The Best Poem Christianity produced?

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a poem you all may know either as a piece of trivia– one of the oldest poems in english!– or from childhood retellings of the stories of King Arthur. It is one of the more famous Arthurian poems; an epic that is simultaneously a christmas story on how to be a good christian and an adventure story that has doubtlessly influenced all grand entertainment of the action-adventure ilk.

In terms of artistic classification, it is a romantic poem. A romantic poem is not a ‘romance’ in the modern sense of the word; it is a poem that has spectacular, unbelievable content; it waxes over the exceptionality of the hero or heroes of the story and is spinkled with flights of fantasy. Sir Gawain contains trolls, a stunningly brave and strong knight (Sir Gawain), and a mysterious knight from afar who is colored entirely green (The Green Knight). The Green Knight loses his head to Sir Gawain when he trots in to Camelot on his horse one Christmas and challenges any knight to take one strike at him. Sir Gawain complies, but no sooner has the knight lost his head than he picks it back up, puts it back in it’s place, and challenges Gawain to come to his chapel a year later so he may have his chance to strike Gawain down. The remainder of the story follows Gawain’s adventures throughout the land of old England, until he comes to a Castle shortly before the Green Knight’s chapel, where he is taken in by the prince and his men who reside there for some time, and finds himself being tempted by a beautiful woman who is staying on the castle grounds.

The Christian aspect of the story comes in to play here: Gawain must resist the charm of this lady, while still honoring her. Giving in to lust would be a great sin, especially for a Knight, and especially at Christmastime. Gawain is careful not to let himself be wooed and this will ultimately influence the outcome of the story. For the real dilemma that runs as an undercurrent in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is whether or not Sir Gawain can remain a moral, dignified person. In other words, a good Christian. The setting of the poem suggests a time when everybody was striving to be a good and moral Christian; people constantly bless one another and evoke the name of Jesus. The equivelants we have of Romantic stories today can be found in Hollywood. All superhero movies are romatic, as are the James Bond movies. But none of these stories evokes the same kind of entertainment Sir Gawain and the Green Knight evokes; superheroes and James Bond are more concerned with cynicism and occasional self parody, as if everybody involved in the story, both the characters and the creators, know that the sentiments being expressed are compeltely unfeasible. In these films, individualism trumps everything else. The conflicting emotions Batman feels, and the extravagent evil of the Joker are more important than how they relate to one another, or how people respect one another. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight stresses individualism, yet not as a trump to the rest of society; Sir Gawain is a respectful person who is helped along the way by numerous decent people. At the same time, delving in to Gawain’s personality is not important; his actions are. This is because Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a classically romantic and very Christian poem. It managed to convince me that there was such a thing as Noble Entertainment, so to speak, and makes all the romantic stories Hollywood pours out seem positively godless.

4 thoughts on “The Best Poem Christianity produced?”

  1. Gawain and the Green Knight is not a “Christian” poem–its a pagan poem adapted by Christians to be a moral Christian tale.

    I personally consider Gawain and the Green Knight to be an example of how Christianity co-opted elements of existing pagan European faiths and recast them in a “Christian” light.

    Consider for a moment the Christian phrase: In the name of the father, the son and the holy ghost. This phrase owes its cadence and meaning to a much older matrilineal phrase: In the name of the Mother, the Maiden and the Crone. The triple goddess is well established in classical mythology but a triple god is not.

    The author, or more likely, the monk who was tasked with preserving this work gave the original work a veneer of Christianity so that this story could be saved from the fires of the Christian establishment.

    Furthermore you need to understand that Christian ritual was originally performed in Latin and sometimes in Greek. This means that the vast majority of Europeans had no understanding of what the priest was saying to them. Which is why the Christians had to take a poem such as Gawain and the Green Knight and make it Christian.

    Thus if you edit out all the “Christian” elements you will have a mostly intact pagan legend. It is only then that you that can begin to contemplate the influence of European paganism on European Christianity.

  2. I agree with Jonathan — the Green Man, aka the Green Knight, is a central figure in English pagan culture. (Not to be confused with “Green Man,” the alter ego of Charlie on “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”…)

  3. I don’t claim to be an expert on religions, so I don’t dispute any of the pagan origins. In the class I have read it for, though–history of English Literature– we learned about it in the context of the development of an official Christian church and religion becoming a part of every individual’s identity, starting in the middle ages, with the Arthurian legends, but earlier with the Canterbury Tales. If you look at it next to Beowulf– a much earlier poem, which is pagan as all get-out– Beowulf looks heathenistic, with it’s liberties taken with the story of Satan (Grendel is one of Satan’s minions), it’s animism, nature-worship and rare evocations of god and Jesus. So there are still similarities, but Gawain looks comparatively Christian. That’s an interesting fact about where the Green Knight came from, by the way.

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