One of the significant issues we’re going after in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is the importance of context, not just for the reader but also for the poet. An Arthurian romance in the Middle English style and mode comes with all kinds of significant ideas: why Arthur, why Gawain, and why that structure to the poem.
The Gawain or Pearl poet is very much aware of his subject, just as Chaucer is aware of biblical parallels and anecdote, but he’s also very much aware of his structure, both internal to the poem’s narrative and in the poem itself. He’s aware that he’s “constructing” a poem that tells Gawain’s story. But we always begin at the beginning–ah the play on the things–just as the poet does. The poet begins, as did the Beowulf skald, with mention of “how we got here” and “with those figures significant to the figures in the story.” Mark Anastasio, just after we left off with the Green Knight’s intro words, caught me outside of class and suggested possible reasoning behind Rome, Aeneas, and Brutus. (I’ll let him inform the class about what he told me.)
Arthur in the romance tradition is a figure who brings order to world. He unites and governs as a servant of Christ, and he deserves the loyalty of the knight-thane, just as Beowulf did. Implicit to order and its figures, however, is a threat: the threat is disorder and death. The grand narrative of Arthur is the narrative of Rome. It is great but it also falls. Beowulf is great, but just like his fathers, he will die–then what? In cyclical history, Rome always falls. Arthur’s story always ends the same way. Rise and fall, ascent and descent. If you’re a Christian, Christ always dies on the cross, and you’re helpless to prevent it. From the poet’s perspective, we need to learn from the story that always ends the same way (and it’s not as easy as it sounds).
Questions of Time
The Gawain poet treats time as a force. Consider these lines from part 2, 24
Then the summer season when the west breeze blows
After þe sesoun of somer wyth þe soft wyndez
and soft winds sigh on seed and stem.
Quen Zeferus syflez hymself on sedez and erbez,
How the green things glory in their urgent growth
Wela wynne is þe wort þat waxes þeroute,
when the dripping dew drops from the leaves,
When þe donkande dewe dropez of þe leuez,
waiting for the warm sun’s welcome glance.
To bide a blysful blusch of þe bryt sunne.
But then Fall flies in, and fills their hearts,
Bot þen hyes heruest, and hardenes hym sone,
Bidding them be rich, ripe, and ready for winter.
Warnez hym for þe wynter to wax ful rype;
The autumn drought drives up dust
He dryues wyth drot þe dust for to ryse,
that billows in clouds above the broad earth.
Fro þe face of þe folde to flye ful hye;
Wild winds whistle, wrestling the sun;
Wroþe wynde of þe welkyn wrastelez with þe sunne,
Leaves launch from each limb and land on the soil,
Þe leuez lancen fro þe lynde and lyten on þe grounde,
while the green grass fades to grey.
And al grayes þe gres þat grene watz ere;
What rose at the first now ripens and rots
Þenne al rypez and rotez þat ros vpon fyrst,
till the year has gathered its full yield of yesterdays.
And þus irnez þe ere in isterdayez mony,
In this Deane text, which differs profoundly from the strong translation of Barroff and that makes corny decisions in translation (thus I’ve added the Tolkien version in its Middle English), we can note the cyclic power and inevitability of time and its tropes. The summer is “glad” but the “hard harvest” always follows and “ripe” always moves to rot. The context here is also the many yesterdays. Under the governance of this natural pattern Gawain must prepare for his journey and “travails yet to try” (535).
Time runs throughout the text. It’s marked by calendar, ritual, point of view, and season. Gawain moves into it as the story plays out. The birth of Rome is tied to Troy and linked to the birth of Britain.
But what is the warning here?