Sir Gawain–Nina’s Take
This short book has already stirred up a lot of controversy on this blog. Jonathan first mentioned it in his Chapter Book Newbery post, and then made a full-fledged pitch for it. Recently there was a little flurry over a side-line reference to “the economies,” and truly I had no idea what you all were talking about until I reread the book looking for it, it’s that incidental, and shall not be mentioned here again (at least in this post).
Jonathan has done an excellent job of drawing out the variety of ways in which this book excels, showing that it indeed has “distinguished qualities in all of the elements pertinent to it.” Some of you have come back to say that although you really do like this book, you have a hard time seeing how it rises to the top. So I’d like to focus on the couple of elements that made it, for me, particularly distinguished in this year’s field.
APPROPRIATENESS OF STYLE
Yes, humor is subjective, and it certainly makes it hard for it to build consensus in a committee. Yet the Newbery committee has to try to figure out their way around this, because surely humor can be as distinguished as other styles of literature. Morris perfectly clues into a kind of eight-year-old, Saturday-morning-cartoon humor here, replete with eight-year-old literary jokes (p.98 “I call them clothes that when I wear them you can hardly see me, because I look just like the forest.”), and eight-year-old slapstick expressions (p.17 “Sighing softly, the Green Knight brought his fist down on Sir Gandefere’s head, like a hammer. Sire Gandefere crumpled to the floor. The Green Knight said, “Your knights are very brave, O king. But it’s rude to speak when someone else is talking, you know. As I was saying…”).
Think of the kinds of jokes your 3rd grade crowd likes. Do you find them funny? I hope that your humor is a little more sophisticated at this point. So is Morris’, here, actually, but just a tad.
INTERPRETATION OF THEME OR CONCEPT
Morris’ style is so appropriate, in fact, that it allows him to intricately develop the themes of the Sir Gawain and the Green Knight story for this audience: a true feat! Some of you have called the story didactic. I don’t think that Morris actually intended primarily to send home a message…I think he’s mostly trying to get his audience to consider what various messages they might take home from this story. And I think that it’s how he does this, not just the content of it, that makes his story distinguished.
A light reading of this book (very easy to do, as an adult), might suggest this is a story about how to be polite, and how to treat your friends. Actually, it’s a story about how codes of honor and politeness can be at odds, even if they are equally virtuous, and how to negotiate friendship at such odds. How do you express this to an eight-year-old audience? Here’s p.70-71:
“Just promise never to rebel against the king. It isn’t so hard.”
“I have only made one solemn promise in my life,” Sir Gologras said.
Sir Gawain brightened. “You have? You’ve made one? Then why not make just one more?”
“Because that solemn promise was to my father, on his deathbed. I promised not to make any more solemn promises.”
“Well, that’s not fair!” exclaimed Sir Gawain. “No, really! Promise me not to make any promises? That’s cheating! Either you make promises, or you don’t!”
Sir Gologras hesitated. “When you put it that way, it does seem a little irregular. But all the same, do you want me to break that promise?”
Now Sir Gawain hesitated. “No, I guess not. Just as I won’t break my promise to King Arthur.” He sighed. “So where does that leave us?”
“I think we have to fight,” Sir Gologras said.
“Bother,” replied Sir Gawain. Then they separated, rode to their positions, pointed their lances, and charged.
Recall, at that age, how important were the ideas of cheating, and fairness? How important it was for things to be black and white–right, or not right–and how frustrating when they are not? And: how simulatenously funny and terrifying it is when two friends charge each other and fight, in real life or in cartoons? Thus making the resolution of this scene a truly sophisticated touche for the audience (p.76-7)
“When I slipped just then, I left quite an opening at my neck. I’m surprised you didn’t cut off my head.”
“I … ah…I thought it might be a trap,” Sir Gawain said. “And what about you? When I lunged forward and you stepped aside, you could have brought your sword right down on my back, where my armor’s weakest.”
Sir Gologras said nothing for a long moment. At last he murmured, “I…thought it might a trap?”
They charge again, and then in pages 77-79 execute a very lovely arrangement of Boolean logic involving numb hands to come up with a solution in which one of them makes the smallest sacrifice possible in order to save the most between them. It’s Gawain’s sacrifice, and of his repuation, which on page 1 had been paramount, but on which, by page 80, he “gladly” yields in favor of saving his friendship and two lives. Morris never panders here. Everything is in the subtext in this scene, and positioned exactly where his audience can work towards it. Unlike unredeming didactic stories that use cheese sauce to obscure the offensive broccoli, Morris’s story is like a fabulous pot pie where everything is delicious because of how you get to it, and because it’s not disguised.
The competing ideas of promises, vows, courtesy and friendship are part of what make Sir Gawain and the Green Knight a memorable piece of literature for any period of history, since these themes can be interpreted differently at different ages. Different ages of history, but also different ages of people. I think Morris takes his readers on a farther philosophical leap than most chapter books for this age, and more effectively. On style and theme, this rates on par for me with MAY AMELIA, JUNONIA, and WORDSTRUCK. Definitely worthy of consideration.
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About Nina Lindsay
Nina Lindsay is the Children's Services Coordinator at the Oakland Public Library, CA. She chaired the 2008 Newbery Committee, and served on the 2004 and 1998 committees. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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