Fighting Words: Examining Language and Violence in Medieval Literature

©2003 Ross E. Lockhart

At the climax of the 1983 action thriller Sudden Impact, Clint Eastwood’s tough-as-nails detective “Dirty” Harry Callahan confronted his heavily-armed antagonist with his trademark steely gaze and uttered one of the most oft-repeated lines in cinematic history, “Go ahead, make my day.” This line epitomizes a heroic trait long admired in English-language literary tradition, the ability to stand before an adversary, in the face of almost certain violence, and answer to challenge with eloquence, courage, and wit. This custom of fighting words that seem almost cliché in post-modern shoot-’em-ups extends back centuries, and finds its roots in some of the earliest works in the language, including the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf, the courtly romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. In each of these narratives, a character placed at the very precipice of violence speaks words that may well be his last, and, in doing so, each author shares with today’s reader the tools to better understand the society and time depicted.

The violent, monster-filled world depicted in Beowulf is caught at a crossroads between two civilizations. On one hand, the poem’s protagonists live by the ancient Germanic code of conduct, venerating tradition, honor, and heroic deeds above words. This is best illustrated in the observation made by the Coast Guardsman that Beowulf and his party encounter as they arrive, “A keen-witted shield-bearer / who thinks things out carefully must know the distinction / between words and deeds, keep the difference clear” (287-289). This sentiment runs throughout the poem, and Beowulf could easily be characterized as a man of deeds rather than a man of words. On the other hand, however, Beowulf’s story has been filtered through the lens of Christianity, most likely due to the work of the monastic copyists through which the document survives to this day. As a result, those speeches that Beowulf delivers to his men are peppered with conflicting references to the influence of both God and fate in their endeavors.

In general, Beowulf does not address his opponents directly; instead, he is prone to addressing his companions with eloquence and grace before sauntering off to engage his foe. The exception to this comes on the evening before his combat with Grendel as his abilities are called into question by the warrior Unferth. Beowulf undoubtedly knows that he must diffuse the situation and that the eve of a battle is no time to make new enemies, so he responds to Unferth’s challenge at first with humor, “What a great deal, Unferth my friend, / full of beer, you have said about Breca, / told of his deeds” (530-533), but soon shifts to a more accusatory, personalized tone in order to put Unferth in his place:

I never have heard
such struggle, sword-terror, told about you.
Never in the din and play of battle
did Breca or you show such courage
with shining blades -not to boast about it-
though you were a man-slayer, killed your brothers,
closest kinsmen, for which you must suffer
damnation in hell, clever though you are.
I’ll tell you a truth, son of Ecglaf:
never would Grendel have done so much harm,
the awesome monster, against your own leader,
shameful in Heorot, if heart and intention,
your great battle-spirit, were as sharp as your words. (581-594)

This is as close as Beowulf comes to verbal combat with any of his foes. Typically, Beowulf’s speeches resemble invocations to God and fate, placing himself in their hands, and, at the same time, detailing to his comrades exactly what he plans to do. An excellent example of this is his rallying address as he and his men prepare for Grendel’s impending arrival:

No poorer I hold my strength in a fight,
my work in battle, than Grendel does his;
and so I will not kill him by sword
shear off his life, though I easily might.
He does not know the warrior’s arts,
how to parry and hew, cut down a shield,
strong though he be in his hateful work;
so swords are laid by if he dare seek battle,
tonight no weapons, and then mighty God,
the Lord wise and holy, will give war-glory
to whichever side He thinks the right. (677-687)

Beowulf takes a similar tone in the speech he gives to his men as he prepares his assault on Grendel’s mother. This time, however, he realizes that he is fighting a more challenging foe, so his tone is darker and more worried, indicating that he is unsure whether or not he will survive the coming trial. Because of this, he expresses his thanks to his hosts for their hospitality and sets things right with the warrior Unferth. In addition, his tone foreshadows the fate he will meet when he engages his next opponent, the dragon, in combat:

Famed son of Healfdene, wisest of princes,
remember all well, now that I am ready,
gold-friend of warriors, what we spoke of before,
that if I lose my life while at work in your cause,
you will still be to me as a father always.
Be shield and protector of my young men here,
close battle-comrades, if this fight claims me;
And be sure that Unferth, that well-known man,
has my family treasure, wonderful wave-sword,
hardened, sharp-edged. With Hrunting I will find
a deserving fame or death will take me! (1474-1491)

By the time Beowulf faces his final opponent, the dragon, his own advancing age and the creature’s might guarantee that this battle will be his last. Once again, he tells his comrades that he plans to face the foe alone, but invokes the memory of the more easily defeated monsters by which he built his reputation:

I would not carry sword or weapons
against the serpent if I knew how else
to grapple proudly, wrestle the monster,
as I did with Grendel; but here I expect
the heat of war-flames, his poisonous breath,
and so I am dressed in shield and armor.
Not one foot will I retreat
from the barrow-keeper, but here by the wall
it must go between us as fate decides,
the Lord, for each man. My heart is bold,
I forego boasting against this war-flyer.
Wait on the barrow safe in your mail,
men in your armor, to see which of us
shall better survive the wounds dealt out
in the rush of battle. It is not your business,
nor fitting for any, except me alone,
to test out his strength against this monster,
do a hero’s deed. I must succeed,
win gold by courage, or battle seize me,
final life-hurt take your lord away! (2518-2538)

In this case, Beowulf’s decision to engage the dragon alone is instrumental in engineering his own death. In fact, it is only through the assistance of the lower-caste Wiglaf, who remains when at his ruler’s side even as the more experienced warriors flee for cover that the dragon is ultimately defeated. With the death of Beowulf, however, Wiglaf takes it upon himself to chastise those cowardly retainers, breaking away from his King’s tradition of indirect address and leveling his condemnation at the men themselves:

Small life-shield could I give at battle,
and yet for all that, I still began,
beyond my strength, to help my kinsman.
Ever the slower those deadly coils
once I stabbed with my sword; a weaker fire
poured from his head. Too few defenders
pressed round the king when his worst time came.
Now all treasure, giving and receiving,
all home-joys, ownership, comfort,
shall cease for your kin; deprived of their rights
each man of your families will have to be exiled,
once nobles afar hear of your flight,
a deed of no glory. Death is better
for any warrior than a shameful life! (2877-2891)

As you can see, in Beowulf’s time, deeds spoke far louder than words, but with the passage of a few hundred years, much changed. Social structures became more complex, and the literature of the time reflected a world in which words and deeds were gaining more balanced status. Rather than having his characters deliver grandiose speeches to their assembled troops, the author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight instead attempted to replicate realistic dialogue within the fantastic setting of his tale. It is important to note that by the fourteenth century, tales of the Arthurian heroes, particularly Gawain, were already well established. What was left to the author of this narrative to determine was largely a question of how Gawain would appear to the poem’s audience. “His reputation was ambiguous, though; he was both Arthur’s faithful retainer and nephew, but also a suave seducer. […] Would he stand for a civilization of Christian chivalry or one of cynical sophistication?” (Longman 193)

To answer this question, the author amplifies Gawain’s heroic traits by presenting his foe, the Green Knight, as a larger-than-life obstacle who challenges the goodly knight to what would, at first, appear to be a rather one-sided contest:

“If I tell you true, when I have taken your knock,
And if you handily have hit, you shall hear straightway
Of my house and my home and my own name;
Then follow in my footsteps by faithful accord.
And if I spend no speech, you shall speed the better:
You can feast with your friends, nor further trace
my tracks.
Now hold your grim tool steady
And show us how it hacks.”
“Gladly, sir; all ready,”
Says Gawain; he strokes the ax. (406-416)

Once Gawain has taken his turn, however, the decapitated Green Knight is revealed to be something more than human as he picks up his severed head and reiterates the challenge to Gawain:

“Sir Gawain, forget not to go as agreed,
And cease not to seek till me, sir, you find,
As you promised in the presence of these proud knights.
To the Green Chapel come, I charge you, to take
Such a dint as you have dealt-you have well deserved
That your neck should have a knock on New Year’s morn.
The Knight of the Green Chapel I am well-known to many,
Wherefore you cannot fail to find me at last;
Therefore come, or be counted a recreant knight.” (448-456)

Gawain, in being the recipient of the Green Knight’s taunts, is placed in a position similar to that of Unferth or the cowardly retainers chastised by Wiglaf in Beowulf. He knows that he has been put on the spot by the Green Knight’s challenge, and that he is bound by honor to, even though it may mean almost certain death, fulfill his end of the stranger’s Christmas game. As the poem progresses, Gawain travels forth to seek his destiny, and meets with a series of tests and temptations that ultimately lead him to the Green Chapel and his own turn on the chopping block. As Gawain lays his own head before the Green Knight’s axe and prepares for the first blow, he speaks to the knight, trying to show Godly courage in the face of violence:

“No, by God,” said Sir Gawain, “that granted me life,
I shall grudge not the guerdon, grim though it prove;
Bestow but one stroke, and I shall stand still,
And you may lay on as you like till the last of my part
be paid. (2250-2254)

As the Green Knight’s blade falls, however, Gawain flinches, so the Green Knight taunts him further, and Gawain, ashamed by his own reflexive impulse to survival, responds:

“You are not Gawain the glorious,” the green man said,
“That never fell back on field in the face of the foe,
And now you flee for fear, and have felt no harm:
Such news of that knight I never heard yet!
I moved not a muscle when you made to strike,
Nor caviled at the cut in King Arthur’s house;
My head fell to my feet, yet steadfast I stood,
And you, all unharmed, are wholly dismayed-
Wherefore the better man I, by all odds,
must be.”
Said Gawain, “Strike once more;
I shall neither flinch nor flee;
But if my head falls to the floor
There is no mending me!”
“But go on, man, in God’s name, and get to the point!
Deliver me my destiny, and do it out of hand,
For I shall stand to the stroke and stir not an inch
Till your ax has hit home-on my honor I swear it!” (2270-2287)

Once again, the Green Knight prepares to strike, and once again, Gawain flinches as the blade falls. The Green Knight continues with his mocking tone, to which Gawain responds with anger:

Then was Gawain gripped with rage, and grimly he said,
“Why, thrash away, tyrant, I tire of your threats;
You make such a scene, you must frighten yourself.” (2299-2301)

Upon the Green Knight’s third blow, Gawain no longer flinches as the blade falls, and he is cut, but not seriously injured. Revealing himself as the combat-trained warrior that he is, Gawain springs into action, drawing his own weapon and shield and verbally striking out at the Green Knight, challenging him should he continue with his attacks:

“Have done with your hacking-harry me no more!
I have borne, as behooved, one blow in this place;
If you make another move I shall meet it midway
And promptly, I promise you, pay back each blow
with brand.
One stroke acquits me here;
So did our covenant stand
In Arthur’s court last year-
Wherefore, sir, hold your hand!” (2322-2330)

Unlike the anonymous authors of Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight who set their stories in the distant, mythic past, Geoffrey Chaucer set his Canterbury Tales within his own time. The advantage of this technique was that Chaucer was able to lampoon and criticize the spiritual stranglehold of a corrupt and urban Christian church by introducing characters that reflected some of the less-than-honest practices of said church. One such character is the Pardoner, whose straightforward admissions of corruption to his traveling companions color him as perhaps the greatest sinner among sinners. The Pardoner’s obvious glee at being able to hoodwink the unsophisticated into purchasing his bogus relics and questionable indulgences, and a possible unwanted homosexual come-on, nearly incites one of his fellow pilgrims, the Host, to violent action. It is only by the intervention of Chaucer’s Knight, a peacemaker patterned on the earlier models of Arthurian knights like Gawain, that violence is avoided.

“Whan that the soule shal fro the body passe.
I rede that oure Hoste shal biginne,
For he is most envoluped in sinne.
Com forth, sire Host, and offre first anoon,
And thou shalt kisse the relikes everichoon,
Ye, for a grote: unbokele anoon thy purs.”
“Nay, nay,” quod he, “thanne have I Cristes curs!
Lat be,” quod he, “it shal nat be, so theech!
Thou woldest make me kisse thyn olde breech
And swere it were a relik of a saint,
Though it were with thy fundament depeint.
But, by the crois which that Sainte Elaine foond,
I wolde I hadde thy coilons in myn hond,
In stede of relikes or of saintuarye.
Lat cutte hem of: I wol thee helpe hem carye.
They shal be shrined in an hogges tord.”
This Pardoner answerde nat a word:
So wroth he was no word ne wolde he saye.
“Now,” quod oure Host, “I wol no lenger playe
With thee, ne with noon other angry man.”
But right anoon the worthy Knight bigan,
Whan that he sawgh that al the peple lough,
“Namore of this, for it is right ynough.
Sire Pardoner, be glad and merye of cheere,
And ye, sire Host that been to me so dere,
I praye you that ye kisse the Pardoner,
And Pardoner, I praye thee, draw thee neer,
And as we diden lat us laughe and playe.”
Anoon they kiste and riden forth hir waye. (PardT 652-680)

As you can see, the threat of violence is still very real in Chaucer’s day, however, there are no monsters here, only men who must interact with each other within the social framework of a civilized society. The English language continues to evolve, and as it does, the literary artifacts left behind by each subsequent generation provide the tools necessary for future readers to decipher the values of that generation’s view of the world. In Beowulf, we see a harsh, violent, monster-filled world trapped between the chaos and superstition of a pagan past and the order promised by a conquering Christian ethos. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, that conquering ethos has become the mainstream, and though the last remnants of magical and violent natural world still lurk on the fringes of civilization, the solutions to problems may now be found in wit and intelligence rather than at the point of a sword. By Chaucer’s day, social interaction within the confines of a society relatively free of the violence of the past has become possible, and those who do still hold the capability to deal out violence, such as the Knight, must only do so in order to preserve the greater peace. As civilization becomes more complex, this trend towards verbal interaction in lieu of combat continues to be the norm, at least until we reach a point like that dramatized in Sudden Impact, where despite all of society’s precautions, one must resort to the most primitive of impulses to survive. And if it happens, just be sure to look danger in the eye and say, “Go ahead, make my day.”

works cited