Derek Pearsall’s essay “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: An Essay in Enigma” is part of The Chaucer Review’s commemorative issue celebrating the work of C. David Benson as he approaches the age of retirement. Pearsall hearkens back to his master’s thesis days when he writes about Sir Gawain and the Green Knight; he begins by noting that even though he is quite familiar with the plot of this tale, to the point where he can tell a slightly less salacious version of the tale to his children and grandchildren. However, he also points out that he has no real idea what the poem is about, from a thematic perspective. He understands that the work is a significant one after having read it. However, he does not know why it is significant, and he does not know what the poem means. He even argues that the poem appears to be set up so as to inspire frustration in the reader, perhaps even for the author’s entertainment. The purpose of this article, then, is to establish that the work is indeed confusing and that to explore some of the obstacles that lie in the way of the person who would interpret the tale successfully. Pearsall begins with a reference to Morton Bloomfield’s essay from the 1960s, an attempt to find harmony among the many divergent interpretations of the tale. He identified five different forms of acceptable interpretation, and the first is a concept of the poem as a tale of rebirth, in which the old god is killed at the midpoint of winter. The fact that Gawain has to make the trip at this time of year is due to the fact that it is Christmas, which leads to another interpretive possibility – Christian allusion. This article is an effective survey of the major beliefs surrounding the real religious truth at work.
Trina Johnson’s article “Gender Games: A Goddess Inspired Rereading of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight begins with the point that the strategic trickery of women are fundamental to the conflicts that break out in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. As a result of the travails that Gawain has to endure, it becomes clear that he places the blame for his flaws on women. An excellent question that arises almost right away is what would happen if he had an opponent whose gender he could not know but could make himself aware that he would need to fight. Gawain himself comes across the issue when he finds out that Morgan le Fay, the goddess, will be his final opponent, rather than the Green Knight. However, it is the female leadership that appears throughout the poem, and it helps the reader see that the connections among all of the text’s women add up to a power that is more significant than the easy tricks that Sir Gawain suggests. The importance of women in this text shows that the connections shared by women throughout the play are expressive in nature, and the author argues that Morgan is totally unnecessary, because when she receives her name, the audience receives a clear signal that the poem has something to say about gender; the disguises in the poem serve as a form of gender games which lead to confusion in determining specific roles. Morgan’s revelation makes Gawain consider his own definition of his own gender role as well.
In addition to the aforementioned elements in the play, it is worth noting that there are traces of Carnival in this poem, particularly in the areas in which the dichotomy between typical official functions and the Carnival appears. Tobias Andersson’s independent thesis entitled “Food, Sex and Violence: Carnival in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The theories that Mikhail Bakhtin and Peter Burke have expressed regarding the Carnival appear as a framework for analysis of the poem focusing on games, violence, sex and food. The essay additionally goes into the notion of rank, the questioning of which would have been intrinsic to the idea of the Carnival, a time when all people were deemed equal. Sir Gawain, as the protagonist, keeps the Carnival spirit at bay, even though he comes across three potential antagonists who symbolize the ethos of the Carnival in their own way. The Lady of the Castle serves as the seducer; Lord Bertilak shows the Carnival spirit with his hunting; and the Green Knight makes himself irritating with his mocking and aggressive speech. The idea that a Carnival experience would have taken place in this economy suggests the differences in term of monetary experiences that different cultures show across time.
Andersson, Tobias. “Food, Sex and Violence: Carnival in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.”
Unpublished thesis. http://www.diva-portal.org/smash/record.jsf?pid=diva2%3A392837&dswid=-6718
Johnson, Trina Marie. “Gender Games: A Goddess Inspired Rereading of Sir Gawain and the
Green Knight.” Unpublished dissertation. University of Massachusetts at Boston, 2013. http://gradworks.umi.com/15/50/1550661.html
Pearsall, Derek. “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: An Essay in Enigma.” The Chaucer Review 46
(1 & 2): 248-260. Doi: 10.1353/cr2011.0029
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