In thinking about the notion of the “Christian Soldier,” it is profitable to draw upon the old books of our tradition. We thus gain a measure of critical distance to contemporary issues. The fourteenth century Christian classic, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight speaks to us of the character of the Christian soldier in an especially discerning and eloquent way.
We begin with a plot summary. It is Christmastide at Camelot. King Arthur and his entire court are engaged in “splendid celebrations, seemly and carefree.” At the height of the festivities, an unknown knight, a huge green giant, at once awesome and terrifying, comes before the Round Table mounted on a mighty green charger, and challenges the king and his knights to partake in a bizarre beheading game. Angered and embarrassed by the stranger’s challenge, Arthur immediately takes up the gambit, despite the fact that he recognizes the game to be “foolish.” The king is about to strike at the giant’s neck with the Green Knight’s own axe when Sir Gawain intercedes, begging Arthur that he, the knight “most wanting in wisdom,” be allowed to take up the absurd challenge in place of his sovereign. Arthur concedes, and after agreeing to journey in a year’s time to the Green Knight’s home to stand his turn under the axe, Gawain severs the stranger’s head from his huge body with a single stroke.
The rest of the tale concerns itself with Gawain’s attempt to fulfill his part of the beheading-game contract: his journey to the castle of Sir Bertilak, where his knightly virtue is tempted by the cunning Morgan Le Fay; his entrance into the Green Chapel and the second beheading game; and lastly, his triumphant, albeit penitent, return to Camelot.
What elements of the story reveal the character of the Christian soldier? Sir Gawain and the Green Knight begins and ends with a reference to the “siege and the assault” of Troy. The image of the greatest ancient kingdom betrayed fixes our attention on the tale’s political dimension, and the Green Knight’s challenge is more than a matter of personal prowess. It is an assault on the commonwealth itself, and so, just as the city of Troy was destroyed when it admitted the great wooden horse within its walls, the entrance of the Green Knight, mounted on another great horse, signals the beginning of an attack on the order of Camelot. The foundation of this political order is the noble fellowship which exists between the king and his knights. This is clearly recognized by the Green Knight himself:
But as your reputation, royal sir,
is raised up so high,
And your castle and cavaliers are
accounted the best,
The mightiest of mail-clad men in
The most warlike, the worthiest the
world has bred .. .
If the virtue of Arthur’s court is really a function of the fellowship that exists between the king and his knights, then it is not an exaggeration to suggest that Arthur is identical with Aristotle’s “supremely happy man,” while Camelot is the political incarnation of Aristotelian virtue (Nichomachean Ethics, 1169b34-1170a5). Furthermore, to go one step farther, we note that all of the knights, including Arthur and Gawain, are said to be “young.” This calls attention to another important Aristotelian teaching that the preeminent virtues of young men are temperance and courage. Thus, is seems clear enough from the beginning that the tale depicts Arthur’s court as a classical commonwealth founded, at least in part, on strict Aristotelian principles: a noble fellowship of temperate and courageous young soldiers under the leadership of a great-souled king.
The action of the Green Knight seems to be a direct challenge to the ideal order of Camelot; it is not unreasonable to conclude that he actually embodies a peculiarly Aristotelian sense of vice: virtue taken to excess. For this reason, it is crucially important to consider the physical description of the Green Knight. He is a giant, not an ogre, and although he is “fiercely grim,” he is “perfectly proportioned,” the “handsomest of horsemen.” Let us suggest, then, that the Green Knight is not simply the personification of natural force, but the embodiment of excessive courage, of courage separated from temperance. As such, he is a direct threat to the order of Camelot. And, when Arthur takes up the foolish challenge it is pride, not prudence, which directs him: “His fair features filled with blood For shame. He raged as a roaring gale…. ”
The challenge of the Green Knight separates Arthur’s own courage from his temperance. He is brave, but reckless, and his rash reaction threatens the commonwealth because he has lowered the standard of the court, which he should personify, to that of the clever giant. This lowering of the standards of action is symbolized in the weapon which the Green Knight proposes for the game. He carries an axe “…huge and monstrous, A hideous helmet smasher.” Arthur sins, so to speak, when he hoists the hideous weapon because the only proper weapon for a Christian knight is a cross-shaped sword.
At this moment in the tale Gawain intercedes. In effect, he takes on the sin of the king as his own. His hoists the axe, strikes the blow, and agrees to see the game through to its conclusion in a year’s time. All of this, we must imagine, is done in order to prevent his king from acting in a manner that would destroy the kingdom. Gawain is prepared to lay down his life for his friend and sovereign, and we can better understand his action if we remind ourselves that a Christian knight lived by at least three loyalties: loyalty to his vocation as a knight; loyalty to his king; and loyalty to God. Under ideal conditions these three tended to fuse into one sense of devotion, and it is this that prompts Gawain to act as he does. In taking on the sin of his sovereign Gawain demonstrates a sense of duty which is at the heart of the traditional Catholic understanding of patriotism. Patriotism stems from the virtue of piety, and it calls upon the individual to recognize a hierarchy of natural obligations, or “debts,” that must be assumed in order for one to become an authentic moral agent. This understanding is clearly expressed by St. Thomas:
A man becomes the debtor of others according to their different excellences and the diverse benefits received from them. Now, on both accounts God holds the highest place: He is most excellent and He is the first principle of our existence and our governance.
Secondarily, however, the source of our being and governance are our parents and our country; from whom, and in which, we are born and raised. And so, after God, man is most indebted to his parents and his country.
Hence, just as the act of showing reverence to God belongs to religion, so on a secondary level the showing of reverence to parents and country belongs to piety.
God, family, and country. All three of these natural “debts” are involved in Gawain’s offer to take Arthur’s place in the beheading game. First, it is significant that the whole court immediately recognizes the wisdom of Gawain’s offer: “…wisely they whispered of it, and after, all said the same…” The proposal is clearly perceived as being in the best interests of the country. Second, we note that King Arthur is the uncle of Gawain; they are members of the same family. Third, once the offer is made by Gawain the King once more assumes his proper station and bestows “God’s blessing” on the virtuous knight. Gawain’s action helps to restore order to Camelot; it can be seen as a Christian corrective to a Classical defect, piety amending pride. With Sir Gawain as our icon, so to speak, we can say that the Christian soldier is one whose actions manifest a constant sense of devotion actuated by a piety that calls the individual beyond himself to a natural hierarchy of spiritual, social, and political obligations.