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Thursday, September 04, 2008

Bleg: Did the Green Girdle Save Gawain’s Life?

Posted by Bill Benzon on 09/04/08 at 03:41 PM

For those who know the text (Sir Gawain and the Green Knight): Did it, or not?

One way to reason it: He was told it would save his life in the beheading game and, in fact, Gawain did survive. Hence the girdle must have done the trick. After all, when he left Camelot looking for the Green Chapel, everyone was sure he was riding to his death.

However, the test, when it finally occurred, was not quite what it had been imagined to be. Gawain flinched on the first two swipes and was only nicked on the third. But the third had connected and Gawain thus insisted that he’d kept his end of the deal. The Green Knight agreed and informed him that it had all been a scam cooked up by Morgan le Fay to test the mettle of Arthur’s renowned knights. Given that it was all just a scam, one might reason - and one has to reason it out, for it’s not said in the next - that Gawain’s life had never been in danger and that the line about the girdle’s life-saving properties was part of the scam.

One might counter-argue, yes, there was a scam, but we don’t actually know that the girdle lacked life-saving properties. Maybe it was offered to Gawain in the fond hope that he would accept, and therefore survive the grim test.

Just how deep was the scam? Can we reason it out?


It’s a crux.  I remember that in the 1973 film of the poem (this one, in fact, starring, with a nice appropriateness, Nigel Green as the Green Knight) the scriptwriters addressed that very issue.  The film ends with the Green Knight making good on his promise to chop off Gawain’s head; so he bends over the block ready to take it like a soon-to-be-headless man ... but the axe glances away, and he is saved, because (we then see) he’s been wearing the rather chiffon-y green girdle as a scarf underneath his armour.  Hurray, for the axe-repelling qualities of the lady’s girdle!

By Adam Roberts on 09/05/08 at 03:49 AM | Permanent link to this comment

In the film, are does the GK take three swipes at Gawain, with only the last one connecting?

By Bill Benzon on 09/05/08 at 06:29 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Just the one, I think.  Been a while since I saw it.

By Adam Roberts on 09/05/08 at 09:47 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Hmmm. . . that’s a major deviation from the text, which is rather sly at that point. The GK explains that the first two blows missed because Gawain kept up his side of the bargain on the first two days. It connected on the third because Gawain kept something back (the green girdle) and so violated the terms of the bargain. What’s really interesting is that the Green Knight has not yet revealed (neither to Gawain or the audience) that he is really Bercilak, though he talks of the girdle as being his and of the woman who gave it to Gawain as his wife.

By Bill Benzon on 09/05/08 at 10:00 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I don’t think I’m going out on a limb here by saying that the question of the power of the girdle is meant to remain a crux.

However, it’s clear that Gawain is behaving as if the girdle’s going to protect him, and that SGGK’s readers wouldn’t have thought this odd. They might, however, have condemned it. See Phillipa Hardman, “Gawain’s Practice of Piety in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” Medium Aevum (1999): 68.2.

From this article I learned that the girdle is only the last bit of apotropaic magic in SGGK. The first is the pentangle on his shield. Various church thinkers condemned magic. Hardman cites, among others, Ranulf Higden, who says the ring of Solomon, the pentacle of Solomon, the seal of Solomon, and also the seals of Apollo and the sibyl and all similar things are suspect and not to be believed in. Nevertheless, the figure of the lamb which the lord Pope blesses on Maundy Thursday is believed to have power against injury from lightning.)” Likewise “he denounces as superstitious protective rituals involving midsummer bonfires, but accepts that cattle may be protected by being scorched with blessed wax tapers from Candlemas ceremonies: ‘verumptamen cerei et candele benedicte in purificatione beate marie creduntur tutari [MS tutaris] animalia quae perurentur’

Hardman suggests, then, that the pentacle on Gawain’s shield is at once a sign of his piety (his attention to his 5 wits) and a hint that he’s relying on spirits he shouldn’t.

We see this same ambivalence about the forms of piety and magic elsewhere in the poem. Again, from my notes to the article:

Gawain recites the Pater, Ave, and Creed, and at 762 says “Cros Kryst me spede,” which is in reverse of what’s normally said, “Christ’s cross me speed.” So, “what Gawain utters sounds like a version in English of the common ‘magical’ prayer that usually begins: ‘Crux Christi + sit mecum’. The prayer continues with numerous invocations repeating the phrase ‘Crux Christi’ and the sign of the cross to be made by the user of the prayer either on himself (as Gawain does) or in the air, calling on the power of Christ’s cross to banish all evil, bestow all good, and save one, and particularly to drive away the devil.”

The girdle should be read the same way. Again, from my notes. It might be a version of Mary’s girdle, but it’s probably better to think of it as a blessed girdle or prayer roll:

closer parallel is noted by Richard Firth Green in the prayer rolls concealed in his attire by a knight who had intended to use them to unfair advantage in a judicial combat in 1355.” And also this, “Raymundus of Pennaforte (c.1180-1275) distinguishes the acceptable use of written prayers laid upon a sick person from the unacceptable use of the same prayers to infuse with power an object such as a girdle (’cingulum’),(n47) and the fifteenth-century Doctrinal of Sapyence condemns the use of ‘wrytynges and bryvettes full of crosses’ and the belief that ‘alle they that bere suche brevettys on them may not perysshe in fyre ne in water ne in other peryllous place’, mentioning particularly ‘somme brevettis ... whyche they doo bynde upon certeyn persones’.(n48) As with the pentangle, however, such denunciations serve to indicate the prevalence of these charms and provide valuable evidence of customary usage.”

When the lady gives G the girdle, she uses in the same formulae that we see on other talismans, e.g., “One fourteenth-century example states: ‘who-so befit pis letter wyth hym he par not drede hym of hys emny to be ouercome, ne he schal not be dampned ... ne in no nede schal mysfare, ne in no batel to be ouercome.’ In another, the promise is more specific: ‘nor yn batell be ouercome noper dey of no wonde noper of no stroke’”

It may be, then, that Gawain’s confesses to make sure that he can take full advantage of the power of the girdle, since such charms were supposed to work only if you were well shriven.


How does this answer Bill’s question? Well, I think the poem is playing with whether or not we believe magic can do anything. A straightforward answer which works well enough for an undergrad lecture: yes, it can, but only so long as we believe in it (cf. Franklin’s Tale), but this belief comes to no good, ultimately: Arthur’s court is humiliated, Gawain embarrassed, misogyny reinvigorated, and Bertilak revealed as a fraud.

By Karl Steel on 09/05/08 at 10:18 AM | Permanent link to this comment

And that green girdle is adopted as a symbol of it all.

What I’m thinking is that the question has no determinate answer (I gather that’s what you guys mean by calling it a crux - a term of art that is new to me), you can keep looping around and around, but your reasoning will never reach a stable point. It’s a sophisticated version of “this statement is false.”

What I find particularly interesting is that the point where the GK explicates the significance of the three blows is one of structural instability in the verse form. Here’s the passage in the Boroff translation (which preserves the elements I’m interested in):

First I flourished with a feint,  in frolicsome mood,
And left you hide unhurt—and here I did well
By the fair terms we fixed on the first night;
And fully and faithfully you followed accord:
Gave over all you gains as a good man should.
A second feint, sir, I assigned for the morning
You kissed my comely wife—each kiss you restored.
For both of these there behooved but two feigned blows
                by right.
         True men pay what they owe:
         No danger then in sight.
         You failed at the third throw,
         So take my tap, sir knight.

For that is my belt about you, that same braided girdle,
My wife it was that wore it; I know well the tale,
And the count of your kisses and your conduct too,
And the wooing of my wife—it was all my scheme!

The account of the final blow extends from the end of stanza 94 into the beginning of stanza 95. That’s the only place in the poem where a speech runs through the end of one stanza and into the beginning of the next in such a way. That little 5-line rhymed cap and wheel rather definitively finishes a stanza off and each stanza has one, as it’s part of the form. To run through it in that way is really quite extraordinary.

By Bill Benzon on 09/05/08 at 10:49 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Here’s an animated version in 3 parts:




By Bill Benzon on 09/06/08 at 12:56 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Isn’t the point that the girdle is a symbol of Gawain’s transgressions, both against the rules of hospitality and against his religion?  It’s a sign of his weakness.  There’s no evidence in the text that the girdle saves his lives.  Instead, it’s ultimately his (Christian) virtues and confession that redeem and protect him.

The quest is a test and the girdle is a mistake.

By on 09/06/08 at 08:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I have one small thought to add that might bring an answer. If the girdle does not protect one from dying due to beheading, how else would the Green Knight survive the beheading given to him by Gawaine the year previously?

By on 09/06/08 at 08:38 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Luther, your answer assumes that the ‘5 Wits’ piety of the poem is its only piety; but the apotropaic ‘popular Xianity’ (so-called, really, since confession and the Mass also have/can be defined primarily by their popular elements) of the girdle, the star of Solomon, and the incantation are also part of his religion. On the one hand, he’s just covering his bases, not differently from any other 14th-c. Xian; on the other hand, he does transgress, certainly, but the question might be whether he transgresses more against Xianity or his chivalric code?

Bill, I’m teaching the poem (again) in a month or so, and I’m going to use your very nice formal reading. I’ll attribute it properly, of course.

By Karl Steel on 09/06/08 at 10:15 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Matt: he doesn’t really survive it.  His head come off and rolls on the floor ... the folk of the court kick it about like a football.  Then he (the Green Knight, I mean) picks it up and puts it back on.  Not girdle, but magic.  Gawain is in a different category; and the girdle, clearly, has something to do with it.

By Adam Roberts on 09/07/08 at 05:13 AM | Permanent link to this comment

So, how deeply has SGGK made it into the secondary school and undergraduate classrooms? When I went agoggling it I found scads of papers at the term-paper mills and a fair amount of action at YouTube, a number of high school classes have video-taped performances based on the story. & the poem has been rendered into some form of more readable English a number of times, a sure sign that people are buying it.

By Bill Benzon on 09/07/08 at 03:19 PM | Permanent link to this comment

But Karl, can’t we distinguish between Gawain’s piety and the piety of the text/poet?  Clearly, Gawain’s faith is a mixture of chivalric code, Christianity, and what we might call folk or residual practices.  (Historically speaking, with the Islamic roots of chivalry, we can say that Gawain, like his audience, was a hybrid of Islamic, Christian, and pre-Christian European cultures.)

My understanding, though, is that we’re meant to see Gawain’s impure faith as a form of faithlessness, as a chink in his armor.  The girdle itself stands in for his turn to magic, his breech of the codes of hospitality, and his breech of the code of courtly love.  Not only doesn’t the girdle protect him, but it’s the objective correlative of his flaws, of what makes him human, imperfect, heroic.

But as you suggest, there’s no easy one-to-one relationship between chivalry and Christianity.  To obey one might be to transgress against the other.  To reject courtly love brutally in the name of purity (think Cleese in MP’s *Holy Grail*) is a problem.  So the girdle acts as a symbolic resolution to the conflict between the poem’s twin social codes (a la F Jameson).  It literally girds the double bind, gives the appearance of coherence.

By on 09/07/08 at 05:56 PM | Permanent link to this comment

And Bill: I’ll be teaching Gawain to my 11th graders this semester.  We use the Norton British anthology (short edition), and go from Beowulf to Gawain to Chaucer in the first quarter. 

I’m thinking of using the brief introduction to chivalry in Bulfinch’s Mythology as background reading.  Unless someone out there has a better intro to chivalry that smart 11th graders would find readable?

By on 09/07/08 at 06:00 PM | Permanent link to this comment


Have you looked at Richard Barber’s _The Reign of Chivalry_? It’s a short, highly readable, and well illustrated introduction to the topic. It has sections on knights, literature, and religion.

By on 09/07/08 at 07:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Luther, nice comment, particularly the final graph. We could get a lot of mileage out of that idea.

Again, I don’t want to draw too sharp a line between ‘folk practices’ and Xianity. So far as I know, Eamon Duffy is a good source for the ‘magical’ qualities of popular piety in this period, but I also think of the amulets and charms described in John Block Friedman’s Orpheus in the Middle Ages, which, at least 1700 years ago or so, freely mixed prayers to and symbols of Apollo and other deities with the same to and of Christ.

We might think that the Gawain-poet himself is trying to work out the relationship, and indeed if there IS a relationship (rather than total sameness), between popular and learned Xianity.

Bill, SGGK is taught in just about any medieval lit survey in English departments: any relevant anthology probably has a translation. It’s certainly a great poem, but part of what’s funny about it is that there’s only one extant manuscript, and evidence for its having been read prior to the 19th c. is, if I’m not mistaken, pretty much nil. It really came into its own only in the 20th c.

By Karl Steel on 09/08/08 at 12:14 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Yeah, Karl, that last is a most interesting curiosity. Most of the canonical texts have been in more or less continuous circulation from whenever up to the present.  This one - and the others in the ms. - seems to have disappeared for several centuries.

On the tension between Christianity and chivalry, from an old paper of mine (Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and the Semiotics of Ontology):

But Gawain didn’t leap at the girdle when it was offered; he had to be tricked into accepting it. Spearing’s argument on this point is quite convincing (1970, pp. 204, 210-2) and I will not recount it in full. It boils down to this: 1) The lady gives up trying to seduce Gawain and suggests that the least he can do is give her some departing gift (“your glove or the like”) to ease her sorrow at this departure (1792-1800). 2) In a brilliant counter-move Gawain suggests that, in the first place, the lady deserves so much that not even his entire estate is enough (1 801-4), and that, in the second place, to give such an unworthy trinket as his glove would be to do her a dishonor (1806). In the third place Gawain doesn’t have any trinkets with him which “distresses me, madame, for your dear sake” (18 10). His expression of regret, quite consistent with the demands of courtesy, does him in, for he thereby acknowledges that he owes the lady a favor. 3) The lady has him; if he will not give her anything, then he must accept something from her (18 13-6). Gawain is in no position to refuse this compromise. She offers him a precious ring that he refuses because it is too valuable, and so she offers him the less valuable green girdle, which he initially refuses (1827-45). But the lady tells him that

    ... the man that possesses this piece of silk, 
    If he bore it on his body, belted about, 
    There is no hand under heaven that could hew him down, 
    For he could not be killed by any craft on earth. (1851-4) 

Gawain reconsiders, for this girdle might come in handy at the Green Chapel (1855-8). He accepts and she begs him to hide the girdle from her husband, which he agrees to do. Gawain has been trapped; no matter what he did he had to infringe upon his moral code. The girdle will save his life – at the cost of committing a sin. This is a rather unorthodox situation for a Christian – unless we want to push hard on the inversion of Hautdesert and maintain that a sin in an inverted world isn’t a sin at all.

By Bill Benzon on 09/08/08 at 12:36 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I would just add here that if we, or any reader, wanted to argue, like Bill, that “a sin in an inverted world isn’t a sin at all,” then we would also be aligning ourselves very closely to Gawain’s own argument at the end of the poem that he is somewhat less to blame since a beautiful woman was involved in the game/trick/trap. Since this is also connected explicitly in the poem to Adam and Eve, it also raises the question of what kind of world Adam and Eve are in when the serpent/devil is allowed to enter in and wreak havoc and play “games” and lay “traps,” etc. A good Christian, in a medieval or even a modern world-view, is always guilty of the so-called “sin” committed, no matter where or with whom it is committed. Although medieval theologians argued a LOT about whether or not Adam and Eve [more especially] were really to blame since they were entrapped. But to say, at least within the medieval world view, that Gawain might be off the hook because the world he was in was “inverted” or not real or imaginary or whatever, is to fall into another sort of trap in which free will all of a sudden becomes a moot point, and in most Christian theology free will, as regards in, has to be paramount. So, it’s not really true that Gawain is ever trapped and has to only act one way--he is only trapped in the sense that the actors in his drama draw a tight little circle around him within which he is presented with what seem to be unavoidable choices, and as one of my students once said, the only way for Gawain to really remain true to his moral or honor code is to come back to Camelot in a coffin, and that, too, is a choice [although, admittedly, an extreme and perhaps untenable one, and my feeling is that, since the whole point of the game is to humiliate and, quite literally, to humble Gawain, and by extension, Camelot, the threat of death is never really there except in Gawain’s mind].

The moral code that the poem, and perhaps the part-faux/part-historical chivalric world that the poem draws upon [convention-wise, moral-wise, and otherwise], evokes is one that contains certain “rules” that, when placed alongside each other, always conflict [do what the lady says! no, keep your word to your lord first! kill the bastard who raped the woman who asked you to do so! no, show mercy! never back down from a fight! be moderate! etc.]. Indeed, the heart of much medieval romance is just the illustration of this fact over and over again, and when you overlay Christian ethics on top of the courtly/chivalric code, and perhaps, also, a military code [that partly gives rise to the more refined chivalric code], medieval romance ultimately becomes the genre through which the internal conflicts produced by the incommensurability of these codes and ethics [as well as by the multiple incommensurabilities between “the world of men” and “women"] are investigated and even ameliorated. The bottom line, for me, is, of course Gawain sins and cheats on his code, etc., but he is also “only human,” which is Bertilak’s point to him at the end. The game is not fair, neither is life, and it ultimately doesn’t matter whether the girdle is magic or not. It is almost beside the point.

By Eileen A. Joy on 09/09/08 at 10:47 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Eileen’s post is right on, and says far more eloquently what I was trying to say when I wrote that “there’s no easy one-to-one relationship between chivalry and Christianity.  To obey one might be to transgress against the other . . . So the girdle acts as a symbolic resolution to the conflict between the poem’s twin social codes (a la F Jameson).”

I was just reading a review of Linda Charnes’s new book on Hamlet in MLQ, and apparently Charnes draws on Zizek’s distinction between the worldviews of puzzle and noir mysteries to discuss the upside-down world of Elsinore.  In the former world, order exists, a crime is a breech of that order, and the detective reinstates order in the end.  In the noir world, no order exists, a crime is a symptom of what is causing that lack of order, and the detective can usually only stay true to his personal moral code in the face of moral chaos.  Solving the crime solves nothing except as proof of the detective’s ethical code.  Charnes argues that Hamlet’s world is a noir world.

But I like Eileen’s analysis of Gawain better, and it might just be true for the so-called noir world as well: it’s not a lack of a code but rather a confusion of multiple codes that causes the poem’s conflict.  As such, the conflict can never be resolved except as a symbolic resolution. 

Now I’m confusing myself, so I’ll stop typing.

By on 09/09/08 at 07:30 PM | Permanent link to this comment

We’ve also got to account for the hunts. Note that on the third day Bertilak only gave Gawain the fox’s pelt; no meat. The fox was regarded as vermin, and hence in edible. Overtly, Bertilak gives Gawain a fox pelt. Covertly, he gives him that green girdle (via his wife), which Gawain withholds. On the first two days, the hunted animals are dressed according to the procedures proper to preparing their flesh for human consumption. So there are rules governing the disposition of animal flesh.

What got me interested in the poem some 30+ years ago was whether or not there was a correspondence between the 3rd-day fox hunt and the 3rd-day courting. I ended up developing a moderately elaborate argument based on an article by Edmund Leach on animal taboos. I argued that both the deer (first day) and the board (second day) were herbivores, unlike man. But the fox is a carnivore, like man, and hence is too much like us (in the hunting situation) for comfort. Eating their flesh would constitute a symbolic cannibalism. Just why that is like Gawain’s with-holding . . . . that gets complicated, & I’m in the process of rethinking that old argument.

By Bill Benzon on 09/09/08 at 08:25 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill, I’m glad you raised the q of animals. I’m inclined to think that Leach is right on the cultural inedibility of certain carnivores, although that ‘certain’ demands that we do a lot more work: I thought a fair amount about the problem of fish, who, as one penitential explains, are ‘of a third nature’ and hence outside the standard set of alimentary prohibitions. Leach, however, needs to be modified for local circumstances. In this case, I think the Fox is much less like people than the Boar.

Like humans, wild pigs are omnivores. They’ll eat anything a human will eat, and more (for example, human babies: see Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale for one reference, or Evans on Animal Trials for many more). Anthropophagous boars are pretty common in medieval chivalric narrative (e.g., Avowyng of Arthur); moreover, pigs are anatomically similar to humans (hence the ancient pun of corpus and porcus). On top of this, they were the only commonly hunted animals in Western Europe that could easily kill the hunter, and they were outfitted with a ‘shield’ (see 4(a)). With this in mind, and borrowing from the work on pigs by Claudine Fabre-Vassas, I’ve tried to get some mileage elsewhere out of the uncanny resemblance between pigs and humans, but here I want only to observe that Leach needs a bit of modification.

By Karl Steel on 09/09/08 at 09:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Point of clarification, Karl. I’m the one who argued that the fox is anomalous, not Leach; but I followed Leach in how I made the argument. It’s clear that in SGGK it is the fox that is different from the other two animals in that its flesh is not edible, and the “verminhood” of foxes is not local to this text. It may well be that I’ve not properly identified the underlying reason for that, but I do think there must be some reason for it. Maybe it’s simply that the fox is tricky and deceptive while neither the deer nor the boar are.

Those hunts are not mere filler nor are they there simply to add some action-adventure zip. There’s a reason for them. SGGK is attempting to delineate the boundaries of the moral universe (or something like that), and so it is important to situate the human in relation to the animal. But if that’s what’s going on in those hunts, what’s going on in Gawain’s part of the day, where the lady is attempting to seduce him? I suppose we could argue that that’s a variation on the same theme, with sexuality being part of our animal natures. But it’s not merely sexual seduction that’s in play here, unless you want to argue that courtesy is a mere rationalization of sexual desire. Even if you argue that - which I’m not willing to do - it’s not simply between Gawain and the lady. It may be that the lady is attempting to seduce him, but Gawain does have an obligation to her husband, who is his host.

By Bill Benzon on 09/10/08 at 03:49 PM | Permanent link to this comment

While I was reading SGGK for my essay, I have interpreted the question of the green girdle as follows:

The lace actually had the power to save Gawain’s life. However, this power should be seen as purely metaphorical. Had Gawain not accepted and first of all, had he not concealed the lace from the lord of the castle, the Green Knight/Bertilak would not have had the slightest reason to hurt him.

Why do I think so? The G. K. did not behead him for receiving those kisses: Gawain exchanged them according to their agreement. Also, he did not behead him because Gawain refused sexual advances of his wife. He only hurt him because of Gawain’s failure to trade the lace, i.e. failure to keep the promise. And as the broken promise was rather unimportant, the wound was not severe.

In my view, the question whether the lace was a magical item or not is irrelevant.

(I am sorry, if there are any unclear formulations or mistakes in my text. English is not my mother tongue.)

By on 07/15/11 at 11:58 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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