Tuesday, October 06, 2015

The Love of Life: Reading Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Close to Home

by J J Cohen

Below, my paper for the recent (and wonderful) Oecologies conference, "Engaging the World, From Here." My deepest gratitude to Vin Nardizzi and Tiffany Werth for inviting me and for pushing me to write beyond my comfort zone, and for all who attended and participated and made the event so memorable. From a joyous student staging of Gallathea to being lost in Stanley Park to superb presentations and a round table, truly among the very best eco-gatherings I've attended.

Let me know what you think of this piece, since in time it becomes a published essay. The footnotes at this point are fairly nonexistent. Manuscript images taken from the Cotton Nero A.x. Project' s Digital Facsimile.

With its Green Knight, Green Chapel, green garter, green holly, green horse, green axe, green everything, no wonder Carolyn Dinshaw describes Sir Gawain and the Green Knight as the “go-to text for ecocritical analysis of Middle English literature.”[1] Most attention centers upon its three enthralling hunts and the Green Knight as foliate intrusion, signaling that an eco-Sir Gawain has something in common with the anthropological approaches of the last century, when the traces of a pagan vegetation god were discerned in its Green Man and critics used to quote from The Golden Bough – but emphasis has moved from anthropocentric myths to human entanglement in an active, inhuman world. This shift to plants and animals has also entailed a quiet movement away from the groundbreaking, feminist reappraisals of the poem of the early 1990s, with their lingering over occluded stories, desires, lives. On the one hand, affiliating the ecological and the feminine risks repeating a binaristic and essentializing logic that aligns women and nature, to neither’s benefit. Yet environmental spaces medieval and modern too easily become the domain of vigorous, affluent white men having adventures (an expanse that queering or entangling into nature can paradoxically reinforce rather than undermine).[2] Can we shift the space of critical attention to a diversity and specificity of lives by engaging the romance’s worlds from multiple “heres,” manifold and thick? Can we displace the human from centrality without obliterating human difference?

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is an intricate romance, traversing time and space so swiftly they blur. Desire (or love) and vibrancy (or life) burgeon throughout, opening widest when we accept what the text has always insisted upon: Sir Gawain is not its protagonist – and his time, his history, are not always the poem’s. As the opening page of the manuscript makes clear, cutting something off will not extract it from enmeshment, will not flatten story into sequentiality, will not enable the solitary or the still. Around a linear and all too human, all too masculine narrative of blunder and supposed transcendence unfold tales of yearning and vitality: dormancy, season-change, lives glimpsed but not grasped, nonhuman tempos and durations, knotted structures of love and life to which a knight who thinks the world revolves around his adventuring remains blind, acephalic. The poem’s love of life entwines humans of all genders with nonhumans, creates a world not of static verities but repetitions with lively differences, sediments an enduring here inextricable from body, climate, atmosphere, season, plant, animal, stone.

The poem contrasts large environs swiftly traversed with small spaces of lingering. The immensity of the wilderness traveled and a plot unfolding over the course of more than a year contrast with the feasting chamber of the Arthurian court, the bedroom of Sir Bertilak’s castle and its surrounding hunting park (a space that can seem immense but amounts to no more than two enclosed miles [Crane]), and the ruins of the Green Chapel, not far distant. Building upon feminist re-readings of the poem that emphasize its knots, absent narratives, contradictions, and temporal intricacies over a masculine straightforwardness, I’m going to ask us to pause today within some time-spaces that Sir Gawain barely beholds on his travels, so hellbent is he to culminate a story he thinks his own. We won’t spend much time in the bedroom with Gawain and the Lady, nor at the chapel with the Green Knight. I’m interested in desire here, but desires that exceed the confines of Human subjectivities without leaving particular humans behind.[3] On the day she provides the green girdle that will supposedly keep Gawain safe, the Lady’s first act in entering his bedchamber is to throw open the window (1743), fresh air for the knight’s heavy, troubled sleep (dre3 droupyng of dreme, 1750). Might we allow our eyes to tarry at the vista she opens, perhaps feel the change in atmosphere an unlatched window enables? Can we gaze out towards the nearby hills and forest without transcending the feminine agency through which that portal opens? The Arthurian knight in restless sleep or atop his relentless steed embodies only one narrative trajectory. The desires of the poem’s four women entwine the poem with alternative stories, some of which challenge the relegation of the feminine to private and domestic space while men adventure outdoors.[4] So does the vivacity and precarity of the poem’s nonhumans, and an abiding love for their flourishing.

It’s easy to forget that SGGK exists in a single manuscript of unknown authorship, unclear scribal history, and lost context.[5] The history of this anonymous alliterative poem of the late 14th century is discontinuous. We possess no evidence of medieval readers. Modern canonicity came about only after Frederic Madden rescued the poem from obscurity through his edition of 1839. Jesse L. Weston translated SGGK into comfortably modern English in 1898, enabling wide public access.[6] Its female characters were ignored or disparaged into the 1990s, even though the plot derives from their agency. In the long wake of its domestication into the Brit Lit Survey syllabus, as well as its mediation through multiple translations and remediation through new sites of representation (including film and blogs), we’ve lost a sense of the romance’s strangeness, its desire to estrange. Much remains dormant, awaiting its season, so close to home as to remain unseen.

How might turning to the past with a full sense of inhabited ecologies, medieval and modern, renew our acquaintance with a poem that has become too well known? How might love and life bring together a world of humans and nonhumans in which particularities (of gender, body, desire, ability, tempo, thriving) are not transcended or surpassed? Plunging through the wilds of Wales atop his horse, Gawain’s mammalian rapidity contrasts with the unhurried thriving of trees, the leisure of stone, incessant cyclicality of weather and botanical yearning, the pulse of climate and season. I use the term eco-temps to designate a HERE that is at once a place, a temporality, and a climate – ephemeral expanses that through repetition endure to bequeath across time a multisensory archive.

Few medieval texts are more alert to climate change than SGGK, in the many senses of the word: location, atmosphere, inclination, affect. Climat is passion and psychology in place, feeling close to home. The poem is arranged around recurring but not necessarily straightforward rotation, what in Middle English is called “sesoun” [season]. The tempo of lived geography, sesoun is composed of cyclical “eco-temps” or “time-spaces” “now-heres” “weather-worlds”  that knot the disparate in shared liveliness, that include but are not culminated by decay, violence, death. Season derives from sowing (Latin serere), the casting of dormant seed on bare earth in uncertain hope, in the trust even within long cold of some green futurity.

With its brief days darkly edged, its affection for Christmas and New Years revels, SGGK is a winter-loving poem. Most of its action unfolds within two iterations of that season of short days and chill nights, of frost and hearthbound fire.

Unlike some Arthurian tales, this romance opens with disaster rather than culminate in flames. The first stanza (to which the last circles back) describes the burning of the city of Troy “to brondez and askez” (2), detailing the transcontinental dispersal of its refugee population. Because they founded so many futures it is easy to forget that the Trojans were exiles and migrants, displaced from home by war. Burnt to brands and ashes: these dispersed peoples possess no city to which to return.[7] The smoldering of home must haunt what follows [Stephanie Trigg]. Camelot is a refuge built against fire and ice.

The poem begins in wandering but moves quickly to the construction of new habitations. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a story that its author tells us he first “in toun herde” (31). “Toun” is usually glossed as “court,” but the word primarily means a gathering of edifices into permanent settlement, as in “London toun” (MED), the kind of fortified place reduced to embers at poem’s opening. Toun also designates the community such buildings enable. A toun domesticates fire and banishes life-taking winter to its exterior. The Arthurian court is a shelter after catastrophe. Like Troy, it won’t last.

Festive and snug, Camelot knows the inevitability of intrusion. Expectation hangs heavy in the air. Although Arthur’s court has gathered to celebrate the holiday, the king will not be seated at the Yule repast until some wonder arrives. SGGK was composed when the mania for tales of Camelot was already centuries old, but the eager knights and ladies depicted here are young: “For al watz þis fayre folk in her first age” (54). This story is set in the early days of Arthur’s flourishing, before the treachery and infidelity and sheer viciousness that will someday rend its community, ruin everything achieved.

As readers and Arthur fans, we know what is coming. Lancelot and Guenevere will betray their king. Agravain will betray the two lovers. Mordred will betray everyone. Yet when we realize that Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a prequel we can suspend our knowledge, ignore the approach of that calamitous future for a bit. The story is limned with darkness, harsh environments, and loss, but its narrative also holds vibrancy, promise, and unexpected life, even within what seems dead or forgotten. It’s a story of “boþe blysse and blunder” (18): beginning anew, trading culmination for multiplicity, linear time for seasonal modes, inevitable futures for the awakening of dormancies.

Camelot is built against a human world that loves to incinerate and a natural world aligned with chill; against story tellers who culminate their tales in devastation; against flame that will gladly ally itself with human hands to consume structures (of dwelling, of meaning, of remembrance); against an icy climate in which life is precarious and pained. And yet the court knows it cannot keep these forces at its exterior. The marvel is awaited. The outside must enter, or reveal itself as having always been within.

Sometimes it is difficult to tell the difference between an ally and an enemy, a host and a guest, protagonist and prey, a parasite and a symbiont, the fecundity of decay and the silent thriving of life, the death drive and cyclicality, between things which contradict and things that are simply entwined.

“Þer hales in at þe halle dor an aghlich mayster” (136). The awesome [“aue-lich”] Green Knight hurtles into the hall. He is sudden, flamboyant, immense -- and so very green. We will learn later in the poem that he is intimate to a story long unfolding at the heart of Camelot-toun. An emissary from Morgan la Fée, the Green Knight is sent to probe the court and frighten Guenevere (2456-60). Morgan does not much like her half-brother Arthur, an animus that tells a story close to home, lying dormant, springing to life only retroactively next winter. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a poem that demands to be read at least twice before it is possible to know how full its story is with alternative narratives from the very start, seeds lying dormant the first time through, awaiting a second season.

A little history. When first glimpsed in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini (c. 1150) Morgan rules the Isle of Apples (Avalon), the enchanted place to which Arthur is taken to have his mortal wounds tended. Geoffrey may have taken this story, as he takes so many of the tales he tells, from a combination of Welsh, Irish and Breton tales, underscoring the roiled British archipelago that Arthur’s eventual translation into a placid English king obscures. Geoffrey describes Morgan as wise in medicinal botany, astrology, and shape changing (she can fly through the air like Daedelus, and so is an intimate of birds).[8] In time elaborate mythologies developed around Morgan and her relation to Arthur. She studies with Merlin and masters much of his lore. She is married against her will. She is called le Fay (the Fairy) in recognition of her learning and power.[9] Because she was disparaged by Thomas Malory, and because we too easily assume that any medieval secular woman who exerts her own agency must have been reviled by her contemporaries, Morgan is often described now as sinister, evil. Yet she may also simply be an immensely learned woman whose stories and desires are not fully knowable.[10]

Despite all the founding fathers, stories of Troy depend upon women: Dido, Cassandra, Briseyde, Hecuba, Ignoge, Lavinia, Helen.[11] Feminist re-interpreters of SGGK taught us decades ago to take the words of the Green Knight seriously when he reveals that he is Morgan’s subordinate and stop making the poem about its male characters. Geraldine Heng pointed out in 1991 that Morgan tends to be noticed only to diminish her back into the masculine story, a proclivity that remains true today.[12] Heng, Gayle Margherita, and Elizabeth Scala (among many others) have demonstrated cogently how the poem enacts and is enlivened by feminine desires, stories with women as protagonists that have always been there, dormant until noticed by readers not content to follow only Gawain through the text. While most of the narrative is spent in that knight’s company, the ending of the romance makes us wonder if it ought to have been.

The poem diverts us from its intricacies then rebukes us for having been so distracted. “Oueral enker grene” (150). The magnificent, utterly intense [enker] greenness of the knight who intrudes on the Christmas court is overwhelming: verdancy of coat, mantle, hose, trim, gems, flowing hair and beard; his horse’s bit, stirrups, and saddle; even the horse itself. Yet the Green Knight is an ecotone of vegetal and animal, leaf and silk, tendril and embroidery, the work of nature and artisans. Viridescent glare can blind us to how much gold is woven into the ornamentation, precious substance and entangling thread. The Green Knight bears along with his tremendous axe a bob of holly “Þat is grattest in grene when greuez ar bare” (207). This holly would presumably shimmer with red berries, a speckled crimson that will return later when we behold Gawain’s blood on the Green Chapel snow. As the green aura shimmers it is easy not to notice details like the fierce Knight’s clothing embroidered “wyth bryddes and fly3es” (167), with birds and butterflies, a sartorial ecosystem. Sir Gawain will dress in rather similar clothing later in the poem, when he sets off in search of this stranger. The atmospheric birds and butterflies on these clothes are the labor and narrative of women’s hands.

The fierce guest challenges the court to a beheading game (possibly the least fun game ever invented). Noble Gawain volunteers to take the axe, sparing his king that perilous duty. Once severed from its body the head remains alive, a survival beyond death that declares green entanglement within a world exceeding and frustrating the human. The severed head commands Gawain to receive his promised return blow at the mysterious Green Chapel within a year. Unlike this uncanny visitor, Gawain has no reason to suspect that he will survive the return stroke: twelve months as terminus, not the restarting of a cycle. Can we blame him if he hesitates at Camelot while the seasons change? And they change rapidly. Within three brisk but beautiful stanzas winter will yield and return.

“And vche sesoun serlepes sued after oþer, / After Crystenmasse com þe crabbed lentoun” (“And each season in turn followed the other / After Christmas came difficult Lent” 501-2). We expect winter to be hard, but more difficult still are the earliest arousals of spring.

Lenten thoughts, for that austere time of year when the first stirrings of plants yield little nourishment, when winter is almost gone but the ground is brown and the trees stripped still of ornament. “Crabbed” means angry, ill-tempered, backward-moving, sour, unconvivial. A time of “fode more simple,” early spring tests the flesh in part for religious reasons, in part because the growing season is just starting while winter stores have neared depletion. You could starve to death at Lent.[13]

“Early spring is, famously, cruel,” observes Holly Dugan. “The bite of winter is still sharp.”[14] Spring’s ecological archive, she notes, is olfactory – and thereby fleeting. But not irrecoverable. Poetry records well the vernal balance of promise with “an indolic hint of decay and desolation.”[15] Memory with desire. To call this liminal season “crabbed” is not an instance of the Pathetic Fallacy so much as proof that the Pathetic Fallacy is true. The human body is an environmental mesh. Subjectivity is a material, multiensory extension into time, atmosphere and eco-temps. Affect is shared macrocosmically. Climate is weather and mood together, the human as meteorological interface, the ephemeral made flesh and feeling, the impress of an environing.

The seasons pass swiftly as Gawain lingers at Camelot. Lush thoughts intrude. Bot þenne þe weder of þe worlde wyth wynter hit þrepez (“But then the weather of the world contends with winter,” 504): cold sinks down, clouds uplift; rain topples, flowers swell. “Softe somer” combines what are for us two separate seasons, riotous spring and summer’s green fecundity.

Like that intruding knight at Christmas court, the world wears green clothing (“boþe groundez and þe greuez grene ar her wedez” [“both ground and groves are clothed green,” 508]). The soundtrack to this glorious greening is birdsong, as these creatures build their houses with industry (509). Later in the poem we will see and hear such birds in the depths of winter, as Gawain moves through a tangled forest, half frozen, no prospect of the Green Chapel at all. Let’s fast forward for a moment.

Into a forest ful dep, þat ferly watz wylde,
Hi3e hillez on vche a halue, and holtwodez vnder
Of hore okez ful hoge a hundreth togeder;
Þe hasel and þe ha3þorne were harled al samen,
With ro3e raged mosse rayled aywhere,
With mony bryddez vnblyþe vpon bare twyges,
Þat pitosly þer piped for pyne of þe colde.
Wandering a wild forest of entangled oak, hazel, hawthorn, Gawain beholds unhappy birds complaining against the chill. Maybe they are just allegories for how he feels. But maybe this is another moment when we might behold the human weather report, and wonder why Gawain does not apprehend in these miserable creatures a shared pain, a shared precarity.

Those lines create a microclimate, a winter environing in which life and death intertwine, where misery is shared even when that atmospheric interpenetration goes unrecognized. Trees are entangled, oak with hazel, hung with moss. Unhappy birds perch in their bows, their soundtrack a reduction to bare life, to creaturely misery. Pain of the cold. Sure, they’re just birds – and they will soon give way to frosty earth lit by a beautifully ruddy rising sun when Gawain is snug in the castle (1694-96) and to “wyldge wederer of þe worlde” that harasses the exposed (“þe naked to tene”) once he departs in search of the Green Knight (2000-2). Again, though, these are not instances of weather in the poem obeying “psychological rather than natural laws” but assertions that the Pathetic Fallacy is not so false.[16] Lesley Kordecki finds in Chaucer’s speaking avians an “ecofeminist subjectivity” that interrogates and undercuts the human.[17] In this poem the birds, filled with bliss in summer, distress in winter, do not speak. Yet they palpably communicate: create a feeling, an atmosphere, sorrow in a bitter climate, joy in a warmer one. They are the animals that fly on the embroidered garments of both Sir Gawain and the Green Knight he seeks. They are the animals that share in the bounty of the butchered deer after the hunt, when the ravens receive “þe corbeles fee” (1355). They are a story of nature, of course, but a story conveyed also in clothing, the labor of women, birdsong that is also art. And a protest against a world too cold.

Back to summer. Zephirus blows us, softly and warmly, deep into the year (516). Time passes at such a clip that it is easy not to see how animated this world observed by no one in the poem has become. But let’s linger, and spin some quick lines into longer intimacies.[18]

Blossumez bolne to blowe (Blossoms bulge to bloom, 512), while the hedgerows are “rych” and “ronke” (luxurious, libidinous 513). Leaf and stem are flourishing, becoming overgrown. Isn’t that how the Green Chapel was swallowed into ruin, reuse, rebirth?

Let’s pause in this vegetal profusion, catch our breath, smell the evening’s fleeting perfume -- or at least note that the poem is now green with inhuman desire. “Wela wynne is þe wort þat waxes” (“very lovely is the plant that grows”), dripping dew from its leaves, eagerly awaiting the joyful gleam of the sun (“To bide a blysful blusch of þe bry3t sunne” 520).

Yes it’s just personification and we should not take anthropomorphism too seriously. The growing plants and the soundtrack of birdsong that accompany their yearning simply set the mood for the human actors: expectancy, possibility, lushness, desire. Move on. 

In its rapid season-change and narrative hurtling forward, the poem offers what Rick Godden describes as a beautiful yet unnerving time-lapse.[19] We are inhabiting for a few months-as-minutes a vegetal temporality, a medieval version of sLowLife, plants revealed as motile and desiring.[20] Tim Morton describes the quickened apprehension that “speeding up the world” yields as making “things that seem natural reveal something monstrous or artificial, an uncanny, morphing flow” (The Ecological Thought 43). We sense how every green thing lives, burgeons, respires, maybe even feels. What a green climate in which to dwell, once temporal flow is estranged from human time keeping, from anthropocentric pulse, season over denouement, dormancy over death, climate over climax.
Yet vines and flowers are closer to our own heartbeat than much of the world (even if we are probably too much like hummingbirds as far as trees are concerned). When we inhabit a botanical tempo through poetry and other methods of sustained observation, we behold how plants live, witness what they love. We also realize their anxieties, those same intimations of mortality the court felt at Lent. Autumn is coming in a rush (“Bot þen hy3es heruest” 521). A changing climate signals nearing winter, with harsh weather, desolation, and rot (“Warnez hym for þe wynter to wax ful rype” 522).

Time to provide against the nearing devastation, or perish, or go dormant.

“And al grayes þe gres þat grene watz ere” (527): and the grass turns all grey that had been green. Verdancy recedes, and so does distributed liveliness. Chill returns. But here’s something to glean before the cycle completes and we find ourselves in Gawain’s company. Arthur had a half sister and we know at least in retrospect that she sets the story in motion. Her life is difficult to excavate and filled with contradictions, but one thing is clear: she wanted a world with more possibility than was given to her. She wanted a future of her own determination, a plot that did not terminate in someone else’s denouement. As we’ve dallied in the change of seasons I have been trying to honor what she loved in life, her intimacies and her knowledge. My hunch is that Morgan likewise lingered among birds and plants and knew well their vibrancy. I am also going to hazard that she had a deep regard for stones.

“Þenne al rypez and rotez þat ros vpon first” (528): Then everything ripens and rots that in the beginning grew. Arthurian literature has a way of obliterating the things it loves, just as the cycle of seasons turns spring plants to compost and soil to mud. Let’s turn our thoughts to the passing of swift things like blossoms, lost narratives, and flesh and contemplate the abiding earth. But not as grave.

Green is vegetal, seasonal, rapid, brief: a shade for plant life and botanic desire. A green sky may presage tornado, or dance as distant aurora. Green may be the last flash of the setting sun, le rayon vert, an opening of possibility even when the world dims. But green is more than that, if we can slow these rapidly turning seasons even more. Green is swift … but green also opens the text to durations that far exceed the momentary or the seasonal. Green is holly, springtime, leaf – but also gem, enamel, armor and pigment.

Think back to last winter, which might now seem a long time ago (but it was only three stanzas). The Green Knight’s hue at Camelot is “grene as þe gres” (235). Gift of chlorophyll and sunshine, green is the color of nature, as ecological a shade as can be had, as well as a promise of burgeoning, primavera within snow. Green is the color here of the close at hand, the immediate, the ephemeral: nearby trees and grass, the seasonal impress of holly and ivy. But green constantly intermixes other shades, other things. The knight’s color is also compared to “grene aumayl on golde glowande” (“green enamel glowing on gold,” 236). Green hue is the work of nature and of human craft, a radiance that arrives through alliance with earthbound and enduring substances, time long passed and time about to emerge.

The illustrations in the Sir Gawain and the Green Knightmanuscript are a symphony of mineral verdancies. Here in close up Sir Gawain faces the Green Knight at the Green Chapel. Sometimes the color was created by painting indigo over orpiment (blue over yellow). Malachite and verdigris were the most popular minerals for creating verdant hues – and remember that next to Sir Gawain in this picture is cave-like entrance to the Green Chapel, an entrance perhaps to this mineral world of green. These earthy substances that dye the animal skin on which the poem is inscribed resonate with the green gems said to sparkle on the Green Knight’s clothing, accouterments, and horse. They convey a materiality and a temporality that far outlasts the human – and yet to which the human is intimately, materially bound.

The people of the Middle Ages did not have quite the same sense of deep time that we are forever congratulating ourselves for having developed. They did, however, understand temporal immensity. Stone perpetually brought medieval writers and thinkers to such unseasonal, geologic contemplation, the awakening from dormancy of dreams of a world that holds a tempo nothing like that whirl of seasons preoccupying quick humans and other biological life.

Plants and minerals are lively, but their indigenous temporality renders human access to their thriving difficult to maintain long. Stare at them too long, and you can even lose sight of how specific human lives matter. The story can become too large. Or, as with Sir Gawain, too small. He forgets so easily how capacious the world is through which he moves, how full of creatures like the birds who like him love life and want to endure against a cold clime.

I could never possess a mind of winter. I can never not think of the misery in a cold wind. Here we are again. Perhaps we’ve lingered too long before arriving: we have completed a rotation of the seasons, and yet arrive only a few hundred lines into the poem, when a knight is just about to start his adventure.

A swift story of winter, Lent, summer, and harvest returns to winter and to Gawain. We lost of track of him, didn’t we? We were so intent on the poem’s plants, climate, season, and stones. We became stuck on what a medieval writer would call the “virtus” that these various ecomaterialities hold: their vibrancy and power as described in medieval botanical manuals, natural histories, encyclopedias and lapidaries, their ability to interrupt human stories and trigger wonder. In this lingering I have attempted to take seriously the presence of a woman “bi craftes wel lerned” (2447) who acquired her “maystrés” (arts, 2448) from Merlin. Her “koyntyse of clergye” (skill in scholarship) likely involved an intimacy with the herbs and gems that through proper alliance produce desire, eventuation, and magic. I hesitated in the seasonal stanzas in honor of Morgan la Fay – and it is worth exploring what that strange honorific signifies. The prose Lancelot (c. 1214-27) describes les fees as those women in the British histories who know “les forches des paroles et des pieres et des erbes” (the powers of words and stones and plants).[21] Magic is not the gift of demons, but of comprehension of natural law, acquirable “by all who applied themselves to the right books, or who were admitted to study with an acknowledged master, such as Merlin.”[22] Literacy is essential to magic and in many versions of the Morgan story her title of fée is bestowed in recognition of her wide learning and achievements in medicine and astronomy.[23] The Green Knight describes “Morgne la Faye” as a deeply learned women who once had “drwry” (love-dealings) with Merlin, the very initiator of the Arthurian court (2446-48). He says nothing negative about their relationship (their love was “dere”) and stresses the depths of her knowledge – so much so that she is also “Morgne þe goddess.” She earns her two titles not because she is somehow closer to plants and animals than men (the familiar troping of the feminine as the natural). She is goddess and fairy because she is an expert (“clergye”) in words, stones, magnetism, stellar influence, herbs – in what the Middle Ages called “magik natural,” a discipline today that we would call natural science.[24] SGGK is remarkably neutral towards Morgan. Gawain overlooks her during his time in the castle because she is advanced in age and thereby unattractive -- but the text never implies that her elderly body offers a moral allegory. Although described in terms that are physically unflattering when she is glimpsed from Gawain’s point of view (Bertilak more objectively calls her “þe auncian lady,” 2463), in her home she is clearly revered (“And he3ly honowred with haþelez aboute” 949). No negative adjectives cluster around her in the text – though plenty are to be found in critical discussion of her presence (including “evil” “dangerous” “aggressive” and “lascivious”). She is praised by Bertilak, her liegeman, for being so learned, and for her ability to tame the proud (“Weldez non so hy3e hawtesse / Þat ho ne con make ful tame,” 2454-55) – a talent she was practicing against with the Arthurian court. True, she also wanted to scare Guenevere to death, and that is not very nice, but no textual rebuke is given for that attempt. The poem offers only a story of a desire too quickly glimpsed.[25] As we have seen by tarrying in the change of seasons with Morgan’s interests in mind, SGGK is a poem of such stories and desires swiftly witnessed. Bertilak seems quite joyful to be under Morgan’s sovereignty. Bertilak’s castle, which is Morgan’s castle, seems a place of eternal spring. Because of the bedroom scenes and the tempting and the testing, critics typically describe it as a perilous place – and maybe it is, from Gawain’s point of view. Maybe. But after the business with the head chopping concludes at the Green Chapel, His request that Gawain accompany him back to the castle for a celebratory feast that includes his aunt appears to be sincere (“Þerfore I eþe þe, haþel, to com to þyn aunt, / Make myry in my hous” (2467-68). Once Morgan’s story awakens from dormancy, is important not to enact that violence against her again, that her life as Morgan the Goddess – who is also Morgan the Scientist -- be recorded, acknowledged, lingered over. Patricia Ingham writes that the lines of forgiveness from the Green Knight that free Gawain for his fault “reverberate with a compassionate understanding of a knight’s desire to survive.”[26] The lines she is referencing are the ones from which I have taken my paper’s title: “Bot for 3e lufed your lyf þe lasse I yow blame” (“But because you loved your life, the less I blame you,” 2368). The Green Knight serves Morgan, so why not see in these words a shared ethos of Hautdesert, one that reverberates with a compassion for all things that want to survive and flourish, all things that love life?

In the castle of Bertilak Gawain encounters Morgan but fails to recognize her. She is just a woman to him, all the more below attention because she is not young. Thus does he look at learned scholar and his own aunt and behold a crone. Gawain is not very attentive. We know this from the green girdle he will accept from Bertilak’s wife and then attempt to hide. Yet without Morgan the poem would not possess its plot. Scholars typically classify Morgan as either a supernatural being (in Geoffrey of Monmouth and a few early sources; hypothesized in her fairy or enchantress form as being a memory of a Celtic goddess) or as fully human, a woman who uses her craft in the petty ways the medieval misogynist imagination expects women to act. But a text cannot be a closed or total world. Narratives are porous ecosystems, always disrupted by the foundations (full of so many dormant things) on which they are built – dormancies that change the climate when they spring to life, ephemeral perhaps in their thrivings but through cyclicality and season more enduring than you might think.

The daily testing of Gawain in his bed is eerily analogous to the hunting of deer, boar and fox. Peril limns life and winter is difficult to tell from spring. The green of growth, eco-temps, and inhuman tempos and the white of chill, pain, precarity and perishing flesh are entangled. Circles entangle rather than flow. Dormancy and season give the lie to death. If Lady Bertilak had narrated the poem’s plot, how different would it be? We discover as the narrative moves towards its close that she comes each morning to tempt Gawain to physical intimacy because her husband asked her to do so: his game not hers. “I sende hir to asay þe” (2362) the Green Knight tells Gawain, robbing the wooing scenes in retrospect of tension and pleasure. We will never know her story, her desires, her pleasures. But when Gawain narrates human history as a long chronicle of men betrayed by women, from Adam onwards, it is hard not to wonder about Lady Bertilak’s ill fit with the tale he tells. She was working with her husband, and the green girdle she gave him seems to be a story about men from which she is excluded. Though it is useful to pause and think about who wove the garment.

Something worth contemplating as well, speaking of weaving or interweaving: when Gawain enters Bertilak’s castle, he departs harsh winter for a verdant season, cold birds for greenery and revel. But winter and summer end up being the same place, the same liminal zone. Bertilak’s Castle is the Green Chapel, just as jovial Bertilak is the fierce Green Knight. This forbidding monster excuses Gawain completely for having take the green girdle from lady Bertilak to protect himself: “Bot for 3e lufed your lyf; þe lasse I yow blame” (because you loved your life, the less I blame you, 2368). The love of life engenders sympathetic inclination, and a great deal of laughter (the Green Knight chortles his way through his last scenes). Gawain is invited back to Bertilak’s house to make merry with him, to make merry with his own aunt, “Morgne la Faye.”

Within the poem’s cycle of seasons temporal ripples flow within the narrative’s geographical bubbles. In the middle of the poem, in the middle of its recurrence of winter, Gawain discovers the home of Bertilak le Hautdesert, a park-like enclosure where everything is green as spring. For a while. The poem will return to white snow and biting ice, but even here will be found a verdant figure who seems menacing but in the end offers convivial invitations and sober lessons in how stories work. Invited to celebration with his aunt Morgan, the fairy-goddess-scientist, Gawain will refuse both offer and knowledge, will return to the Arthurian court where the action started, changed but not really changed. He tells a sad, heroic story about his nick in his neck and the green garter that it is the reader’s duty to ignore. Intensely attentive to the creaturely affects of the animal, human and vegetal denizens of its mixed ecologies, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight displays a recurring interest in culture’s becoming weather and climate’s linguistic and emotional impress. Identifications against (the monstrous, the animal, the inhuman) are constantly tripped up by recognitions and sympathy crossing ontological lines. Traditional readings of the poem resolve such tensions by turning to the theological, but they do not take seriously the Green Knight’s reason for excusing Gawain for his fault, based on a principle of the love of life: “but for 3e lufed your lyf.” In this pardon inheres a secular ethics of shared precariousness, an enlarging of the here of the poem that widens but refuses to transcend sense of place.

My place is here, close to home. I’ve been showing you some scenes of writing and thinking that form my own here when I think about place and the medieval poem.

An archive of ten years’ duration, the images I have used to retell the story of SGGK were taken in an urban park near my house. The abandoned terminus of a streetcar system that once linked NW and central DC, Willard Avenue Park (as it is unpoetically named) is a space I pass through every day as I move from home to work and back. At some point long before I lived in DC the area was landscaped into an urban park, but by the time I knew it most of the area seemed abandoned: overgrown with kudzu and bamboo, full of rotted and arsenic-cured wooden equipment, a place urban wildlife loved and humans ignored. Last winter a new playground was installed, a drainage system added, areas resurfaced and made accessible, and some invasive species removed.
My path today was given by the poem itself and this intimate space of writing and thinking bookended by a subway station and my home. I followed a series of interwoven ecological strands in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight to emphasize a here that is temporally thick, eco-temps traversed by rhythms swift and slow, that pulse within the poem but require some attentive lingering over climate and season. I thought through much of my argument with Willard Avenue Park.

The park is not nearly so lovely nor so lively as my images suggest. One end terminates in high rise apartment buildings that during times of heavy rain dump sewage into the stream that flows through the woods. 

A street traversed by buses, fire engines, and trucks can be heard through the trees.But I know from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight there is no such thing as a preserve of nature, a space where purities abide. Even a subway is an ecosystem. Some of the stories that I have not dwelt upon enough in this essay include the fact that this area was for a time part of a plantation. When Little Falls Stream watered fields, they were worked by enslaved humans who had been kidnapped from Africa and sold as if livestock. Before that the land belonged to the Piscataway, Anacostank, Pamunkey, Mattapanient, Nangemeick, and Tauxehent. Although it is known that an Indian trading post was established near the park by the early colonists, and suspected that the deer trails nearby may once have been hunting paths, indigenous history has mainly been obliterated. These vanished traces open SGGK to stories that arrive from prehistory (the Green Chapel is thought to be a Neolithic site, but we do not know exactly where) and postcoloniality (the Wales through which Gawain treks was being aggressively colonized at the time the poem was written, Arthurian myth was snatched from the Welsh, who are the wodwos and etaynez Gawain fights against in the wilderness, and might they not have a story of their own to speak?)

I took this picture coming home one evening after a storm. I’d cut through Willard Avenue Park as I always do, and paused in the darkness to listen to the birds quieting for the evening, the purling of the stream, the steady rumble of cars. In the bamboo that has not been cleared away yet I saw a deer, then a fox, urban wildlife well adapted to constricted expanses.

I think I was a little drunk – I’d met a friend for drinks in Foggy Bottom, and we lingered until the storm broke. I crossed a busy road and was almost home, then looked down into a puddle. Time, for a moment, slowed. Water became sky, the ground close to home disclosed a deeper story. I knew at that moment that I had to take this picture to bring this “here” to you.

[1] Carolyn Dinshaw, “Ecology,” in A Handbook of Middle English Studies, ed. Marion Turner (Oxford: John Wiley & Sons, 2013) 347-62; quotation at 359. Dinshaw ascribes its ecocritical popularity to “its vegetal villain, geographical realism, precise picture of the seasons, and detailed account of the hunting animals” (359). In fact, however, ecocritical readings of medieval literature remains thin on the ground, and the “green” bibliography for SGGK is not extensive: see work by Gillian Rudd and Susan Crane.
[2] Postcolonial readings of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight have carefully built upon this feminist tradition in a way that ecocritical readings so far have not. Such analyses tend to be attentive to environmental justice in their probing of what happens when one people’s land becomes someone else’s territory – but they typically have little to say about nonhuman lives. See for example Patricia Ingham.
[3] For an analysis that brings these expanses together well see Mark Miller’s recent, illuminating examination of death drive, stillness and desire in the poem, “The Ends of Excitement in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Teleology, Ethics, and the Death Drive,” Studies in the Ages of Chaucer 32 (2010): 215-56. I am interested in bringing this objectless desire into a realm that includes nonhumans as participants in what Miller calls the “field of aliveness” rather than symbols or displacements for human stories, and so focus not on death but decay, dormancy, and tempos that are alien to human subjectivity.
[4] On the gendering of the public and the private in the poem and its relation to a split between nature and culture, see Margherita 140-41. Geraldine Heng writes: “Like each constituent of the pentangle, the path of every woman in the poem is articulated with that of every other, so that each approximately "vmbelappez and loukez in oþer," "vchone ... in oþer, þat non ende hade" (628, 657), a knitting together that reproduces the shadow of a different "endeles knot"in the poem - a knot of the feminine and the figure of another desire and its text” (“Feminine Knots and the Other Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” PMLA 106.3 [1991]: 500-514, at 503).
[5] Elizabeth Scala gets at the precarity of the story’s survival well when she writes that “its canonical position as a superlative late Middle English romance and the gem of the so-called alliterative revival belies its chance survival from an era before the introduction of the printing press. The critical attention the poem has enjoyed in the last century often obscures the fact that it was lost to readers of literature for centuries and had practically no effect on the formation of the English poetic canon” (Absent Narratives, Manuscript Textuality, and Literary Structure in Late Medieval England [New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002]) 38.
[6] Good, short histories of the manuscript’s coming to public attention maybe found in the two handbooks dedicated to the poem’s author: Ad Putter, An Introduction to the Gawain-Poet (London: Longman, 1996), esp. 1-4 and John M. Bowers, An Introduction to the Gawain Poet (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2012).
[7] I’m thinking here of Steve Mentz’s suggestion that “The poetics of exile and migrancy overflow premodern literary culture. What are Odysseus and Aeneas but violently displaced migrants who eventually make it to old or new homes?” See http://stevementz.com/notes-toward-a-migrancy-syllabus/
[8] See Geoffrey of Monmouth, Vita Merlini, ed. and trans. Basil Clark (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1973) ll.908-38.
[9] The first time she is called Morgan la fee is in Chrétien de Troyes Erec et Enide (c. 1170). James Wade explores her development in Fairies in Medieval Romance (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011) 9-38. Carolyne Larrington gives a thorough overview of the development of the Morgan legends, stressing her role as learned enchantress rather than fairy, in King Arthur’s Enchantresses: Morgan and Her Sisters in Arthurian Tradition (London: Taurus, 2006). See also Stephen Knight, Merlin: Knowledge and Power through the Ages (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2009) 39-40, 77-83.
[10] On the inscrutability of fairy motivation see Wade. Even defenders of Morgan’s point of view in SGGK describe her more negatively than the poem does: Margherita for example calls her a “sinister maternal figure” (141).
[11] On the relation of the Troy opening to the unfolding of the plot of SGGK – and especially to the romance’s interest in Morgan, digression and delay, and the active forgetting of alternative, feminine histories – see Gayle Margherita, The Romance of Origins: Language and Sexual Difference in Middle English Literature (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994) 129-51.
[12] “Morgan's responsibility for the plot mechanism has been resurrected, debated, minimized, multiplied, classified, and reimagined-only to be reappropriated once again (albeit with difficulty) to serve the masculine narrative, whose priority customarily goes unchallenged” (“Feminine Knots” 501). For two (of many) examples of insisting that Morgan is not nearly so important as the Green Knight declares her to be, see Larry D. Benson, Art and Tradition in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1965) and 34 and Albert B. Friedman, “Morgan la Fay in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,Speculum 35 (1960):260-74. Mark Miller writes that when Morgan’s agency is revealed, her intention is something “no one cares about” and “ludicrous” (“The Ends of Excitement” 234; see n.31 for his fullest argument). Margherita gets at the supposed danger of dallying with Morgan well when she connects it to a fear of lingering with (feminist) theory: “’theory’ itself is often spoken of in our field as a kind of rhetorical dalliance, a fetishistic deferral of the medievalist’s linear and epic journey back into the past … If we stay at Carthage with Dido, we’ll never get to Italy and build a legacy for our sons. Worse, yet, we may realize that what seemed a momentary dalliance was in fact the raison d’être for the whole narrative, and find ourselves, like Gawain, hopelessly alienated from the community as a whole” (Romance of Origins 150).
[13] I am grateful to Kathleen E. Kennedy (@TheMedievalDrK) for a twitter conversation on this topic. See especially: “spring also a traditional famine season, as early crops aren't ready and what is, isn't always enough to fill in dpltd stores” (September 10, 2015).
[14] See Holly Dugan, “Spring Smells of Lilacs,” JHU Press Blog http://jhupressblog.com/2014/04/01/spring-smells-of-lilacs/
[15] ibid. Dugan notes that indole is an aromatic compound that may be found in flowers (such as lilacs) as well as feces.
[16] The quote is from Ad Putter, An Introduction to the Gawain-Poet, 53.
[17] Lesley Kordecki, Ecofeminist Subjectivities: Chaucer’s Talking Birds (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).
[18] I am inspired here by Chris Piuma’s use of “intimacies” to describe how the works of the Pearl poet spin into new texts or “dystranslations”: “The Task of the Dystranslator: An introduction to a Dystranslation of the Works of the ‘Pearl’ Poet,“ postmedieval: a journal of medieval cultural studies (2015) 6, 120–126.
[19] See “Neighboring Wastelands in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” http://rickgodden.com/2015/05/26/neighboring-wastelands/
[20] http://plantsinmotion.bio.indiana.edu/usbg/toc.htm
[21] Lancelot: Roman en prose de XIII Siècle, ed. Alexandre Micha, 9 vols. (Geneva: Librairie Droz, 1978-83), 7.38; Lancelot-Grail: The Old French Arthurian Vulgate and Post-Vulgate in Translation, ed. Norris J. Lacy, 5 vols. (New York: Garland, 1993-96), 2.11. The passage is speaking specifically about the Lady of the Lake rather than Morgan, and speaks of how such enchantresses use their powers to remain young and beautiful. SGGK departs from this tradition by rendering Morgan an old woman, but I think that aging is part of the poet’s strategy of calling attention to how Gawain does not see the powers that are shaping his world and story. Wade examines the passage from the Lancelot as an instance of rationalizing the Otherworldly figure of the fairy into a human in Fairies in Medieval Romance p. 11.
[22] Thus Carolyne Larrington argues is the dominant mode of understanding magic from the twelfth century onwards: King Arthur’s Enchantress 10. Helen Cooper makes the good point that enchantment is a learned skill available to both men and women, that witchcraft “was taken to be an act, not a state” and did not necessarily convey opprobrium: The English Romance in Time: Transforming Motifs from Geoffrey of Monmouth to the Death of Shakespeare (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004) 160; see also 184-85. Corinne Saunders makes some similar observations in noting the negative depiction of Morgan in Malory; see Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2010) 247.
[23] See Larrington, King Arthur’s Enchantress 14-15.
[24] See the entry for “magyk” in the Middle English Dictionary. Larrington compares the study of natural magic to the university curriculum after the introduction of Aristotle, and argues that magic is often a learnedness that seems marvelous only to those who do not comprehend the natural laws behind its operation (King Arthur’s Enchantress 10).
[25] While I agree with Larrington that the poem “deliberately gives us too little information to decide about Morgan” (King Arthur’s Enchantress 68), I do not find her resolving the Guenevere story through the “Val sans retour” episode in the Lancelot convincing: the point of the story is in part its incompletion.
[26] Patricia Ingham, Sovereign Fantasies: Arthurian Romance and the Making of Britain (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001) 134. This sentence also seems profoundly true to me: “We might, thus, view Gawain’s ‘failure’ with more sympathy than he does himself, and remain attentive to the poignant resistances within it” (1350). 


Karl Steel said...

Quick comment!
LOVE LOVE LOVE the reference to the Brits as refugees. Perfect.

SECOND - I just finished teaching this, and will share your post with my undergrads tomorrow. One thing we dwelt on, perhaps relevant here: Gawain's exclamations. He swears "by st john" and "in faith." While we can take the first as an intimation of his beheading (after all, Salomé was set up by her mother, Heroidis, a kind of analog of Lady B and Morgan, and Gawain might be John to Bertilak's Herod), I prefer to take the exclamations as just expressions of bodily vulnerability and being-there: surprise! shock! fear! dismay! a language that is NOT logocentric, but is rather fully corporealized, a language that expresses nothing but the presence of a body, right there.

Understood this way, Gawain's exclamations are of a piece with the poem's larger attention to the bodily vulnerabilities of all things, birds and horses, and men, and humans as they age. The poem may try to be one about heroism; that's certainly Gawain's preference; but it's about, especially, a vulnerability that no heroism can overcome, a vulnerability that precedes our capacity to give it over to culture as sacrifice.


[maybe more my paper than yours, but yours is inspirational]

Carolyne Larrington said...

I really enjoyed reading this and thinking about all the barely sensed reverberations in SGGK that this brings forward. I think now, ten years on from writing King Arthur's Enchantresses I'd disavow any sense that the 'Val des Faux Amants' episode explains the Morgan-Guenevere animus in any totalising way. In the light of my recent work on siblings and affines (Brothers and Sister in Medieval European Literature, Boydell and Brewer, 2015) I'd rather now connect Morgan and Guenevere as being triangulated more precisely through Arthur. But then the relationship of A and M is so prone to rewriting - the opportunity that it offers to consider sibling dynamics is irresistable.

I very much like the idea of Morgan as a proto-scientist; I suggest that she likes to experiment on chivalry, to press down on it to see where it's tender, where it might break. Just as Lady B puts carefully calibrated pressure on the pentangle - what will make it snap open? I say more about this in 'The Knight, the Enchantress and the Cleric' in Arthurian Literature 25 (2008). I'll be giving this to my second years in a couple of weeks and hope it triggers something really interesting in terms of essays. Not that SGGK doesn't always capture the imagination of my students, but it doesn't always come out in what's written. Thanks again.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Thanks for posting this comment, Carolyne Larrington! It enables me to say (1) thank you and (2) tell you what a fan I am of King Arthur's Enchantresses. What a superb book -- could not have done this project without it! I'll check out the Arthurian Lit essay (thanks for the reference) and it is VERY interesting to think Arthur and Morgan through sibling dynamics.

Steve Mentz said...

I've got a plane to Toronto to catch so this must be quick - but thanks for posting this wonderfully thought-provoking essay. I especially love the final turn from green fantasy worlds to urban parkspace, which is nicely done and also speaks (I think) to how much human engagements with nonhuman spaces rely on narrative shapes, forms, and experiences. I also love the feminist / scientist / teacher Morgan -- which makes me think, perhaps revealing my not-only medievalist internal archive, of the presiding figure of Morgan in the Magic Tree House kids' books that Olivia loved when she was maybe 6 or 7. Your essay also reminds me why I love SGGK and make me want to go back to the poem, which I've not read in a while.

Two other quick things. The forthright defense of the Pathetic Fallacy is great & I wonder what might follow from it. How is it related to the anthropomorphism we should not take too seriously (as opposed, a la Jane B, strategically)? Does a vision of environmental embeddedness take the anthrocentrism out of the Pathetic Fallacy, so that the sky can be crying but not only for / as "us"? I'm very interested to hear more on this subject.

I'm also thinking, perhaps tangentially from this essay, about the relationship between seasonal/cyclical time and the quest-form / onward-time of the Gawain-centric readings from which you depart. Are those two ways of thinking environment and identity simply perpendicular to each other, touching but neither one changing the other's velocity? Or is there a way we can imagine structures of engagement and mutual influence between them? We do lose track of Gawain, but we usually find him again, even if we don't want to.

This last may be asking (like Karl!) for a different essay or different part of this larger project. But maybe worth thinking about.

We'll miss you at BABEL! This will be the first one of my 3 trips at which I'm on no Cohen-organized panels. Alas!