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

By Weiss, Victoria L. | Philological Quarterly, Fall 1993 | Go to article overview

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


Weiss, Victoria L., Philological Quarterly


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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

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

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.