Literary Commentary: Sir Gawain

      Thank goodness, perhaps, that the author chose not to describe certain unnecessary details of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, for that might have "taxed our wits" to keep up. As it was, near the beginning, I felt a little overwhelmed by how much adoration the narrative lavishes upon the feast and Arthur's court. Keeping in mind that this piece was written a century and a half after knights had petered out, glorifying them as we Americans did our Western heroes, I couldn't help but sense a near-homoerotic hero worship in the physical descriptions of the knights and the Green Knight, while passing over the ladies without much more mention than that they were unsurpassingly beauteous. It took until the challenge of the Green Knight to absorb me.

      I enjoyed the use of alliterative verse, which I had not encountered often before (but have since tried to remedy). Each stanza ending with its bob and wheel reminded me of certain lines from Tolkien's more humorous poetry; Tolkien doubtless took inspiration from the classic tales. I noticed particularly that in the telling, the point of view of the narrative changed. It naturally concentrated most often on Gawain, but swerved from his avoidance-of-cuckolding exploits to the details of the host's hunt, and at first I strove to figure out why so much attention was spent on how each beast was taken. Delving into further research by more learned students than I indicated that the beasts chosen (fox, boar) reflected the method by which the host's lady tried to seduce the good knight. I noticed also that this period was still caught between the concept of an ancient, magical pagan world and the new Christian one. Christian worship is the new "Truth", but there is still an automatic acceptance of pagan supernaturalism; as the Green Knight calmly picks up his severed, speaking head and goes on about his business, there is some staring, and some who quail before him, but there isn't the sheer unbelieving shock one might expect, and it is laughed off afterwards. (The idea, though, of his taking his head by the hair and bursting out upon his horse, must have influenced stories such as "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow"!)

      I like Gawain. He is among the most famous of Arthur's knights, but calls himself the lowliest. His humility is his greatest virtue. It's odd that this work chose not to tell a tale of striving against villainy and succeeding, culminating in happy pride and satisfaction, but instead ends with a penance, as Gawain's shame in preserving his own life (albeit a justified thing to do in modern eyes) takes his success down a notch. Then again, it isn't so odd: Gawain strove to be greater than the faulty human he is fated to be. It becomes a morality lesson, a challenge for chivalry; Gawain's story is now an object to look up to and admire, rather than a tale of how cleverly our protagonist beat the bad guy.

      For me, I don't see his use of the girdle as a breach of contract. The Green Knight conveniently didn't mention his particular supernatural immunity before issuing his challenge, therefore I see no weakness in Gawain accepting a bit of ethereal armor. I guess, though, that Gawain's failure to mention the girdle to his host when exchanging their "winnings" of the day is the real subtraction from honor. However, the fact that Gawain wears it as a symbol of shame shows his virtue. Bertilak the Green Knight surprises us with his goodwill by sparing and forgiving Gawain, which makes me wonder about his relationship with or allegiance to Morgan le Faye, who is after all the nemesis of Arthur's court. Was she happy with this outcome, or was she defeated in this round? Did Gawain win or lose? To Gawain, at least, it seems he lost.

For Reference:
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

David Elsensohn, March 2005

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