a death sentence at the end of them. Gawain knows that he has no magic to survive a severed head.

Nevertheless, he dresses in his finest, saddles his horse, and rides forth to find the Green Knight’s castle. On his journey, he passes through stark landscapes and unforgiving weather. He rides far and father still, asking for assistance from others who send him in a general direction. His last stop is at a castle set on high ground where he takes refuge.

The Lord and Lady of the castle are excellent hosts. They provide Gawain with warm, dry clothing of the finest cloth. They assign him to a suite where a large fire warms him. They seem to spare no expense and urge him to remain, to restore his strength, assuring him that the Green Knight’s green chapel is quite close.

The Lord hunts every day, giving the poet opportunity to describe the hunting strategies for various creatures and the Lord another opportunity to prove his generosity. He promises to share his kill with Gawain as long as Gawain returns to him whatever he has received while at the castle. Therein lies another test of Gawain’s character for while the Lord is away, the Lady tries to seduce him.

Gawain resists her temptation. Then she tries to bribe him, first with precious gems and finally with a simple green scarf. The jewels Gawain refuses because he has nothing in kind to offer; he has performed no feats of valor for her and thus, deserves no payment, but she presses the scarf upon him, telling him that it has life-saving properties. That proves to be one temptation too great to refuse; after all, Gawain is in dire need of something that will save his neck.

On the appointed day, Gawain travels to the Green Knight’s green chapel and bares his neck for the blow. He flinches once, twice, but the Knight’s taunts teach Gawain to hold steady for the third, a blow that merely knicks his flesh, thanks to the scarf.

The Knight then reveals himself as the Lord, transformed by Morgan the sorceress for a test to determine if Arthur’s knights live up to their own legend. Gawain thinks he has fallen miserably short because he accepted the scarf and flinched twice. The Knight, on the other hand, believes Gawain to be brave for he only hesitated when faced with his own death; that, the Knight contends, is understandable and forgiveable.

Reading Challenge:

At the outset of this post, I asked you to discover the characteristics of Romance tales as you reviewed Gawain’s story. How did you fare? Let’s see.

Romance tales feature:
·      Unknowns, including the true identity of key characters or destinations
·      Supernatural interventions
·      Fantastical settings
·      Numbers that carry symbolic weight, e. g., three, seven, and their multiples signify completion (a complete Holy Trinity or Creation itself, for example)
·      Love and temptation

Gawain’s tale features:
·      The true identity and nature of the Green Knight is an unknown.
·      A sorceress transforms a man into a Green Knight, and magic transforms a scarf into a life-saving tool.
·      The setting is epic for Gawain travels far from his home, he spends more than one year proving his courage, and the way to the Knight’s castle takes Gawain through terrain he has never seen, terrain that resembles a hell on earth rather than a kingdom near Camelot.
·      The contest features numbers that carry symbolic weight. Gawain’s test lasts one year and one day or 366 days, clearly a number that is a multiple of three. He also endures three blows to his neck before the test is over.
·      Gawain’s love of God and King urge him on to honor. He resists the Lady’s attempts to seduce him for the same reasons.

Gawain’s tale ultimately shows the heroic nature of remaining true to a code of honor, of remaining true to oneself, and in doing so, the tale upholds principles of the Middle Ages.

Writing Challenge:

Send a modern-day knight on a quest to uphold honor. Cast him in the role of presidential candidate or Occupy Wall Street leader. Be sure to incorporate unknowns, interventions (perhaps a storm?), fantastical settings of time and place, numbers that have symbolic weight, love, and temptation (Wall Street bonuses?). Have great, good fun!

GUM (Grammar, Usage and Mechanics): More Commonly Confused Words

The Green Knight flaunts his prowess. In other words, he parades in a showy manner before the Christmas dinner guests. He flaunts his superiority over the laws of nature when he picks up his own head and holds it aloft as it speaks from a mouth divorced from its airways.

The Knight’s wife, Lady of the castle, flouts the rules of common decency and marriage by trying to seduce poor Gawain. In other words, she demonstrates contempt for the laws and standards of her day.

Many people confuse flaunt and flout, two words that may begin and end the same, but have very different meanings.

Next week: A Romance tale set in Arkansas and Oklahoma when it was called Indian Territory