Day 13 – Sir Gawain and the Green Knight “The masterpiece of alliterative poetry.” “The finest Arthurian romance in English.”
Chaucer vs. the Pearl Poet: • Do you get the feeling that the Pearl-Patience-Purity-Sir Gawain poet is writing at the same time as Chaucer? • In the same place as Chaucer? • With the same language as Chaucer? • Which of Chaucer’s tales is the most like Sir Gawain? • Why does the Poet start with the Trojan War? – What kind of poem does that imply? What kind of structure? • What specific difference(s) do you see from Chaucer’s Prologue and Tales?
This is an epic but it is also Chivalric romance • According to M. H. Abrams Dictionary of Literary Terms, Chivalric Romance has these features: • A courtly and chivalric age (not wartime) is the setting • Highly developed manners and civility • Standard plot: quest by single knight to gain a lady’s favor • Tournaments, dragons, monsters • Chivalric ideals of courage, loyalty, honor, mercifulness to an opponent, and elaborate manners • Wonders and marvels, including supernatural events (magic, spells, and enchantments)
Analyze according to genre • Chivalric Romance – Do you see Sir Gawain as entirely different from Beowulf or does it have some similarities? • Look at definitions of the two. • “Epic: long verse narrative on a serious subject, told in a formal and elevated style, and centered on a heroic or quasi-divine figure on whose actions depend a tribe, nation, or the human race” (Abrams)
8 characteristics of epic • M. H. Abrams: A Glossary of Literary Terms • Action involves superhuman deeds in battle • Gods and other supernatural beings take a part • Poem itself is a ceremonial performance • Narrator begins by stating his argument, invokes a muse, then addresses the epic question • Starts in medias res • Catalogues of principal characters • Setting is ample, and may be worldwide
Sir Gawain is an actual book • The text of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Tiny book Illuminated manuscript with 4 illustrations Fitts – disagreement about how many sections there are
Three illustrations • The Beheading
Poetry • Alliterative verse (“the alliterative revival”) • Bob (1 stress) and it rhymes (a b a b a b) with wheel • Wheel (four rhymed lines of 3 stresses each) • “The Pearl Poet”: Same poet as Pearl, Patience, Purity, writing in West Midlands at the same time as Chaucer, but not really in Middle English. He uses an antiquated style to make his subject seem more serious and “higher.”
Questions as you keep reading • Which court is more real? Arthur’s or Haut desert? • What should Gawain do with the Lady? • What is the meaning of green? • What kind of king is Arthur? • What do the animals mean?
Anti-French? • How you would do a New Historical view? • Some argue that there is an anti-French theme represented by Arthur’s court. This is due to the 100 Years War. So French poetry and structure were thrust aside. This is one argument for the alliterative revival – an endeavor to find literary independence from France.
Values? • What values do you see as significant to Sir Gawain? • From what you know of the Round Table, what values were most significant?
Pentangle • “The poem describes Gawain's armor in detail. He carries a red shield that has a pentangle painted on its front. The pentangle is a token of truth. Each of the five points are linked and locked with the next, forming what is called the endless knot. The pentangle is a symbol that Gawain is faultless in his five senses, never found to fail in his five fingers, faithful to the five wounds that Christ received on the cross, strengthened by the five joys that the Virgin Mary had in Jesus (The Annunciation, Nativity, Resurrection, Ascension, and Assumption), and possesses brotherly love, pure mind and manners, and compassion most precious. The inside of the shield is adorned with an image of the Virgin Mary to make sure that Gawain never loses heart.” (Sir Gawain Room)
Dark Ages? • Sir Gawain and the Canterbury Tales were written at a time of transition. The Gawain/ Pearl poet looks backwards to courtly love but Chaucer looks forward to the Renaissance and humanism. • Neither book (unlike Dante’s Divine Comedy) was focused on heaven. The rewards, punishments, conflicts, etc. were based in this world. The focus is on human frailty and human greatness. There is sympathy for the human condition.
Chivalric ideal • Loyalty to God, King, Lady (remember loyalty from Beowulf). But this doesn’t always work – what do you do if there is a conflict in loyalties? Gawain fails in all three of these respects, as you will see. But he also succeeds.
Mythological/ Anthropological • Anthropological view of the tale so far? • Picture of “Green Man” • Sir Gawain as associated with Oaks • Also Sir Gawain as associated with May Day and the May Pole
Green Man • The mysterious Green Knight is the most unique, and perhaps most memorable, feature of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Scholars have long debated whether he owes more to Pagan mythology, to poetic invention or folkloric ceremony. However that may be, he represents a spirit of vegetation. Trees can live far longer than human beings, and they have regenerative powers that people have always envied. A person who loses a limb is permanently handicapped, but a tree that loses a limb will simply grow in another direction. The Green Knight has this ability. On being decapitated, he simply picks up his head, which continues to speak in his hand. The next year, the head is back on his torso where it belongs. Nevertheless, possible literary predecessors of the Green Knight may go back almost to the start of civilization. The earliest is the giant Humbaba, guardian of the cedar forest of Lebanon in the ancient Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh from around the early second millennium B. C. Like the Green Man of medieval Europe, Humbaba was often sculpted grimacing from the facades of buildings. There is also a Muslim Green Man known as Kadr, whose lore was probably carried by crusaders back from the Holy Land.
Story as fertility myth, ritual • In European spring festivals, maypoles were set up to represent sacred trees, and a sacred marriage was enacted between a May Queen—a descendant of countless fertility goddesses reaching back to the Neolithic and the SumerianInanna— and a companion known as the Green Man, himself a descendant of all those ancient fertility heroes such as Dumuzi, Attis, and Adonis, many of whom were associated with sacred trees. A later relative of the Green Man was the Green Knight in the Middle English romance of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, in which the theme of decapitation suggests the ancient ritual of fertile sacrifice for the good of humanity, a process reenacted in the Christian story of Jesus, who died on the “tree”-cross and was resurrected in the spring, symbolizing a new spiritual fertility.
Dr. Freud or Dr. Jung? • Psychological view of the tale so far? • What if you were doing a Freudian reading? • A Jungian reading? • In any case, the poem is very humanistic. Gawain’s “only fault is that he loves his life too much.” The poem is about a good man choosing between right and wrong.
Carl Jung on Mandalas • The "squaring of the circle" is one of the many archetypal motifswhich form the basic patterns of our dreams and fantasies. But itis distinguished by the fact that it is one of the most importantof them from the functional point of view. Indeed, it could evenbe called the archetype of wholeness.- from Mandalas. C. G. Jung. trans. from Du (Zurich, 1955)During a difficult period in his life in which he withdrew from his teaching position and devoted much of his time investigating the nature of the unconscious, Jung frequently painted or drew mandalas, but only learned to understand the mandala symbology many years after he had begun creating the images.He understood only that he felt compelled to make the figures and that they comforted him, “Only gradually did I discover what the mandala really is: “Formation, Transformation, Eternal Mind’s eternal recreation”. And that is the self, the wholeness of the personality, which if all goes well is harmonious, but which cannot tolerate self-deceptions” (MDR 195-196). Mandalas are defined by Jung as magic circles, containing certain design motifs that he found to have a universal nature, across cultures and across time, whether they are the transiently created mandalas from Tibet, sand paintings from the American southwest, or illustrations from ancient, medieval, and Renaissance alchemical works. (Carbonek – August 9, 2007. Blog.)
Two more Jungian perspectives From Francis Vargas Gibbons : “Sir Gawain's Mentors “ Examined from the perspective of the Psychology of Adult Development,2 the poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight yields some interesting and useful insights. Variously interpreted as a vegetation deity, a fiend-like creature and even death itself,3 the Green Knight is, in fact, one of literature's greatest mentors. He is a mentor in advance of his time, who is so intuitively in tune with the nature of his role, that he functions, not alone, but in conjunction with his wife4 to assist and guide the young Sir Gawain during his Early Adult Transition.5 The Green Knight and his wife, the Lady, succeed in helping Gawain move from complete dependence on his original group, to a stage where the apprentice adult can begin to build a Life Structure for entering Early Adulthood. Through purposeful confinement and a well orchestrated reenactment of the Oedipal situation, they help Gawain mature into adult acceptance of human imperfection, sinfulness and perishability; making him realize the impossibility of clinging to his Dream6 of perfect virtue and flawless knightly service to the pentangle. In addition, the couple's complicitous behavior on Gawain's behalf also offers a model of marital contentment and loyalty, as well as an example of adult generativity.7
I. Mentor and "Mentee” Marie Borroff, who sees maturation as the theme of the poem, regards the Green Knight, not as an educator, but as a judge who represents both absolute and temporal reality. She comments that the Knight undergoes a process of "demystification" which makes him less green and awesome as Gawain's development progresses (107). The Green Knight's dual nature is, of course, a requisite. As someone who "represents an illusory perception" of reality but who also "belongs to the real world as medieval human beings experienced it and as we experience it" (108), Bercilak/Green Knight is perfectly qualified to be a mentor because he offers a perfect surface for the projection of youthful fears and wishes. He is there when needed as someone who, in accordance with Daniel Levinson's definition of a mentor, represents "the superior qualities a young man hopes someday to acquire" ( . . .Man's Life, 333).