The epic poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was likely written—we do not know by whom—around 1400. The translation from old English by Simon Armitage, from which the quotations that follow are taken, makes this old English chivalric tale thrillingly accessible—and strangely thought provoking during the current tragic war.
About working with the barely comprehensible Old English, Armitage writes with wintry metaphors: “To the untrained eye, it is as if the poem is lying beneath a thin coat of ice, tantalizingly near yet frustratingly blurred. . . . (T)he urge to blow a little warm breath across that layer of frosting eventually proved irresistible” (p. 5).
The tale begins on New Year’s Day in Camelot, King Arthur’s court, “with New Year so young it still yawned and stretched:”
It was Christmas at Camelot—King Arthur’s
Where the great and the good of the land had
The right noble lords of the ranks of the
Quite properly carousing and reveling in
Time after time, in tournaments of joust,
They had lunged at each other with
Then returned to the castle to carry on their
For the feasting lasted a full fortnight and one
With more food and drink than a fellow could
The hubbub of their humour was heavenly to
hear. (p. 13)
Traveling across the centuries to a warmer landscape, I imagine the dancers and revellers at the Nova music festival—and the soldiers of the Israel Defence Forces on their Simchat Torah holidays, blissfully and dangerously ignorant of what sunrise was fated to bring.
Suddenly, into the jovial apparent safety of Camelot enters a mysterious green creature:
A fearful form appeared, framed in the door:
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. . . .
A knight of such a kind
Entirely emerald green. . . .
And his gear and garments were green as well. . . (p. 17-18)
What does green symbolize? Perhaps nature, perhaps a Christmas tree, perhaps the devil—readers have suggested. In the post October 7 world, the green color of the Hamas’s flag comes to mind, its menacing associations adding another layer of meaning to how “Green Knight” might be adapted.
Like Hamas, the Green Knight is a manipulator. He confuses the revellers with a mixed message of peace and war:
But [he] held in one hand a sprig of holly—
Of all the evergreens the greenest ever—
And in the other hand held the mother of all
A cruel piece of kit I kid you not. (p. 20)
While actively seeking conflict, the Green Knight claims to want peace—and he knows how to game the heroic code to lay a trap:
I’m clothed for peace, not kitted out for
But if you’re half as honorable as I’ve heard
You’ll gracefully grant me this game which I
By right (p. 22)
The Green Knight issues a challenge: one of the knights of the round table will volunteer to strike him once—on the condition that in one year and a day that knight will present himself to be struck in return.
The Green Knight thus bullies Arthur’s court into accepting the fatal game out of respect for the chivalric codes of honor. But is this promise-making honor—or is it idiocy? The Green Knight is an expert at psychological warfare:
So here is the House of Arthur, he scoffed,
Whose virtues reverberate across vast
Where’s the fortitude and fearlessness you’re
so famous for?
And the breathtaking bravery and the big-
The towering reputation of the Round Table,
Skittled and scuppered by a stranger—what
You flap and you flinch and I’ve not raised a finger!
Then he laughed so loud that their leader saw red.
Blood flowed to his fine-featured face and he raged
His men were also hurt—
Those words had pricked their pride. (p. 24)
Is this what the Hamas thought that it was doing—taunting the IDF?
But what the Hamas fail to understand is that while in their own mentality, humiliation and pride may be dominant guiding emotions—Israeli soldiers are motivated by love and by existential concern for the lives of Israelis. As a Canadian who loves Israel, I do not feel humiliated by the Hamas. I feel horrified by them.
Sir Gawain, Arthur’s nephew and youngest knight, volunteers to fight the Green Knight. In one stroke, Gawain beheads the knight. But astonishingly, the Green Knight simply picks his severed head from the floor and re-attaches it to his own body. He then reminds Gawain that, in one year, Gawain must fulfill his promise and find the Green Knight so that Gawain himself may receive the stroke. Gawain does not know where the Green Knight lives, and he must seek the Green Chapel:
‘Sir Gawain, be wise enough to keep your word and faithfully follow me until I’m found
as you vowed in this hall within hearing of
You’re charged with getting to the green
to reap what you’ve sown. You’ll rightfully
the justice you are due just as January dawns. (p. 30)
A year later, Gawain sets out to look for the Green Chapel. No longer ensconced within the luxury and privilege of Camelot, the brave Knight is challenged by nature:
Now through England’s realm he rides and
Sir Gawain, God’s servant, on his grim quest,
Passing long dark nights unloved and alone,
Foraging to feed, finding little to call food,
With no friend but his horse though forests
And only our Lord in heaven to hear him. . . .
And he constantly enquires of those he encounters
If they know, or not, in this neck of the woods,
Of a great green man or a green chapel.
No, they say, never. Never in their lives.
They know of neither a chap nor a chapel
So strange. . . .
In a strange region he scales steep slopes;
Far from his friends he cuts a lonely figure. . . .
And the wars were one thing, but winter was
Clouds shed their cargo or crystallized rain
Which froze as it fell to the frost-glazed earth.
Nearly slain by sleet he slept in his
Bivouacked in the blackness among the black rocks
Where melt-water streamed from the snow-capped summits
And high overhead hung chandeliers of ice.
So in peril and pain Sir Gawain made progress,
Crisscrossing the countryside until Christmas
Eve. (p. 41-42)
After several epic “twists and turns,” Gawain finds the Green Knight’s dwelling and courageously (but rather senselessly) presents his head to be chopped off—because the promise of a knight is a promise. However, as the axe approaches and the possibility of death is real, Gawain flinches:
But glimpsing the axe at the edge of his eye
bringing death earthwards as it arced through the air,
and sensing its sharpness, Gawain shrank at the shoulders. (p. 105)
The Green Knight mocks Gawain for his apparent cowardice:
The swinging axe-man swerved from his stroke,
and reproached the young prince with piercing words:
‘Call yourself good Sir Gawain?’ he goaded,
‘Who faced down every foe in the field of battle
but now flinches with fear at the foretaste of harm?
Never have I known such a namby-pamby knight. (p. 105)
At the end, the entire terrifying adventure turns out to be a game, and Gawain’s life is spared. But the questions that Sir Gawain and the Green Knight raises about psychological warfare and about the exploitation of the heroic code remain poignant:
Does the epic poem uphold the heroic code or critique it? Was it honorable or silly of Gawain to do everything he could to fulfil the apparently pointless and suicidal bargain with the Green Knight? Might the poem even be a critique of Jesus’s journey to Jerusalem—which he knew would lead to his crucifixion?
In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, these serious questions are asked in the context of what ultimately turns out to be a rather silly, cruel and questionable joke. In the context of the tragic war that Hamas started against Israel, human lives are at stake.
To say that on October 7 Hamas issued a challenge to the potential “knights” of the IDF would be not only an understatement but also a distortion. Rather than a chivalric challenge, the attack was a crime against humanity of the highest degree. Furthermore, the Hamas’s fantasy was likely that October 7 would be a part of a greater war, with the participation of Iran and Hezbollah—leading to the destruction of Israel and to a widespread genocide against its citizens.
This is what is morally wanting about those who lecture to Israel about morality: They protest when they are accused of Jew hate—and yet, they persist in not taking seriously the existential threat to Israel, of which we were sharply reminded on October 7, and in falsely implying that Israel has an exceptional thirst for violence. Israel haters may claim to be horrified by the Holocaust and by October 7 (perhaps as one may be horrified by a work of art)—but they are apparently unable to bring themselves to understand the tragic reality that defending oneself against an enemy hell bent on your murder is not a rhetorical reality but a very tragic military reality.
Today, on the first day of 2024, this is what Jew hate looks like—as it has always looked: exploiting whatever is deficient in the world around us to dehumanize and blame the Jews. A world in which the Hamas started a war against Israel is a broken world that makes us earnestly wish for an end to the war. But somehow this war is not the moral responsibility of Israel’s enemies who are openly Jew hating and openly speak about their desire for war. It is not clear why people who are so offended by being suspected of Jew hate are not doing more to condemn the open Jew hate of the Hamas and to contemplate its consequences—while at the same time focusing their efforts on calling for the release of the hostages and the surrender of Hamas, a leadership that has caused unspeakable suffering to the people of Gaza. Israel haters sometimes seem to rather like war—as long as they feel that their own lives are secure. And from that position, they dehumanize the Israeli soldiers who are risking their lives.
But as Yair Lapid, a former Israeli Prime Minister, said, Israel was not founded with the unrealistic hope of bringing Jew hate to an end—but rather to defend its people against the murderous fantasies of Jew hate:
Sir Gawain teaches us that heroism is not a joke. In potential, the heroic code contains within itself a grotesque, unnatural dimension that can distort the human soul. The hero flinches from death because we value life.
The sincere deconstruction of the heroic code—based on experience rather than ideology or opportunism—was in the very core of my education because I grew up with a stay-at home father, sculptor, and independent physicist <www.periodicphysics.com> who imparted to me what he learned from serving for over two years in Sayaret Shaked, one of the IDF’s elite units, during the War of Attrition. The heroic code certainly has its flaws and blindspots. And yet, pacifism—no matter how authentically our souls long for it—cannot be one sided. The desire to avoid war at all costs, when this desire is not mutual, invites a more terrible war in the long run. Heroism—despite being a highly flawed concept—is something that real humans who want to live are nevertheless forced to pursue in certain situations. Unfortunately, Israel has been forced into such a situation on October 7. If anyone does not believe that Israelis prefer peace and normalcy to war, they might want to consider how badly prepared Israel was on October 7—partly due to the longing for normalcy.
And now many soldiers, and the entire family of Israel, are facing what humans naturally flinch away from. The hope is that the tragic need to embrace the highly imperfect heroic code during these tragic times will, in the long run, help to guarantee more security for all those who wish to peacefully live and let live.
Citations are from Armitage, Simon. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Faber & Faber. Kindle Edition.