The Play World and the Real World: Chivalry in 'Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.'

Article excerpt

The work of such new historicists as Stephen Greenblatt and Lee Patterson has focused the attention of literary critics on the meaning of history and the historical importance of the symbolic, the notion that man "above all makes meaning."(1) To emphasize this view of history, Lee Patterson borrows a phrase used in a different context by anthropologist Clifford Geertz: "the real is as imagined as the imaginary."(2)

Any student of late medieval social history can see the appropriateness of this borrowing, particularly with regard to chivalry. This institution has long been recognized as a beautiful fiction, producing a lovely, apotheosized version of the self with the capability of camouflaging one's failings and the uncertainties of life. The elaborate efforts to maintain this beautiful vision of one's class and one's self--what Patterson calls the "aestheticization of life"(3)--underlies the record of lavish tournaments, feasts, vow-makings, royal entries, and other aristocratic entertainments of this period. The interesting thing about most of these entertainments is that rather than simply tableaux or pageants, they came increasingly during the middle ages to involve aristocratic patrons directly in the activities in a dramatic way. The grand apotheosis effected by these beautiful forms of play became inextricably tied to defining the self And this grand participatory quality of medieval entertainments at court and the consequences of this participation offer us a fascinating perspective on an aristocratic knight like Sir Gawain, concerned as he is with who he is throughout Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Because of their class-affirming, self-affirming status, games had an importance and significance for aristocrats like the king's nephew that was far beyond what their playful grandeur would suggest to a modern observer. In Sir Gawain, the hero finds himself in danger of losing his life as a consequence of his participation in what his challenger insists on calling "a Cristmasse game."(4) Everyone at court seems to regard the Green Knight's challenge and the obligation it places upon Gawain with the utmost seriousness. At the same time in paradoxical fashion, medievals show every sign of having been able to distinguish play from real life. At the conclusion of the Green Knight's visit, for example, Arthur succeeds in undercutting the danger and significance of the Green Knight's "game" by referring to what the court has just witnessed as mere entertainment. The success of his suggestion is made clear by its ability to restore a spirit of mirth among the courtiers at the New Year festivities. Arthur's gambit works because noble men and women understood games or play in both ways: as a serious declaration of their status and worth, and paradoxically, as the kind of diversionary, inconsequential activity that working classes understood play to be. Since both ideas of play are presented in the first fitt of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the romance raises right from the outset the following question: How seriously must Gawain take this game?

The Green Knight's sudden appearance at court and his extraordinary challenge seem to be exactly what the king has ordered. He has refused to eat until presented with some "uncouthe tale ... sum mayn mervayl" (93-94) or some joust where "jopardy" (97) is involved, where men pit "lif for lif, leve uchone other, / As fortune wolde fulsun hem / the fayrer to have" (98-99). Arthur's vow makes clear, as Ann Astell has noted, that "either a story or a real-life happening will satisfy Arthur equally. The two are analogous."(5) The equation seems odd in that the king's second option would seem to be much more dangerous than the first. Dangerous games were certainly not unknown among late medieval aristocrats (although jousts, for example, were becoming less dangerous than they had been in an earlier day), but the game the Green Knight proposes does not even afford its observers the excitement of seeing two warriors evenly equipped and matched contend with each other. …