“What Should I Fear?” Or, the All-Round Good Knight.


“Gawain overtakes [Lancelot] only when he is reduced to plodding along afoot. Both knights inquire after the queen from the mocking dwarf of the cart, and they receive identical answers: if they wish to learn of her, they are enjoined to discard their knightliness, to sacrifice the cherished social standard of their conscious personality. That is the social ideal for which they have fought innumerable battles and tournaments and which constitutes the measure of their life, their honor among men, and their everlasting fame. They are asked to exchange this supreme value of their conscious lives for the vague hope of somehow tracing the queen and the unknown enemy who has spirited her away. Gawain declines to take this foolish step; that is why he fails in the later, supreme adventure. He remains but the perfect all-round knight, a cavalier of the world, not intended for the higher task of confronting and outmatching the demonic superhuman powers of the realm of death, which have taken into their clutches the goddess of life. Gawain, in this adventure, is not the superhero of the stature for the descent into Hell.”

Heinrich Zimmer, The King and the Corpse, Joseph Campbell, ed., (New York: The Bollingen Series XI, Pantheon Books, 1948), 176-77.

Zimmer and Campbell of course render a better explanation of the nature of Gawain and his mythological function than I can. And because the greatest myths, despite being bound to the context of their times, inevitably manage to successfully speak to our contemporary predicaments, the different destinies assigned to Gawain and Lancelot, very much akin to the different destinies assigned to Gawain and Parzival, speak to the different destinies we must seek to unravel in our own lives. What are we to do? What job or vocation is rightfully ours and what obligation belongs to someone else?

The day-to-day deliberate practice of one’s modest, Earthbound skill set – one’s pedestrian vocational talents – and the autonomy, complexity and commensurate reward that a character like Gawain enjoys probably describes most of our wholehearted visions of a worthy life. The experience of being properly alive, that is, for most of us, hinges upon being welcomed within the world-of-action as it stands and for who and what we are, vocationally, within the context of our individual life. So-called higher aspirations, those pivoting upon existential and psycho-spiritual and cultural mythological tenants can routinely be regarded as somebody else’s job, namely, the spiritually adept, the predestined paraclete that speaks for and ultimately defends the veracity and cosmic legitimacy of our everyday expression of how things are. Heroes like Lancelot and Parzival begin their adult lives at least as flawed as we do, thereby ensuring our ability to identify with them – they may in the end be god-like but they are not gods. From God or the gods we are to remain perpetually and necessarily removed. But by way of their predestined role as symbols, heroes of the fraught stature of Lancelot and Parzival indeed emerge as paracletes, as Bodhisattvas, advocating for us, showing us the way, allowing for our opportunity to enjoy our humble version of divine grace, atonement and transcendence from the sufferings of this world, all the while remaining within it.

For Gawain, enlightenment is rather to be experienced within the world-of-action, within the here and now and in the manner allotted to the rest of us. Lancelot and Parzival, as scholars like Zimmer and Campbell have expressed, are of the type who fall further and rise higher because to rise higher all aspects of the play-of-opposites must be integrated by way of first-hand, thereby inarguably legitimate, experience and for the benefit of our own identification. They have faired and failed sometimes even worse than we, have demonstrated every weakness and nevertheless have won through by way of atonement and their unique mythological resilience, as it were. Gawain is not expected to perform acts of chivalry beyond his means unless it is to evoke the presence, performance and salvatory participation of the god.

What am I saying? That the enlightened householder life-style (a Hindu reference) that Gawain in his way embodies – the vocationally successful, those who enjoy so-called right livelihood as the Buddhists describe it – is all I’ve ever sought. My vision-of-greatness remains entirely within the context of this life upon this Earth. I do not aspire to transcendence beyond escaping the exile of my own foibles and mistakes and my failure to properly respond to my heart.

A life akin to Gawain’s provides for the experience of being properly alive in an everyday sense and death is relegated to, as Gawain implies, an ever-present expression, let’s say, of one’s destiny, hence it is impossible to be feared. Each and every day of one’s life expresses the success of being who you are and in that sense your work is already done and you can never fail nor suffer the qualms of not yet achieving your individuation, especially in terms of your own faulty self-knowledge or failing courage or despairing heart. You have conquered those challenges. You have cast those burdens aside for the enlightenment of being who you are. Moreover, within the context of a such a life, no manner of demise can be perceived as premature. As Gawain declares in another one of his adventures, namely, that of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight:

“What should I fear?… What else can befall a man except that he should go to meet his destiny?”

Ibid., 68.