Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Why the Two Holes?

by Karl Steel

Yesterday my Comp Lit course finished up Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Among other things, I stressed the unresolved hybridities of the "Chapel" in Fitt IV: its combination of natural and architecture features, the hole in the hill as a sanctified hermit hole (I reminded them of the cave at the end of Hartmann von Aue's Gregorius) and as otherworldly entrance, Hautdesert as the "desert" of the wild Welsh wilderness and as the "desert" as the place of the saints, the green sash on Gawain himself as binding him to the natural world of the Green Knight (and Morgan) and to the culture of textiles and clothing, &c &c. You know the drill.

And then I opened it to questions, and a student, always a careful reader, asked [not an exact quote]: "Why two holes? Do otherworldly entrances normally have two entrances, or an entrance and an exit?" The line she meant is SGGK IV.2180:
Hit [the chapel mound] hade a hole on þe ende and on ayþer syde,
(It had a hole at one end, and there was one at the other)
My response? "The otherworldly entrances I know have only the one hole, so I don't know.....I'll ask an expert." By expert I mean you. Any suggestions?


Jeffrey Cohen said...

Smart student! One example that comes to mind right away is the cave in Yonec where the lady follows the bleeding hawk-knight. She exits by an aperture different from the one by which she enters ... though through that hole she finds herself in another world completely. The one in SGGK seems like both holes lead to the same place -- which is maybe just to say that Gawain has always been in the Other World, only he has not yet realized that truth.

Rick Godden said...

Perhaps it is my caffeine free brain, but the first thing to come to mind are the gates of ivory and horn for true and false dreams.

Though I like the idea that Gawain has always been in an Other world.

Dr. Virago said...

The footnote in the Broadview Anthology edition of the text suggests it's a prehistoric burial place, not of the barrow type, but of the 'round house' (I think that's right) type. This sounds just like the one I saw on the hills above Laxey on the Isle of Man -- low and round, with multiple holes. IIRC, such structures might have been used for the performance of spiritual rituals, as well as a place for burial -- hence "chapel" -- but I have no idea where I'm getting that vague memory of an idea from.

anna klosowska said...

this reminds me of the men's room in U Pitt's Tower of Leaning, which has 2 doors ("Men In" and "Men Out"). We always thought it should have been "Boys In" and Men Out"

Karl Steel said...

Anna, hilarious.

Rick, interesting suggestion for the ivory and horn gates. And likewise, Jeffrey, on the thematic interpretation (and thanks for the Yonec memory). But I think I find our panopticized DV's materialist reading most convincing, at least for now (and I like the way it intersects, too, with some of Jeffrey's current critical interests): I wonder if there were such structures in Northern Wales/Yorkshire? And then I wonder what I can do thematically with the structure as DV reads it?

Prof. de Breeze said...

It may be worth pointing out that a 1985 article in Neophilologus suggests that the line should actually be read to indicate three openings, and that those three openings are meant to correspond with the three openings in the female genitalia ("the meatus, the vagina, and the anus"). The article in question is "Anatomical Geography in SGGK" by Robert J. Edgeworth.

I don't buy it, but it's an interesting perspective. :)

Karl Steel said...

P. d. Breeze, thanks so much for the reference! That's very generous of you, and a perfect suggestion.

Unfortunately, my library doesn't provide me online access to for Neophilologus before 1997, so I can't read the article in its entirety without actually going to the library. However, since it's only 2 pages long, the preview via Google scholar gives me nearly enough to go on, I think. Like you, I don't really buy it, but lord knows one could do some interesting readings with a feminized landscape, or the miasma of Morgan, or what have you.

Unfortunately, I'm missing the key footnote (which is on page 2), where Edgeworth explains how he counts three rather than two holes. I have to suspend judgment except to say that if we do have only two holes, then Edgeworth's argument becomes even more tentative.

But Edgeworth also says that Gawain "enters" the mound. My ME edition of SGGK is in my office, but what I have here gives me this for IV.2217-18:

With he3e helme on his hede, his launce in his honde,
He romez vp to þe roffe of þe ro3 wonez.

I don't see how walking up to the roof of the rough building = "entering" anything. I've always pictured the final confrontation between Gawain and the GK as taking place on top of the hill, and I think I'm justified in continuing to think that.

Nicola Masciandaro said...

The way up and the way down are one and the same . . . but not the way in and way out.

Karl Steel said...

The way up and the way down are one and the same . . . but not the way in and way out.

Okay, so the significance of Gawain going up the hill and down the hill but not into the hill is then....

Karl Steel said...

Thanks MKH for sending me the article, and no thanks to cheapskate CUNY for making my research life such a pain in the neck.

So, Edgeworth, p. 319, n3, "Stone has erred in the Penguin edition by translating line 2180 as: "It had a hole in each end and on either side." Therefore there were four holes. But the line actually says "Hit had a hole on þe end and on ayþer syde" -- therefore there were three holes."

And foolishly on this point I went with the translation I had on, in the Romance of Arthur anthology, which apparently read "and on ayþer syde" as "and on [the] other side" (thus: 2 holes). That'll learn me to lean harder on the ME, since the anthology, my deceitful textbook, doesn't have the support of the MED to read "ayþer" as "other," and moreover it looks as though it needs to stuff in an article to make its 2-hole version of the mound work.

From what I have on hand, here, Edgeworth is right, at least on this point, since in this particular case "ayþer" is "each": see the MED s.v. "either" 2a (b).

So there ARE 3 holes, not 2.

I still don't think, however, that Gawain entered the mound.

prehensel said...

I don't have it in front of me, either, and I'm too lazy to look it up, but isn't the hill the green chapel?
Could he be thinking of it as a conventional chapel into which knights are wont to enter in romances?
I'm not saying I agree with the reading, and like Karl I've never read Gawain as going into the hill. So in this case it's just heavy petting, I guess?

theswain said...

I had always taken this line as the mound having 2 entrances, taking it as "other"--which brings me to Tolkien (sorry Eileen and others!) as a possible inspiration for Hobbit holes?

More importantly though, cathedral entrances not untypically had 3 doors: one large entrance in the center, 2 lesser entrances on each side. Might this be a further connection to the "saints" motif, a sort of baptized pagan mound become natural cathedral teaching the virture of humility?

Or depending on how we take it, rather than on each side of the door, might we not think of each side of the mound? And here I'm thinking about some architectural work on Anglo-Saxon halls that of course predate the poem but may influence its source material. The halls at Yeavering for example if I recall the Bruce-Mitford report well enough had a main entrance at one end and two lesser entrances on each side up the length of the building....might the mound be a "hall" in that sense with a door on the end facing the reader/Gawain with two lesser entrances on the sides a bit further up?

Or some combination of images?

Just some suggestions....

Karl Steel said...

Swain, I think you have it! Thanks so much.

But I don't want to resolve the mound into one thing or another. Like the Pentangle, the mound is a mixture of magic (folk practices, or whatever term you prefer here) and orthodox piety, but not a unified mixture (since, as I read it, the 'reveal' of Morgan as the master of the game throws the whole poem off balance retroactively).

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Neophilologus? Don't you love it: it's like an old fashioned philology party. All we need is some tea, some sherry, and some back biting comments about the relative prestige of colleagues' articles and we are fully retro.

Kidding. Fun reference, Prof de Breeze, and a great conversation all around. Ultimately I am with Karl: these literary architectures typically have several "real" sites in mind, and allude to multiple narratives.

Prof. de Breeze said...

Funny, I was drinking both tea and sherry when I posted the reference. And I was probably backbiting in my head.

dtkline said...

Hmm. I'd always seen it as a kind of narrow gorge (good ambush territory) as opposed to an otherworldly portal. But now I'll have to think some more...

Hannah Kilpatrick said...

Newgrange in Ireland has two entrances. They're not on opposite sides of the mound, but one above the other - as I recall, one is for the humans to enter, and the other for the light of the sun.

Perhaps the upper door was used by other non-corporeal things - souls of the dead, or non-human spirits?

Probably not an example the poet directly had in mind, though!

Anonymous said...

Hi, I just wanted to interject that I've always read it as a reference to a real natural feature, and that the poet puts in the description of the one big hole and two little ones (and all the stuff in the next stanza) with the aim of nudging his original audience to recognise the Green Chapel as a location in the NW Midlands that they know. One possibility is Thor's Cave and the Wetton Mill rock shelter.

See photos at http://www.megalithic.co.uk/article.php?sid=7376 and www.thornber.net/staffs/html/thor.html