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Tit for Tat: A new look at Sir Gawain
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A huge green knight arrives at King Arthur’s court and, swaggering arrogantly, challenges someone to behead him with the proviso that he can return the blow in a year and a day. Gawain accepts. The giant kneels and throws his green hair forward to bare a neck thick as a tree. A minute later his head is rolling across the ground. Laughing, the courtiers kick it like a ball, then watch, horrified, as the giant lurches to his feet and picks it up by the hair. His bloody lips tell Gawain to meet him at the Green Chapel in a year and a day. He promises the blow will be returned.

Almost a year later, Gawain on his way to the appointed meeting place, visits a castle, and is persuaded by its  lord, a seemingly friendly host, to stay for three nights. Unbeknown to Gawain, the lord, Bercilak,  is the Green Knight in another form.  To entertain his guest, Bercilak suggests a game where they exchange winnings: whatever Bercilak kills in his day’s hunting in exchange for what Gawain wins in the castle. Gawain, without realizing that it is a test of loyalty, agrees. While Bercilak hunts, his wife attempts to seduce Gawain.  Gawain resists but finally allows her to give him her girdle which she says will save his life. In the nightly exchange of winnings, he fails to turn it over to his host. Then, on the appointed day, Gawain meets the Green Knight and receives a light cut on his neck, which the Green Knight explains, is for disloyalty. Realizing that the Green Knight and Bercilak are one and the same, Gawain is overcome by shame but blames his failure on women’s perfidy. He returns to Arthur’s Court where wearing the girdle as a badge of his shame. The courtiers console him and swear that they too will wear girdles to keep their beloved knight company.

What is this all about?  Scholars and critics have tended to hold violently opposed notions about the Green Knight, seeing him as either totally good or bad: as Christ or Devil, sadist or benevolent father. More recently, some critics like Benson have noted that he is both attractive and fearful without connecting this to the poem’s larger psychological themes.  If we look closely at the poem we can see that the poet’s ambivalence towards the Green Knight along with the unexplained  challenge and equally illogical temptation and exchange are part of a single emotional field which cries out for a psychological interpretation.  The poem’s enduring fascination lies in the way the poet holds powerful emotions of hate and love in balance and brings them into a psychologically deep and meaningful pattern specifically adapted to the feudal society in which the Gawain poet lived.
 

The opening of the poem is framed as a conflict between adolescent sons and a frightening father. When the Green Knight appears, he makes us experience the court and king as children by stressing their youth and by taunting and shaming them. He acts as if he were dealing with untried striplings instead of a King and his court. He swaggers up and down, looks insolently at the group on the high dais , and asks, “Where… /Is the lord of this company ? I’d like to see him /In person and exchange some words.” (225-6)When Arthur identifies himself as king, the Green Knight addresses him with the disrespectful “thou”, and when Arthur offers to fight, the Green Knight humiliates him by remarking that he wouldn’t think of fighting because “These benches are filled with beardless infants”  (280) The boyish king turns red with shame.

The Green Knight’s physical appearance evokes emotions of respectful awe and deep fear which complement the sense of shame and childishness elicited by his words. The poet, however, leads the reader by stages from emotions of awe and respect to sheer terror, from the merely exotic to uncanny mythic regions. He begins at the level of what is familiar by insisting that The Green Knight though startlingly huge is a perfect man, encouraging idealization of him as king, master or stern father. Once his superiority over the knights has been established, the poet moves on to his more primitive aspects. He describes his Knight as grass-green and hairy, with brilliant green color and bush-like beard, long hair like a cape around his shoulders. His “tool,”  the powerful  axe he carries, suggests vitality and phallic force.

 The Green Knight’s taunts and aggression both inhibit and stimulate the knights. A tension is built up between their wish to cut his head off and their fear of his power.  The poet describes the beheading with almost voluptuous pleasure; The Green Knight throws back his lovely hair to bare his neck and the blade enters his fair, bright flesh. Afterwards the courtiers release their pent up aggression by kicking the head around like a ball, laughing as blood spurts from the trunk. The moment of triumph is short lived. The spurned head becomes the agent of terror when the Green Knight, now hideously ugly, picks it up by the hair, and the mouth reminds Gawain that he must come for a return blow in a year and a day.

Though the poet nowhere names the Green Knight  Gawain’s father—as the challenger is described in an earlier Medieval version -- the Gawain poet  has, with considerable richness and subtlety, made the reader feel emotions appropriate to a hostile confrontation between father and son leading up to the enactment of a parricidal fantasy. Precisely because the challenger is anonymous, and the challenge without reason, the reader can participate without excessive guilt in the pattern of  aggression and humiliation that culminate in the beheading.

When a year has almost passed,Gawain sets out as he promised. After fighting off numerous monsters, enduring foul weather and praying to the Virgin Mary, for help, he spots Bercilak’s  beautiful white castle. The host’s remarkably kind and admiring treatment of Gawain, offers a direct contrast to the scene of humiliation and shame at Arthur’s court. Gawain’s youthful beauty is praised: “And all at once it seemed to be Spring,/As his face shone, and that fair robe/ Glistened with color” (865-866). Now he is even praised for his conversation and all present are eager to learn “the meaning/ Of manners ..the soothing of lovers hurts.” (924-26) The lordly Host is cordiality itself, sates his hunger, warms and feeds him then proposes a game in which they would exchange whatever  Bercilak wins in the next days’ hunts with whatever Gawain wins in the castle. Not understanding that it is a test of loyalty, Gawain agrees.

    It seems like a natural continuation of the fantasy of a loving castle- home, for a beautiful woman to appear, to flatter  Gawain. But from her first appearance at supper in the castle, the lady has a shadow. She is  accompanied by a repulsive crone suggesting that seductive beauty has a reverse side--a point that foreshadows the misogyny at the poem’s end. The verse builds up a counterpoint of desire and revulsion: “Rich red cheeks on the one, rough/and wrinkled jowls on the other.”  (952-53) The alluring brightness of the young one’s breast “whiter than snow” on hills is contrasted to the wrappings hiding the other’s from sight.  Her ugly guardian reminds the reader that the lady is at once the most desirable and the most forbidden, the wife of Gawain’s host.  In earlier Medieval romances and folktales the host was generally a cruel boor if not an ogre and the knight either was obedient out of fear or had no qualms about tricking the host out of his wife. But because here the temptation takes place within the context of Bercilak’s fatherly concern for Gawain, the poet is able to add psychological depth, developing the conflict between Gawain’s feelings of gratitude and loyalty and his sexual desire.

The  temptation scenes that follow explore both his desire and his reluctance. Their artistry lies in the subtlety and variety of feelings they evoke. Gawain can’t help desiring  the beautiful creature. His desire is chilled, not by fear of his host but by thoughts of his coming encounter with the Green Knight and his feelings of obligation and gratitude to Bercilak who has trustingly left him with the lady while he goes out to hunt deer. The struggle between yearning and inhibition paralyzes him and make him almost comically helpless before the lady’s advances. In the first temptation scene, Gawain is reduced to pretending sleep when he sees the lady sneak into his room. Later in the same scene, he lies paralyzed while she assures him that no one is around, the door is locked and he is welcome to her body. At this point  he thinks of the return blow and desire vanishes. All he manages to do is give her a goodby kiss which he will dutifully return to his Host at the night’s exchange of winnings. If this is a fantasy of seduction by the mother it also suggests the anxiety caused by a possible fulfillment of such a fantasy.

            After the first temptation, we see  Bercilak killing and cutting up a deer. He presents it to Gawain that night re-inforcing  Gawain’s constraining fear of dismemberment and death. We are made to sense a connection between Gawain’s yielding to the lady and the possible retaliation by her husband. But for now, Gawain only presents him  with the kiss that the lady gave him in parting.

During a second day of temptation, the lady teases Gawain for forgetting her lesson in kissing, pushes and prods him to make love to her. He gallantly tells her his lips are hers to command but declines to go further. That night , after his hunt, the lord turns up with a boar’s head which Gawain receives with horror. The boar suggests even more strongly than the deer that it is a surrogate and the exchange of winnings, a warning.

          In the third temptation scene, Gawain’s fear isn’t enough to restrain him in the face of Bercilak’s wife’s increased seductiveness. The lady arrives dressed in furs with her breasts bare and starts kissing him. Now he is  saved only by thinking of another woman—the Virgin Mary—whose knight he is. Mary is the most exalted and loving mother who can be imagined. Her image  provides better protection than any worldly sweetheart. While she doesn’t offer sexual gratification, her care satisfies other aspects of the mother-child relationship. She also helps Gawain overcome thoughts of rivalry with a superior male. She is a virgin. No man has sexual priority with her and she is totally devoted to worshipping her son. In addition there is no guilt connected with loving her. It is no accident that Gawain has her device on his shield.

            In parting from  Bercilak’s wife, Gawain accepts her girdle as a token because she insists it will save his life.   It serves as a reminder of his desire and he can accept it because for the moment his inhibitions have quieted. The gift itself will protect him.

The Gawain poet doesn’t satisfy the incestuous wish in the structure of the poem. Instead he humiliates the hero for forgetting himself enough to take the girdle and for keeping it secret from his host instead of turning it over in the exchange. The girdle episode should be taken as an allusion to a solution to emotional conflict common to folk or fairy tales in which a young hero receives a protective gift from a giant’s wife or daughter. As an episode in a familial drama it suggests the wish to be protected by the mother from the father’s anger while yet deceiving him.

            The Gawain poet’s joining of the beheading game and the temptation—separate in all but one early version--  enables the poet to present with great economy a whole range of feelings both positive and negative towards paternal authority. These feelings come to a head when Gawain and The Green Knight meet at their appointed meeting place, the Green Chapel.

Fear is uppermost  as Gawain approaches the Green Chapel, He asks directions and is warned to avoid the ferocious giant who kills all who pass. Though  his guide’s assertion that the giant has been around since ancient times doesn’t fit logically with the plot, the allusion to myth and folktale reminds us that the emotions he arouses are ancient and known to all.

            Gawain arriving at the appointed place feels that it is the site of devilish rites. This is partially a projection of his guilty conscience. He doesn’t want to admit to himself that he had been disloyal, had held back the girdle, and  told an untruth. It’s much easier to see the devil in the landscape.  The Green Knight confronts Gawain and taunts him, feinting with his axe and finally dealing the long expected return blow. To Gawain’s and our suprise it  is extremely light and merely breaks the skin. Gawain  then learns that his opponent and his Host are one and the same.  Gawain’s  humiliation continues as the Green Knight explains that the wound he receives is for disloyalty in taking the girdle. Though at this point the more benign persona of Bercilak takes over and praises Gawain as a perfect paladin, Gawain is overcome with shame and denounces himself as sinfull.

            The intensity of his shame leads him to a misogynistic tirade. The gist of it is that since Adam men have been deceived by women and since women are not to be trusted, Gawain says he should be excused. This rant has mystified critics.  But it is quite easily understood in the context of his struggle with his own desire and his failure to be the Virgin Mary’s perfect Christian Knight. His shame at his weakness becomes translated into blaming what tempted him—woman.

Gawain’s new found disgust at the temptress is also represented  symbolically by his reaction to the Green chapel. When Gawain first arrived there, he saw a swelling mound with a hole at one end and a stream bubbling by, and thought that the Devil might well recite his prayers there. What strikes him is the age and ugliness of the place, an old cave, “a crevice in crag,” overgrown with grass (2183) His strong reaction suggests a missing association. Within the poem the closest parallel is his sexual disgust at the sight of the old crone

            The association of mound hole and woman is certainly not unique to the Gawain poet. The earth’s mysterious holes and caves are analogous to the woman’s genitals and hidden inner organs. Their association with the devil is a logical result of Medieval Christian attitudes towards sex where “putting the devil in hell” could be a jocular reference to intercourse.

Gawain’s negative associations to the mound/hole, anticipate his misogynistic outburst. But his dread is more elemental and immediate  than his more articulate and rationalized anti-feminine statement. The author’s reveals near the end that Morgan  le Fay, a powerful sorceress, hostile to Arthur’s Court, was behind the beheading game. This takes the process a step further: a woman is responsible for men’s aggression towards each other. Gawain’s dread, his misogyny and Morgan’s responsibility are all part of a pattern in which the anger generated among rivalrous men is displaced onto women in a way that reinforces the filial and societal bonds among men. Gawain returns to court to found a masculine order of shame with his brother knights: the surreptitiously obtained girdle is its badge.

            Sir Gawain and the Green Knight reaffirms the power of the father. It dramatizes the way allegiance to the father and his values is set up in the child’s mind through a mixture of intimidation and caring. It is part of the Gawain poet’s mature artistry that he insists on unity of personality: the caring Bercilak and the fearful Green Knight are aspects of the same man. Gawain’s conflict over his adulterous longings invokes the incest taboo on which patriarchal society rests. The triangular situation of Gawain, Host and lady repeats on a social level the earlier family triangle of father, mother and son. Unlike Sophocles, the Gawain poet isn’t writing about the dream of incest fulfilled and tragically punished. He is writing about wishes that are coaxed out by temptation and then rejected and consciously suppressed.

Though the Gawain poet fully explores  the impulses of humiliated rage and rivalry that lead men to violence( in the beheading) or disloyalty (in the seduction,) conflict within the poem is resolved in favor of authority—whether the fixed structure of feudal loyalty or the hierarchical frame of religion. The poet underscores his stance by his use of Christian symbols. The beheading and the return blow are fitted into the Christian calendar: they fall on the day when Christ, God’s Son, entered the covenant, ensuring God of his absolute submission by enduring the mutilation of his genitals. New Year’s Day, the day of the beheading, as well as the day Sir Gawain receives his token neck wound, is the Christian Feast of the Circumcision

            But the poem does more than dramatize the formation of an individual conscience through identification with the father and a chauvinistic contempt for women. It shows us how this particular type of conscience and set of attitudes meshed with the feudal Christian society in which the Gawain poet lived. French feudal society was built on assemblies of noble houses in which only the eldest son was allowed to marry. Wandering in turbulent bands, the younger sons presented a constant danger to their married brothers.   In this context the temptation—in which temptation is controlled by the lord—suggests an imaginative effort to domesticate a social threat.

It is a poem of maturation through temptation and fear—a paradigm of the socialization of youth into family, morality and feudal society.

The story of Sir Gawain fascinated me as a graduate student and for years afterwards. Everytime I returned to it, I would be deeply impressed and absorbed by  the beauty of the poet’s images, and the verses that sent shivers down my back when the Green Knight came galloping into the castle hall. I responded to the human conflicts. But there were things that bothered me too. Particularly the need to blame women for mens’troubles. It seemed to set the direction for centuries of Patriarchy. I felt inspired to try a modern version of the tale.

In my novel The Beheading Game,  I imagine  a gay playwright, Ren, who loves the excitement and drama of the poem but wants to shake  up the patriarchal model which he feels, excludes him. He creates a cross-gendered version with Gawain played by a feisty woman who takes Bercilak’s lady to task for her willingness to be used as a temptress of young men. At the same time the familial triangle plays out in Ren’s everyday life as he confronts a modern version of the Green Knight, his lover Jack’s father, who tries to deny Ren access to his severely ill son. Jack cannot bring himself to be disloyal to the older man but  Ren finds an ingenuous way to thwart the father and care for his lover.  Ren may not be able to solve all his problems in life but his play is a rousing success. Its comic finale results in a more equal sharing of power between  the sexes and between young and old and a new model of heroism in which bedpans are more important than battles and loyalty must be deserved.

 A masterpiece like Sir Gawain  is so rich and operates on so many levels that it continues to be relevant way after its creation and  stimulates us  not only to enjoy and interpret it but  to use it as jumping off place for our own tales.

           HONY SOYT QUI MAL PENCE

 

           

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Symbolism and Sir Gawain

Loved your aptly named piece "Tit for Tat: A New Look at Sir Gawain".Its interpretation of the poem's symbolism seems so very accurate, I can't see that anyone would argue with your analysis.  Granted, any explanation of the symbolic is subjective, but your take just makes so much sense.  I look forward to future postings of your work on this site.

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Sir Gawain

Belated thanks Richard...I have been so lazy about posting but there is a neat article  just out in Psychoanalysis and History called

Fixing Freud: The Oedipus Complex in Early Twenty-First Century US American Novels. It uses Vienna Triangle (and books by Ed Seiden and Jed Rubenfeld-two writers with an international reach--as the jumping off place for a theoretical discussio.

I am trying to get it posted.

Hope you are well and productive and look forward to our meets.