Sir Gawain and The Grail QuestThe double vision of the middle ages, which saw both the "concrete fact and the conceptual form"
in Sypher’s words, is often a central focus in medieval literature. Some critics, such as D.W Robertson, have argued
that the exegetical impulse is present as the didactic premise condemning cupiditas in all medieval texts to some degree,
while others such as Blamires have seen this as reductionist. Most however agree that if religion is not at the core of every
medieval text, it often functions as a frame within which the fiction unfolds and upon which the story draws, if only to prove
that as Petrarch says "poetry is not inimical to theology".
In both LMD and SG, faith is twinned with chivalry
in a way epitomized by Gawain’s shield, which has the perfect knot of the pentangle on one side and Mary on the other.
And in both texts these two different ethical codes clash, the tension between them driving the plot and creating instability
and ambiguity within what seems a structured balanced ‘hoole’.
In LMD, the grail quest appears, if not
as the purpose which the Round Table has always been predestined to take on, then at least as it’s apotheosis, an example
of what it can achieve, and the articulation of the "longing for wholeness…the obliteration of fissures" which Mann
sees to be the root of the book’s poignancy . In SG, similarly, the quest Gawain takes on is a defence of the pride
Round Table but it is figured, as Berger has notes, as a Peregrinato, tracing an individual’s spirit progress through
a worldly metaphor.
Throughout LMD, ‘taking the auenture’ is, Mann argues, a way to understand an
enigmatic and bewildering world, where signs and prophecies abound but where understand comes "fitfully or too late", and
where knight errancy is in tension with clearly motivated struggles, such as the Roman War in Book II or the Grail Quest.
This tension is seen on a larger scale in one of the paradoxical oppositions in chivalric romances, one which is emphasised
in LMD and SGGK, as the traditional questing knight who departs to seek wholeness is itslef an image of severance. In LMD
the sense of the court ‘hole togidirs’ is strengthened by what undermines it, the impending separation in the
last communal adventure, while in SGGK the unity of the court gathered to see Gawain leave is juxtaposed with hints of disintegration,
in the recognition of ‘cavelaciounz in Crystmasse gomnez.’
Both Lancelot and Gawain are shown to
be imperfect, and their imperfection is set against an abstract wholeness, which in LMD is embodied in Galahad. The incident
with Sir Melyas is one example where human imperfection and vulnerability is contrasted with the longed for perfection, where
Melyas, out of pride, takes a difficult path which Galahad warns him against and is wounded. The monk Galahad takes Melyas
to reveals that the wound was due to Melyas’ lack of confession, and the spiritual wound of pride and sinful state is
remedied by a physical wound, which makes whole the spiritual fault with a near-death experiences and confession.
is paralleled in Gawain’s response to a double testing. Critics have read Gawain’s simultaneous failure differently.
Some such as Baroff have seen it as human fallibility, while others have seen it as covert condemnation of chivalry’s
conflicting superhuman demands. In both cases, the spiritual wound of Gawain’s failure to follow Christ even to the
acceptance of death is made whole, as the break in the knot is made whole, by the 'break' in the neck. Gawain pays the debt
he owes the Green Knight by receiving the wages of the ‘nirt’ which Shoaf reads as a rite, a sacrament or a confession
which leads to a new covenant.
In LMD Lancelot finally accepts his failure, and achieves his own quest in finding
his son. The condemnation of Lancelot in the French versions of the story is omitted, and there is no shift away from the
idealization of the perfect knight in the recognition that he is the best of the sinful. In SGGK similarly, the Green Knight
and the Lady both reject Gawain’s name and worth, and yet he is renamed ‘so is Gawain’ and the Green Knight
forgives his fault of cowardysse as slight and human.
In LMD, Lancelot’s inner fragmentation produced Galahad’s
wholeness, while in SGGK Berger sees Gawain’s departure from the pereginato conventions as a shift from the fable to
a more realist individual character. This shift in both texts can be seen within the idea of the medieval sinner who Braswell
notes, moved from the margins to the centre in late medieval texts, with a closer attention paid to the inner workings of
sin and motive.
This move towards the individual, with all its complexity and ambivalence can be seen most clearly
in both characters return to the court. In LMD Lancelot is given his own miracle, in the healing of Urry. There is a pun in
the word whole here, as Lambert argues, where the whole court seeks to make Urry whole and the roll call emphasises the disparate
wholeness of the Round Table. Yet this collectivity in rejoicing at Urry’s healing is set against Lancelot’s tears.
Some commentators on this incident have seen this as Lancelot’s recognition that the salvation he offers and is offered
can never be spiritual but only bodily, but what this seems to underscore most obviously is the difficulty of subsuming the
individual within society.
In SGGK similarly, the return to court safe and whole is celebrated by the court itself,
yet Gawain is full of 'grief and grame'. Berger sees this display of shame as the opposite of true humility as it rejects
the efficacy of confession while Shoaf sees the acceptance of the negative sign as a rebuke to the proud. However, in both
interpretations what seems clear is the disparity between what Gawain has lived through and the courts reading of it.
Gawain and Lancelot have taken the adventure and emerged changed. Unlike Balin who accepts his enigmatic responsibility for
drawing the sword and destruction, their moral responsibility is clear, and their search for wholeness ultimately reveals
how precarious and how fragile it is. A C Spearing saw Gawain as about the central fact of human existence, that man lives
in a world he didn’t make, under the control of supernatural forces. To some extent both texts illustrates this dilemma,
while at the same time showing the way to accepting it, acknowledging imperfection while aspiring towards perfection.