When you’re living in the Middle Ages, feasting at King Arthur’s table in Camelot, you just never know what’s going to walk in the door.

In the Medieval poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, one of the most prized bits of manuscript in the English language, the Knights of the Round Table find their Christmas dinner interrupted by the entrance of the audacious Green Knight. Completely emerald from his garish hair to his “sparkling spurs,” the creature saunters smirking into court while Arthur’s subjects stare with open mouths. You’d think he was a time-traveling Mardi Gras performer.

What is such a bizarre villain doing in the noble courts of Arthur? Why must Gawain’s courage be tested by a clownish monstrosity?

Yet something seems oddly appropriate about the scene. Arthur has a premonition of these events when he wishes for “some far-fetched yarn or outrageous fable,/ the tallest of tales, yet one ringing with truth” (93-94).

And as Gawain comes of age, he must face the strangeness of the world. He must embrace mysterious dangers and be tested to see if his strength holds.

Middle school students are Gawains. The world, to them, is a shock. History facts make them gag and gape. Many of the words in books are strange and suspicious and hold hidden meanings. Teachers assign utterly impossible tasks. They ask questions in class as desperately as drowning men. They gasp, groan, and exclaim. One day, Eric fell out of his chair. Another time, Mason burst inexplicably into tears. Yesterday, Jake had to leave the room because he couldn’t stop laughing. The boundaries of the possible are yet undiscovered; who knows where the wonders will end.

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