As a wee graduate student I took an independent study on Middle English romances with Larry Benson. Because this was back in the Olden Days, Benson was allowed to smoke furiously as he expostulated on all manner of topics, some of them actually related to romances composed in Middle English. Chris Cannon and I would feed him the occasional question, but mostly we just watched his performance unfold. A highlight: Benson would often place his cigarette in his mouth backwards, and we had a running bet on whether he would ever light it in that position. He never did, but he often came perilously close.
I will someday die of cancer from all that secondhand nicotine nebulosity. I did, however, learn quite a bit about Middle English romances and assorted contingent topics.
Here are two "facts" absorbed in that smoky study, facts that have stuck with me for reasons I still cannot discern. I have no reason to believe that either is true, and yet ...
- A scholarly article was once composed arguing that when the Green Knight's head is lopped off by Gawain and rolls around the floor, kicked by the various knights of the Arthurian court, we have the first literary attestation of the game that becomes football.
- A famous Arthurian scholar argued that the proof of the romance's utter Englishness could be found in the scene where Lady Bertilak, intent on seducing a slumbering Gawain, enters his room and -- in the dead of winter -- throws open his window. Only the English (this scholar proclaimed) are so insanely climate immune.