Celebrating Christmas with Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

“Sir Gawain and The Green Knight” is a Christmas story, rather like the Grinch but with more sex and without the adorable dog. It is a timeless tale of how someone learns how to behave well, and since they don’t have my advice, the poor dears, it’s painful and takes them a long time.

If only I had been consulted… but that is a tale for another time. For now, we shall discuss “The Green Knight,” meaning I pontificate while you sip your peppermint mocha vodka and listen attentively. It’s an cheery English tale of two men playing the dear old-fashioned game of ‘you behead me and then I behead you.’ There’s also the part in which the hostess tries to seduce the guest, a favorite game of many an English house party. And in the end, the hero learns that he is coward and everyone forgives him for that (which is how we know that this is fiction).

The movie changes the original story a lot (directors!, sigh, might we have a little less muck-up-the-ancient-story and a little more respect-the-tale-that-has-lasted-for-centuries-because-it-tells-an-important-psychological-truth?) yet it is an excellent movie. The beginning is well done but it is the middle and the ending that are haunting. (The part where he’s a guest at the manor, sigh. No. Perfect time to refresh your drink and go get more popcorn. Cliches and silliness.)

The middle part – where Sir Gawain journeys – SO EDIFYING, SUCH EXACTLY WHAT YOU NEED TO SEE RIGHT NOW. From when the children are following behind him to when he sees the large house, that part will get you through this season. Because… he walks. He keeps walking. It’s horrible and he keeps on. He’s cold and hungry and miserable and despondent but he has given his word so he endures. Someone asks him for help and Sir Gawain helps meagerly, then suffers the consequences. Another person requests help and Sir Gawain asks, “what do I get if I help you?” and is sharply upbraided for such a horrible attitude. It’s lovely.

The part of Lord of the Rings when the fellowship is expeditioning along always seems a little too easy, like a meander through the Cotswolds. This is hard travel which shows you the vast importance of simply getting up and getting on with your life. Don’t stop – don’t give up. Omicron, politics, separations, the lack of the toy you wanted to buy, the absence of good elder-flower cordials, all the deficiencies of your family members and dearth of good snacks. Never surrender.

And the ending, oh my dear, THIS is the scene that should be shown to one and all after we stand to hear the queen’s speech (and once a week to everyone with an MBA). From the part when he is digging into the earth with his hands…

You see, this is the time of year when we ponder celestial beings, especially angels who have lots of joy in their lives but one thing they do not have is free-will (or sugar cookies made with brandy which I cannot recommend enough). Humans have free-will (and if we are lucky, we have sugar cookies) but what we do not have is the ability to see the future. For a few moments in the film, Sir Gawain DOES that that ability – he can see the consequences of his actions. Like Scrooge, his glimpse into the future allows him to (finally) behave well in the present.

The true message of Christmas is: spread peace and joy. And one cannot have, much less spread, peace and joy if one is liar, a coward, a miser or grasping; a fact that is sometimes hard to put into practice without a nudge (shove) from other-worldly creatures. This is the lesson that the Grinch, Burgermeister Meisterburger, Walter Hobbs (Buddy the Elf’s father) and Sir Gawain all have to learn.

So festoon your abode with pine swags, use peppermint room spray with fey abandon, be brave, be generous and if someone says that it’s ok if you behead them, offer them a sugar cookie instead.