Of all the old Arthurian legends, I think I like this one the best.
There is an undeniable strangeness, a bewitching weirdness, to the legend of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight that makes it linger in the memory long after the act of reading is done.
I read an article the other day by my friend Aurelius Moner which referenced this old tale. We come from different traditions and backgrounds, but I respect him as a learned and sincere man. It made me think about a few aspects of the story that I wanted to give some extended treatment.
Of course it is laden with symbolism. Of course it was originally meant to clothe in Christian symbolism the moral lessons needed to tame the savage hearts of the heathen North.
And of course it is a parable. But of what? Of many things, naturally. But most of it deals with the idea of the wages of justice.
The wages of justice.
For justice is never free, you know. There is always some price that must be paid for it. Goodness and virtue are all well and good, but there is some investment of energy–some expenditure of energy–that must take place before we can have It. It, meaning Justice.
Energy equals mass, as Einstein tells us. Well, I say that energy also equals Justice. E=mJ squared, or something of that sort.
Consider the tale first. It is a pretty little tale, but with dark overtones, as there always are with these old Nordic legends.
We do not know the original author. As we shouldn’t. Such tales should emerge starkly anonymous from the swirling mists of time that have cloaked the bogs and heath of the British Isles.
In Camelot, Arthur and his knights are dining merrily. Into this little party walks the huge figure of the Green Knight, representing Fate, or Nature, or perhaps both. He has an axe in one hand a bough in the other. He challenges any man present to accept his offer: they may strike him as hard as they wish, and in return, in one years’ time, he will be able to return the favor at a meeting in a “Green Chapel.”
So we have a test of strength, a test of physical and moral will.
No one wants to accept. Everyone is alarmed by this huge, green figure. Finally young Gawain accepts the offer. With one blow, he separates the Green Knight’s head from his body.
And then the Green Knight picks up his head, dripping with gore, reminds Gawain of his promise to meet him in one years’ time. And then he is gone.
Nearly one year later, Gawain sets out on his journey to the Green Chapel. Everyone believes he is headed for certain death. He does too. And yet he goes anyway. He has given his word. And not to honor his word would be a fatal, irredeemable disgrace to his liege and brother knights.
Gawain comes upon a castle, in which three people reside: the lord of the manor, Bertilak de Hautdesert, his beautiful wife, and a shriveled old woman. Bertilak treats Gawain courteously, in the best chivalric tradition. But his wife tries to seduce Gawain, and he rebuffs her advances several times.
In frustration she gives Gawain a special girdle as a gift, an ornament of braided green and gold silk. Gawain accepts this, but does not tell Bertilak.
Then Gawain departs to the Green Chapel to meet his fate. And there is the Green Knight, in all his monstrous Greenness. He makes Gawain expose his neck, and toys with him a bit. But in the end he only leaves a small nick on his neck.
Through magic, he transforms himself into Bertilak, and informs Gawain that it was all just a test of Gawain’s fidelity, courage, and restraint. The old crone at the castle was a disguised Morgan Le Fay, the sorceress who had the power to work both good and evil.
And Gawain has passed the test.
Well, maybe not with an A+ grade. For he did accept some gift from the lady of the manor, and failed to tell Bertilak about it.
All men are mortal. All flesh is only flesh. And he can be forgiven for this lapse. The knights of Arthur’s entourage accept him at last.
Because justice has been done. Or, rather, it has been rendered.
Yes, the test of Gawain was about fidelity, courage, and the ability to act with restraint. But more than this, the tale is an admonition to justice. The rendering of that which is one’s due. Which is, after all, the essence of justice.
Of all the virtues, justice is perhaps the most difficult to cultivate. And this is why it is the most admired by the multitude.
To be just, a man must possess a certain seasoning. He must:
- Be able to see problems from many different perspectives.
- Be learned enough to read between the lines of complex issues.
- Have such a depth of character that he is not afraid of being criticized for unpopular decisions.
- Not be swayed by temporary emotions or passionate sentiments.
- Not be swayed by the temptations of money, status, or power.
Is there any combination that is so rare?
Now we can see why justice is so highly valued as a quality in a person, and why it is so rare. It is not easy to do what needs to be done. It is never a simple matter. Everyone knows this, and this is why justice–the act of doing what needs to be done–is so rare and precious.
And why, when it is activated, it has the power to move mountains. A small amount of justice yields an incredible amount of energy.
I like how Plutarch states the issue (and can anyone ever outdo Plutarch in moral observations?) in his profound biography of Cato the Younger (Cato 44):
Indeed, more jealousy tends to attach to a reputation and belief in a person’s justice that brings one power and the confidence of ordinary people. They do not simply give a person honor as they do with the brave, nor admiration as they do with the wise, but they give real affection to the just and have belief and confidence in them.
Those who practice the other virtues sometimes inspire fear and sometimes distrust; and besides, people think that those others are outstanding through their natural gifts rather than through any exercise of will. Wisdom and bravery are explained respectively through a sort of acuteness and through mental strength, but it is open to any of us to become just as soon as we will it, and so one feels shame for unjust behavior as a vice for which there is no excuse.
This is well and truly said. People are the most impressed with the quality of justice because they perceive that it takes the most energy. The wages of justice are dear, but they go a long, long way. It is the most precious of all the virtues, and the one that inspires the most admiration.
It takes the greatest expenditure of effort, on a physical, moral, and emotional level.
Look at that equation I just wrote. Do you see something? I do. It is telling us that a little bit of justice can release a huge amount of energy. Think about that.
A little bit of justice is precious. Its power is nearly matchless.
It goes a long, long way.
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