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sir gawain and le morte d'arthur

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Sir Gawain and The Grail Quest

The 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.

This 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. 

Both 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. 

written: 2007
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