Monday, January 1, 2007

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and January 1

One of the elements of modern academia is either the wanton disregard or attempt to discredit Christian influence on literature, or the lack of ability to notice it when it is indeed there. Critiques of medieval literature should always keep in mind the context of Christendom in which the authors wrote. This is why the following remark is puzzling concerning the manuscript of Gawain, Patience, Pearl, and Purity: All the poems except Sir Gawain and the Green Knight deal with overtly Christian subject matter, and it remains unclear why Sir Gawain, an Arthurian romance, was included in an otherwise religious manuscript.

The answer, of course, is that Gawain is indeed an overtly religious poem. One of the most obvious religious features of the poem is that significant events occur on liturgical feast days: Christmas, All Saints, and most importantly, the Feast of the Circumcision—January 1. The first antiphon sung during Lauds on January 1 is:

O wonderful exchange, wonderful trade:
The Creator of human kind, assuming an inspirited body,
Deigned to be born of a Virgin;
And coming forth as a man without admixture of seed,
He bestowed upon us his godhead.


This highlights the sin of Gawain. All of the virtues represented by the pentangle are subsequently discarded in Gawain’s sojourn in the Castle of Bertilak. He fails in his five fingers, in courtesy and chastity, and he fails to pray. His response to the seduction of the Lady is to value his own life above the morals and virtues he so proudly claims. The antiphon is a reminder that Christ fully accepted his humanity, but that Gawain refuses to submit to mortality at the potential cost of his own soul.

Ironically, Gawain glories in his outward virtues (through false humility), but inwardly he is corrupt. His sin which drives him to a full assessing of his character is outwardly minor, but inwardly significant because it reveals his motivations and desires above his public personae. In a sermon, Gregory the Great preached the following about chastity and lust that could hardly fit the circumstances of Gawain any better:

There is one kind of lust, namely of the flesh, by which we corrupt chastity, another, however, namely of the heart, by which we glory in our chastity. Hence God says to Job: “Gird up your loins like a man” [Job 38. 3], so that whoever first conquers the lust of corruption may now restrain the lust of glorying, lest becoming proud of his patience and chastity, he live so much the worse lustful within, before the eyes of God, as he appears the more both patient and chaste, before the eyes of man. Hence well is it said by Moses: ‘Circumcise the foreskin of your hearts’ (Deut. 10.16), that is, after you douse the lust arising from the flesh, cut off also the excesses of thought and imagination.

The climax of the story occurs on the Feast of the Circumcision, and the word used to describe the nick of the blade on Gawain’s neck, the nirt, is also a term used in discussing circumcision. Significantly, the Green Knight bestows Gawain’s name back on him after the acknowledgment of sin and guilt. The nick of the blade becomes a sacramental action that symbolizes the cleansing of baptism and a new name.

Much more could be said of the parallel between the hunting scenes and the seduction scenes with the animals involved, the separating of Gawain from Arthur’s court for testing just like the doe was separated from the herd during the hunt, the fact that Gawain wears blue, the color of fidelity, when withholding the gift of the girdle from his Host, and the maturity and connection to the earth of the Host’s castle versus the youth and artificiality of Arthur’s court. All of these things make a rich and wonderful tapestry in a substantive story of redemption and chivalry.

2 comments:

Mike said...

This redemptive poem is in opposition to the popular but immoral chivalric code practiced among the elite in the royal court during this time. The critics don't get the redemptive meaning here just as they miss the point of "The Passion".

Matthew N. Petersen said...

This is an old post, so I'm not sure you will read my comments, but I think you misread Sir Gawain. First point in his favor; His hope in temptation is grace from the Queene of Cortaysye. Second, he only reaches the castle because he prays that he not profane a High Feast day by not celebrating the sacrament. Third, he does not fall prey to the lady's seduction. Forth, even when tempted, he calls on Mary for help. Five, he goes to confession.

Based on this if he is a hyporcite, he is a stunningly great one--he goes to a false confession, he receives the Sacraments falsely, he does not really place his faith in the Virgin etc.

But what of his receiving the girdle, and subsequent deception of the lord? First, by the time he deceived the lord, he was in a position (after Confession) where he could either violate the silly game, or violate his solemn oath to the woman. This of course came about because of a fault, but though the fault was confessed (note his rejoycing following confession) the practical problem would not have disappeared. Even after confession and repentance, he was faced with breaking his word to the lord or to the lady. Moreover, as Tolkien points out, Gawain violates a silly game for the sake of the woman. When the lord returns, he makes the correct decision.

In light of this his fault was not treachery against the lord (treachery is too strong a word (in ME it was not as strong)), but was only valuing his own life too highly. But not even that. He did not merely value his life too highly. He also valued the lady, and was unwilling to treat her rudely. (Note his earlier refusal to be coarse.) And to be rude to the lady, would have been to treat Mary's kind rudely. It would have been to profane the Virgin he was dedicated to.

But he did value his life too highly. Granted. But it is a dull satire that says "someone with this philosophy is not likely to be completely perfect." And moreover, he values his life far less than you or I would (when he goes to meet the knight his faith is in Christ, not the girdle), and he is more chaste than you or I.

And the fruit of his fault is betrayal of his lord. True, but only with a weakned sense of betrayal. He cheated at Pictionary. But he did not do this intentionally, but only as it were acidentally, and when faced with a choice, only to perserve a higher good. Likely the priest could have explained this to him if he were in doubt.