Wednesday, February 07, 2007
“all this buttoning and unbuttoning …”
There are a lot of fine clothes in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: beautiful wear beautifully described, courtly silks and velvets, high class stuff. No rags. It’s not a poem that goes down that particular road of narrative possibility. Clothes are signifiers of wealth, and of gentility; and in a culture in which clothing was much much more expensive (as a proportion of total average earning) than it is today it may be hard to read past the more obvious surface-fetishization of the gorgeous fabrics to understand how thoroughly this poem positions its actors by parsing what they wear. Nothing pantomime here; it is all freighted with significance.
Indeed, everything in this poem is dressed. It opens with the Christmas revels of Arthur’s court, and not only is Guinever finely dressed, but the very stage or ‘dias’ upon which she is sitting is decked out in finery:
Quene Guenore ful gay graythed in the myddes
Dressed on the dere dece, dubbed all aboute,
Smal sandal besides, a selure hir over,
Of tried tolouse and of tars tapites innowe
That were embrawded and beten with the best gemmes. [74-8]
“Queen Guinevere full gaily arrayed in the midst
Dressed on the deluxe dais, adorned all about
Seated on silk besides, a canopy-ceiling over her
Of fine Toulouse-fabric and a Tartar-cloth tapestry
That was embroidered and bossed with the best gems”
[I’m quoting SGGK from J A Burrow’s Penguin edition, largely because he doesn’t include yoghs, eths and thorns. You see, I’m not at all sure how to code-up yogh, eth and thorn for the Valve software.]
There’s no mistaking the way clothing signifies here: splendour, wealth, virtue.
When the gigantic Green Knight appears we get a few lines stressing his size and bulk, and then a lengthy description of his clothing.
And his gear and his garments were green as well:
a tight-fitting tunic, tailored to his torso,
and a cloak to cover him, the cloth fully lined
with smoothly short fur clearly showing, and faced
with all-white ermine, as was the hood,
worn shawled on his shoulders … [151-6]
[This is Simon Armitage’s new translation, a work that seems to me splendidly handled, and a lovely piece of writing throughout. I talk a little about why I quote from it below]
The description of clothing goes on and on: ‘on his lower limbs his leggings were also green … his sparkling spurs were green-gold … stockings … belt-hooks and buckles … baubles and gems …’ Indeed, so rich and detailed is the Knight’s dress that the poet claims that it ‘were to tor [too tricky] to telle of trifles the half’ . The gorgeousness of his dress defeats his poetic powers.
But this also picks out crucial, and creative, ambiguity about dress as it manifests in the poem. Take the Green Knight himself: ‘overal enker grene’, ‘entirely bright green’  as he is described. So: is he called the Green Knight because he’s dressed in green (‘the knight in green’, 549) or because he is green? In this case the answer seems to be: the former. His clothing is green, and his beard too, but his skin is not so described. Actually Armitage describes ‘a flash of green skin’ [line 418] but this is his importation: no such phrase appears in the original poem. But perhaps we can understand why Armitage wants to import the space-alien hue to the giant’s epiderm. Clothes can be put on and taken off; they can mislead (I’m a grungy guy, for instance, but on occasion I can dress very smartly. It doesn’t mean I am smart. It’s a kind of play acting). Hair can be dyed, and green dye (for instance, from nettles, which grow very plentifully in Britain, or from wode) is easily obtained. But if his skin were green, as Armitage clearly wants it to be, then it would mark him a more genuinely marvellous. And marvellous is certainly the point here; this is a giant with supernatural powers, able to survive his own decapitation.
As generations of critics have pointed out, the Green Knight draws on the folk myths of the Green Man, in turn an externalisation of the force that through the green fuse drives the flower: the fertility of spring and summer which, surviving the death of winter, is annually born again. Critics, identifying the peristaltic or dialectical pulse of SGGK, like to link this to the seasonal narrative of the whole: the four-part poem, tracing a story from Christmas to Christmas through the vividly described natural life of all four seasons; Gawain’s movement from castle to wilderness to castle to wilderness; the interleaving of ‘civility’ and the more primal passions of the untamed world. It is only the obviousness of it that prevents us from connecting this to the root rhythm of life on a seasonal planet. But obviousness is not the same as banality; and the rightness of the Green Man’s colour sinks deep into the mind of the SGGK-reader. What I mean is that the death/life, fertility/infertility, winter/summer dialectic finds perfect chromatic expression on those bright shades picked out because they’re on diametrically opposite sides of the colour wheel: over here the elaborately ornamented green of the Knight; over there the vividly splashing red of his blood when Gawain decapitates him (‘the blode brayed fro the body, that blykked on the grene’; ‘the blood burst from the body, and brightened on the green’, 429). Nettles or woad may dye clothes green, but blood will dye them red even more easily.
The seasonal ‘shadowing’ of the poem’s meaning relates also to dress, of course. There are two main forces that determine the clothes we wear, after all: the one that we might call ‘fashion’, and the other that comes down to the necessity of external circumstances. Winter compels us to dress one way, summer another, and the balance of the former against the latter is crucial to the way SGGK works as a poem.
So, as Gawain accepts his duty to go out in quest of the Green Knight, the poem gives us a very lengthy passage of the way he gets dressed for the task. Line 566 begins: ‘He remained all that day and in the morning he dressed…’ And on we go, and on. Only at line 670 does he actually head off (‘spiked with the spurs the steed sped away’). The interval is all dressing; first the ‘tunic of extravagant silk’, and the other underclothes; then the ‘suit of shimmering steel rings’; then the gear necessary to dress Gringolet, his horse (‘Gringolet is rigged out and ready to ride’). Finally two whole stanzas are devoted to the final piece of knightly dress, his shield, with its device of a pentangle, and the symbolism thereunto.
It’s easy to think of several reasons why this prolonged dressing-scene is important; why, in other words, it works in terms of the poem as a whole. It connects, for one thing, with the sense most of us share; that getting dressed before going out to something important—a fancy party, a job-interview, an appearance on television—is an act more freighted with significance than just pulling on some jeans and a T-shirt to take out the garbage. It matters, and we want to get it right. It’s not exactly ritual behaviour; but it connects with a similarly near-numinous apprehension in which we remake ourselves when we put on the right sorts of clothes. Clothes are so largely constitutive of our identity. To digress a moment; here’s Tchitcherine in Pynchon’s Sir Gravity and the Green Rainbow:
People who dress up in bizarre costumes have a savoir faire—not to mention a sort of personality disorder—that he admires. When he was a little boy, back in Leningrad, Tchitcherine’s mother sewed by hand a costume for him to wear in a school entertainment. Tchitcherine was the wolf. The minute he put on the head, in front of the mirror by the ikon, he knew himself. He was the wolf.
It’s an effect enhanced in this poem because Gawain is, in effect, putting on his professional gear, like a diver or an astronaut preparing to enter a hostile element. But there are also formal, or perhaps poetic-structural, reasons why this lengthy dressing scene feels right. Gawain spends many stanzas in Camelot dressing; he passes from this fine castle through the wilderness to the fine castle of Hautdesert, and there he spends many stanzas being undressed. Or more specifically, he undresses partly and the Lady Morgne does her level best to get him entirely undressed. This tension between being dressed and being undressed, between being the perfect knight and being the sexual actor, drives the whole of the third quarter of the poem.
Gawain in Hautdesert finds himself in an environment that repeats the Camelot of the opening stanzas in lots of respects, with crucial differences or inversions. The Knight who previously had sported an enormous green beard now appears ‘with a bushy beard as red as a beaver’s’ . It’s the same person, just differently coloured. Gawain’s room is dressed-up in terms very similar to Guinevere’s dias, right down to the ‘fine Toulouse-fabric and a Tartar-cloth’ . But instead of getting geared-up, as at Camelot, here he undresses:
With humorous banter Gawain was helped out
of his chain-mail coat and costly clothes … [859-60]
—although not fully—
…then they rushed to bring him an array of robes
of the choicest cloth. He chose, and changed,
and as soon stood in that stunning gown
with its flowing skirts which suited his shape [861-4]
This sets-up for Fitt 3, which Gawain spends resisting sexual temptation. The sexual dynamic throughout this sparkling episode balances the will-she-won’t-she tension in the lady trying to get Gawain naked against the hunt scenes, with their fleshly undressing—or flaying—of deer, boar and fox. This is a different and more literal understanding of what is involved in undressing, we might say. So on the one hand we have Gawain’s courteous request:
‘But my gracious lady, if you grant me leave,
will you pardon this prisoner and prompt him to rise,
then I’ll quit these covers and pull on my clothes.’ [1218-20]
And the lady’s flirting refusal:
‘Not so, beautiful sir,’ the sweet lady said
Bide in your bed—my own plan is better.’ [1222-23]
And on the other hand we have the Lord’s three days of hunting. On the first day he brings down a deer, cuts off its legs and flays off its skin (‘rytte thay the foure lymmes and rent of the hyde’, ‘they cut off the four limbs and rent off the hide’ 1332). On the second day it’s a boar: killed, cut open (they begin ‘to unlace this bo[a]r’, 1606) and then, when the innards have all been removed, ‘then the two sides are stitched together intact’  and the pelt and head carried home in triumph. Finally, on the third day, it’s a fox:
And sithen they tan Reynarde
And tyrven of his coat.
And then they take Reynard
And strip off his coat. [1920-21]
This ‘coat’ of skin is all they take away; and the Lord gives it to Gawain in return for the three kisses Gawain had that day received from the Lady. But this seemingly-despised piece of flayed skin (‘this foule fox felle!’, 1944) has a secret wardrobe equivalence: the sash (the ‘green silk girdle trimmed with gold’, 1832) that the Lady Morgne gave to Gawain in addition to her three kisses. Fitt 4 sees Gawain get dressed again in his Knight-gear to go out into the wilderness once more, to re-encounter the Green Knight. The knight claims his right to chop at Gawain’s head, as Gawain once chopped off his; but, after two feints, his third blow does nothing more than cut a nick into Gawain’s neck. The knight then reveals that he knows all about the secret girdle. Gawain is mortified at being found out in this petty deception; really, extraordinarily mortified. In fact, it’s hard not to feel a little baffled by the intensity of self-loathing that Gawain then expresses at what seems, perhaps, a trivial deceit: ‘A curse upon cowardice and covetousness/They breed villainy and vice, and destroy all virtue … my downfall and undoing; let the devil take it … through treachery and untruth I have totally failed’ [2374-83]. Moreover, his vehemence here echoes and inverts his original delight at receiving the girdle as a gift:
‘God bless you for this gift.
Not for all its ore will I own it with honour,
nor silks and streamers, and not for the sake
of its wonderful workmanship or even its worth,
but as a sign of my sin … a sad reminder
that the frailty of his flesh is man’s biggest fault. [2429-35]
This girdle is a piece of extra-special clothing, and Gawain not only wears it but takes it as symbolic of all his knightly virtue. Arthur goes so far as to found an order, very like the Order of the Garter (the Order of the Sash, presumably), determining that:
each lord belonging to their Order—
every knight in the brotherhood—should bear such a belt,
a bright green belt worn obliquely to the body
crosswise, like a sash. [2515-18]
In other words: the clothing must be worn as a marker both of brotherhood and as ‘a sign of my sin … sad reminder that the frailty of his flesh is man’s biggest fault.’ The tone of this is presumably designed to make us think of humanity’s original, Edenic clothing. Because of course it was the sin of Adam and Eve that made them both aware, for the first time, of their nakedness, and compelled them to put in clothes. (‘For man’s crimes,’ says Gawain, ‘can be covered but never made clean;/once entwined with sin, man is twinned for all time’, 2511-12). But the girdle here does more than this. It brings all the poem’s variously winding threads of dressing and undressing together. Fitt 3 has done such careful work paralleling the attempting taking-off of Gawain’s clothes by the Lady with the literal taking-off of the animals’ clothes by the Lord. Fitt 4 creates a symbolic moment that ties together the sash and the slash, two oblique marks, one red and one green, that are then to be worn on the body for the rest of Gawain’s life. The sash is the Lady’s, of course. The slash is caused by the Green Knight’s blow, that
skewed to one side, just skimming the flesh
and finely snicking the fat of the flesh
so that bright red blood shot from body to earth. [2312-15]
These two things, in other words, recapitulate and unite the clothly undressing and the fleshly undressing of Fitt 3, tying them together into a knot where the sins of the flesh are made manifest in the clothes we wear—in, we might say, the very fact that we wear clothes at all. Hence Gawain’s egregious remorse: not that he omitted to tell his host about a gift he was freely given (which perhaps isn’t such egregious turpitude), but for what that item of clothing signifies: the sin that flesh entails.
This structuring rhythm of the poem, dressing and undressing, undressing and dressing, determines, or perhaps makes manifest, the shape of the poem as a whole. But there’s one other item of clothing, or ‘clothing’, on which the text touches. It’s the last piece of clothing mentioned in the text:
Now that bere the croun of thorne,
He bring us to his blysse. AMEN.
Now he that bore the crown of thorns
May he bring us to his bliss. AMEN. [2529-30]
Perhaps we’re not in the habit of thinking of the crown of thorns as an item of clothing; but in a manner of speaking it is. More to the point it closes the poem by reminding us of heads: heads dressed in pain and cut-into, but which are nevertheless capable of magical restoration. It’s not, I think, that the Green Knight at the beginning of the poem figures directly as a type of Christ. My point is rather that the decapitation of the Knight is treated, strictly, as a kind of undressing. An item of (we might say) headgear is removed, but the knight suffers no greater indignity than having to stoop and pick it up again, as if his hat had been knocked off. He wears his head as lightly as if it is clothing, rather than flesh; which is to say, for a character like the Green Knight the distinction between the body clothed in cloth, and the soul clothed in flesh, appears unimportant.
I’ve been trying to argue that Sir Gawain and the Green Knight works, as a poem, in part through a carefully formed pulse or rhythm of clothing and unclothing, dressing and undressing. Gawain dresses in his knightly garb to fight monsters, and undresses to battle the sensual temptation presented by the Lady. The fine dress of Camelot or Hautdesert is balanced against the undressed savagery of the wildernesses outside; ‘dressing’ as preparation for strenuous effort is balanced against ‘undressing’ as preparation for sensual play. The Green knight’s head is cut off, but this is revealed as nothing but a kind of undressing. Gawain is cut, but this scar, like the sash he wears, is a kind of clothing.
But there’s more to this than just a itemisation of ‘clothing’ in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. My point is really the dress of the poem itself; its address we might say. The Gawain-poet dresses up his characters in fine clothing; but he also dresses up his story in fine verse, some of the finest (the most beautifully tooled) in all medieval literature. In saying so I am not drawing upon my own knowledge of the period, which is very limited; I’m only quoting what I take to be a critical commonplace: that in SGGK ‘medieval Romance reaches its peak … its author has mastered all the poetic techniques and narrative devices of his predecessors … and welded them to form a vehicle for new values and more subtle suggestions’, as J. A. W. Bennett puts it [p.202].
Clothing is more than the stuff the characters in the poem have upon their bodies; it is the poem itself, just as the poem itself is the body as well. I’ve always thought (pace the ‘heads’ stuff, above) that the Gawain-stanza itself formally embodies the logic of the poem: a body of alliterature unrhyming lines topped (or bottomed, as if the body of the stanza is being dangled upside down) with a two-syllable ‘neck’ and then a slightly wider four-line rhymed ‘head’. If those final quatrains were lopped off, would it harm the vitality of the poem? In most cases they only recapitulate what the stanza has already established; which is a way or saying, no more than the Green Knight is himself harmed by his decapitation. And the words of the ‘torso’ of each stanza are not naked, but carefully woven (alliteration serves that purpose) to clothe the sentiment; lovely touches like gems about (Bennett finds extraordinary ‘care and precision in the choice of words throughout the narrative’, p.211).
Of course, many students subject the poem to a laborious undressing, in which the glossary at the back of their edition helps them unclothe the weird words and ‘reveal’ the meaning underneath. But students who take the poem this way are very likely to miss the dazzle and glory, and are probably just as unlikely to experience the sensual thrill that the idea of the poem in its nakedness ought to evoke.
By the same lights, a translation is in a manner of speaking a poem in new dress; the manner of speaking itself is a redressing. This is one reason why, throughout this piece, I’ve quoted so extensively from Armitage’s elegant and well-tailored version of the piece.
I should add that all this talk of text-as-clothing is not meant to suggest that I believe there to be any such a thing as ‘naked text’ which is somehow clothed in fine expression or reclothed in modern-English translation, like the hard pink plastic of an unclothed Barbie doll beneath its rough-weave two-piece. Indeed, I’m here reading of SGGK as being a poem precisely about the way flesh and clothing are implicated in one another; the way nakedness is a kind of clothing, and the way clothing constitutes essential identity. A poem is a text, after all; and as we all know in English as well as Latin ‘textus’ (‘texture, tissue, structure, construction, combination’) is closely connected with ‘textilis’ (‘adj. woven, wrought, textile’) and ‘textile’ (‘web, stuff, fabric, piece of cloth’). More: the word ‘dress’, derives originally from directus; and it originally meant both clothing and ‘conduct’ or ‘right conduct’ (‘lit and fig as the OED puts it). As a huntsman ‘dresses’ his kill, so the poem ‘dresses’ its subject; and as Sir Gawain ‘dresses’ or ‘directs’ his journey through the wilderness (line 1415) so the poet directs our way through the florescence of beautiful imagery and narrative possibility.
And again, this notion of ‘directing’, applied to notions of our behaviour, helps remind us that this text is a moral one: Gawain is right to resist the Lady’s temptation, just as he was right not to yield to his cowardice and instead to accept the Green Knight’s perilous challenge. Clothing can be taken as immoral in its removal (‘indecency’); but equally it can be taken as immoral in its wearing, especially if it is the sort of gorgeous clothing described in SGGK. Such finery, imported (historians of clothing tell us) originally from France, was resisted by some in England as a prideful imposture. For example John of Reading, in 1344, got hot under the collar about contemporary attire (attire that is oddly reminiscent of details in SGGK):
Sometimes their clothes are long and wide, at others they are short, tight, dagged, and cut about and boned all round…. They look, to tell the truth, more like tormentors and devils in their clothing than like normal men. And the women surpass the men in their clothing, which is so tight that they hang fox tails under their dresses at the back to hide their arses, a kind of behaviour which may well have provoked many of the evils and misfortunes than have beset the kingdom of England.
Christopher Breward , who quotes this gloriously tabloid assessment, notes how popular bright colours were in fourteenth- and early fifteenth-century garb:
Colour remained intensely vibrant: cloth of scarlet derived from madder or cochineal competed from the thirteenth-century on with perse, blues and greens which relied on the growing profitability of the woad trade. The ferocity of the competition resulted in German madder dealers painting devils in blue as an attack on the new trend. Intensity of colour symbolised both material value and the inward “brightness” of the wearer. [Breward, 17]
This three-way nexus of meaning, negotiating outward material display, inward ‘brightness’ or worth, and the dangers of diabolic pride (and, we might add, sensuality), exactly articulates the way SGGK is dressed.
The sensuality is a large part of it, I think, and has always been (obviously) a large part of the way clothing has functioned. For some critics, the deal that Gawain strikes with Bertilak, whereby they agree to exchange what they both win in the day (such that Bertilak ends up giving Gawain the gains of his hunt, and Gawain kisses him to return his wife’s kisses) mediates a homosexual or homosocial desire. Had the Lady been successful in her seduction, wonders Carolyn Dinshaw, and actually had sex with Gawain, what would Gawain have been obligated to give the Lord? Of the flaying-as-undressing of the hunt scenes, Dinshaw says:
In a passage whose length has always been a puzzle—we know the gentry must have loved this detail; but it does seem excessive … the animal body is split to pieces. I suggest that this unlacing of the body is the poem’s visual representation of straight gender identity’s failing. When such identity fails, the body perceptually disaggregates, because it’s that heterosexual matrix that—ideally and tenuously—accords unity to the body in the first place. The straight gender behaviour that Gawain enacts is so fundamental that without its guarantee of unity he is subject to—or, better, of—corporeal disaggregation. And such disaggregation threatens the possibility of meaning itself: “The image of [man’s] body,” says Lacan, “is the principle of every unity he perceives in objects.” [Dinshaw, 214]
But this makes the process of undressing seem much more angst-y than, I’d say, the poem presents it as being. I’m arguing that flesh and clothing are, in the symbolic logic of SGGK, versions of one another. This disaggregation is not corrosive of meaning so much as it is constitutive of it. Arthur cannot proceed with his feast until he witnesses a wonder: and the subsequent events are wondrous precisely insofar as they stitch together the splendour of appearances and reality, clothing and skin, the sensual delights of hunting and the sensual delights of the bedroom. The primary image of the piece, after all, is of the Green Knight’s body being disaggregated pretty comprehensively, and him not caring a jot about it. In other words, if we’re minded to bring in contemporary theorists to help understand what’s going on in this work, Lacan may be less useful to our purposes than Deleuze. I’m thinking less of the ubiquitous body-without-organs than I am of the splendid holey-space as Deleuze theorises it; a space defined by its disassembling fluxes,
Diane J. Beddoes puts it well.
Sexuality is not equivalent to or a basis of desire, and a body is a geography and population of fluxes, a bloc of becoming, defined not in terms of its molar components—this one has breasts, this one a penis, this one is black and this one scarred, this one beautiful, this one plain—but by its affects and the linkages it effects with other bodies, by contiguous intensities which release sexuality as a quality of their difference.
It seems to me it’s easier for us to think of clothing after this fashion, because of the endless interchangeability and substitutionability of items of dress. The Green Knight can be green in Fitt 1 and beaver-red in Fitt 3 without it disintegrating our sense that he’s the same person, because his clothing and his being (his textual, textile status) is fluid enough to accommodate the two states.
So, yes, there are a lot of fine clothes in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. It’s brightly coloured and well-dressed, qua poem, and we as readers can take pleasure in both things. It is, in fact, culturally (I mean in terms of present-day culture) strongly semiotically medieval. How much of its appeal depends upon that fact, I wonder? This is a question, actually, that has less to do with SGGK specifically than the broader cultural and literary idiom of which it is, by all accounts, an unusually fine example. To put it plainly, we could ask: why are people drawn to the Middles Ages in the first place? It’s a broad question, of course, and perhaps inadmissible of plain answer, in part because once people acquire a certain momentum in terms of reading ‘their’ period then they’ll carry on carrying on. But there probably are some people drawn to the grunt and glory of the Anglo Saxon strong right hand of the warrior; or are drawn to the Middle Ages precisely because the intensely vibrant colours of which Breward speaks (‘cloth of scarlet derived from madder or cochineal … perse, blues and greens’) captures some answering bright gleam in their own souls.
We cannot live as the Medievals did; we can’t enter fully into their pre-Copernicus, pre-Machine, pre-Darwin, pre-Freud sensibilities; we’re disqualified by our high-tech affluence from experiencing their world. But we can dress up like them.
I don’t mean to sound dismissive here. To think of ‘dressing up’ as a trivial activity is to misunderstand that there isn’t really anything other for us than dressing up. And who would not prefer to dress up so as to inhabit this world, than (say) the drab black frock-coats of the Victorians? Reading Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is being addressed by this poem, being dressed by this poem, or in its most seductive moments, being undressed by this poem. It is a fitting. And it fits well.
I love the anatomy of desire and socialization here: how desire is awakened by the encounter with and removal of obstacles (clothing), and how socialization is a product of elaborate preparation and overlapping significations.
For my money, it’s essential to read one’s own interest in medieval texts allegorically. The practice of dressing up now like Gawain is a practice of costuming, so that the individual pieces of clothing can’t multiply each other’s effects as well. The complexity of a medieval garment now risks reducing to “weren’t things great back then?”, whereas it used to refer to a subject in his or her textured, layered contemporaneity.
One of my first publications, Adam, was about this poem; in particular, I was interested in the third Fitt. I drew on an article by (Sir) Edmund Leach on taboo and classification in which he argued that “the inedible” was not a matter of biological incompatibility—horse meat is really poisonous, hence we do not eat it—but a matter of categorical vertigo—horses occupy a position in our cultural system that means that eating horse meat is symbolic cannibalism (the French, apparently, think differently). On the third day Bercilak only manages to drum up a fox, which was killed by the hounds, not by his huntsman. And foxes are vermin; one doesn’t eat them. So he didn’t really have anything to exchange with Gawain. And Gawain, of course, did not reveal that he had this green girdle. In any event, I argued in that early paper—which is so old I don’t have it electronically—that the girdle really did save Gawain’s life. (Don’t ask me to summarize the article here, it’s too damn complicated for that.)
What I was getting at is that this poem lays out the moral universe and that those exchanges in the third Fitt are about the boundary between the human and the animal (of course, that’s what I would have argued back then, classical structuralist that I was). Given that, the invocation of Christ at the end is simply part of the deal, the animal, the human, and the divine.
I also made a minor argument about how the poem opened and how it ended. In the first two stanzas, which introduce the story, the poet talks of Troy, Brutus, Arthur, and “my lay”—in that order. At the very end he goes through the same sequence, but in reverse: from “the best book of knighthood” to “old days of Arthur” to “books of “Brutus” and ending with the siege of Troy (Borroff translation). Think of it as an “undressing” into the world of the story, the story, and then a final “dressing” that returns us to the (medieval) here and now.
And, of course, the poem is ironic. Gawain goes out on the quest thinking this is a genuine quest—whatever that is. When he finally gets to the Green Chapel and flinches, he learns that it was all rigged up by Morgan le Fay to see whether or not Arthur’s knights were equal to their reputation. It’s just a family quarrel.
I love your essay, Adam, and you might find interesting E. Jane Burns’s book “Courtly Love Undressed: Reading Through Clothes in Medieval French Culture [Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 2005], and her edited collection “Medieval Fabrications: Dress, Textiles, Cloth Work, and Other Cultural Imaginings” [Palgrave Macmillan, 2004]. What’s really eerie to me, too, especially given your earlier piece on Grendel’s “glove,” is the connection you make here between “text” and “textile,” and therefore, between “poetry” and “dress,” is uncannily similar to Seth Lerer’s comparison of body parts and poetry in his essay “Grendel’s Glove.” Cheers, Eileen
Thanks, Eileen. I’ll go have a look at the books you mention. (I tried to dig out the Medieval Fabrications one, but another library user had it out on their card. Curse them).
“...the connection you make here is uncannily similar to Seth Lerer’s ...”
A very diplomatic way of saying ‘Lerer has anticipated every point you make here.’ If I’d done some proper research instead of dashing this off, I’d doubtless have encountered his work. Something which needs to be rectified, clearly.
Bill: what you say is really interesting. Particularly:
I drew on an article by (Sir) Edmund Leach on taboo and classification in which he argued that “the inedible” was not a matter of biological incompatibility—horse meat is really poisonous, hence we do not eat it—but a matter of categorical vertigo—horses occupy a position in our cultural system that means that eating horse meat is symbolic cannibalism (the French, apparently, think differently).
One of my students recently completed an excellent PhD on ‘the figure of the Highwayman in C19th Literature’; and part of that involved excavating the semiology of the horse. So footpads and hidhwaymen both rob people on the King’s (or Queen’s) highway; but the former is a brutish and nasty and horrible figure whereas the latter is elegant, debonair, sexy etc. The difference between them is that one is on foot, and the other on horseback; ‘horse’ here connoting upper-class-ness. Which is to say; I’m not sure that horses equate symbolically with humans; rather they are markers of aristocracy, and carry with them some of that class-related glamour.
Adam--I am *not* trying to say, hey, Seth Lerer beat you to that! Seriously. It’s just that you make connections between what the poem is doing with material things/acts [in this case, clothing, and also acts of dressing and undressing] and the art of poetry itself, which is a major subject of Seth Lerer’s work with Old English poetry [in that sense, he is really a rhetorical critic]. His work to *really* look at in this respect is “Literacy and Power in Anglo-Saxon England” [Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1991].
Adam--I forgot to say, would you be willing to send this essay to “Papers on Language and Literature,” where I am the reader for essays on medieval literature? [http://www.siue.edu/PLL/]
Sorry, Adam, but I think you’re in denial about the greenness of the Green Knight. It’s not unusual. The description makes it pretty inescapable, (he rides ‘a grene horse great and thick’ line 175)
but the response of the Camelot crowd settles it –
“ ech man had mervayle what hit mene might
That a hathel and a horse might such a hue lach (take)
As growe grene as the grass (lines 233-5)
They wouldn’t stop eating for a knight in green armour – Arthurian romance is full of green knight/red knights/black knights in different coloured trappings – nor would they do a double-take for some clever stuff with herbs (Tristan is doing that all the time). What puts them off their food is a green man, in armour. That’s monstrous.
Ros: denial, yes I could well be in that. My original point was that what Armitage translates as ‘bent forward, revealing a flash of green skin’ [line 418] is actually ‘a littel lutte with the hed, the lyre he discoveres’, ‘leaning a little with the head he uncovers the flesh’. Which is to say, no mention of green there. And whilst I’m happy to accept that a mere knight in green armour wouldn’t excite Camelot (but ... not even if we wore green whiskers and were riding a green horse?), I’d still argue that the descriptive emphasis is on the clothing. Take the eighth stanza, which begins ‘And all graythed in grene this gome and his wedes’ ‘all arrayed in green this man and his clothes’ --that, I agree, suggests that both man and clothes are green [although ... doesn’t ‘graythed’ mean dressed? could we talk about green skin as being a form of ‘dress’?] ... the stanza then goes on only to describe the knight’s green garb, not his body. It’s all very interesting, certainly. You seem to be sayng that the knight must have been green, or he wouldn’t have excied such admiration at Camelot, rather than that the knight is explicitly described as green in the poem. Is that right?
Eileen, I certainly will titivate this scribble and pass it on to “Papers on Language and Literature”. I’m flattered you suggested I do.
Okay, one quibble: I think the appearance of the Green Knight does, indeed, excite [and even frighten] Camelot; otherwise, why does it take so long for someone to accept his challenge? I would say, one level, he kind of stuns everyone, for a brief moment, and then they come to their senses. Another question might be: how *large* is the Green Knight?
And as to you passing on the essay, post-titivated and scribbled, I can only say, “yes!”
Now, Adam, there’s not much to be said about this. This is a brilliant article about colours and movement, about art, the art of writing, and the art of clothing. I love the article, as you can imagine. The parallel between poetry and clothing, between text and textile seems evident to me. Writing is art; so is clothing. In poetry you can create certain effects, a certain magic. In clothing too.
The important thing seems, however, that you get the right effect ...
So that clothes underline personality ... who you really are; so that dress serves to stress identity ...
Your article made me smile a little because it made me think of “Victorian” times, of the way you used to dress, the clothes you used to wear ... high quality clothes, actually, but they never quite seemed to fit ... the waistcoat too short, the trousers far too wide, and colours ... colours indeed. Which had a certain effect indeed, no doubt about that. And a certain charm too.
Which left me thinking: now does he feel his clothes hang loose about him, like a giant’s robe ...
It’s been more than eight years since I saw you last, so let me ask one question, for the sake of curiosity: do your clothes fit nowadays?
I bet they do.