Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Sir Gawain: "quen pryde schal me pryk for prowes of armes"

This could have been Gawain's chicken-hearted fate!
(Image from Wikipedia)

Yesterday, I concluded with the threat to subject my readers to more of my rough draft-in-progress on Gawain's adultery of the heart. What follows is a still-developing argument in which I attempt to bring together two sorts of 'infidelity' in Gawain's acceptance of Lady Bertilak's belt.

I have already noted that by accepting the belt, Gawain breaks faith with his true lady, the Virgin Mary, but he also breaks faith with Lord Bertilak, and he does so in two ways: in committing an adultery of the heart confirmed by the terms luf-lace and drurye, as already noted, and in failing to keep to the agreement reached to exchange each day's 'winnings'. I will begin by alluding to the former point, then deal at some length with the latter point before returning to the former point with a bit more evidence.
Gawain's acceptance of the belt has set up a further problem in addition to an adultery of the heart. Recall that Gawain has confirmed an agreement with Lord Bertilak to exchange their winnings each day, and as already noted, Gawain does give to Bertilak the three kisses received from Lady Bertilak when she last parted from him. He does not, however, hand over the belt. Of course, he cannot do so without losing the magical protection that it supposedly offers, but by keeping it for himself rather than giving it to Lord Bertilak, Gawain breaks an agreement and thereby proves himself less than perfectly honest, as the Green Knight informs him when they meet at the Green Chapel on New Year's Day to finish their beheading game. The Green Knight has just made two feints to test Gawain before finally bearing down hard, yet only just nicking Gawain's neck, but nevertheless fulfilling the game started one year before in Arthur’s court. As the Green Knight tells Gawain:
"I owed you a hit and you have it; be happy therewith!
The rest of my rights here I freely resign.
Had I been a bit busier, a buffet, perhaps,
I could have dealt more directly, and done you some harm.
First I flourished with a feint, in frolicsome mood,
And left your hide unhurt -- and here I did well
By the fair terms we fixed on the first night;
And fully and faithfully you followed accord:
Gave over all your gains as a good man should.
A second feint, sir, I assigned for the morning
You kissed my comely wife -- each kiss you restored.
For both of these there behooved two feigned blows
by right.
True men pay what they owe;
No danger then in sight.
You failed at the third throw,
So take my tap, sir knight.
"For that is my belt about you, that same braided girdle,
My wife it was that wore it; I know well the tale,
And the count of your kisses and your conduct too,
And the wooing of my wife -- it was all my scheme!
She made trial of a man most faultless by far
Of all that ever walked over the wide earth;
As pearls to white peas, more precious and prized,
So is Gawain, in good faith, to other gay knights.
Yet you lacked, sir, a little loyalty there,
But the cause was not cunning, nor courtship either,
But that you loved your own life; the less, then, to blame."
(ll 2341-2368)
Interestingly, the Green Knight -- who we now learn is also Lord Bertilak -- does not ascribe to Gawain any adulterous motive. He is, however, judging from appearances. We know differently, for we have been privy to Gawain's heart, courtesy of the narrator, who informed us in lines 1658 through 1660, as noted previously:
So uncommonly kind and complaisant was she,
With sweet stolen glances, that stirred his stout heart,
That he was at wits' end, and wondrous vexed;
(ll 1658-1660)
Moreover, Gawain himself proceeds to suggest that Lady Bertilak's seductive charms have succeeded with him, for in a somewhat misogynist monologue, he compares himself to other men seduced by women:
But if a dullard should dote, deem it no wonder
And through the wiles of a woman be wooed into sorrow,
For so was Adam by one, when the world began,
And Solomon by many more, and Samson the mighty --
Delilah was his doom, and David thereafter
Was beguiled by Bathsheba, and bore much distress;
Now these were vexed by their devices -- 'twere a very joy
Could one but learn to love, and believe them not.
For these were proud princes, most prosperous of old,
Past all lovers lucky, that languished under heaven,
And one and all fell prey
To women that they had used;
If I be led astray,
Methinks I may be excused.
(ll 2414-2428)
Traditionally, all these men had been seduced by the sensual, physical charms of the women. Gawain is thus claiming the same thing in his case, tantamount to a confession of having committed an adultery of the heart. Moreover, Gawain accepts the Green Knight's offer of the belt as a gift:
But your girdle, God love you! I gladly shall take
And be pleased to possess, not for the pure gold,
Nor the bright belt itself, nor the beauteous pendants,
Nor for wealth, nor worldly state, nor workmanship fine,
But a sign of excess it shall seem oftentimes
When I ride in renown, and remember with shame
The faults and the frailty of the flesh perverse,
How its tenderness entices the foul taint of sin;
And so when praise and high prowess have pleased my heart,
A look at this love-lace will lower my pride.
(ll 2429-2438)
Note that Gawain emphasizes the weakness of his "flesh perverse" (flesche crabbed), which can have a sexual connotation, and he does refer again to the belt as a "love-lace" (luf-lace). Also, one should note the perhaps not too remote possibility of still other sexual innuendo in the Middle English original of lines 2437-2338:
And þus, quen pryde schal me pryk for prowes of armes,
Þe loke to þis luf-lace schal leþe my hert.
Translated more closely to the original:
And thus, when pride shall prick me for prowess of arms,
A look at this love-belt shall humble my heart.
The word "pride" (pryde) has the connotation of "sexual desire" in Middle English, albeit only recorded in writing about 100 years after the Pearl Poet (OED 2, "pride," 1351 11). The word "prick" (pryk) is a notorious wordplay in Middle English, as noted by Stephen Knight in his discussion of the Pearl Poet's contemporary, Geoffrey Chaucer, who uses the word "priketh" in line 13 of the "General Prologue" to his Canterbury Tales, playing on its vulgar meaning, for "the sexual pun on 'prick' operates in Middle as well as Modern English" (Stephen Knight, "Chaucer: The Canterbury Tales," Literature in Context, edited by Rick Rylance and Judy Simons (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2001), p. 12). If "prowess of arms" could also be taken as sexual innuendo, then the significance of the luf-lace for Gawain's probable adultery of the heart is further enhanced.
I've previously poked about on Chaucer's probable prick-pun, as readers may recall, so this is familiar territory to me. Anyway, there it stands, thus far, rough but ready.

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