Hiding the Harm: Revisionism and Marvel in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Article excerpt

A scandalous, but rarely discussed, element of the Christmas "gomen" the Green Knight proposes at Camelot is its openness with regard to the kind of blow that initially can be inflicted and even the implement that can be employed to inflict this blow. Gaston Paris in 1888 was the first to note that the intruder's challenge is only to exchange blows of an unspecified nature. For Paris, the structure of the Green Knight's proposal in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight pointed to a lost French source for the poem. Nearly a hundred years later, in 1976, Victoria Weiss became the first critic to incorporate this unexpected narrative element into a reading of the text, in the process chastising the ubiquitous critical tendency to misread this episode. (1) For Weiss, the potential lethality of Gawain's blow is his first failure, as it demonstrates a patent "lack of Christian concern for human life" (363). The first failure, therefore, ironically anticipates Gawain's second failure where his concern for his own life outweighs all other considerations. Thus, by the end of the poem, "Gawain's concern with 'larges' and 'lewte' reveals a new respect for the life and well-being of others" (366). Hermine van Nuis in 1984 largely concurred with Weiss's conclusions and remarked upon the incongruity between Gawain's claim that he is the weakest knight present and the "uncontrolled zest and fierce impetuosity" of the chosen blow that manifests an "indifferent regard for another man's life" (16). Likewise, in 1991, Sheri Ann Strite suggested that the Green Knight's challenge be interpreted "as inviting a particular conventional response from Gawain as a kind of test" (4). While Gawain follows romance conventions and fulfills audience expectations by decapitating the intruder, he ignores the merciful and Christian options available to him. R.A. Shoaf argued in 1988 that "members of the Arthurian court often fail to be adequately critical in their interpretations" of the surfeit of signs that confront them. So Arthur and Gawain "can only interpret the Green Knight's challenge as implying that the blow is to be struck with the axe, whereas, in fact, the challenge is sufficiently ambiguous to leave open the possibility" of either contestant's choosing the "holly bob" (158). Robert J. Blanch and Julian N. Wasserman in 1995 make the same observation (104). For these modern scholars, the testing of Gawain begins with his first act. Each scholar considers Gawain's performance in the so-called Beheading Game as a failure of some kind: for Weiss, Nuis, and Strite the failure is primarily ethical; for Shoaf, Blanch, and Wasserman, the failure is primarily hermeneutic. And there the matter lies.

Whether or not Gawain's blow reflects an impetuous and unchristian disregard for life or suggests his interpretive deficiencies, attention must be focused on the seismic disturbances transmitted along the narrative line by the ambiguity in the Green Knight's proposal. For any reading that treats Gawain's performance in Camelot as a failure of some kind limits its significance by ignoring a crucial passage from Bertilak's speech at the Green Chapel subsequent to a series of humiliating revelations for the hero. According to Bertilak, Morgan le Fay

  Wayned me upon this wyse to your wynne halle
  For to assay the surquidre, gif hit soth were
  That rennes of the grete renoun of the Rounde Table.
  Ho wayned me this wonder your wyttez to reve,
  For to haf greved Gaynour and gart hir to dyghe
  With glopnyng of that ilke gome that gostlych speked
  With his hede in his hond before the hyghe table.
  (SGGK 2456-62) (2)

  [Sent me in this wise to your lovely hall to make a trial of your
  pride, if it were true what circulates about the great renown of the
  Round Table. She sent me this wonder to take away your wits, in order
  to have grieved Guinevere and caused her to die with dismay at that
  same man who spoke like a ghost with his head in his hand before the
  high table. … 


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