Sweet Sir Galahad
Came in through the window
In the night when
The moon was in the yard.
He took her hand in his
And shook the long hair
From his neck and he told her
She’d been working much too hard.
– Sir Galahad, Joan Baez
As hard as it is seems to be to be a single mother in South Korea, it was just as hard in 1960s Australia.
As I grow older and learn more about just how harsh the world can be, I am even more amazed and impressed and saddened for my own mother who was abandoned by her husband in the late 60s. He took off in her own car after cleaning out their joint bank account and leaving her only with the shirt on her back and two-year-old twins to raise.
Unlike Dong-baek in When the Camellia Blooms, however, who is trying to run a business while raising her son alone, at least my mother had her mother and a secure teaching job to fall back on. And unlike Dong-baek who struggles with justifying every cent people spend in her bar, my mother was able to fight for – and get- equal pay, one of the first woman in her profession to do so.
Nonetheless, her life after this decision was plagued by sexism, harassment and bullying. She tells me tales of men who had previously been kind and fatherly to the “pitiful little single mother” turning their backs on her and sneering at her at work.
“How dare you?” they sneered, “How dare you think your labour is worth as much as mine.”
“How dare you think my labour isn’t,” she said, “I’m just as good at this job as you are.”
“I have a family to support,” they said angrily.
“So do I,” she retorted. “So do I.”
Nonetheless, the Education Department still fired every woman in December and then rehired them in January so they didn’t have to pay them the entitlements of full-time staff. My mother is only one of millions of women deprived of hundred of thousands of entitlements and superannuation due to structural discrimination against women in the workplace.
Which is to say, sexism is systemic and brutal and my mother is understandably proud of having navigated her way through this world by herself; keeping her family together and being both mother and father to her baby boys. But that doesn’t mean that it wasn’t hard and lonely and often frustrating and, while she would never admit to it, heartbreaking too.
It was true that ever since the day
Her crazy man had passed away
To the land of poet’s pride,
She laughed and talked a lot
With new people on the block
But always at evening time she cried.
Neither Dong-baek nor my mother ever needed a white knight. They had survived fine on their own and would survive into the future. But contrary to pop culture representations, a White Knight isn’t someone who rescues you or protects you from physical harm. Nor one who sweeps in and solves all your problems. If there is any woman on Earth not burdened by romantic fantasies it’s one whose husband drank, neglected and eventually abandoned her and who was still judged by the neighbours for divorcing him because “at least he didn’t hit her”.
A true White Knight – like the one described in Joan Baez’s Sir Galahad – is a romantic ideal only in the most pragmatic way. It’s about making life just that little bit easier and even, if you’re lucky, a little bit fun. It’s about easing away the cares of the world, giving you a knee on which to rest your head. It’s not about giving your battles over to somebody else to fight. It’s about them giving you the strength to fight your own battles: not for your survival or even for your child’s but because you’re someone worth fighting for.
As Camellia has unfolded, I’ve begun to think of this song. It’s crept into my mind and played while I’ve watched this beautifully-written love story unfold before me. The years of fighting and the constant subtle social judgement have worn down Dong-baek’s self-esteem until she feels as though she is somehow cursed or inherently unlikable. It’s not that she feels she is undeserving of love or even of consideration but that she has learned to not expect it. And while I suspect my mother would be upset or defensive at me making this comparison, I will simply say that I understand why Sir Galahad has been her favourite song for over 40 years.
Well you know I think my fate’s belated
Because of all the hours I waited
For the day when I’d no longer cry.
I get myself to work by eight
But oh, was I born too late,
And do you think I’ll fail
At every single thing I try?
This is not the story of Dong-baek’s romance with Yong-sik. It’s the story of Dong-baek’s romance with herself. In fact, what’s remarkable about Camellia and its golden retriever puppy of a male lead is that he’s not remarkable at all. He has merely his unbreakable certainty and unwavering loyalty. He doesn’t try to solve her problems or fix her life because he understands there’s nothing wrong with her life. He’s just there in a way that nobody has been there for Dong-baek before. And as the show unfolds, he manages to convince even her skeptical and cynical self that he is not someone who’s going to disappear.
He just put his arm around her
And that’s the way I found her
Eight months later to the day.
The lines of a smile erased
The tear tracks upon her face,
A smile could linger, even stay.
Yong-sik may be earnest, genuine and sincere but he’s also bullheaded, bad-tempered and excitable. The show is never selling some romantic fantasy that ends with a fairy tale wedding and a fade to black. Happily ever after.
It’s saying that true knights in shining armour – the kinds who clamber through your window when they see you’ve locked the front door – are perfect merely in their imperfection. Extraordinary in their ordinary. They become someone’s hero merely by existing; by staying where they say they will and doing what they say they will day after day through all of life’s ups and downs.
In the final estimation, that is all it takes to truly be someone’s hero.
If you’re a hero because of your actions then that’s the only action required.
Just being there.
Sweet Sir Galahad went down
With his gay bride of flowers,
The prince of the hours
Of her lifetime.