We’re reading Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in my English class. I love the poem, but haven’t read it from cover to cover since I was twelve or thirteen. It’s funny, how differently the story strikes me now than it did so many years ago. When I first read it, unsurprisingly it was the very first scene that stuck with me the most. You know, the one where the Gawain slices off the Green Knight’s head, and then the Green Knight summarily picks up his head from where it’s rolled under the table and issues his challenge. And I remembered all the scenes when Gawain steadfastly refuses to be seduced by his host’s wife. And I remembered the climax (and this is where you should look away if you haven’t read Sir Gawain), in which Gawain resolutely upholds his end of the agreement (there, I tried to not make it too spoiler-infested, since I knew you were going to look anyway).
And in my mind, that was King Arthur’s knights. Actually, that’s how I pictured all knights. Basically, all guys in suits of armor were, in short, Sir Gawain. Well, Sir Gawain and a hint of Gareth (oddly, though Gareth has been my favorite knight since I was seven, as a kid I rarely thought of him as an actual knight, probably because I pictured him in a suit of kitchen grease rather than a suit of armor).
So now, fast-forwarding ahem cough cough number of years later, I find it fascinating to read Sir Gawain in a class, to try to pick apart the discrete elements of a favorite childhood tale. I think it’s the best of both worlds: I get to delve into a story with the intent of intellectual inquiry, yet simultaneously relive my heedless, youthful joy that devoured the poem for simple enjoyment.
So, my readers, have you had a similar experience? Reread a childhood favorite for a class, or even on your own, and been struck by the two varying modes of consumption? Did you enjoy the book more the second time? Or did you find some of your enjoyment eroded by the deadlines and requirements of a class?
Oh yes, and my deep, dark confession: I didn’t read Sir Gawain that first time because I loved King Arthur or knights or poetry or the calligraphy on the cover. No, I read it because it was translated by Tolkien, and I had by that time run out of other Tolkien stories to read. Yeah, my introduction to medieval poetry was via Frodo and Felagund.