What is it about Sir Gawain and the Green Knight that lures unwitting students into language tangles?
In an earlier post on this poem, I included a link to the text. Briefly, though: King Arthur and the good people of Camelot are celebrating the Christmas/Yule holiday. Arthur says he never likes to sit down to eat until he has heard a good story or seen a good trick. Right on cue, enter the Green Knight— a man green of garb and green of skin and hair, mounted on a horse caparisoned in green—to challenge Arthur to a game of exchanged blows. Unwilling that his uncle and king take such a risk, and perhaps eager to begin to build a reputation, young Sir Gawain steps forward to accept. His task: to attempt to chop off the head of the Knight. The exchange: in a year and a day he will present himself at the Green Chapel so the Green Knight can attempt to chop off his head. Gawain swings the axe, and the Knight’s head goes rolling across the room. Said Knight strolls over and picks up his head, which speaks to confirm the later appointment. A year later, Gawain does manage to find his way to the Green Chapel (adventures, risks, temptations, another game of exchanges, etc., as appropriate) and present his neck for severing. As a grade-school book-reviewer would say, “To find out how it ends, read the book!”
Anyway. My student here begins her sentence credibly, although calling the Green Knight’s immortality “obvious” is dependent on what happens after he appears: his immortality is demonstrated, not visible.
But, as is so often the case when I present a Horror with ellipses, there is more to come:
“The Green Knight is obviously immortal, having survived a decapitation and his green complexion.”
I think I knew what she meant: he survives decapitation, making him evidently immortal, and his skin is green, suggesting that he is otherworldly, perhaps not mortal. But, luckily for a tired reader and a future blog, she didn’t write that, did she?
The “and” joins equal elements; here, it joins two direct objects (decapitation, complexion) of the verb “survive.” So the Green Knight survives decapitation AND he survives a green complexion.
Perhaps that’s not such an unusual idea to occur to a young woman just emerging from her teens. Adolescence is a difficult time for most of us, and a cruel time for many. A bad complexion can be a real social handicap for boys and girls alike—the “eeeeuuuuww” factor is powerful. We talk about kids “surviving” their adolescence, or “surviving” high school: why not talk about people “surviving” their complexions?
I remember seeing on “late-night” television, years ago when I was still pretty young, the 1948 movie The Boy with the Green Hair. Very little of it remains in my actual memory, except that the hair was meant to single him out so he could become a voice against war but the townspeople either shunned or attacked him and he had to run away. Wikipedia gives a more comprehensive description of the film here. I’m tempted to look for it; it sounds more interesting than my young self could have understood. But for the purposes of a discussion of Sir Gawain, what’s significant is that the boy had a really hard time after his hair turned green, so we can imagine how hard having green skin—less removable, certainly!—would be.
Feel free to sing a few lines of Kermit’s “It’s Not Easy Being Green” here.
If you can survive being green in a world of people whose skins are various shades of brown ranging from ivory to ebony, you can probably survive anything. And if you can survive anything, that would make you, um, immortal.