To resist masochistic readings of Gowther and to lessen the humiliation of his penance: these were my desires, and they came to nothing. There's just something irredeemably wretched and, well, bestial about the Pope's alimentary injunction and Gowther's obedient food-snatching. And there's no development at all: Gowther and the dogs just don't get along. But this, however, is the case only at the Emperor's place. My student and I noticed that Gowther's first encounter with dogs violates the Pope's strictures: when he is outdoors, resting on a hill, Gowther receives his food as a gift.
He went owt of that ceté
Into anodur far cuntré,
Tho testamentys thus thei sey;
He seyt hym down undur a hyll,
A greyhownde broght hym meyt untyll
Or evon yche a dey.
Thre neythtys ther he ley:
Tho grwhownd ylke a dey
A whyte lofe he hym broghht;
On tho fort day come hym non,
Up he start and forthe con gon,
And lovyd God in his thoght. (Sir Gowther 307-18)
Far from a humiliation, this encounter is a moment of tenderness, an astonishing tenderness, really, for a narrative that otherwise swings wildly between sadism and piety, and more often that not, combines the two. In today's conversation, I identified this encounter as a utopic moment. For a time, Gowther is trying to do nothing; he is out of doors, out of all civilized organization of space; and for three days, he suffers--or, better, enjoys--a dog's charity. Only when he finally gets up and goes does he secure this charity to a proper, divine source. But before he substitutes a divine for a demonic telos, before he stands up, before he begins to make his way to a court where he meets dogs who, there, function only in a grotesque mimesis of animality, before all this, in that time on the hill, Gowther has found, with this dog, another way of being.
It's a pity Gowther didn't end at line 318, or even a few lines earlier.
(picture from here. I might have referenced the lovely Pippi too)