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Genesis and Gender in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

From: The Chaucer Review
Volume 35, Number 4, 2001
pp. 378-390 | 10.1353/cr.2001.0001

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The Chaucer Review 35.4 (2001) 378-390

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight has long been admired for its pervasive and sophisticated blending of literary genres and traditions, especially its almost seamless incorporation of Christian doctrine into a hybrid of Celtic myth and Arthurian romance. From its elaborate depictions of Yuletide feasts, to its humorous, sometimes poignant, scenes of temptation and penance, SGGK draws off Christian motifs and iconography, incorporating elements derived from vast and complex interpretive histories of biblical texts. But SGGK's exegetical poetics, I shall argue, are based upon its intertextual and intercultural engagement with not only Christian but also Jewish exegetical modes. Specifically, the construction and articulation of gender apropos of the "temptation" sequence can be analyzed in relation to both the Vulgate and Hebrew Genesis/Bereshit creation and expulsion sequences, allowing for a deeper understanding of the Gawain-poet's complex poetics, themselves part of SGGK's larger interconnected concerns with gender, religion, and language. As we shall see, cultural categories of identity converge in the text's evocations of biblical gender, allusive sites of reconfiguration that foreground and problematize identity categories and the underlying ideological assumptions that they betray.

The Edenic associations of Gawain's plight are overtly displayed as the beheading game ends and Gawain, confronted with evidence of his own cowardice, briefly forages into misogynistic Christian tradition, seeking the Green Knight's -- and the reader's -- exoneration and understanding. As Gawain observes his own blood glistening against the white surface of the snow-covered ground--"þe schene blod ouer his schulderes schot to þe erþe. / And quen þe burne se þe blode blenk on þe snawe. . ." (2313-14) --he realizes that, having survived the "strok," he must come to terms with the dishonesty that has textured the Chapel encounter and its discomfiting reflection upon his inner virtue and Christian faith. Having invested his faith in the Lady's magic girdle -- which, as promised, girded a man who was not harmed -- rather than in his Christian faith, Gawain expresses contrition for his apostasy and cowardice. These expressions of contrition are interrupted, however, by a brief and curious outburst, the so-called "antifeminist diatribe" in which Gawain makes a connection between his compromised lewte and the Edenic "fall" overt, though he is himself unaware of the full significance of his analogy at the time of its utterance.

Just as Adam asserts that God should share the blame for Adam's own transgression--"The woman whom you gave to me as companion, she gave to me from the tree and I ate" (Gen 3:12, emphasis mine) --so Gawain follows Adam's lead in claiming to the seemingly omnipotent Green Knight that he, Gawain, inadvertently played Adam to the Green Knight's Lady's Eve: "Bot hit is no ferly þa a fole madde / And þur wyles of wymmen be wonen to sore; / For so watz Adam in erde with one bygyled" (2414-16). Gawain argues that if Adam, the first human created in God's own image, failed to resist, what chance had he, the lowly Gawain? Because Eve's significance for Gawain is her ubiquitous identity as archetypal and generic temptress, she is simply the "one" said to have "bygyled" Adam; like SGGK's anonymous "Lady," identified only in relation to Bertilak, the anonymous "one" serves as temptress and foil in a role so objectified, its purpose so familiar, that no proper name need be provided.

Certainly the tripartite temptation sequence at Haudesert and the penitential encounter at the Green Chapel have long been compared by critics to the orthodox medieval Christian readings of the Vulgate Genesis narrative of temptation and transgression in the Garden of Eden. Gawain's blatant appeal to the authority of Christian exegetical tradition in aligning himself with the "bygyled" Adam provides a familiar and perhaps effective point of comparison, since SGGK's audience would know the orthodox Christian readings of the Genesis narratives related to the peccatum originale and felix culpa. But Gawain's antifeminist diatribe is, like the narrator's earlier exposition on the "endeles knot" (630), a digression of deceptive significance -- conveyed with detail sufficient to foreground an initial sense of magnitude and...



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