Laughter and the Green Knight
A Review of the Gawain Poem, Part II
In a previous installment of this essay on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, I described my journey of acquaintance with this medieval poem, and my growing appreciation for it as not only a story about Christmas, but a story-poem for Christmas, to be enjoyed at Christmastime.
In this installment, I want to enlarge one theme from the poem, which became increasingly important to me as I read and re-read it. That theme is laughter. But first I need to back up a bit.
Let’s revisit the distinction I spoke of in the previous installment: the two kinds of mental activity which traditional philosophers describe. These are the sensitive and the intellectual activities of the mind.
The sensitive mental activities (sensation, memory, and imagination) are those with which poetry is concerned as art (though as literature, poetry is naturally pulled in the direction of intelligibility at the same time.) For this reason among others, poetry doesn’t want to talk about universals or lessons or abstract concepts directly, as a sermon or book of philosophy would do. Instead, it gets at them indirectly through depicting particular instances—the nature of man only through a particular man; the nature of laughter only through particular occasions of laughter.
(To be clear, verse isn’t always poetry, and doesn’t need to be. Sermons can be written in verse.)
So the medieval poet, whose whole society is involved in a joint project to hypothesize the ideal man, chooses the particular character Sir Gawain to be the face of this ideal. Sir Gawain is not only the ideal man, but the ideal knight. And in this poem, he is represented as a man of laughter in his hours of leisure, and most particularly in society. Sir Gawain is described as stern when facing the Green Knight; but in company, never.
And then there is a set of particular situations giving rise to different kinds of laughter. In Gawain, befitting the Christmas setting and purpose, laughter is primarily an expression of delight and merriment, rather than derision. As such, it seems to be an important component of courtesy. Making oneself pleasant to one’s companions is both art and virtue in Gawain.
With all the bliss of this world they abode together,
the knights most renowned after the name of Christ,
and the ladies most lovely that ever life enjoyed,
and he, king most courteous, who that court possessed.
As Tolkien points out in his introduction to Gawain, both the poet and his subject, Sir Gawain, are high-minded and serious men concerned with theology and virtue. The story is shaped around the triumph of chastity over the earlier chivalrous embrace of adulterous love. Anyone touched (as I have been) by the Puritan outlook might therefore find surprising this repeated and emphasized connection between virtue and merriment. The Puritans pursued virtue by banning Christmas, dancing, most music, and rich liturgical worship; but at Camelot they seek perfection by embracing these same things.
He calls to his chamberlain, and chooses his clothes,
and goes forth when garbed all gladly to Mass.
Then he went to a meal that meetly awaited him,
and made merry all day, till the moon arose o’er earth.
Ne’er was knight so gaily engaged
between two dames of worth,
the youthful and the aged:
together they made much mirth.
This connection between mirth and virtue is established early in the poem. Here the court at Camelot are celebrating the nativity of the Lord Jesus; and this holy season they observe with games, sport, laughter, merriment, jest, and gladness.
This king lay at Camelot at Christmas-tide
with many a lovely lord, lieges most noble,
indeed of the Table Round all those tried brethren,
amid merriment unmatched and mirth without care.
There tourneyed many a time the trusty knights,
and jousted full joyously these gentle lords;
then to the court they came at carols to play.
For there the feast was unfailing full fifteen days,
with all meats and all mirth that men could devise,
such gladness and gaiety as was glorious to hear,
din of voices by day, and dancing by night;
all happiness at the highest in halls and in bowers
had the lords and the ladies, such as they loved most dearly.
Analytically, I see that the memorializing of this kind of sweetness fulfils the function of a Christmas story. But the poem continues to do its primary work in me, and I feel also the sweetness itself. I can feel how such people would have believed it an insult to the Lord not to be made almost deliriously happy by the seasonal reminder of his arrival amongst men.
On the morn when every man remembers the time
that our dear Lord for our doom to die was born,
in every home wakes happiness on earth for His sake.
So did it there on that day with the dearest delights:
at each meal and at dinner marvelous dishes
men set on the dais, the daintiest meats.
Similarly, later in the poem, the lord of the castle at which Sir Gawain is entertained is so happy at his guest’s presence that he acts almost like a man out of his senses.
For love of him that lord was as loud in his mirth
as one near out of his mind who scarce knew what he meant.
With mirth and minstrelsy and meats at their pleasure
as merry they made as any men could be;
amid the laughter of ladies and light words of jest
both Gawain and the good man could no gayer have proved,
unless they had doted indeed or else drunken had been.
We know what it is to be abashed and feel inferior because others are not glad to see us. When they are happy in our presence, it is (besides being pleasant, and inducing us to be happy with them in turn) a true compliment. Sensitive to this effect, the courteous people in Gawain give others joy by enjoying their presence. They compliment them, not by flattery but by seeming glad to be with them. In our experience, it is mainly children and dogs that can be seen expressing intense joy at the return of a loved one; but in Gawain even the adults do this. The maintenance of this ability into adulthood is part of the meaning of “gentle,” in the sense used in “gentlemen.”
At Sir Gawain’s departure, the court makes merry about him, even though their hearts are heavy.
The knights of renown and noble ladies
all for the love of that lord had longing at heart,
but nevertheless the more lightly of laughter they spoke:
many were joyless who jested for his gentle sake.
This is the thinking behind the custom of Christmas gaiety reflected in this story. Christ has arrived; how can his people not make merry to welcome him?
…[he] said then aloud
to the queen so comely with courteous words:
‘Dear Lady, today be not downcast at all!
Such cunning play well becomes the Christmas tide,
interludes, and the like, and laughter and singing,
amid these noble dances of knights and of dames.
Narratively, this tradition of Christmas gaiety also provides the excuse (stretched to incredible lengths, of course) for the Green Knight’s enjoyably ludicrous Christmas games. The humor in Gawain’s character is that he is just a little too exacting in his observance of the courtly virtues, including promise-keeping—and it trips him up when the Green Knight sets a trap for him. It’s a bit sly, nestled in amongst all the feasting and hunting and feeding of the senses; but we’re meant to be amused when Gawain walks into the trap and writhes there for a while, before being mercifully released so we can go back to our own parties with a clear and relieved mind.
But does this connection between merriment and the coming of Christ have any basis in reality, aside from courtly custom?
A contrast to Beowulf, another alliterative poem, is handy at the moment. The author, an early medieval Christian, reflects sadly in several places on the paganism of his ancestors; the grave danger their souls dwelt in, since their knowledge of God’s law was so little and so severely tested; and the mournfulness of their histories. He represents their very feasts as shot through with sadness, as all sound in the banqueting hall ceases for a time, and old tragedies are recalled and woven together with present sorrows into a tapestry of grief.
Beowulf’s lack of laughter seems of a piece with other references to the sadness of olden times. I have noted at different times the admiration expressed by such diverse peoples as the pagan Romans, the American Cherokees, and the Confucian Asians, for men who have themselves so well in hand that they never or rarely smile. I can understand it when I think for a moment of what libidinous revelries such peoples, or those around them, indulged in when they were not stern and restrained.
Gawain rather idealizes a certain “mannerly mirth.”
And while the pagan had his Asgard or Elysium to look forward to, giving him a savage joy in and abandon to the fight, it seems he could rarely afford actual gaiety. Leisure released him to mourn, not to rejoice. These assertions are generalizations based upon impressions from reading old books, and do not comprise a thesis; but Chesterton makes a similar observation somewhere, leaving me in good company.
So it seems people closer to the time of transition genuinely believed the pre-Christian days were sadder ones; and that Christians were happier and more carefree. Given that human sacrifice was a regular practice of Celtic, English, and Norse paganisms (as indeed of so many others) this is not difficult to understand.
Do you remember the line from the old Christmas carol, On Christmas Night?
Then why should men on Earth be so sad
when our Redeemer made us glad?
Sadness, the carol hints, is the ordinary lot of men on Earth; while the Redeemer bestows gladness on us.
It’s more than the hope of future Heaven that generates this effect, however. The central event of Beowulf has to do with the unchecked incursion of demonic enemies into the strongholds of men. This seems to be an experience reported by nearly every pre-Christian society in history, including the book of Acts, and contemporary tribes coming into first contact with modern Christian missionaries. That this experience appears universal (even among the Hebrews, given incidents of demon possession in the gospels) seems to me a plausible and forcible explanation for why the coming of Christ brought general gladness to men. I am not certain that gladness was even possible in the same way before Christ came.
An irony has emerged over the centuries. Christ having brought all the powers into subjection to himself, it comes about that wherever his light shines even a little the tormenters are so generally quelled that after a while people cease even to believe in their existence.
Yet even now I observe that Christians of all sorts are more willing to laugh than their unbelieving counterparts. Especially, we tend to laugh happily when we are together.
Unchristian people, who so often reserve their laughter for moments of scorn or leering, may think those who do otherwise unintelligent or prudish; but no one could call the Gawain poet unintelligent – and no reasonable person could call him prudish, either! As our civilization diminishes and our own powers to live up to the past decay, our strength will more and more need to be rooted in our traditions, including such classic literature as this.
The Gawain poem ends thus:
To His bliss us bring who bore
the Crown of thorns on brow.
If it is Christ’s purposed intention to bring us to his bliss, then bliss itself is a virtue—a Heavenly one. The court of Camelot, those folk who “in their first estate did abide” during this time of Arthur’s youth, are creating a miniature of Heaven on Earth (or perhaps a second Eden.) Their laughter, merriment, and dispelling of shame are more than a privilege of wealth and leisure (as the foregoing quote about “every home on Earth” exemplifies.) It is more like a project in beatification.
Sir Gawain’s temptation (which requires him avoid competing vices—that of grieving a lady on the one hand, and that of giving in to her beguilements on the other) is a test in sanctity (and, of course, courtly manners) which could only have been undergone by one of the best of Arthur’s men.
Such glances she gave him of her gracious favor,
secretly stealing sweet looks that strong man to charm,
that he was passing perplexed, and ill-pleased at heart.
Yet he would fain not of his courtesy coldly refuse her,
but graciously engaged her, however against the grain
Laughter has an interesting relationship to shame in Gawain, as in general life. If we expect the traditional classics to reveal those strange contemporary constructs known as “stereotypes,” we will look for Christian laughter in the poem to be the instrument of punishment. We will look for characters in the story to have virtue imposed on them through shame, and we will expect to find cruel laughter the instrument of that shame. Delightfully, the opposite is what we actually find in this poem. The gracious court of Camelot uses laughter precisely to purge, dismiss, and release shame.
‘Lo! Lord,’ he said at last, and the lace handled,
‘This is the band! For this a rebuke I bear in my neck!
This is the grief and disgrace I have got for myself
from the covetousness and cowardice that o’er came me there!
This is the token of the troth-breach that I am detected in,
and needs must I wear it while in the world I remain;
for a man may cover his blemish, but unbind it he cannot,
for where once ’tis applied, thence part will it never.’
The king comforted the knight, and all the Court also
laughed loudly thereat, and this law made in mirth,
the lords and the ladies, that whoso belonged to the Table,
every knight in Brotherhood, a baldric should have,
a band of bright green obliquely about him,
and this for love of that knight as a livery should wear.
Something about this is true to life; for laughter seems our most potent physiological release mechanism for shame. One need not, in fact, feel shame explicitly at all when one’s insufficiencies and limitations are immediately accepted and laughed off. The Gawain poet observes just such an instance when he speaks of ladies laughing at their loss of games (though it’s possibly because innocent kisses were the prize.)
Handsels, handsels they shouted, and handed them out,
Competed for those presents in playful debate;
ladies laughed loudly, though they lost the game,
and he that won was not woeful, as may well be believed.
All this merriment they made, till their meat was served;
then they washed, and mannerly went to their seats,
One has seen such pretty behavior in real life. How lovely to hypothesize that many of the country girls we know would be more welcome, in this regard, at Camelot than our contemporary celebrities.
In academic writing, we usually don’t draw morals from imaginative literature, because we never stray from treating it as hypothetical. However, in this case we have the freedom to do so, even as our ancestors did. Especially when we know that the writer has built in a moral, in expectation of its being drawn. And if I choose to draw some moral from what has been considered in this essay (in addition to the plain one about mirth’s being actually a Christian virtue) I think it must be that the best and most virtuous people release shame through laughter. If that is so, then laughter which actually imposes shame is a perversion.
While I think that is a fine moral, I also find myself qualifying it. I believe it can be dishonest to refrain from ridiculing the ridiculous. Correct and just sentiment is a virtue, and there are times when something objectionable must be laughed at.
But when? It is difficult to judge cases apart from particulars. In her novel Emma, Jane Austen, whose heroes and heroines are marked by their pursuit of correct sentiment, portrays a situation in which it turns out to be entirely wrong to laugh at someone who seems ridiculous. When the titular character laughs at Miss Bates, she is scolded for it and repents. However, an examination of the argument made against her behavior shows differently than may be expected. Mr. Knightly argues, not that one should not ridicule the ridiculous, but that Miss Bates is in fact at too much at a disadvantage to be truly ridiculous at all. Her circumstances are sad, and she has virtues; her sometimes unattractive manners don’t sufficiently count against these things.
Others may object that bad things are not funny, and we may debase our own sense of humor by laughing at evil. I cautiously advance the argument that we can only ever make jokes about unfunny things. If they were already funny, we wouldn’t need to make jokes about them. (Gawain might be seen as an extended joke about the conventions of courtly literature, or people who while fine upstanding citizens, take themselves a bit too seriously.)
There is also an argument for the justice of ridicule from the roots of comedy. Aristotle seems to believe that comedy arises from mockery. He says that the mimicry involved in all art took two different directions. Those who mimicked the beautiful—people better than themselves—created high art. Those who mimicked the ugly—people worse than themselves—created humor. If there’s any truth at all in this (and Aristotle must have been appreciably closer to the origin of jokes than we are) then what we see in Gawain is a highly developed and special case of humor, used harmlessly and innocently among superior folk. In that case, it may be impossible and even improper to entirely sever laughter from its beginnings.
A personal story may illustrate my persisting feeling that the ridiculous must sometimes in all justice be laughed at. Happily, the story also illustrates how laughter in real life can dispel shame—in this case undeserved shame.
When I was a young adult, a Mennonite friend of mine wanted to attend the same college I was going to, a Baptist Bible college. She received permission to live in my family’s house instead of on campus, and stayed in my room for several years.
One evening on campus, as we were walking out to her vehicle to go home, we passed a young man who seemed to be hanging around aimlessly. We thought little of it until we were belted in and driving away, when he jumped out in front of the vehicle and began screaming.
“Amish people aren’t supposed to go to college!” he shrieked. “Go home, Amish girls!” Then he ran away.
My friend had slammed on her brakes, so now we were just sitting there staring at an empty parking lot in silence.
After a long moment, she and I spontaneously and simultaneously began tittering. We glanced at one another, and then we burst out laughing. We laughed until the tears came, and then drove home without discussing the incident at all. There was simply no other response that seemed right. And there still isn’t.
What about Sir Gawain’s situation?
Recalling that imagination is essentially hypothesis worked out in detail, I ask what such a man would do in such a situation. My instinct is that a man like Sir Gawain would not listen to arguments that he had no reason to blame himself for being caught in a magician’s net. The laughter of Camelot comforts him and dispels his shame, but it does so in part by exposing the ridiculous extent of his preoccupation with personal honor, the hidden pomp of his self-blame. The laughter is cleansing. It burns, but it burns less than the shame he is already loading on his own heart; and so the laughter is the only thing that will free him.
Thus as in all things, love is the secret yardstick of harmlessness.
And now as we close the book until, perhaps, next Christmas, we have the rare and uplifting sensation that we have been sharing a laugh with the noblest men and women of Christendom, at least in imagination.
And that’s a very fine thing, indeed.
“The noble man is he who loves fine things for their own sake.” —Aristotle
Alana K. Asby is a wife of 16 years, a mother of three, a homeschooling autodidact who also did hard time in Bible college, and an avid and devoted amateur philosopher of the language arts. She is also the founder and Head of Vulgaris Media, a populist publishing company for traditional readers and writers, as well as its non-profit arm, The Academy of Inventive Literature, an informal consortium of writers pursuing fine literature along traditional lines. She also runs free writing challenges with available critiques at her personal blog, Slow Literature.
Artwork: Henri Biva (1848-1928), A Lily Pond