Academic journal article Medium Aevum

The Knight on His Quest: Symbolic Patterns of Transition in 'Sir Gawain and the Green Knight'

Academic journal article Medium Aevum

The Knight on His Quest: Symbolic Patterns of Transition in 'Sir Gawain and the Green Knight'

Article excerpt

Piotr Sadowski, The Knight on his Quest: Symbolic Patterns of Transition in `Sir Gawain and the Green Knight' (Newark: University of Delaware Press; London: Associated University Presses, 1996). 289 pp. ISBN 0-087413580-x. L29.50.

This book on the symbolic meanings of Gawain is an offshoot of two critical traditions: first, myth criticism, and, secondly, `historical criticism' (in D. W. Robertson's sense of 'historical') as exemplified by the work of Hans Schnyder, whom Piotr Sadowski quotes with approval. Sadowski also goes beyond these approaches by using `systems theory'. Not only literary works but also authors and readers can be regarded as interacting systems; and the reaction of systems (abbreviated as R) to a stimulus (S) depends on their ability to respond to stimuli, their 'reactivity' (r). Put in mathematical form: R = r x S. The first chapter, `Problems with methodology', explains the `farreaching consequences' of this theorem:

It means for example that a literary work understood as a product of the author's creativity (reaction - R) is neither exclusively a result of the author's talent or genius (reactivity - r), nor solely a result of the random amassment of all sorts of literary sources and materials (stimulus - S). In other words, neither the literary talent alone nor the talentless accumulation of literary sources is likely to produce a literary work, because, as is seen in the formula, reaction of a system is a product, not the simple sum, of the system's reactivity and the received stimulus. This means that there can be no literary work (R = o) if at least one of the factors equals zero. (pp. 39-40) Sadowski's insight that a good poet needs talent as well as material seems far simpler than the mathematical equations devised to produce it.

In the second chapter various time-scales in Gawain are considered. While charting the liturgical calendar and other chronological details in the story, Sadowski rightly highlights the poet's feel for the 'subjective' dimensions of time. …

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