If you last read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight long ago, you might mainly remember the striking and supernatural image of a huge green warrior riding away from King Arthur’s court, his hand clutching his own severed head. To many scholars, though, this is a poem less about magic than about shame and guilt. At the court, Gawain and his comrades endure the shame of being called out publicly by the green stranger, and private pangs of guilt rack the virtuous knight when he fails to measure up to trials and temptations.
Such preoccupations may make the poem seem particularly arcane and irrelevant right now. Under Donald Trump, shame, guilt, and honor seem long vanished from even the rearview mirror; shamelessness reigns. Yet Sir Gawain’s very emphasis on shame can teach us a lesson about that shamelessness: its harm lies not only in the havoc that the shameless can wreak, but also in the possibility that when a powerful person casts off shame, it lodges itself within those who would resist him.
Shame influences Sir Gawain’s story from the outset. The Green Knight appears at Camelot with a challenge: strike me with an axe, in return for which you must present yourself at my chapel in a year and a day to receive the same treatment. After some hesitation, Gawain agrees and decapitates the mysterious figure, hoping this puts an end to the nonsensical bargain. But he and the court watch in horror as the Green Knight matter-of-factly picks up his own severed head, which pointedly tells Gawain: See you next year. Odd as this exchange might seem, it is fundamentally chivalrous, displaying and assuming honorable behavior. Except for one telling fact: Gawain accepts the Green Knight’s challenge not with noble alacrity but only because no one else will. Gawain sees Arthur blush, the blood shooting for shame into his shining face. Only then does he step up.
More shame is to come. On the journey to meet the Green Knight a year later, Gawain sojourns in a mysterious castle. There, he agrees to a bargain with Bertilak, the castle’s lord: each will give the other what he has received at the end of every day. Bertilak spends his mornings hunting, presenting Gawain on successive days with a deer, a boar, and a fiendish fox. Gawain, meanwhile, remains inside the castle. Here, Bertilak’s wife presses kisses upon him, which Gawain daily renders to Bertilak. Both the kissing and its disclosure embarrass Gawain: scholars see this as a milder version of shame, but still in that family of experiences.
2017 has shown us how powerful people exaggerate their successes while refusing to exhibit shame at their moral failures. Sir Gawain anatomizes this shamelessness.
Something else happens during their game, however, that indicates not shame but its absence. Bertilak’s wife offers Gawain a green girdle she says will protect him. This he agrees to conceal from his host, breaking the terms of his deal with Bertilak. His plan to abscond with the girdle implies that—even if only momentarily—the threat of shame disappears for Gawain. Perhaps cowardice or self-preservation motivates this decision, but it is uncharacteristic and thus raises a crucial question. What has permitted Gawain to act as though shame did not exist?
The poem’s answer, I think, is entitlement. When Gawain arrives at Bertilak’s castle and explains his errand, his host reassures him that the Green Chapel—the home of the Green Knight—is close by and that Gawain can relax without fear of missing his tryst. Gawain delightedly responds: “my quest is accomplished” (“acheued is my chaunce”). Although he is still two miles from the chapel, the challenges of the intervening days yet unknown, Gawain perceives a done deal. He laughs; it’s going to be so easy.
This moment marks a subtle turning point. Immediately afterwards, Gawain cheerfully assents to Bertilak’s trading game. As a guest he has little choice, but the breeziness of his acquiescence gives pause; does he not recognize that just this type of trading got him in trouble before, when the Green Knight proposed it? Deluded that he has achieved something he has not, Gawain feels emboldened to ignore consequences. In that state of mind, shamelessness becomes possible, and it rears its head when Gawain decides to conceal the girdle.
2017 has shown us how powerful people exaggerate their successes while refusing to exhibit shame at their moral failures. Sir Gawain cuts through local details of politics, psychology, and incompetence to anatomize this shamelessness at its most stylized and elemental. When encouraged to feel entitled, even the most spotlessly honorable knight can lose all sense of shame. Imagine how much easier the slide for someone longer on entitlement and shorter on honorable standards.
The poem proceeds to suggest that once you shrug off shame, your relationship to it is forever tenuous. Even though Gawain (unlike Trump to date) goes on to display shame, the exhibition is confusing. The Green Knight (none other than Bertilak in disguise) confronts Gawain with his ignoble act—that is, concealing the girdle—when he arrives at the Green Chapel. Gawain shrinks for shame, but this reaction is hardly unalloyed. Not only does Gawain dilute his shame by blaming women for his actions, but the Green Knight himself also makes excuses for Gawain: you feared for your life, so how can we blame you for your mediocre performance?; you are still an exceptional pearl.
Gawain tries to hold onto his shame by proposing that he will now wear the girdle as a band of his blame. But his peers insist on treating his shame as a marker of worth. The court adopts the girdle, the very token he proposes to wear as a signal of his permanent stain, as a badge of honor. Perhaps Gawain remains ashamed. But the poem declines to depict this: it expands outward and away from Gawain, invoking, in its final lines, King Arthur, the Trojan War, and Christ. Once Gawain has opened up the possibility of rejecting shame, the poem itself can end by relinquishing red-faced emotional specificity in favor of the obfuscating sweep of history.
What has permitted Gawain to act as though shame did not exist? The poem’s answer is entitlement.
When shame’s location is obscured, does it disappear entirely? The medieval text holds unique potential to explore this question. We know Sir Gawain because it survives in a manuscript, a handwritten copy. Medieval manuscripts are often inscribed not only with the text in question but also with ancillary comments and additions. Sir Gawain is no exception: after the poem’s ending, someone has jotted the motto of the Order of the Garter, Honi soit qui mal y pense [Shame on anyone who thinks anything shady is going on here]. This inclusion has been deemed a “curious logic” that turns shame on the observer. Where the ending of the poem cannot locate shame, then, the manuscript’s embellishment can: shame lands on us, the observers.
In the poem, Gawain’s shield is decorated with a pentangle, a five-pointed star. I would suggest that we can understand this device as illustrating the motion of shame as well as its ultimate virulence. As a completed symbol, the pentangle conveys honor and virtue, an “endeles knot.” But as the scholar Geraldine Heng notes, the pentangle is also an ambiguous, overdetermined gnarl on which the narrative catches. What, after all, does it mean to draw that knot? It ricochets and lands on different points as you trace it. And once you start drawing the star, it has inexorable momentum. In this sense, the tracery of the pentangle is the moving force of shame: once initiated, it has to exist somewhere. If you reject it, it will continue to bounce and prick in other corners. When an enfranchised protagonist (a knight, a politician) is coddled to cast off shame, that shame becomes a sharp point set loose to lodge collaterally in his watchers.
A year and some days since our presidential election, the Trump administration has driven that sharp point into me. I am pierced by the shame he refuses to feel. I see Trump as merely intensifying what are in fact longstanding injustices and evils; I see myself as accountable for my belatedness in resisting them. And I know that even as I try to do better, I am complicit still. But Sir Gawain offers perspective on these disabling anxieties, revealing them as the shame that shamelessness makes its weapon. Perhaps this recognition offers an exit route from that sense of entrapment, regression, and futility, an escape from drawing the pentangle’s endless, privileged knot.