A Successful Defiance

Time, like many another governing body, hands out titles. So it is that an untitled Arthurian romance from the fourteenth century, in Middle English, has come to be known as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Well dubbed. Arise, Sir Gawain, and likewise the Green Knight.

The existence of a title gives us something better than purchase. Forty years ago, the poem’s best critic observed the irreversible shift when, at the end of this mysterious, lucid tale, not only the name but the identity of the Green Knight is made known to Sir Gawain. “A knight who reveals his identity to others gives them, as in the modern metaphor, a ‘handle’—something to get hold of.”1 The apparatus of the security guard, to whom we proffer not only a name but (in our time) an ID, is there to grant us a certain kind of security, within a setting that—then and again now—may be a siege perilous. It is then characteristic of all such dangers that no indubitable assurance, no totally trustworthy handle, is likely ever to be forthcoming. For if the Green Knight’s name turns out to be Bertilak de Hautdesert, why are there those (of whom C.S. Lewis is the most vivid) who call him Bercilak? And, come to that, how are we even to pronounce the name Gawain? Simon Armitage, in the introduction to his ebullient translation, equivocates in exactly the spirit of the unequivocally great and teasing poem:

To many he is Gawain. The original author clearly alliterated on the “G,” suggesting he also stressed the first syllable of the word. But there are other moments in the text, such as the perfectly iambic quatrain at [line] 1948, where the rhythm suggests the opposite, as in Gawain, which is the way I have always referred to him.

“Inogh,” quoth Sir Gawayn,

“I thonk yow, bi the rode.”

And how the fox was slayn

He tolde hym as thay stode.

How the Fox Was Slain, or, How Sir Gawain Was Not. Such is the story of what will prove to be a two-fold testing of Sir Gawain by the Green Knight.

Into the hall of King Arthur, at Christmastide, there erupts a visitor:

a mountain of a man, immeasurably high,

a hulk of a human from head to hips,

so long and thick in his loins and his limbs

I should genuinely judge him to be a half giant,

or a most massive man, the mightiest of mortals.

And he, like his horse, green, “entirely emerald green.” He urges a duel, not quite of the usual sort:

So at Christmas in this court I lay down a challenge:

if a person here present, within these premises,

is big or bold or red blooded enough

to strike me one stroke and be struck in return,

I shall give him as a gift this gigantic cleaver

and the axe shall be his to handle how he likes.

I’ll kneel, bare my neck…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.