“It took 1 year for Gawain to live before he had to die.”

This is our dear Sir Gawain again. His story isn’t all that complicated, but students get into all sorts of contorted sentence postures trying to summarize it.

Not hard. At the Yule feast, King Arthur wishes for a game or diverting story. In rides a knight and horse, both entirely green, to challenge Arthur to a beheading game: Arthur may strike off the knight’s head, but in a year must seek him out and submit to a similar stroke. Gawain, Arthur’s nephew, seeks to spare his king the hazard and at the same time earn some fame for himself; he beheads the green knight and so is committed to the exchange. A year passes, and he sets out to find the Green Chapel; he chances on a castle where he may hear Christmas mass and gather his strength for the coming ordeal. The lord of the castle is going hunting and offers to exchange prizes each day: he, a bit of the animal killed; Gawain, whatever benefit he has found in the castle. But the lady of the castle is up to her own game, and tries each day to seduce Gawain. Day One: a deer steak, a kiss; Day Two: a boar steak, a kiss; Day Three: the fox tail, a kiss. But Gawain has held back the green sash the lady has given him to protect him from harm. Then he sets out to find the Green Knight on the appointed day. The Green Knight needs three attempts at Gawain’s head: on the first try Gawain flinches; on the second, the knight feints; on the third, the knight nicks Gawain, and the game is revealed—Morgan le Fay, attempting to discredit the Round Table, has created Knight, Castle, lady, sash, and all. The Knight therefore knows of Gawain’s dishonesty with the sash. But he acknowledges Gawain’s essential purity, which means Morgan le Fay has failed. Gawain swears to wear the sash forevermore, as an admission of his shame; but when he returns to Camelot everyone else dons a green sash too, in honor of Gawain. Honi soit qui mal y pense.

More or less.

In today’s Horror, my student has essayed to summarize the story. This sentence bridges the space between the beheading of the Green Knight and the due date for Gawain’s pledge.

WHAT “took one year”? “It,” of course–the same “it” that comes in so handy to tell us “it’s hard to leave you,” “it’s a sin to tell a lie,” and “it takes a village to raise a child.” In this way, it took a year–sorry, 1 year. Now generally in this structure we understand the “it” by moving deeper into the sentence, to an infinitive. To leave you is hard. To tell a lie is a sin. To raise a child takes a village. Thus, to live took 1 year. You see the problem.

It took him a year to live before he had to die. It takes most people seventy or more years before they have to do this, but Gawain is in a magic story and perhaps we have to try to look past the idea of a one-year-old Knight of the Round Table. We will allow my student to be claiming that it took him one MORE year to live.

We can also allow “he had to die” to mean “he was appointed to meet death,” rather than the more generalized fact of mortality—because, like it or not, we all have to die, and that becomes true at birth, not at some later date.

By the time we’ve allowed all this, we’ve run out of sentence. The only solution for the hapless grader is to note “awkward” or “unidiomatic” in the margin, take a deep breath, and plunge into the next narrative thicket, just as Gawain made his way through the wintry landscape in quest of the Green Chapel.

Gawain wasn’t laughing, though, and I have to confess that I was.

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About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

2 responses to ““It took 1 year for Gawain to live before he had to die.”

  • literarygeekery

    I’ve read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight twice in my student career- once in high school and then most recently this past semester as a junior in college. I believe my Medieval Literature professor would have similar grading horrors to tell you (hopefully not about my papers!).

    • RAB

      Do you think it’s something about the poem? Is Gawain just asking for horrors to fall on him? –because I certainly do have a lot of Gawain horrors, and I suspect you’re right about your professor too!
      Happy new year!

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