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Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and the Idea of the "Fragile Perfect"

I adore Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, though I came to it late. A colleague, Jane Magrath, would dance out of her class on this anonymous Medieval poem about Camelot, warm with delight in the humble and chivalrous knight, Sir Gawain, exclaiming how much she loved him. I started teaching the poem after that in our introductory survey course, and pretty soon, I shared her love for this wonderfully human hero.

I gave a talk a couple of weeks ago to the International Federation of National Teaching Fellows with the rather extraordinary claim that Sir Gawain and the Green Knight can make you a better student. I really meant Gawain as just one example of the disciplinary material we can use to make space for metacognition in first-year courses, for students to stop and think about their own learning and to imagine themselves as the heroes of their own journeys: but Gawain’s is an example of a particular kind, one that I could have benefited from as an undergraduate. It is a story of failure.

Knight standing in a green wood

In case you don’t know the story – or it was a while ago – here’s a quick summary:

At a Christmas feast, the young King Arthur’s court is suddenly interrupted by a giant green man with a green axe on a green horse who proposes a challenge: one of you take my axe and cut my head off. But first you must swear that you will find me in a year, at which point you will let me cut off yours. Gawain volunteers and performs the beheading (admittedly a strange pastime at Christmas), at which point the Green Knight picks up his own head, says “see you in a year,” and rides off. Well that was a surprise. Lesson number one: don’t take on stupid challenges with persons who are clearly supernatural. A year goes by, and Gawain now reluctantly goes in search of the Green Knight’s chapel, for his own beheading as promised: he is a knight of his word.

On the way, he comes across the castle of Sir Bertilak and his lovely wife, where he is invited to enjoy a relaxing few days before his pointless death, in a sort of death row spa. Another playful game is proposed. Bertilak will hunt while Gawain lolls about in bed; and at each night’s dinner, they vow to exchange whatever they received during the day. The details here are too long to explain, but basically, Bertilak’s wife keeps sneaking into Gawain’s room to try to seduce him while her husband is out. The honourable and chivalrous Gawain withholds enthusiastic consent, and ends up accepting just kisses, which he faithfully exchanges with Sir Bertilak at dinner, as promised. But on the third day, the wife also offers a magical green girdle, a belt that is supposed to protect from death anyone who wears it. Helpful. At the end of the last night, Gawain gives Bertilak the kiss, but keeps the belt. He has broken his promise.

Next day, wearing the magic girdle, he finds the Green Knight’s chapel, and the knight takes three swings with his axe, just nicking Gawain’s neck on one of the strokes. Then the big revelation: the Green Knight was Sir Bertilak all along – God, I love Medieval romances! – and Gawain passed his test: except for that bit about the girdle.

But poor Gawain! He is alive but deeply ashamed of his own “covetousness and cowardice,” as he puts it, and he returns to Camelot – bless him, he could have run away – in order to tell the story of his shame. My favorite part is what happens when he gets home; he confesses, miserable in his own failure, but surprised by the response of his community:

Þe kyng comfortez þe knyȝt, and alle þe court als

Laȝen loude þerat, and luflyly acorden

Þat lordes and ladis þat longed to þe Table,

Vche burne of þe broþerhede, a bauderyk schulde haue,

A bende abelef hym aboute of a bryȝt grene,

And þat, for sake of þat segge, in swete to were.

For þat watz acorded þe renoun of þe Rounde Table,

And he honoured þat hit hade euermore after,

As hit is breued in þe best boke of romaunce.

The king comforted the knight, and everyone at court laughs and determines, from that day forward, that they will all wear a green girdle in his honour. He sort of failed, certainly in his own estimation, but he was still celebrated: not because he was perfect but because he was human. In the end, the only thing he wanted was not to die, which is a perfectly understandable desire. It’s an ending that suggests compassion in the face of vulnerability, and it’s a powerful moment to have first-year students talk about.

Green copper statue of King Arthur on a rocky cliff above the sea

Gawain’s is the story of a journey, there and back again, and in this introductory course most of the examples I choose from early English literature are journeys of one kind or another: journeys of exploration, flight, expulsion, quest, conquest, sacrifice, or escape. Beowulf, Satan, the Red Cross Knight, Oroonoko, Gulliver, Olaudah Equiano, the Wife of Bath all offer ways of seeing these journeys, and we ask two repeated questions: what kind of heroes are these travellers, and what kind of learners?

Satan, Adam, and Eve force us to think about the limits of knowledge – are there any? What are ours? Poor little Red Crosse Knight is pretty bad at the transfer of knowledge: he can see that a character called “Error” is a bad ‘un, but when faced with a less obvious threat in Archimago, he can’t apply past learning to a new situation. Gulliver may offer all sorts of hilarious examples of wrong thinking, but at least he is no colonizer! He is transformed by his openness to the other, rather than trying to transform or conquer the new. Each example gives us opportunities to talk about approaches to learning and knowledge as well as to the sorts of journeys we all find ourselves on.

Gawain is such a lovely example to talk about, and a palate cleanser after Beowulf, whose main response to any problem is to kill it – single-handedly if possible. Gawain is all humility, all honour, all self-sacrifice and keen desire to follow knightly perfection. But he also fails, fails because he did not keep one of his promises, and for him, that is unforgivable. Thing is, everyone else forgives him. The Green Knight himself says Gawain is “one of the most perfect men who ever walked on the earth,” but that “you fell short a little,” “not for fine craftsmanship, now wooing either, but because you wanted to live: so I blame you less.”

A woman taking a picture of herself in a round mirror in front of potted plants

I start classes with a “two-minute mentor,” something that I think will help first-year students navigate this strange new culture, and some of those are about theories of learning. Building in moments for metacognition -- of thinking about your thinking or learning about your learning -- is important at any stage throughout the degree. But in the first year, in that initial transitional moment from high school to university, the very vulnerability and discombobulation that so many students feel offers an opportunity to arm them for their journeys with the protective shield of metacognition. And as Nancy Chick and others have suggested, “Metacognition instruction should also be embedded with the content and activities about which students are thinking. Why? Metacognition is ‘not generic’ (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, p. 19) but instead is most effective when it is adapted to reflect the specific learning contexts of a specific topic, course, or discipline (Zohar & David, 2009)” (Chick, Metacognition, 2013). Here’s an example of how I connect material to metacognition:

Lightbulb at the moment of breaking

On the day we discuss the conclusion of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the two-minute mentor is about the idea of the "fragile perfect,” Angela Lee Duckworth’s idea that students who are unused to failure don’t develop the grit necessary to push through challenges. At the first sign of a difficulty, they give up, give in. I hope it helps that I introduce the idea to my class by confessing myself a recovering fragile perfect. And what about Gawain? Is he a fragile perfect at the end of this poem?

Yes, sort of, except he does some really good things: he doesn’t run away and fake his own death; he goes back to Camelot to report; he is humble and takes complete responsibility; and so, although we might say that his anguish is out of proportion to his crime, if you can call it that, he shows incredible courage in going back to his community again. And what about that community? Many of my students are, understandably, unsure about whether laughter is a helpful response here, but it certainly demonstrates a sense of proportion: Arthur and his court don’t take this failure as seriously as Gawain does. It’s a flesh wound, not a mortal one. For Camelot, being a good knight is not a fixed principle – it’s a growth one, a process. And by wearing that belt as a badge of honour, not shame, they produce a wonderfully complex response to someone who gets a lot right but still messes up.

Rolls of sandpaper on a table

Too often, we imagine that grit or resilience are individual virtues, that if only we could toughen up a bit, be less of this or more of that, we could power our way through any setback or failure. But Gawain offers a Medieval reminder that grit is a lot easier if we live in institutions that allow us those failures and still honour what is human in us, with our flaws and not just despite them. I think of it like sandpaper. The grit on sandpaper is less effective without the adhesive and the paper that hold it together.

So there’s my challenge to myself: if I want my students to be gritty, to see failure as valuable to learning and not as self-definition, I need to create more opportunities to fail productively but I also need to be the paper that supports the grit. I need to be more Camelot.

Postscript: I do talk about myself as a recovering fragile perfect – I’ve had so many opportunities to fail as a teacher, daughter, mother, friend, and partner over the past 60 years that I am thankfully much better at it than I was when I was 20. I’m comfortable trying new things that I might be bad at. And yet. I’ve been postponing letting go of this piece – and other pieces – because that little Gawain still lives in me when it comes to my writing. So now, to be brave like Gawain, I’ll find a green girdle and press send.

~Shannon Murray

Pieces of sea glass arranged to look like a flower


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