“Keeping your promises is very important in ‘Gawain’…”

We’re referring here once again to the ever-interesting (and, for student writers, ever-risky) Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

My student is correct that keeping promises is important in the poem. It is a mark of honor not only for the individual knight but also for the reputation of the Table Round altogether. Morgan-le-Fay has set out to destroy the credibility of Camelot, and the ploy she uses is the famous beheading game between Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Gawain takes the dare to strike G.K.’s head from off his shoulders with an axe, agreeing to search out the Knight a year later and receive a comparable blow. Severed, the head reminds Gawain of his promise; the reader then watches the months go by as Gawain anticipates fulfilling the agreement with growing dread. But he sets off in good time to keep the appointment.

After a difficult journey he happens on a delightful castle where he rests, exchanges promises in an evidently less deadly game with the castle’s lord, flirts with the lady, hears Christmas Mass, and duplicitously secretly accepts a sash that supposedly will protect him from the Green Knight’s axe.

On his way once again, he is offered an “out” by his guide: run away and the guide won’t tell. But Gawain keeps his promise; and the Green Knight, impressed with Gawain’s essential honesty and pluck, lets him off with the merest nick.

Gawain returns to Camelot ashamed that his honor was proven flawed; but the lords and ladies are so proud of him that they all don green sashes like the one he considers his badge of shame.

And Morgan-le-Fay loses, this time.

My student understands that the promise Gawain makes is of critical importance:

“Keeping your promises is very important in Gawain because it shows you are a man of your word.”

She should have stopped at “important,” but she felt compelled to go on. “Explain why it’s important,” she must have urged herself—and that was a good instinct. But her explanation is no such thing: it is a circular, or self-defining, definition. “Keeping your promises,” she’s saying, “is important because it shows you keep your promises.”

Now, I believe she meant more than that. Keeping your promises proves that you are a man of honor, perhaps. The behavior of keeping promises attests to the knight’s integrity of character. Something like that. And if that’s what she meant, she was right. She was right, too, that the first clause is insufficient to make that full point.

But the second clause is insufficient to make it, too, because it’s virtually identical with the first. It adds nothing, amplifies nothing, explains nothing, contextualizes nothing, clarifies nothing. The cause-effect connection promised by “because” is never earned. All the second clause does is make the sentence feel as if it says something, feel finished, feel significant.

Her instincts are fine. But her sentence promises more than it delivers.

Kind of like Gawain, if you want to be cynical about it.


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

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