Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Slaying Student Resistance
Mention the word “medieval” to high school students and they conjure up visions of The Lord of the Rings and, these days, Harry Potter. However, “medieval literature” is another kettle of fish entirely. The litany of complaints from students faced with a medieval text is standard: the language is problematic; the stories are not relevant; archaic concepts are difficult to understand. Teenage resistance is legendary, and it is important to be not just positive, but enthusiastic about the literature we teach. The first day of class in British Literature One, I tell my students that the class will either be fun, or it will be dull; the choice is entirely up to them because active and cooperative learning are the basis for this literature course.
High school students respond to literature that they can get involved with, whether it is a direct activity or simply being able to place themselves in a character’s situation. Skits, artwork, and hands on activities also address different learning styles, and therefore can engender a more complete understanding of the literature. In my experience, activities help students understand those cultural nuances that might be missed or might seem incomprehensible when considered only in the given context. Hands-on activities can be especially useful when dealing with the highly visual culture of the Middle Ages—an aspect of medieval studies that can get lost when we encounter the Middle Ages primarily as literary texts on the page. The following is an account of an activity I have designed to help students understand the symbolic and social dynamics of the 14th-century romance, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
We begin Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by writing and acting out skits based on four scenarios:
You are at a party, having a great time, when a frightening guest crashes it. He/she demands that someone fight him/her—if he/she dares!
There’s a kid at school who is an unbearable braggart. He/she is the best at everything!! How would you teach him/her a lesson?
Someone you are very attracted to uses his/her sex appeal to talk you into doing something you know is wrong.
You have to admit you have done something wrong in front of a large group of your peers.
As you can see, these scenarios are based on the story line of Sir Gawain. These scenarios represent the events of the story so that high school students can relate to them, with a little guidance. This is a quick introduction that only takes one fifty-five minute class period. I divide the students into groups of three or four, randomly hand out slips with the scenarios, and give them fifteen minutes or so to devise a skit. Students are quick to relate these scenarios to things that have actually happened to them or to someone they know. Most skits are short—just a minute or two—so this part doesn’t take long either. After performing their skits, the students have a base reference to Sir Gawain and to events in their own lives, and the story is more interesting—especially the attempted seduction of Sir Gawain! This semester my class actually stayed after the bell to hear what happened with Lady Bercilak’s second attempt at seduction!
Relating to the action of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is important to high school students, and envisioning the underlying meaning in the poem creates a far more satisfying learning experience for both student and teacher. The Gawain poet stresses Christian morality throughout the poem, but perhaps the most elegant emphasis is the imagery of Gawain’s shield. The Virgin is “painted inside his shield [so that Gawain can] stare at Heaven’s Queen and keep his courage high.” The other image on the shield is the “holy pentangle.” Most students associate the cross with Christianity; the religious significance of the pentangle is new to them. The concept of the pentangle as a bridge between pagan and Christian beliefs is one key to the broader scholarly theory that Gawain is descended from Lugh, the Irish hero. Stylized triangles (the pentangle is constructed of triangles) recur in Irish myth and in Celtic design and represent various gods and goddesses, such as the Triple Goddess (maid, mother, and crone). In Christianity the triangle might represent the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Just as Beowulf is a pagan work with Christian overlays, George Lyman Kittredge and Alice Buchanan long ago argued that Gawain is a Christianized derivation of Irish myth. Understanding that Christian overlay enriches the reader’s experience of the poem. So, I found it frustrating that my students, who could identify the overlay in Beowulf, had a harder time with the visual imagery that magnifies the overlay in Gawain.
At times, however, it is frustration that inspires. One of the most meaningful activities that I have students do with Sir Gawain now began with a mundane assignment; I asked students to answer a few questions about the reading for the next day: How does the Pentangle represent Sir Gawain? What knightly characteristics are NOT emphasized in the pentangle? The next day we talked about the code of chivalry and Gawain’s embodiment of that code, and we discussed the significance of the star itself, the meaning of the infinite in relation to the pentangle, the symbolism—both pagan and Christian—of the triangle, and the interconnectedness of the triangles that make up the pentangle, and we related these ideas to symbols of our time like the circle of life and other circles thatsymbolize eternity. But some students did not seem to grasp that a multiplicity of meanings could be applied to the pentangle; they thought the pentangle should or could only represent one thing. On impulse, I offered the students extra credit for a concrete rendering of the Pentangle. I asked them to “make” a Pentangle and to write one aspect of the Code of Chivalry (and, thus, Gawain’s character) on each of the points of the star. I hoped for the best—that each student would have a different concept.
The discussion the next day, as students presented their pentangles, was much more profound than I could have imagined. One student created a pentangle where the points fold into a pentagon, which is made up of triangles that can be subdivided into triangles, which, in theory, could be subdivided infinitely: the very “infinite knot” mentioned in line 630. Another student created a pentangle made up of the two separate triangles, one gold and one silver; she theorized that the silver could represent the Celtic triple goddess or the three stages of man’s life; the gold triangle, the holy trinity of Christianity.Clearly she was following the evolution of the Irish stories of Cuchullain and Lugh (which we read in class) to Sir Gawain; the Pentangle melded the two into one form, one belief system. Another pentangle made of red and black triangles prompted a discussion of Satanism and the use of the pentagram in satanic worship, turning the symbolism upside down. The work itself was not meant to represent those elements, but once it was suggested, we all agreed that it was worth discussing. I don’t know much about Satanism, but one girl in the class is somewhat of an expert on Wicca and quickly cleared up misunderstandings about Satanism and Wicca. At the end of Sir Gawain, when Morgana Le Fay (whose presence strengthens the argument for the tale’s Irish roots) is revealed as the perpetrator, these ideas about Wicca were revived for more discussion about contemporary ideas of magic compared to medieval ideas. The students’ representations of the pentangle were beautiful, and the discussion was convivial.
When students have preconceived ideas about a particular subject, it is often difficult to win them over. However, presenting medieval literature in ways that are interactive and meaningful can succeed where more traditional methods might fail. The increasing number of students taking British Literature is one measure of success. One other measure is word of mouth: the word in the halls at Dexter High School is that British Literature is “fun.”
Jo Muszkiewicz teaches AP English and Composition, British Literature, Advanced Composition and Literature and Composition at Dexter High School in Michigan. In the ten years she has taught at Dexter she has been the recipient of four Outstanding Teacher awards. She also holds a BA in Anthropology and an MA in Literature.
The Once and Future Classroom , Volume V, Issue 2, Fall 2007