Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

When I first started blogging one regular criticism I received from traditional conservatives (especially when writing about Game) was that I was killing chivalry.  For the most part I disregarded this with the assumption that they either didn’t understand Game or didn’t understand chivalry.  But the more I have learned about chivalry the more I have come to realize that the conservatives were right all along.  I had mistaken chivalry for something that was originally noble that was somehow corrupted in the latter half of the 20th century.  But the chivalry we love today comes from a glorification of cuckoldry and a worship of women and romantic love that dates back to around 1100.

Last month I shared the tale of St George and the dragon.  Today I’ll share a bit of the tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. From the plot synopsis at Infogalactic:

…Many adventures and battles are alluded to (but not described) until Gawain comes across a splendid castle where he meets Bertilak de Hautdesert, the lord of the castle, and his beautiful wife, who are pleased to have such a renowned guest…

Before going hunting the next day Bertilak proposes a bargain: he will give Gawain whatever he catches on the condition that Gawain give him whatever he might gain during the day. Gawain accepts. After Bertilak leaves, Lady Bertilak visits Gawain’s bedroom and behaves seductively, but despite her best efforts he yields nothing but a single kiss in his unwillingness to offend her. When Bertilak returns and gives Gawain the deer he has killed, his guest gives a kiss to Bertilak without divulging its source. The next day the lady comes again, Gawain again courteously foils her advances, and later that day there is a similar exchange of a hunted boar for two kisses. She comes once more on the third morning, this time offering Gawain a gold ring as a keepsake. He gently but steadfastly refuses but she pleads that he at least take her belt, a girdle of green and gold silk which, the lady assures him, is charmed and will keep him from all physical harm. Tempted, as he may otherwise die the next day, Gawain accepts it, and they exchange three kisses. That evening, Bertilak returns with a fox, which he exchanges with Gawain for the three kisses – but Gawain says nothing of the girdle.

As with St George and the dragon, the lady’s girdle has sexual connotations, indicates that the knight has won her favor, and contains the magic the hero needs to succeed in his quest.  At least in the tale of St. George there is no three way make-out session between the knight, the nobleman, and the nobleman’s wife.

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46 Responses to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

  1. The Question says:

    One point I feel is worth making is that this concept of chivalry centered around women is markedly different from its origins – Rollo Tomassi wrote an essay on this a few years ago.

    http://www.medievalchronicles.com/medieval-knights/code-of-chivalry-knights/

    “According to the Song of Roland, the Knights Code of Chivalry included these vows:

    Fear God and His Church
    Serve the liege Lord in valour and faith
    Protect the weak and defenceless
    Live by honour and for glory
    Respect the honour of women

    Another set of vows was Leon Gautier’s La Chevalerie, which was a popular summary of the ancient code of chivalry. It was also called the Ten Commandments of Chivalry and it included the following commands:

    1. Believe the Church’s teachings and observe all the Church’s directions
    2. Defend the Church
    3. Respect and defend the weak
    4. Love your country
    5. Do not fear your enemy
    6. Show no mercy and do not hesitate to make war with the infidel
    7. Perform all your feudal duties as long as they do not conflict with the laws of God
    8. Never lie or go back on one’s word
    9. Be generous
    10. Always and everywhere be right and good against evil and injustice”

    The last version has no mention of women or romance anywhere and perhaps speaks to the original purpose of chivalry: to create a standard code of conduct among all nobility within the European realm that was on paper “Christian,” but in effect still adhered to traditional pagan values.

    I understand that people only think of romance and behavior toward women when they speak of “chivalry” today, but that only goes to show how different the concept is than what it was supposed to be.

  2. The Question says:

    Also included on the site:

    http://www.medievalchronicles.com/medieval-knights/code-of-chivalry-knights/

    “The primary goal of knighthood was to uphold the dignity of the Church. The foundation of chivalry was Christianity as it was created by the church, for the church and through the church.

    Chivalry was derived from a French word chevalier which meant mounted heavy cavalry. Its primary goal is to regulate violence in the French society.”

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  4. Dalrock says:

    @The Question

    One point I feel is worth making is that this concept of chivalry centered around women is markedly different from its origins – Rollo Tomassi wrote an essay on this a few years ago.

    What matters today is that the courtly love version obliterated the Song of Roland version of chivalry. Appealing to the Song of Roland therefore is an effective defense of the cucked version, because it is the only version we know, and the version the western world has loved for over 800 years.

  5. earl says:

    Well I was looking for the moral of the story…whether taking the charmed garments of the lady led to his success or failure.

    ‘The next day, Gawain leaves for the Green Chapel with the girdle wound twice around his waist. He finds the Green Knight sharpening an axe and, as promised, Gawain bends his bared neck to receive his blow. At the first swing Gawain flinches slightly and the Green Knight belittles him for it. Ashamed of himself, at the Green Knight’s next swing Gawain does not flinch; but again the full force of the blow is withheld. The knight explains he was testing Gawain’s nerve. Angrily Gawain tells him to deliver his blow and so the knight does, causing only a slight wound on Gawain’s neck. The game is over. Gawain seizes his sword, helmet and shield, but the Green Knight, laughing, reveals himself to be the lord of the castle, Bertilak de Hautdesert, transformed by magic. He explains that the entire adventure was a trick of the ‘elderly lady’ Gawain saw at the castle, who is actually the sorceress Morgan le Fay, Arthur’s sister, who intended to test Arthur’s knights and frighten Guinevere to death.[5] Gawain is ashamed to have behaved deceitfully but the Green Knight laughs at his scruples and the two part on cordial terms. Gawain returns to Camelot wearing the girdle as a token of his failure to keep his promise. The Knights of the Round Table absolve him of blame and decide that henceforth that they will wear a green sash in recognition of Gawain’s adventure.’

  6. The Question says:

    @ Dalrock

    Agreed – I’m not arguing that anyone is talking past one another on this, and my intent was not to defend the popular version in any way. The chivalry you’re referring to in this post is the same concept referred to by traditional conservatives.

    But for those who don’t know, it’s worth noting what chivalry was originally meant to be. It it is yet another example of an institution created for a male-centered purpose but was later hijacked to serve the feminine and eventually become defined as a form of female worship. It provides us with an idea of what the Boy Scouts – er, Scoutings – is going to become.

  7. American says:

    Feminists say that “all men are inherently evil and all women are inherently pure and anytime a woman is evil it is always some man’s fault.” They are liars. The truth is that the male population is a mixed bag just like the female population is a mixed bag. A great many women behave wickedly and it is their fault not someone elses. Case in point: http://www.azfamily.com/story/38152568/pd-woman-sent-65000-texts-to-man-said-she-wanted-to-bathe-in-his-blood

  8. Dalrock says:

    @The Question

    But for those who don’t know, it’s worth noting what chivalry was originally meant to be. It it is yet another example of an institution created for a male-centered purpose but was later hijacked to serve the feminine and eventually become defined as a form of female worship.

    The basic point is a fair one, although from what I can find it isn’t clear that the pre courtly love version of chivalry was much of a powerful force. Perhaps this is just more proof of how complete the obliteration truly was, that we struggle to identify the older version. The Song of Roland was written during the same period that courtly love was catching fire. Part of the issue as well is the blurring between epic poetry and history. Chivalry appears to have been fictional first, and put in practice second. From the Infogalactic page on Chivalry:

    Literary chivalry and historical reality

    Fans of chivalry assume, and have assumed since the late medieval period, that there was a time in the past when chivalry was a living institution, when men acted chivalrically, when chivalry was alive and not dead, the imitation of which period would much improve the present. This is the mad mission of Don Quixote, protagonist of the most chivalric novel of all time and inspirer of the chivalry of Sir Walter Scott and of the U.S. South:[14] to restore the age of chivalry, and thereby improve his country.[15] It is a version of the myth of the Golden Age.

    With the birth of modern historical and literary research, scholars have found that however far back in time “The Age of Chivalry” is searched for, it is always further in the past, even back to the Roman Empire.

    The poetry came first, and the Order of the Garter, etc. came later.

  9. SnapperTrx says:

    At least in the tale of St. George there is no three way make-out session between the knight, the nobleman, and the nobleman’s wife.

    At least not until the 2018 Hollywood remake!

  10. SnapperTrx says:

    The next day, Gawain leaves for the Green Chapel with the girdle wound twice around his waist.

    Woah! How large was m’lady anyway?

  11. dpmonahan says:

    Courtly love with the focus on obedience to women and male suffering seems to me to be more the result of arranged marriages than Christian influence. It can be found in Ovid’s Ars Amatoria which is pre-Christian.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ars_Amatoria#Content
    Chivalry really seemed to get its start with the Peace of God and Truce of God movements, which were mass demonstrations by monks and peasants against the constant violence of their overlords. There was a real awakening of conscience as a result, if you look at people like Robert I of Normandy who started his career with fratricide and ended retiring to Jerusalem in reparation.

  12. da GBFM zlzoolzlzzlzozlzloozozo says:
  13. “chivalry comes from a worship of women ”

    But “game” doesn’t? We’re supposed to change everything about our lives and our personalities, spending hundreds or even thousands of bucks on “boot camps”, all in a futile effort to get chicks, but that’s not worship?

  14. The Question says:

    @ Dalrock

    “from what I can find it isn’t clear that the pre courtly love version of chivalry was much of a powerful force.”

    I have a feeling that was likely the case. European bickering partly inspired the First Crusade in an effort to direct that violence elsewhere.

  15. vfm7916 says:

    @PRT,

    If you have to spend money, you’re doing it wrong.

    You’ve spent lots, I can see…

    Do try to troll harder. There are standards to maintain.

  16. Major Styles says:

    Lol. M’lady was eating too many of the pizzas at Round Table.

  17. The Question says:

    @ Major Styles

    luzlzlzlz. Perhaps that explains why Sir Gawain wasn’t so eager for some lovin’ and would only let her kiss him.

  18. Dalrock says:

    @The Question

    luzlzlzlz. Perhaps that explains why Sir Gawain wasn’t so eager for some lovin’ and would only let her kiss him.

    Ha. There is also the fact that whatever he let her do to him, he had to then do to her husband.

  19. Anon says:

    Real Peterman,

    But “game” doesn’t? We’re supposed to change everything about our lives and our personalities, spending hundreds or even thousands of bucks on “boot camps”, all in a futile effort to get chicks, but that’s not worship?

    Nope, Game can be learned for free, as you have been told countless times.

    Plus, equating Game with ‘woman worship’ is like saying that a man who has a skill that can earn him $1000/hr is a ‘money worshipper’.

    Tell me, what exactly about a man’s attractiveness to women is in his control, vs. out of his control?

  20. Gunner Q says:

    The Question @ 12:16 pm:
    “http://www.medievalchronicles.com/medieval-knights/code-of-chivalry-knights/

    “The primary goal of knighthood was to uphold the dignity of the Church. The foundation of chivalry was Christianity as it was created by the church, for the church and through the church.”

    The Church being a proxy for morality, as I understand ancient chivalry. Knights were notorious studs of their time, enjoying high status, physical fitness/good food and much more travel time than kings & barons. I remember reading of one knight whose misconduct eventually inspired the Knights Templar as a counterpoint, who had his favorite chick painted on his shield “so I can bear her into battle as she bears me into bed.”

    The brave knight finding himself alone with the baron’s wife is kind of a trope of ancient storytelling. AFAIK.

  21. It’s a mistake to cite the case of Gawain without noting its outcome. Gawain is rebuked for having flirted with Bertilak’s wife and taken her favor, without disclosing this to her lord husband. As Tolkien said, Gawain represents a divorcing of the chivalric ideal from the notions of courtly adultery and obedience to a lady’s commands. He is commended for resisting her seductions, and chastised for yielding as much as he did.

    So yes, chivalry *is* a good thing — all of it, from the code of honor to the pious brotherhood to the courtesy given to women — when it has been purified from the later Provencal tendency to delight in fornication, adultery, and the abasement of men. It was so cleansed in the greatest medieval literature (Gawain, Malory, Dante, etc.), and represents a point to which Christians in the 21st century should rally.

  22. The point of the story is that the knight was tempted and partially gave in, which is why he was injured, but did not fully, which is why he wasn’t killed.

  23. SJB says:

    @Dalrock: Again, I do not think this story feeds your thesis—it is a training story teaching 1) the best men fail; 2) be better than the best men:

    “I have had a good visit, bliss betide you; and may He pay you well who directs all mercies. Commend me to that courteous one, your comely mate; both the one and the other, my honoured ladies, who have thus with their craft quaintly beguiled their knight. But it is no wonder that a fool should rave, and through wiles of women be won to sorrow. For so was Adam beguiled by one, and Solomon by many, indeed; and Samson also, Delilah dealt him his weird; and David thereafter was deceived by Bathsheba, who suffered much sorrow. Since these men were plagued by their wiles, it were a huge gain to love them well and believe them not—if a person but could; for these men were of old the best, and the most fortunate, excellent above all others under the heavens; and all they were beguiled by women whom they had to do with. If I be now deceived, meseems I might be excused.

    (Emphasis mine)

  24. Dalrock says:

    malcolmthecynic

    The point of the story is that the knight was tempted and partially gave in, which is why he was injured, but did not fully, which is why he wasn’t killed.

    He wasn’t killed because he:
    1) Won the lady’s favor (she gave him the girdle).
    2) Didn’t honor his agreement to give the girdle to her husband.

  25. Anonymous Reader says:

    Dalrock
    With the birth of modern historical and literary research, scholars have found that however far back in time “The Age of Chivalry” is searched for, it is always further in the past, even back to the Roman Empire.

    The golden age is always receding. Because it is a mirage.

  26. The Question says:

    @Dalrock

    “There is also the fact that whatever he let her do to him, he had to then do to her husband.”

    Ha, good point. He should have shaken her hand, instead.

  27. The Question says:

    One interesting comparison with the Arthurian legends such as this, is the Anglo-Saxon tale of Beowulf. Although the Beowulf poet who wrote it down was a Briton, he adds little to the original pagan story other than what had been passed down through oral tradition.

    There is no romance in the entire Beowulf story. The queen makes a brief guest appearance. It is entirely about men fighting on behalf of their kin or leader for the sake of virtues one would find in the original code of chivalry in the Song of Roland. Beowulf fights Grendel not on behalf of a maiden or someone else’s wife, but for his own glory and to bring greater fame to his king. It is wholly about warriors and warrior virtues.

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  29. earl says:

    Interesting to read this stuff about the girdle. I guess along with the sexual connotation it also represented protection for women.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Girdle

    ‘The girdle, for men, symbolizes preparation and readiness to serve, and for women, represents chastity and protection;’

    Then after you click on the (3) to go to the source.

    Christ referred to the girdle as a symbol of preparation and readiness for service (Luke 12:35-38). St. Paul referred to it as a symbol of truth (Ephesians 6:14). The girdle of the monastic habit, knotted three times at the ends, symbolizes the three vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. The girdle became a Christian symbol of chastity, possibly derived from the ancient Jewish custom of women wearing ornate girdles symbolic of their virtue (Proverbs 31). Some traditional clergy still use an old vesting prayer when putting on the girdle which says, “Gird me, O Lord, with the girdle of purity, and quench in me the fire of concupiscence that the grace of temperance and chastity may abide in me.”

  30. Dalrock says:

    @Earl

    Interesting to read this stuff about the girdle. I guess along with the sexual connotation it also represented protection for women.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Girdle

    ‘The girdle, for men, symbolizes preparation and readiness to serve, and for women, represents chastity and protection;’

    Right. The two (sexual connotation and chastity/protection) are related. In removing her girdle, she is removing the protection and symbol of chastity.

  31. earl says:

    The part I’m confused about…it’s protection for women, but for the male knight wearing it it doesn’t symbolize anything about their protection. It’s about service. Telling him it will ‘protect’ him was coming from a female point of view.

  32. Russ from L.I. says:

    Hey Dalrock, I’ve been meaning to comment for a while about chivalry versus the tradition Christian understanding of sexuality/marriage/love: I don’t believe the concept of chivalry was present in Western Europe during the “dark ages,” and moreover, I don’t believe it came to dominate the traditional understanding in the Orthodox Christian East. I think the Norman invasions first spread much of that chivalry nonsense around the RC world, *but NOT the Orthodox!

    It would definitely be worth it to read the homilies of St. John Chrysostom on Paul’s epistles dealing w/ the subject @ hand. Check out a compilation called “On Marriage and Family Life” from Saint Vladimir’s Press–it’ll be a breath of fresh air. In fact, my wife & I have been reading it recently & it’s both VERY helpful & enlightening. Why not investigate the ideas of the Christian East, which weren’t historically saddled w/ the same baggage as their RC & Protestant counterparts in the West?

  33. Sharkly says:

    earl,
    When I was in High School eons ago. Sometimes a girl would wear a guy’s Letterman Jacket, showing that she was “Taken”, and no longer available to others.
    Perhaps wearing the ornate chastity girdle of some woman, was a similar token, showing the knight was property of another’s and protecting him from the wily advances of other women who might try to seduce him.
    Just a crazy guess, however, I am not old enough to have been there.

  34. Anonymous Reader says:

    The Question
    One interesting comparison with the Arthurian legends such as this, is the Anglo-Saxon tale of Beowulf. Although the Beowulf poet who wrote it down was a Briton, he adds little to the original pagan story other than what had been passed down through oral tradition.

    There is no romance in the entire Beowulf story. The queen makes a brief guest appearance. It is entirely about men fighting on behalf of their kin or leader for the sake of virtues one would find in the original code of chivalry in the Song of Roland. Beowulf fights Grendel not on behalf of a maiden or someone else’s wife, but for his own glory and to bring greater fame to his king. It is wholly about warriors and warrior virtues.

    https://infogalactic.com/info/Beowulf

    Grendel is a troll-like entity that cannot abide singing and happiness, therefore he raids the mead-hall of the King of the Danes, not only killing warriors but devouring them. After the Danes have abandoned the hall, Beowulf and his men agree to spend the night there. Grendel enters, and in a long fight Beowulf tears his arm off so that he flees.

    The Danes are happy and celebrate the next night. Grendel’s mother arrives late in the night to seek her revenge on anyone she can find – Grendel’s dietary habits clearly were inherited from her.

    Eventually the Danish king, his men, Beowulf and his men track Grendel’s mother to a cavern hidden at the bottom of a lake. Beowulf is given a famed sword to take with him – it proves useless against her, but another sword he eventually lays hand on in her burrow is more effective.

    There are no women on any pedestals in Beowulf. One female entity is downright horrible. Very different from the post 1000 AD knightly romances.

    PS: There is a halfway sorta passible film version, The 13th Warrior. The plot is sound, but some of the dialog and acting is painful. Nevertheless, it is an attempt with some good scenes and quotable lines plus zero pedestalization.

  35. Lost Patrol says:

    There is a halfway sorta passible film version, The 13th Warrior.

    Get the real skinny from the monster’s point of view. “Grendel”. A novel by John Gardner.

    I got the feeling a lot of the movie was cribbed from the book. Except for the gratuitous Arab of course.

  36. Hmm says:

    “The brave knight finding himself alone with the baron’s wife is kind of a trope of ancient storytelling.”

    Kind of like the jokes about the salesman and the farmer’s daughter I remember from my misspent youth.

  37. Spike says:

    What I knew of chivalry I picked up watching movies like “Ivanhoe” and “El Cid”. School exposed us to Chaucer and his rather cynical view of knighthood, as well as the cynicism of “don Quixote”. Arthur’s tale, with Guinevere secretly making it with Lancelot and burning down the kingdom I felt was gross. As a child reading in “Children’s Brittanica”, I imagined what my father would do if my mother did the same thing.
    I hadn’t heard the fable of Gawain, but now that I have, I consider it equally gross. It has no place in a Christian home nor in Christian culture

  38. Gamehead says:

    “But “game” doesn’t? We’re supposed to change everything about our lives and our personalities, spending hundreds or even thousands of bucks on “boot camps”, all in a futile effort to get chicks, but that’s not worship?”
    Yes it is. As long as it stays futile.

  39. Ahlstar says:

    The 13th Warrior was an adaptation of the Michael Crichton novel, The Eaters Of The Dead, supposedly pieced together from partial transcripts of a real story.

    You can see why they chose a different title for the film.

    I’ve read the book, and no glorification of women at all. Just rape and murder fodder.

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  42. Rollory says:

    “He wasn’t killed because he:
    1) Won the lady’s favor (she gave him the girdle).
    2) Didn’t honor his agreement to give the girdle to her husband.”

    Both these statements are clearly and explicitly false. The girdle did not protect him, Bertilak’s judgement and skill did. Having the girdle without having admitted it is explicitly stated as being a mark against him and the reason why the third stroke draws blood. This is very plainly stated and your claim to the contrary is very difficult to interpret as anything less than a lie.

    The moral of the story is that he should have told the truth, and the green ribbons that the Table knights agree to wear are a reminder of the incident so that they remember to tell the truth no matter how bad an idea it seems.

    Given how inarguable the falsity of your assertions are when compared with the actual text, I’m a bit surprised nobody else noted this before now. I can only conclude nobody bothered to go and actually read it.

    “I got the feeling a lot of the movie was cribbed from the book. Except for the gratuitous Arab of course.”

    *facepalm*

    Thirteenth Warrior is a very accurate adaptation of an excellent Michael Crichton novel. The Arab is there to provide a reliable observer. Whether he was necessary, or needed to be an Arab, is something you can take up with Crichton.

  43. Strefanasha says:

    That feminists claim, mentioned by American here, that all men are evil is in fact true. that they claim all women are pure is a gross lie. Scripture is clear. ALL are evil. Orignal sin applies to all descendants of Adam except Christ Himself. That femininsts misuse the doctrine of original sin then deny they do so by appleaing to a constructivist view of gender -ie claiming that gender is a social construct – begins to persuade me that feminism is in fact a heresy. There is no mixed bag of good and evil among people, only degrees of evil, from the commonly half decent – and this only by human standards – to outrignt psychopaths. But under God’s judgement all are damnable

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