A year runs fast
For men may be cheerful, mulling their wine,
But a year runs fast, and always runs different;
Start and finish are never the same.
-Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (488-500)
Alas, they often feel the same though, don’t they? Particularly as you get older, and I think after a certain age most of us would be happy if they did not run too different. How pleasant it can be to imagine the days repeating themselves senselessly forever! For the young, of course, this is a nightmare! But days are as varied as the members of a species and each one is born, lives, and dies- as so we must too.
I suppose that’s the importance of New Years Day to the Gawain story- it’s the inevitable end point and collapse of a year. As the story goes, during the New Year’s Eve festivities, Sir Gawain, the youngest knight of Arthur’s Round Table, accepts the challenge of the huge and enigmatic Green Knight who wanders in and dares anyone present to try to behead him using his own his axe in exchange for receiving a blow in return in a year and a day’s time. Gawain decollates the Knight (your vocab word for today!) and after the bewildered knights hilariously kick the severed melon around like a soccer ball, the green knight lifts it by the hair and it tells Gawain not to be late for their next meeting at the Green Chapel.
Through lovely passages about the changes of nature, the year runs fast and Gawain sets out on All Saint’s Day for the meeting two months later. He pauses to rest at the white castle of the king Bertilak and his beautiful wife. The king makes Gawain a second deal: each night, he will give Gawain what he wins in the day’s hunt in exchange for whatever the knight has won during the day. For the next three days, as King Bertilak hunts animals with his men, Lady Bertilak hunts Gawain, trying to seduce him and winning only a few kisses, which Gawain shares with her husband! These sections are handled with wit and grace as Gawain tries to balance his chivalrous requirements to serve the lady and not betray his host, although little mention is made of the more psychologically sticky aspects of the story. After all, the king is ultimately testing his young guest by sending his wife to potentially seduce him and Gawain is victorious in returning to the all-male fold with a kiss.**
I prefer to think of the passing of a year in the story as the passing away of Gawain’s innocence as he stumbles towards manhood- with the Green Knight as both a father figure and all that is indomitable in nature. It is surprising that Gawain actually does fail, but is fairly quickly forgiven, suggesting that the Christ/Father interpretation is also valuable. Would it have been more of a transgression if he had succumbed to lust than to a desire to save his skin? In the end, the story seems more festive and light than severe. He is assessed and is cleansed of his sin; a new year begins and Gawain intends “to try to sin less”, a decent resolution for a new year.
The passing of a year is still a time of stock-taking to measure both the changes in the external world and within ourselves. Very few of us are measured by a code of conduct as binding as chivalric honor today, or perhaps we’re forced by modernity to create our own codes to give solidity to the passing of time.
* Sometimes there’s confusion on this point, but the Green Knight lets slip in the last scene the king’s participation in this test.