Academic journal article Arthuriana

God and the Gawain-Poet: Theology and Genre in 'Pearl,' 'Cleanness,' 'Patience' and 'Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.'

Academic journal article Arthuriana

God and the Gawain-Poet: Theology and Genre in 'Pearl,' 'Cleanness,' 'Patience' and 'Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.'

Article excerpt

CECILIA A. HATT, God and the Gawain-Poet: Theology and Genre in 'Pearl, ' 'Cleanness, ' 'Patience'and 'Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.' Woodbridge, Suffolk: D.S. Brewer, 2015. Pp. ix, 249. isbn: 978-1-84384-419-8. $99.

Cecilia Hatt's new study of the Gawain-Poet focuses on theology and genre, two perennial topics of scholarship on the four anonymous Middle English poems found uniquely in British Library MS Cotton Nero A.x. Critics have long explored what these poems might say about a range of theological issues, including penance, devotional images, predestination, and the active life. Hatt begins from a broader theological premise, one that she assumes a late-medieval Christian writer would have shared with his audience: that creation is a gift of God, and that human action is properly understood as a response to that initial gift. In her view, this theology explains two important features of the poems. One is their conspicuously positive view of the body, the material world, and the possibility of representation. The other is their emphasis on divine agency: Hatt finds the poet consistently critical of those who focus on their own capacity, and laudatory of those who recognize and operate within their limited role in the divine plan.

Hatt's other concern is genre, and here the study seems less consistently successful. It is unfortunate that she provides no general discussion of genre in late-medieval writing, despite the considerable body of recent work on the subject. She instead focuses on the poet's use and critique of specific conventions in each poem, an approach that works well with Pearl and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (SGGK) but less well with Cleanness and Patience. Hatt is no doubt right to see a rough correlation between homiletic structure and Cleanness, but as she acknowledges, the poem does not in fact follow many of the basic precepts for a university sermon. The discussion of genre in Patience seems yet more strained. Patience is indeed 'short, brisk, and funny' (p. 124), but her quest to pinpoint the genre of the poem-and in fact to see it as a poem about genre-leads her far afield, not only to unsettled modern debates about the form of the Old Testament Book of Jonah, but also to speculation about the poet's knowledge of midrash and the medieval transmission of Plato's Republic.

SGGK is in obvious ways quite different from its companions, and writers on all four works tend to emphasize either the penitential elements of SGGK or the courtly dimensions of the more explicitly religious poems. …

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