Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Fyts 3 and 4

Source: British Library MS. Cotton Nero A.x (unique), where it is the last of four alliterative poems written in West Midlands dialect (Pearl, Pacience [Jonah], Cleanesse [Falls of Lucifer & Adam; Flood; Abraham and Sarah; Lot & his family; destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah; Nebuchadnezzar's profanation of the vessels & punishment; Belshazzar's feast & doom; Daniel on Nebuchadnezzar's conversion; concluding peroration], and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight). All four poems emphasize moral issues, expressing spiritual values in courtly and chivalric terms, especially those unique to its local dialect.  "Sir Gawain" also draws upon a Welsh/Celtic narrative tradition of romances about Gawain as the best of Arthur's knights, a tradition older than that of Lancelot, who was a French "import" into the Arthurian tradition and supplanted Gawain as the favored knight.  Gawain tales typically involve challenges to the Arthurian court by outlandish males from the wilds of northwest England, or fabulously ugly females from the same region.  In several of these tales, Gawain undergoes a "bed test" with the host's wife and/or daughter, and in some he also must play a "beheading game" with his host.  For a summary and analysis of the plots of these tales (including Chaucer's "Wife of Bath's Tale"), see Joe Turner's (Goucher '05) web page, "'His name was Syr Gawene': The Flower of Wales."  The Pearl-Poet's adaptation of this tale type, like Chaucer's, has much to teach us about Medieval poets' creativity and imagination.  Whereas Chaucer diminished and radically reshaped Gawain's role to serve the character of the tale's teller, the Wife of Bath, the Pearl-Poet thoroughly enhanced the development of every one of the characters and gave the resulting tale a formal shape, both in its individual stanzas and in its overall structure, that makes it stand on its own as one of the outstanding works of Middle English literature.

Genre and Plot: While generically identifiable as an Arthurian romance of the "Gawain" group, it shares characteristics with the Breton lais (faerie vs. court conflict, stanzaic structure, narrator’s reference to audience and characters suggestive of live performance, emphasis on "mixed" dramatic tone). It also resembles the dramatic structure of a moral fable whose outcome is intended to carry a didactic lesson. The plot splits naturally into four parts, not quite coincident with the fyts or stanza groups into which it is divided. First, the Green Knight lays down his New Year’s challenge to Arthur’s court and Gawain accepts it. Second, a year later, Gawain goes to seek the Green Knight. Third, Gawain finds welcome refuge in a castle set in a wilderness, and accepts the hospitality of his host and host’s wife, who test his chastity and loyalty. Fourth, Gawain faces the Greek Knight’s deadly challenge, receives a surprising revelation, and returns to court with his tale.

Overall Structure: 2530 lines arranged in stanzas of varying lengths. In all modern editions, the stanzas are divided into four parts of "fyts," corresponding to lines 1, 491, 1126, 1998 of the manuscript, because those lines begin with the largest and most ornate capitals used in the text. (The authority of this division scheme has been attacked and the reader is encouraged to experiment with alternatives—for reference, other capitals occur at lines 691, 753, 1421, 1893, and 2259.) According to this four-part division, the fyts contain varying numbers of stanzas and lines corresponding to a rough rising and falling dramatic structure which peaks in Fyt 3’s paired seduction and hunt scenes (21/490, 24/635, 34/872, and 22/539). The last two lines of the poem’s basic stanza (2524 and 2525) repeat with variation two lines from the first stanza (13 and 1), and most significantly, the last and first lines are the same, as are the last and first lines of Pearl.

Beneath line 2530, a hand other than the scribe’s has added, in blue ink, "HONY SOIT QUI MAL PENCE," the motto of the Knights of the Garter (founded by Edward III, c. 1348). [After the king’s mistress lost her garter on the dance floor, the king is said to have defuse the potentially embarrassing situation with the gallant and interesting assertion "Shame be to him who evil thinks."] Scholars doubt the poet intended the association, but it may represent a reader’s interpretive response to the poem (i.e., this is a situation in which there is no inherently shameful thing, but interpretations of it may bring shame to the interpreters).

"Bob-and-Wheel" Stanzaic Structure: the base stanza contains a varying number of unrhymed, four-stress alliterative lines linked by a one- or two-stress "bob" to a rhyming three-stress four-line "wheel." The bob-and-wheel rhyme scheme is ababa. Often, the bob-and-wheel turns to comment upon the action of the base stanza, and at times the bob contains key thematic value words.

Sound: Previously available Middle English sound files for SGGK have disappeared from the Internet as of 2014.  Please send me Web addresses if you find any.  Don't bother with files reading modern English translations.

Interpretive Issues in Fyts 3 and 4

Parallel structure--The Pearl-Poet has a strong love of parallelism, as "Pearl" demonstrates with its structural duplication for variety and emphasis.  In Fyt 3, we see parallel hunts and bedroom temptations which artfully recombine traditional elements of the Gawain-romances to produce episodes which appear to comment upon each other.  How does the hunt of the deer relate to Gawain's first temptation by the Host's Wife?  Especially note G's strange shyness as she enters his bedroom, his attempt to escape by feigning sleep, and his general passivity.  How does the hunt of the boar resemble the second day's temptation, especially its increased eroticism?  Notice that Gawain is not hiding this time, but more aggressively greats the lady.  See the note on the famously mis-readable "ye are welcum to my cors" (l. 1237--"welcome to my company," but with a strong connotation of physicality because of "cors").  Finally, compare the fox hunt with the third temptation, which begins with Gawain deep in dreams of what might be his coming death.  From what might that dream have arisen in the previous encounter with the host, and how does that inform our sense of Gawain's inner mental world as he faces the lady's last test.  In Fyt 4, we also might consider the green "luf-lace" as something which Gawain adopts as the public sign of his identity and which apparently replaces the Pentangle upon his shield, which Fyt 2 makes so important as the sign of his virtues.

The "Rash Boon" [here the "beheading game," Cf. Mauss, The Gift]

Move #1: In the context of a host-guest gift giving culture, a stranger, usually marked by some unusual physical feature, arrives in a nobleman's hall.

Move #2: The Host welcomes the mysterious guest and offers him hospitality in grand fashion, typically the "boon" or gift of "whatever you wish that is within my power to give."

Move #3: The Guest, taking advantage of the Host's rash offer by requesting either an unnamed favor to be granted later or an action that ordinarily would constitute a fatal violation of manners. E.g., he asks for the king's wife (The Prose Tristan).

Move #4: One or more members of the court intercede to extricate the king from his awkward position while still preserving the honor of the court by satisfying (at least in name) the Guest's demand.

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?

Closure and Resistance to Closure--the Pearl Poet both delights in and resists the devices which make us feel "closure," the satisfying sense that all a text's tensions or oppositions have been resolved.  In this case, the Green Knight's attempt to summarize Gawain's virtues and faults is offered to us as a comic pratfall which humanizes him, but this reading is rejected outright by Gawain, who blames women and his own weakness for what he apparently perceives as a tragic fall.  The Green Knight's laughter is echoed by Arthur's court, when Gawain explains what has happened to him and the significance of the green girdle.  They, apparently, reject Gawain's summation of his experiences, as well, but do they believe what the Green Knight says, or is their laughter (and their wearing of the green girdle) yet another level of interpretation added to the poem's end, a courtly irony that turns the tragedy of Gawain's encounter with the wild border justice into satire of its significance?  Rather than accepting any of these three, the Pearl Poet presents readers with all of them, forcing us to reconcile them.  Can comedy, tragedy, romance and satire coexist in the same poem?  Does the order of their progression mean anything above their individual significances?  Readers might want to consult the Structuralist genre theory of Northrop Frye, and comparisons with Chaucer's Troilus also might be productive.