Trickster-Heroes in ‘Buffy’ and ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’

[7 September 2011]

By Nathan Pensky

Buffy the Vampire Slayer is famous for, among other things, its large cast of characters, none of which are easy to classify in terms of good or evil. The baddest of the bad guys usually has some redeeming quality, even if it’s only expert comic timing, like that of the Mayor from season 3. The heroes are all deeply flawed, sometimes even straying into outright villainy, as when Willow becomes “Dark Willow” after the death of Tara in Season 6. Joss Whedon and his writers seemed to delight in shattering all preconceptions of good and evil, even those of their own design, and no one character epitomizes this impulse more than Spike.

Spike is an evil vampire with insatiable blood lust, but he’s also intensely likeable. His appeal is his total lack of artifice, or perhaps his winking insistence that he is nothing but artifice, a mission statement that ends up seeming honest despite itself. As a villain, he never conceals his intentions to destroy, consume, and wreak as much havoc as possible. But he has fun doing it, and his joy in baddery constitutes a vicarious pleasure for the viewer. A simplicity which could be considered a contrivance in a protagonist is actually welcome in a second-tier character, the function of which is often to misdirect from a given episode’s central conflict. Everything is easy for him, because (at least in the beginning of the series) he rarely has anything at stake. He represents relief from the Scooby Gang’s hand-wringing moral quandaries, a relief which in turn rewards the viewer’s desire to be entertained at any cost, morality or didacticism be damned.

In short, Spike is a great villain, and none the worse for eventually becoming tempted to do good. In season 6 and 7, he falls in love with Buffy and decides to regain his exiled soul to earn her favors. His goodness is self-interested, but it also seems to question whether all goodness is self-interested, what “goodness” actually means. His redemption story remains true to his bad guy roots and never strays too far into sappy territory, but rather offers a real alternative to Buffy’s heroic idealisms of good for its own sake.

Despite Spike’s transition from single-minded baddie into conflicted anti-hero, he is very consistent in one way: he always remains a disrupter. As a villain, he upsets the formal tensions of movement through conflict to resolution, reveling in simple badness, thereby causing his audience to revel with him in the amoral self-interest of their own entertainment. As a complicated hero, he upsets the thematic foundation of why heroes are good, and whether they can be good for their own ends. While most good television characters are judged in terms of their metamorphosis, Spike’s most interesting aspects are the ways he remains the same.

The Arthurian romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight also features a tricksterish character, who challenges the underlying mores of a hero, and like Spike’s adventures in Buffy, Gawain’s tale seems to be a kind of B-story to the main Arthurian plot. However unlike Spike, the titular Green Knight starts by representing an alternative morality to the main protagonist but ends up being entrenched in the hierarchically mannered morality where the story had started.

While Spike represents a true moral alternative to Buffy’s heroism, the tricks of the Green Knight end as a parlor game, and one highly referential of the story’s main conflict concerning Lancelot and Guinevere. “Sir Gawain and The Green Knight” ends almost as a stand-alone episode of a TV series, neither meaningfully undermining nor contributing to the central themes of the Arthurian corpus, rather just repeating them.

cover art

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Anonymous

(Penguin; US: Feb 2009)

The story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight involves the appearance of a strange visitor during the Christmas festivities in King Arthur’s court. A knight suddenly appears, described as “no less than the largest of men” and “in guise all of green, the gear and the man.” He interrupts the king’s feast and challenges the famed Round Table to a contest, where the players exchange blows to the neck with an ax. One would think this contest to be pretty much impossible, since only one such blow could be dealt before a winner is determined. But the knight is not concerned. He even extends to offer to whoever takes up the game the advantage of striking first.

Sir Gawain accepts, not because he wants to cut off this mysterious man’s head but in defense of the honor of his king. He steps up and promptly cuts off the Green Knight’s head, only for him to refasten it and inform Sir Gawain that he must meet him at the Green Chapel in one year’s time to make good his end of the bargain by receiving his own ax blow to the neck.

The rest of the poem has Gawain hemming and hawing about doing what he promised, experiencing several tests of his virtue along the way, eventually showing himself to be honorable, though not completely. The various stages of his deliberation constitute the classic Medieval romance tale of the questing knight whose honor is purified through a series of trials. However, the point here is interestingly not that Gawain is good, nor that he is very bad, but that he is very close to being good.

His divergence from total righteousness is negligible, and yet he is characterized as having failed his test. And the manner in which he shows his flaw is also imminently telling of the fatal flaw of his king, Arthur, as if to bring home the fact that the difference between a kingdom that lasts and one that fails rests upon rigorously strict adherence to a code. Here, there is only one way to chivalric heroism, the hard way, and any flagging to the left or right means total ruin.

In the end, the Green Knight’s role as a trickster doesn’t extend much beyond tricks. He’s merely a small player in a much bigger game. Gawain’s flaw is sort of a lark; it doesn’t really matter what happened to him, except insofar as it reveals what will happen to Arthur. This is especially true when as compared against the vital role Spike plays in his own story, as well as Spike’s relation to Buffy as hero. The manner in which Spike interacts with his central protagonist is extreme, and as well his moral alternative very strong.

During the episode in which Spike and Buffy are engaging in an elicit love affair, Buffy seems on the brink of total corruption. As a central protagonist, Buffy goes to a much darker place in her episode with Spike than Gawain does with the Green Knight, and yet Spike ends up representing a much more viable moral alternative to her personal brand of heroic idealism. This seems to suggest that modern tricksters have a greater power than ancient ones, both to corrupt their heroes and to offer short-cuts to glory.

Sir Gawain is a terrific character, moral yet human. However, the best part of his tale has little to do with his test but rather his own gameness to subject himself to such trials, which end up being silly. He shows more virtue by not blowing up in the face of the Green Knight at the end, when the latter reveals his true nature, than at any other part in the story. As trickster, meanwhile, Spike far outreaches the Green Knight. One could imagine Spike being the protagonist of his own chivalric tales, though hopefully he would meet trials worthy of him, unlike those inflicted on poor Gawain.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/147073-trickster-heroes-in-buffy-and-sir-gawain-and-the-green-knight/