A Knight of God or the Goddess?: Rethinking Religious Syncretism in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Article excerpt

An analysis of the pentangle and of Morgan le Fay in SGGK suggests that the poem is neither a reaffirmation of Christianity nor a tool of conversion, but a poem of religious synthesis in which paganism and non-Christian ideologies-like the Jewish Kabbalah-are presented as parallels to Christianity, not wholly appropriated or obliterated. (LT)

Since its first modern publication in 1839, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight has been interpreted as a purely Christian poem, one that embodies the rational virtues of Christian chivalry and righteousness1 or penitential doctrine.2 In the poem, the evil sorceress,3 or reformer of sexual immorality,4 orchestrates an evil plot to test the renown and reputation of Arthur's court and, if she is lucky, to kill her archrival Guinevere. But over the years, scholars have illuminated the multi-faceted nature of medieval society, demonstrating that medieval literature does not necessarily fit into a dominant Christian mold from which all other religious traditions were erased.5 They have broadened their view of the Middle Ages and have begun to see a more tolerant society where critics once saw a stubbornly and exclusively Christian culture. Studies on magic in medieval romances, persistent paganism, and medieval Jewish mysticism have illuminated the connections between these diverse traditions. Based on recent scholarship detailing the persistence of medieval paganism and non-Christian religious philosophies, and more enhanced readings of SGGK, I argue that the poem is neither a reaffirmation of Christianity, nor a tool of conversion, but a poem of religious synthesis in which paganism and other ideologies are presented as parallels to Christianity, not wholly appropriated or obliterated. Unlike recent critical studies that focus entirely on the Christian aspects of the poem, or on the Celtic motifs intertwined with the Arthurian tradition, this article seeks to trace allusions to other extant medieval religious philosophies that may be a veiled criticism of medieval religious intolerance. The depiction of Morgan le Fay is crucial to interpreting the pentangle as a symbol of synthesis-where the rational mind and soul are not only attributed to Christianity, but also to paganism and Jewish mysticism in the Kabbalah. In its points and lines the traditions intertwine forming an 'endless knotte' of religious synthesis where Christian meaning is applied to a symbol with multi-layered significance. Taken in the context of the Green Knight, the extensive discourse on the natural world, and the portrayal of the tripartite goddess in Morgan le Fay, the pentangle becomes an ancient symbol to which Christian values and virtues have been applied, not to replace the pagan significance, but to reinforce the similarities between different religious traditions and perhaps challenge the contemporary persecution of other religious groups throughout Europe. This is not to deny the Christian symbolism of SGGK but to illuminate its relationship with the pagan and non-Christian past from which it draws its inspiration.

This past has long been obscured and overlooked by critics who insist on a unilaterally Christian theology, but other traditions persisted and permeate the fabric of medieval thought and poetry. The pagan world of the Celts was a not-so-distant memory, and outside of Church and urban centers local folklore and superstition thrived. The Gawain-poet, despite, or perhaps because of, his likely clerical vocation, would have been aware of local lore as well as having access to texts of continental philosophy, such as those translated and imbedded in the works of St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). Just as Aquinas incorporates elements in his theory of natural law drawn from Platonism, Aristotle, Roman law, Stoicism, and the Christian Fathers,6 the Gawain-poet interweaves some of those same ideas with beliefs from local pagan tradition, Jewish mystical teachings of the Kabbalah, and other ideologies into a new Christian interpretation of older, established symbols. …