Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: A Medieval Bildungsroman?

The Landscape of Medieval Romance
The Pearl Poet's Europe (c. 1328)
(Image from Wikipedia)

I'm still working on my Gawain paper, which is taking shape bit by bit in a rough, patched-together manner, and as readers might have noted, I'm presenting the story as a sort of Medieval Bildungsroman, a story of personal development in which a character comes to deeper insight and greater maturity.

"Medieval Bildungsroman" is an expression that I came up with just this morning, but I see that it's been coined already. Joseph Szoverffy used the term way back in 1977 in his review of Ruodlieb: Faksimile-Ausgabe des Codex Latinus Monacensis 19486 der Bayerischen Staatsbibliothek Munchen und der Fragmente von St. Florian, by Walter Haug, in Speculum, Vol. 52, No. 4 (Oct., 1977), pp. 981-983. Some 15 years later, John W. Baldwin used the expression in his article "Five Discourses on Desire: Sexuality and Gender in Northern France around 1200," also in Speculum, Vol. 66, No. 4 (Oct., 1991), pp. 797-819. And just three years later, John Il Kwun (or John Bachmann?) seems to have used the expression in "The Ultimate Quest: Secular and Spiritual Conceptions of Self-Perfection in the Medieval Chivalric Romance," Google Group: sci.anthropology, May 1, 1994. More recently, on September 27, 2004, M. Charlotte Wolf finished a dissertation, "The Treatment of Fragmentation in Irmtraud Morgner's Unfinished Salman Trilogy" (Union Institute and University, Cincinnati, Ohio), in which she also used the expression.

I cannot, therefore, claim originality in coming up with the expression Medieval Bildungsroman, for its use stretches back to at least 1977. But I can perhaps say something new about Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. If this is a Bildungsroman, then what does Gawain learn about himself in the process of his self-formation? One thing that he learns is that he is not completely in control of his own moral development, for he has been tricked into greater self-knowledge, but he does attempt to learn his lesson and apply it.
In particular, his confession to King Arthur in the presence of his fellow knights after returning to that royal court seems to distinguish two sins that he has committed:
"Behold, sir," said he, and handles the belt,
"This is the blazon of the blemish that I bear on my neck;
This is the sign of sore loss that I have suffered there
For the cowardice and coveting that I came to there;
This is the badge of false faith that I was found in there,
And I must bear it on my body till I breathe my last.
For one may keep a deed dark, but undo it no whit,
For where a fault is made fast, it is fixed forevermore."
(ll 2505-2512)
Gawain accuses himself of "cowardice" (couardise) and "coveting" (couetyse). Both contribute to his "false faith" (vntrawþe), a self-reproach by which Gawain confesses his unworthiness to wear the pentangle, that "endless knot" (endeles knot) that stands for trawþe -- the Middle English of “troth” -- which combined the meanings "truth" and "loyalty." Gawain's sin has loosened that endless knot, and the baldric crossing over the shoulder where the shield with pentangle had been hung (line 621) has been replaced with the belt as a substitute baldric tied with a knot at his left side (line 2486). In Gawain's confession, the fault that he has committed will stain him as long as he lives, but what precisely does Gawain confess to? His couardise is clear enough: fear for his life partly led him to accept the belt offered by Lady Bertilak. But what was the object of his couetyse? This recalls the earlier discussion of Matthew 5:27-28.
Ye han herd that it was seid to elde men, Thou schalt do no letcherie. But Y seie to you, that euery man that seeth a womman for to coueite hir, hath now do letcherie bi hir in his herte. (Matheu 5:27-28: Wycliffe Bible)
In that earlier discussion, we learned that in the 14th century, the time of both Wycliffe and the Pearl Poet, the word "covet" (coueite) meant "To desire with concupiscence or with fleshly appetite" (OED I, 1106, 2). The term here, however, is the noun "covetise" (couetyse), so what did it mean? According to the Oxford English Dictionary, "covetise" had a sexual connotation in the 14th century. In Daniel 13:7 of the 1382 Wycliffe Bible, we read these words concerning the men who saw the beautiful Susanne bathing:
Thei brennyden in the couetise of hir. (OED I, "covetise," 1106, 1)

They burned with covetise for her. (My Translation)
And Chaucer uses the noun "covetise" to warn against lechery in his Parson's Tale, written about 1386 (OED I, "covetise," 1106, 1). Speaking of the sin worked by the devil's hand, Chaucer identifies the specific work of the devil's first finger:
This is that other hand of the devel, with five fyngres to cache the peple to his vileynye. / The firste finger is the fool lookynge of the fool woman and of the fool man, that sleeth right as the basilicok sleeth folk by the venom of his sighte, for the coveitise of eyen folweth the coveitise of the herte. (John H. Fisher, editor, "Parson's Tale," in The Complete Poetry and Prose of Geoffrey Chaucer (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1977), page 385 (ll 851-852))

This is the other hand of the devil, with five fingers to draw people to his villainy. / The first finger is the foolish glancing of the foolish woman and of the foolish man, which slays [people] exactly as the basilicok slays people by the venom of its glance, for the covetise of the eyes follows the covetise of the heart. (My Translation)
Chaucer's parson thus identifies "covetise" with lechery and emphasizes that "the covetise of the eyes follows the covetise of the heart," which fits rather nicely with the view that Gawain has fallen into an adultery of the heart, given his confession of "coveting" (couetyse). Gawain takes rather hard his self-knowledge as one guilty of breaking faith for the low motives of cowardice and lechery. Indeed, he tell us in line 2512 that "where a fault is made fast, it is fixed forevermore," as though he believes that his sin has brought him into a fallen state as low as original sin brought Adam. While Gawain's self-reproach might seem excessive, it represents an important stage in his development as a Christian knight, for he has previously been held in thrall to pride, as the Green Knight tells us in revealing that Morgan le Faye sent him:
She guided me in this guise to your glorious hall,
To assay, if such it were, the surfeit of pride
That is rumored of the retinue of the Round Table.
(ll 2456-2458)
The Middle English word translated by Borroff as the phrase "surfeit of pride" is surquidre (cf. sourquydrye, line 311) which the OED traces to as early as 1225 and renders as "arrogance, haughty pride, presumption" (OED II, “surquidry,” 243). Gawain does, in fact, recognize his fault of pride, for in the punning passage of lines 2437-2338, Gawain has already agreed to keep the belt, saying that it will remind him of his pride and humble his heart. Although the Green Knight assures Gawain that his confession of all his failings has left him as pure as if he had never sinned (lines 2391-2394), Gawain remains troubled over his fall and considers himself stained for life, as we have already seen. Indeed, Gawain needed to fail for this story to be a Christian one, for such is the Christian view of human nature, that it is fallen and must therefore fail due to its innate sin.

Sir Gawain's encounter with Lady Bertilak and his subsequent entrapment in an adultery of the heart thus works as a type of felix culpa -- a fortunate fall -- that leads him to deeper knowledge of himself and thereby to the possibility of salvation.
And that's where my paper now stands, at 22 pages and still in need of a conclusion -- plus a great deal of smoothing out, minor additions, scholarly notes, and so on. Obviously too long for a 20-minute presentation...

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5 Comments:

At 6:24 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sir Gawain is an arche-type of the anti-Christ: the self-deified man.

His self-reproach -- indulgently deeming himself "permantly stained" by his "fortunate fall"... is his Satanic usurpation of God's sole right to be the judge of his life.

Gawain opposes Christ by self-constructing an artificial ego-ideal of perfection (rather than the ego-ideal embodied in Christ) of which he must compulsively strive to achieve. Falling short through an alleged adultry of the heart, thus invoking delicious self-recrimination ... is Gawain's masturbatory self-flattery. Falling short allows Gawain to judge himself according to his own self-made standard of perfection, and opportunity to be a divine judge. He has happily fallen short (felix culpa)of fidelity to Mary ... thus, allegedly committing spiritual adultry against his celestial wife (in reality betrothed to Joseph, not Gawain), a pagan Goddess called Mary -- who is merely a Catholic idol that appropriates the image of a mortal woman).

Gawain is an idolator who constructs a personal gnostic Christianity accomodating his self-deification. He enjoys the office of divine judge arbitrating over his own sin... almost getting a spiritual orgasm from his agonizing permanent stain. Oh, Happy Sin!

Yes, Gawain is the spirit of the anti-Christ ... in charge of and defining the terms of his personal self-created immortality project he likes to call salvation. He throws Christ's dead body off the cross and climbs up, stretches out his arms to assume the divine position: replacing, opposing and substituting himself for God's Suffering Servant... condemning himself a coward and faithless husband of Joseph's wife. Gawain is a seriously confused gnostic poser setting his own holy standard, accusing himself, and then judging himself.

For all of us, the Father ... not ourselves ... defines and sets the terms for salvation. When God says we become "white as snow" by faith in the Christ's atoning work, then any self-reproach bemoaning permanent stain -- is a defiant contradiction of God's declared mercy. The unbelieving spirit of the anti-Christ that loves religion.

People like Gawain become "addicted" to their Felix Culpa moments... forever falling into deeper "knowledge" of themselves through sin. Forever "learning", but never coming to the truth. Gawain represents the danger of gnostic delusion wasting away a man's life ... till it's too late to change course to the truth. Gawain is the proud gnostic man who is in charge of his own salvation.

Remind you of anybody you know?

 
At 6:39 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I'll say one thing for you, Jonathan, you're one golden bullshitter -- indeed the best, bar none (so to speak).

But I'd heard that "smart people" were going to "stay away" from this blog.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 5:40 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Oh, and I also saw your visit this Friday (July 6, 2007) ... about 3:55:05 p.m., wasn't it? Of course, my Site Meter could be wrong about the time...

But you hung around for only 7 seconds. Sigh ... 'Silly Sally', have I lost your flighty heart?

You used to run around here like a bantam rooster with its 'Chicken Head' cut off, but now you act as if you've been 'barred' from the place.

Have you run off with 'Hahvahd Man'? Of is he just another 'John'?

To be serious for just a moment, Jon, let me say how flattered I am that someone of your repute visits my humble blog. Yes, I've heard of you. I lived in Osan from 2001 through 2005, and my family and I attended a Songtan church where a lot of airmen also attended. I've often hung around Osan Air Base on Sunday afternoons. You're famous. Or maybe infamous? It doesn't matter to me.

You're a smart guy. You don't have a clue what Gnosticism is, but that's okay. You're entertaining ... if a bit wordy. Maybe a bit self-impressed. Theologically, you appear orthodox enough, but you fear that you're one of the preterite, perhaps? Passed over by the risen Lord?

Ah, Jon, Jon, the very fact that you concern yourself with such matters strongly suggests that the Holy Spirit is working upon your iron-hard heart. If God so wills, He will draw you to him as ineluctably as a magnet draws iron.

You will weep tears of bitterness mixed with joy over your past depravity and your future bliss.

God willing...

But who knows? Only the Father in heaven.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 1:42 AM, Anonymous ChickenHead said...

Hmmm... I just found this one via a Google search.

"You don't have a clue what Gnosticism is"

You are more than correct. I read the post and I have NO idea what is being said... although it's disturbingly close enough to my writing style that I did a quick retrospection into possible blackouts or missing time.

Creepy, actually... although I don't use "--" and the "..." follow a more conversational flow... adding pauses and separating sub-ideas where a comma just doesn't work hard enough yet a period isn't quite justified.

Anyway, although I would certainly be happy to sit down and have a conversation with you, as you are both educated and interesting, I don't see myself posting on your blog. In the event any "chicken" or "head" related posts appear, delete them and don't comment on them. Silly Sally will return to using her own name.

This is all kind of bugging in another couple of ways, though.

First, why would Silly Sally use another name? It's relatively obvious who it is. Silly Sally seems to be confident enough in her writing that she doesn't need to hide behind multiple names. And, her style and themes never change so what is the point of changing names?

More importantly, why would Silly Sally want to impersonate me? Nothing I have written has been fundamentally counter to her usual topics. I have never been in any kind of argument with her and I have been supportive on a few occasions when people complained. So, I am confused why she would target me for harassment.

Anyway, once again, please delete any ChickenHead-esque posts that might pop up... as it probably won't be me.

J!

 
At 6:14 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

J!, I first read your identical comments at The Very Christian J.K. Rowling and New Commment on Obama, and here's what I posted to both of those comments:

-----------------------------------
J!, thanks for the comment. Yes, I had concluded that Silly Sally was a sock puppet for ChickenHead, but not because Silly Sally had explicitly identified as such here on my blog. Rather, some comments at Nomad and ROK Drop led me and others to think that Silly Sally was really ChickenHead.

From Googling just now, I see that on July 11, 2007, you posted a denial at ROK Drop that you are Silly Sally, so I see that you've tried to deal with this problem of confused identities.

I'll un-conclude that you're Silly Sally (your style here does sound different) and return to not knowing who Silly Sally is.

I'm sorry for the misunderstanding.
-----------------------------------

Since you have posted a different comment here, I'll add some more as well.

Your comment here sounds very unlike the style of Silly Sally. I also don't know why Silly Sally would attempt to sound like you or why Silly Sally would post under a number of pseudonyms here and on other blogs.

It's a mystery. Again, I'm sorry for the confusion, and I think that from now on, I'll just delete anything that Silly Sally posts, whether posted under the name Silly Sally or under some other pseudonym. That might be the most efficient and effective way of dealing with the problem.

Jeffery Hodges

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