- Choose one of the following interpretations from either Wikipedia or Goucher College.
- Read through it and determine what it is arguing or what questions it is raising.
- Write no less than half of a page (this does not include your heading or all of the fun spaces you put after it) explaining whether or not you agree with said reading. You may want to only focus on one of the key questions raised in the interpretations that you chose if it is a broader one. You MUST include reference to specific textual details in order to support your claims.
- THIS IS DUE WHEN YOU GET BACK FROM BREAK. YOU MIGHT WANT TO DO IT NOW WHILE YOU REMEMBER THE STORY WELL.
Gawain as medieval romance
Many critics argue that Sir Gawain and the Green Knight should be viewed, above all, as a romance. Medieval romances typically recount the marvellous adventures of a chivalrous, heroic knight, often of super-human ability, who abides by chivalry's strict codes of honour and demeanour, embarks upon a quest and defeats monsters, thereby winning the favour of a lady. Thus, medieval romances focus not on love and sentiment (as the term "romance" implies today), but on adventure.
Gawain's function, as medieval scholar Alan Markman says, "is the function of the romance hero … to stand as the champion of the human race, and by submitting to strange and severe tests, to demonstrate human capabilities for good or bad action." Through Gawain's adventure, it becomes clear that he is merely human. The reader becomes attached to this human view in the midst of the poem’s romanticism, relating to Gawain’s humanity while respecting his knightly qualities. Gawain "shows us what moral conduct is. We shall probably not equal his behaviour, but we admire him for pointing out the way."
In viewing the poem as a chivalric romance, many scholars see it as intertwining chivalric and courtly love laws under the English Order of the Garter. The group's motto, 'honi soit qui mal y pense', or "Shamed be he who finds evil here," is written at the end of the poem. Some critics describe Gawain's peers wearing girdles of their own as evidence of the origin of the Order of the Garter. However, in the parallel poem The Greene Knight, the lace is white, not green, and is considered the origin of the collar worn by the knights of the Bath, not the Order of the Garter. The motto on the poem was probably written by a copyist and not by the original author. Still, the connection made by the copyist to the Order is not extraordinary.
The poem is in many ways deeply Christian, with frequent references to the fall of Adam and Eve and to Jesus Christ. Scholars have debated the depth of the Christian elements within the poem by looking at it in the context of the age in which it was written, coming up with varying views as to what represents a Christian element of the poem and what does not. For example, some critics compare Sir Gawain to the other three poems of the Gawainmanuscript. Each has a heavily Christian theme, causing scholars to interpret Gawain similarly. Comparing it to the poem Cleanness (also known asPurity), for example, they see it as a story of the apocalyptic fall of a civilisation, in Gawain's case, Camelot. In this interpretation, Sir Gawain is likeNoah, separated from his society and warned by the Green Knight (who is seen as God's representative) of the coming doom of Camelot. Gawain, judged worthy through his test, is spared the doom of the rest of Camelot. King Arthur and his knights, however, misunderstand Gawain's experience and wear garters themselves. In Cleanness the men who are saved are similarly helpless in warning their society of impending destruction.
One of the key points stressed in this interpretation is that salvation is an individual experience difficult to communicate to outsiders. In his depiction of Camelot, the poet reveals a concern for his society, whose inevitable fall will bring about the ultimate destruction intended by God. Gawain was written around the time of the Black Death and Peasants' Revolt, events which convinced many people that their world was coming to an apocalyptic end and this belief was reflected in literature and culture. However, other critics see weaknesses in this view, since the Green Knight is ultimately under the control of Morgan le Fay, usually viewed as a figure of evil in Camelot tales. This makes the knight's presence as a representative of God problematic.
While the character of the Green Knight is usually not viewed as a representation of Christ in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, critics do acknowledge a parallel. Lawrence Besserman, a specialist in medieval literature, explains that "the Green Knight is not a figurative representative of Christ. But the idea of Christ's divine/human nature provides a medieval conceptual framework that supports the poet's serious/comic account of the Green Knight's supernatural/human qualities and actions." This duality exemplifies the influence and importance of Christian teachings and views of Christ in the era of the Gawain Poet.
Furthermore, critics note the Christian reference to Christ's crown of thorns at the conclusion of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. After Gawain returns to Camelot and tells his story regarding the newly acquired green sash, the poem concludes with a brief prayer and a reference to "the thorn-crowned God". Besserman theorises that "with these final words the poet redirects our attention from the circular girdle-turned-sash (a double image of Gawain's "yntrawpe/renoun") to the circular Crown of Thorns (a double image of Christ's humiliation turned triumph)."
Throughout the poem, Gawain encounters numerous trials testing his devotion and faith in Christianity. When Gawain sets out on his journey to find the Green Chapel, he finds himself lost, and only after praying to the Virgin Mary does he find his way. As he continues his journey, Gawain once again faces anguish regarding his inevitable encounter with the Green Knight. Instead of praying to Mary, as before, Gawain places his faith in the girdle given to him by Bertilak’s wife. From the Christian perspective, this leads to disastrous and embarrassing consequences for Gawain as he is forced to reevaluate his faith when the Green Knight points out his betrayal.
An analogy is also made between Gawain’s trial and the Biblical test that Adam encounters in the Garden of Eden. Adam succumbs to Eve just as Gawain surrenders to Bertilak’s wife by accepting the girdle. Although Gawain sins by putting his faith in the girdle and not confessing when he is caught, the Green Knight pardons him, thereby allowing him to become a better Christian by learning from his mistakes. Through the various games played and hardships endured, Gawain finds his place within the Christian world.
Feminist literary critics see the poem as portraying women's ultimate power over men. Morgan le Fay and Bertilak's wife, for example, are the most powerful characters in the poem—Morgan especially, as she begins the game by enchanting the Green Knight. The girdle and Gawain's scar can be seen as symbols of feminine power, each of them diminishing Gawain's masculinity. Gawain's misogynist passage, in which he blames all of his troubles on women and lists the many men who have fallen prey to women's wiles, further supports the feminist view of ultimate female power in the poem.
In contrast, others argue that the poem focuses mostly on the opinions, actions, and abilities of men. For example, on the surface, it appears that Bertilak’s wife is a strong leading character. By adopting the masculine role, she appears to be an empowered individual, particularly in the bedroom scene. This is not entirely the case, however. While the Lady is being forward and outgoing, Gawain’s feelings and emotions are the focus of the story, and Gawain stands to gain or lose the most. The Lady "makes the first move", so to speak, but Gawain ultimately decides what is to become of those actions. He, therefore, is in charge of the situation and even the relationship.
In the bedroom scene, both the negative and positive actions of the Lady are motivated by her desire. Her feelings cause her to step out of the typical female role and into that of the male, thus becoming more empowered. At the same time, those same actions make the Lady appear adulterous; some scholars compare her with Eve in the Bible. By forcing Gawain to take her girdle, i.e. the apple, the pact made with Bertilak—and therefore the Green Knight—is broken. In this sense, it is clear that at the hands of the Lady, Gawain is a "good man seduced".
From 1350 to 1400—the period in which the poem is thought to have been written—Wales experienced several raids at the hands of the English, who were attempting to colonise the area. The Gawain poet uses a North West Midlands dialect common on the Welsh–English border, potentially placing him in the midst of this conflict. Patricia Clare Ingham is credited with first viewing the poem through the lens of postcolonialism, and since then a great deal of dispute has emerged over the extent to which colonial differences play a role in the poem. Most critics agree that gender plays a role, but differ about whether gender supports the colonial ideals or replaces them as English and Welsh cultures interact in the poem.
A large amount of critical debate also surrounds the poem as it relates to the bi-cultural political landscape of the time. Some argue that Bertilak is an example of the hybrid Anglo-Welsh culture found on the Welsh–English border. They therefore view the poem as a reflection of a hybrid culture that plays strong cultures off one another to create a new set of cultural rules and traditions. Other scholars, however, argue that historically much Welsh blood was shed well into the 14th century, creating a situation far removed from the more friendly hybridisation suggested by Ingham. To support this argument further, it is suggested that the poem creates an "us versus them" scenario contrasting the knowledgeable civilised English with the uncivilised borderlands that are home to Bertilak and the other monsters that Gawain encounters.
In contrast to this perception of the colonial lands, others argue that the land of Hautdesert, Bertilak’s territory, has been misrepresented or ignored in modern criticism. They suggest that it is a land with its own moral agency, one that plays a central role in the story. Bonnie Lander, for example, argues that the denizens of Hautdesert are "intelligently immoral", choosing to follow certain codes and rejecting others, a position which creates a "distinction … of moral insight versus moral faith". Lander thinks that the border dwellers are more sophisticated because they do not unthinkingly embrace the chivalric codes but challenge them in a philosophical, and—in the case of Bertilak's appearance at Arthur’s court—literal sense. Lander’s argument about the superiority of the denizens of Hautdesert hinges on the lack of self-awareness present in Camelot, which leads to an unthinking populace that frowns on individualism. In this view, it is not Bertilak and his people, but Arthur and his court, who are the monsters.
Challenging Male/Female and Animal/Human Binary Oppositions—
when the host’s wife "captures" Gawain three mornings in a row, she reverses the gender dynamics scripted for both of them in Arthurian romance. When Gawain puts on her "girdel" (1829), he is cross-dressing, albeit secretly (a not uncommon practice among transvestites in cultures which repress the practice). The kisses he trades with the host are interpretable as the normal "salute" given by hosts and guests in most courts of medieval Europe, but since these are kisses Gawain has "won" from the host’s wife, and they are kisses he gives the host in lieu of explaining from whom he had them, Gawain’s gender-role becomes quite complex. Note the Green Knight’s explanation that "that tappe" of the ax on Gawain’s neck was his payment for Gawain’s failure to reveal the girdle—so the neck wound rewards the secret adoption of a female signifier. Why does the poet construct the Green Knight as such an outrageously testosterone-rich figure, especially in his role as the host? Why is the lady so aggressive, and why is Gawain so passive? Does this explain Gawain’s sudden burst of misogyny upon being informed of the women’s role in his deception (2411-2428)?
Gawain’s host hunts three animals whose deaths and butchery are described in intimate detail. After the hunt, which we follow from the deer’s perspective, the deer’s body becomes reduced to ritually named parts in a celebration of mortality which feeds all manner of species until the best cuts are presented to Gawain as his "prys" (1379). The poet similarly gives full attention to the deaths of the boar and fox, and to their transformation into inanimate but valuable body parts, all of which find their way to Gawain. What is the poet’s attitude toward these ceremonial killings? How does the repeated butchery of the animals relate to the scenes of refined bedroom word-play with which they alternate? What kind of animal is a "Gawain," and what does the poet expect us to feel because of that?
The Hunt Game in general--
In general, the beasts of the hunt are divided into three groups--noble beasts (stag) reserved to the king, beasts of the chase which the nobility may pursue (boar), and vermin which usually are left to peasants (fox). The beasts also have symbolic significance that dates back to the oldest oral tradition fables: the lion and stag are brave, the fox is clever, the boar is gross and violent, etc. A later medieval tradition among the troubador poets of Provance equated the hunt of the hart (male deer) with the hunt of the heart (pursuit of the beloved [or love itself] by the lover).
The Hunt Game in SGGK--
Move #1: The Host offers Gawain dominion over his castle; Gawain offers in return to do anything that will please the Host.
Move #2: The Host offers the "Hunt Game": The Host will hunt outside the palace and Gawain will "hunt" within the palace; each will exchange winnings with the other at the end of each day.
Move #3: 1st hunt--The Host captures and kills a hind (female deer); Gawain resists the seductions of the Host's Lady and "wins" a kiss. The Host awards Gawain the hind and Gawain presents the host with a kiss.
Move #4: 2nd hunt--The Host captures and kills a boar; Gawain resists the Lady's seduction and wins a kiss. Exchange of gifts.
Move #5: 3rd hunt--The Host captures and kills a fox; Gawain resists the lady, wins three kisses, but succumbs to the lure of the Green Girdle's supposed protective power. The Host gives Gawain the fox pelt, and Gawain gives him three kisses, but hides the Green Girdle.
What restores the imbalance caused by Move #5 in the gift-giving game? What is it to lose a game? What is it to win one? In what games is deception justified? What is God's game?
Seasonal Change and Seasonal Renewal:
Gawain as "sacrifice"—both Christian and pagan calendars are governed by a cycle of abundance and dearth, ritual sacrifice and renewal. Gawain, like the Green Knight, takes part in a blood-letting ceremony which occurs at the turning point of the new year. If we keep in mind that the Christian calendar traced the beginning of the year to the Resurrection on Easter Sunday, this tale’s Christian "exterior" (built of the symbols on Gawain’s shield and the routine observance of ritual) may actually contain a more profound Christian "interior" in which Gawain becomes a kind of Christ. If so, how does this square with the motivating presence of "Morgne the goddes" (2452)? Why would the court of King Arthur need a Christ-figure? Would the poet expect his audience to reach this conclusion easily, or is it something hidden from all but the expert reader? Would this have anything to do with the way we should read Pearl, assuming as most scholars do that both poems are by the same author? (Gawain is the second knight in Arthurian romance who sees "the blode blenk on the snawe" ; the first, Percival, sees it fall from the holy lance in the Grail’s procession and suddenly realizes the significance of the vessel, his Lord’s sacrifice, and his own naïveté.)