The Hero Story We All Need

Sir Gawain and the Green Girdle of Grace

Blake Nail / 8.9.21

In today’s world, a hero can take any number of different forms. There’s the classic Marvel formula: one with no powers gains powers, learns how to harness said powers and then saves the day (or the world, or possibly soon, the multiverse). Or there’s the above average to exceptional person who becomes a hero through their determination (like athletes). Joseph Campbell famously and notoriously laid it all out for us. The Hero’s Journey, as he so declared it. It’s the pattern not only for major Hollywood films but even fits the mold for myths of our past. But one doesn’t always have to trek Campbell’s twelve stages to be deemed a hero today. If you were to use your thumbs correctly and type the perfect tweet, well, you could be lauded as a hero for a whole week, or a day at least. It wasn’t always this easy.

The Middle Ages are known for producing phenomenal stories, although they are difficult to get through if I’m being honest, such as Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, The Dream of the Rood, and a favorite of mine, Beowulf. To be a hero in the Middle Ages, one had to perform under great stress without an ounce of fear. Beowulf slaughters monsters even into his elderly age. He’s the epitome of what we can’t be. That’s why the story is passed down and told by the flickering flames, the hopeful figure of aspirational conquest. It’s quite similar to our usual experience with superheroes and the extraordinary — a hope for something, or someone, outside of ourselves to save us. A human desire within all of us.

But there’s one story from the Middle Ages that defies what we know as a hero and gives us a different type of hope, hope for those of us who are far from resembling anything heroic.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight has gained popularity recently with the new release of production studio A24’s latest film, The Green Knight. The film stars the talented Dev Patel alongside a beautifully arranged soundtrack and stunning cinematography. It’s worth seeing for those factors alone. The film, however, misses out on some of the beauty of the original story by adding a more modern twist to the tale. This is not a condemnation, but rather a suggestion to experience both the film and the book.

Sir Gawain is a knight on King Arthur’s Round Table and also happens to be Arthur’s nephew. (Middle Age Nepotism? Possibly, but that’s not the topic at hand.) To summarize quickly and not cause you to fall into a slumber, Sir Gawain takes up the Green Knight on his challenge of going blow for blow. Sir Gawain is allowed to strike the Green Knight. But a year from then, they must meet again and the Green Knight can strike back reciprocally. In an attempt to decisively end this tit-for-tat exchange, Sir Gawain cuts the head off of the Green Knight. But in horror, he watches the Green Knight pick up and reattach his head up. Gawain’s fate has been sealed by his own hand. A beheading awaits him a year later.

When the time comes, Gawain heads out on a journey to meet the Green Knight once again and receive what is due. He doesn’t fight monsters and beasts like Beowulf, but instead faces different challenges. As the scholar Laura Ashe puts it:

“… as the literature of medieval romance began to blossom in the 12th century, a sophisticated culture of courtly behavior between men and women began to change the idealized image of the knight.”

The game had changed. So, Sir Gawain faces the challenge of temptation with another man’s woman. Eventually, he takes a green silk girdle from the woman who has promised him it would protect him from any strike. Beguiled into saving his own life, he takes the girdle and wears it as he visits the Green Knight. The girdle actually saves his life, but the Green Knight was in on the gambit the whole time. A trick to test Gawain and his loyalty, which he failed.

A more human story would be hard to find, for who would not desire to save their own life? Even the Green Knight respects it, and blames him not. But a heroic knight, Sir Gawain is not. Self-preservation does fall very high on the list of heroic qualities — it’s all too human of an impulse.  It’s why sacrifice is remarkably admired by all of us. We applaud the firefighters marching into the fiery flames, the soldier fighting for freedom overseas, and doctors battling infectious diseases. And we praise the godman who bled in the garden fighting his inclinations to not give his life. It’s a rarity, a noble trait that doesn’t reside in all of us. Gawain knows this, so when he returns to the Round Table he immediately confesses:

“Regard,” said Gawain, as he held up the girdle, “the symbol of sin, for which my neck bears the scar; a sign of my fault and offence and failure, of the cowardice and covetousness I came to commit. I was tainted by untruth. This, its token, I will drape across my chest till the day I die. For man’s crimes can be covered but never made clean; once sin is entwined it is attached for all time.”

Gawain finds himself where we all find ourselves, wallowing in failures and sin. There is no hope for Gawain. He has failed and will have to wear his badge of shame for the rest of his life. In a world built on honor, he will always be without it. Unless, that is, someone steps in to redeem him. To take his dishonor and make it honorable, to take his sin and make him righteous. Which is exactly what the Round Table does. Every knight in the brotherhood takes upon themselves to wear a green girdle, bearing Gawain’s faults across their chests and in due time, and it is counterintuitively adopted as a sign of honor among the Round Table. They share in his guilt, and therefore render it powerless.

Is Gawain a hero? Not by any conventional measures. He’s no Beowulf, Iron Man, or Jesus. He defeated no monsters, saved no damsels in distress. And yet, he’s the kind of hero story we all need: the hero of imputed righteousness, of salvation from the worst of ourselves.

A story of terrible news thus becomes one bearing good news. That in our faults and failures there’s still hope, hope that someone will come and bear our sin for us. Not only bearing it alongside us but transferring this great sin into something glorious, honorable, or righteous even. This is the good news of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and also, the good news of the gospel. There is hope for those of us marred with the symbol of sin, weighed down with faults and failures. And yet, we are still free to recite those last words of this classic Middle Age legend:

“Now let our Lord, thorn-crowned, bring us to perfect peace. AMEN.”