Gawain and the Godgames

By Pugh, Tison | Christianity and Literature, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

Gawain and the Godgames


Pugh, Tison, Christianity and Literature


Gaines and play abound in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and by such amusements the Gawain-poet investigates the ways they reveal the knight's understanding of his individual identity as a Christian. Through the intersecting dynamics of Arthur's chivalric court of play and the Green Knight's gaming challenge to it, the Green Knight brings a crisis of self-definition to Gawain: this game forces Gawain to confront his personal limitations and to gain a better understanding of his place within a Christian world. The ample scholarship on the poem covers this territory extensively. (1) This study expands on previous scholarship by providing a structural analysis of the game's many levels, by locating the romance within the tradition of the godgame, by analyzing the critical juncture between play and game crucial to the godgame, and by examining the overlap between the godgames of the Green Knight and of Christianity. Thus, my goal is to reexamine Gawain and the game through a novel theoretical framework; from this perspective we see the ways in which Christianity is figured not merely as the romance's default world view but as an active player in this fascinating game. The Green Knight's godgame of chivalry ultimately merges with Christianity's godgame of spirituality, forcing Gawain to confront his limitations in these two key aspects of his identity.

Games, at their simplest, must involve a goal, rules, and participants willing to attempt to achieve the goal while adhering to the rules. Bernard Suits theorizes that all games incorporate objectives, rules, and attitudes into their structure: "To play a game is to attempt to achieve a specific state of affairs (prelusory goal), using only means permitted by rules (lusory means), where the rules prohibit use of more efficient in favour of less efficient means (constitutive rules), and where the rules are accepted just because they make possible such activity (lusory attitude)" (41). The players accept the rules and requirements of the game, for whatever reason they have decided to enter into it. Robert Rawdon Wilson suggests that the lusory attitude is the incorporation of the rules into the players' mindset, "the internalization of the rules" ("Rules/Conventions" 23). In addition to a goal and rules, most games also have stakes; although these stakes may be minimal (the joy of winning) or large (money, prestige, glory), their presence in a game indicates that the game matters to the players, that it typically bears some personal significance to them.

In many analyses of game and play, the two terms are treated interchangeably, as if "game" and "play" were synonyms. A quick distinction between game and play, however, is that most games have a structure of rules, goals, and stakes, but play need have none of these. Johan Huizinga provides a concise (and oft-quoted) definition of play:

 
   Summing up the formal characteristics of play[,] we might call it a free 
   activity standing quite consciously outside "ordinary" life as being "not 
   serious," but at the same time absorbing the player intensely and utterly. 
   It is an activity connected with no material interest, and no profit can be 
   gained by it. It proceeds within its own proper boundaries of time and 
   space according to fixed rules and in an orderly manner. It promotes the 
   formation of social groupings which tend to surround themselves with 
   secrecy and to stress their difference from the common world by disguise or 
   other means. (13) 

This definition, remarkable for its simplicity and apparent completeness, (2) underscores that play incorporates a much looser structure than game, so much looser that play may be more of an attitude than an activity. Brad Lowell Stone, for example, comments that "play does indeed require a certain attitude to enter it" (68). By distinguishing between game as structure and play as attitude, we see the dynamics of the Green Knight's game much more clearly. …

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