Middle English Word of the Moment

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Cowardice and cortaysye

The Green Knight comes to Camelot, attracted by rumours of their twofold greatness:

"... thy burgh and thy burnes [men] best ar holden,
Stifest under stel-gere [in armour] on stedes to ryde,
The wyghtest [bravest] and the worthyest of the worldes kynde...
And here is kydde [renowned] cortaysye, as I haf herd carp,
And that has wayned [brought] me hider, iwyis, at this tyme." (259-264)

He portrays Camelot's renown as based on two things: their bravery and their courtesy. Benson (Art and Tradition in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, 1965) argues that both beheading scenes (and, this would imply, the rest of the poem) are in fact tests of both these qualities of Camelot, but that its representatives never wholly understand it.

In the first scene, Benson finds, "the frightened courtiers quickly disqualify themselves... they are courtiers rather than warriors" (214). They do not respond to the Green Knight's challenge - though the poet generously gives them an out by saying "I deme hit not al for doute [fear], Bot sum for cortaysye", giving us probably the first instance in the poem of bravery and courtesy being set at odds. But the Green Knight clearly interprets it as cowardice, and he turns to mockery:

"What, is this Arthures hous," quoth the hathel [man] thenne,
"That al the rous [talk] rennes of thurgh ryalmes [realms] so mony?
Where is now your sourquydrye [pride] and your conquestes,
Your gryndellayk [fierceness] and your greme [anger] and your grete wordes?" (309-312)

This time, he (discourteously!) emphasises bravery, and doesn't mention courtesy at all. And interestingly, Arthur's response to this is to abandon courtesy himself and reply with angry violence, grabbing the axe, declaring that no man here is afraid of the Green Knight and preparing to accept the challenge himself. Benson says that he "thus upholds Camelot’s reputation for bravery, but in doing so he deserts what now becomes the most important aspect of its fame. He forgets that he is “þe hendest”, and he becomes for the moment like the “methles” Green Knight" (215).

It is at this moment, of course, that Gawain speaks up, bowing to the king and saying "I beseche now ... this melly mot be myne" (341-2). Gawain, for now, has both the courtesy and the courage to undertake the task, showing himself (according to Benson's reckoning) superior to the other knights and to Arthur: "it is apparent that the king has failed, for to take up an adventure that one does not finish is “surquidré”, especially when one takes it up with so boastful an announcement of his intentions as Arthur makes. Yet it is also clear that Arthur has somehow failed the test even before Gawain’s interruption and that Gawain must step forward not only to show his loyalty to the king but also to save the integrity of the court" (Benson 214).

Benson then applies this logic to the second beheading scene, at the Green Chapel. The usual reading of this scene - the one the Green Knight himself gives - is that the three blows of the axe are analogous to the three days of testing at Hautdesert, and that since Gawain passed the first two days, the first two blows do not touch him, and since he failed only a little on the third day, he is only slightly nicked by the third blow. Benson offers an additional explanation, based on his division of the test into courage and courtesy. In brief, Gawain flinches from the first blow of the axe, thereby failing in courage. The Green Knight withholds that blow and mocks him, just as he mocked Arthur at Camelot - and with the same result! Though bearing the blow unflinchingly was not part of the original bargain, Gawain reinterprets it to be a test solely of courage, and responds rather snippily that he won't move again, though HE can't stick his head back on when it falls off, unlike SOME PEOPLE. The Green Knight raises the axe again - and this time, withholds the blow. This is generally considered the second "blow", Benson's test of courtesy, and Gawain fails it, bursting out in angry protest against the unfair suspense. Only after that does the axe fall, nicking Gawain's neck for the third blow and completion of the test.

It's a good theory. For one thing, it explains not just the fact of the first two blows (which is all that the Green Knight's version accounts for) but their nature. Gawain's flinching was presumably integral to the first blow because otherwise it would have nicked his neck and the test would have been over then. The second blow wasn't technically a blow, but Benson's theory explains how it was just as much a test as the first.

It falls down a little if we try to apply the failures of the first two tests to the first two days - alright, Gawain's hiding under the blanket and pretending to be asleep when the lady first enters could be seen as cowardice, but it's hard to argue that he fails in courtesy on the second day, and besides, the Green Knight does say that he didn't fail at all on those days. On the other hand, the animals Bertilak hunted on those days, which critics often argue are symbolically linked to the action in the bedroom one way or another, could be seen to relate to this theme. The first quarry is deer - specifically female deer - whose courage no one could extol. The second quarry is a wild boar, an animal often associated with bold, fierce knights, the epitome of courage, but without much association with the civilised aspects of the court.

So, if Gawain's pentangle symbolises trawthe, and the nick in his neck is (at least according to him) a token of untrawthe, and if we are to hypothetically allow that Benson's theory doesn't apply just to the two beheading scenes but can extend to describe the whole poem as a test... can we make an equation between trawthe and the combination of courage and courtesy?

Perhaps not quite in those terms. But a common thread running through my thesis is that everything in the world of Sir Gawain is made up of two opposite and more-or-less opposing halves - the axe can symbolise death or victory over death, for example - and that this is a large part of what makes it impossible to actually be perfect as a human in an imperfect world. And the poet does fairly clearly set up courtesy as an impediment to courage, and vice versa. Perhaps it would be more true to say that the trawthe to which Gawain aspires is composed of both worldly elements and spiritual ones which can never be entirely reconciled. One cannot avoid one's duties to society and fellow man (courtesy) to uphold a spiritual virtue (courage, broadly speaking - trust in a higher power?). In his A Reading of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Burrow clearly regards both of these elements in his idea of trawthe, when he says "the ideal of ‘truth’ does not require a knight to transcend these things [courtesy, fraunchyse]: it involves the perfection of a man before society as well as before God" (47).


- Benson, Larry D. Art and Tradition in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1965.
- Burrow, John Anthony. A reading of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. London: Routledge, 1965.

- All Gawain quotes (but not the glosses) are taken from J. J. Anderson's 1996 Everyman edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, edited together with the other three poems from the single manuscript in which the poem survives, Cotton Nero A.x - Pearl, Purity (or Cleanness) and Patience.


3 comments:

Lady D. said...

Crikey! That was a well-argued post!It takes me back to my days as an English Lit student picking apart books to see their underlying themes and symbolisms.

As for whether I'd prefer bravery or courtesy...hmmm - that would be a hard one. I think a true knight should have a bit of both ;-)

Ceirseach said...

Actually, the votes for Piers, Yvain and Gawain in the poll make me imagine them all sitting down to dinner together, with Yvain and Gawain being exquisitely, pointedly polite while our brave-but-not-polite Piers throws his weight about and makes up silly nicknames for them. :) I think we need fanfiction!

Lady D. said...

Your wish is my command - if you write some then I might too! There's a place for it on the new forum (see the blog) either in Tavern tales or in the characters and plotbunnies topic ;-)