restricted access The Christmas Hero and Yuletide Tradition in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by Walter S. Phelan (review)
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REVIEWS unimaginative in its display of orthodox material "treated without great theological depth," reflecting "the values of a resurgent orthodoxy under siege" (Studies, p. 89, 79). A volume like the Vernon reminds us of the darker side of a world that we medievalists often view through rose-colored glasses. To what kind of mind would such a collection provide satisfactory responses to the spirirual and intellectual challenges ofthe dazzling century that followed the deaths of Aquinas and Bonaventure? Worse, did those who compiled such collections-like the advocates ofbiblical inerrancy in our time--:lo so not to respond to challenges to conventional belief at all but to evade them? Among the most pathetic reactions to what is new and threatening is the impulse to reaffirm and intensify one's beliefs as if no challenges or alterna­ tives to them existed. And if nothing else, by encouraging us to imagine real people reading or hearing this endless litany of gloom--of "fulpth of sinne," "wikked dedes," and "l>is wrecched world" with its "foule false­ hede," the Vernon reminds us that the popular use of the word "medieval" to describe all that is joyless and life-denying in human experience is not altogether inaccurate. It is surely unfair to expect subliterary writings to encourage or even permit sophisticated literary analysis. But they may encourage other kinds of analysis.5 Perhaps the next collection of studies on the Vernon manu­ script will reach out to explore some of political, economic, anthropologi­ cal, and psychological issues that such compilations raise. Of course, no book of less than Vernon dimensions could hope to cover all the topics the Vernon might inspire, and I realize that my responsibiliry is to review the book at hand. I admire the learning and intelligence the authors ofStudies display, and I am confident that Pearsall and his collaborators will welcome further studies that build on the work they have carried out. EMERSON BROWN, JR. Vanderbilt University WALTERS. PHELAN. The Christmas Hero and Yuletide Tradition inSir Ga­ wain and the Green Knight. Lewiston, Queenston, and Lampeter: Ed­ win Mellen, 1992. Pp. xxii, 406. $79.95. 5 In his review ofStudies, along with observing the "embarrassment about what the book is" and the "protracted rhetoric of antipathy toward or apology for Vernon" evi­ dent in the attitude ofmany ofthe contributors, Ralph Hanna suggests some different issues that students of the Vernon might address; Speculum 67 (1992): 1026--29. 245 STUDIES IN THE AGE OF CHAUCER If one can say that criticism erects a conceptual framework around those literary texts in which the critic is interested, then one might describe this study ofSir Gawain and the Green Knight as something ofa baroque cathe­ dral. Walter S. Phelan has put on display here a crowded array of ap­ proaches to the poem and systems for its analysis. For example, in chapter 1, "The Christmas/New Year's Setting," the plot ofGawain is said to fulfill the three obligations of gift exchange in antiquity as analyzed by Marcel Mauss, to parallel closely the four rites of New Year's celebration detailed by Theodor Gaster, to fit the three constitutive features of romance out­ lined by Tony Hunt, and to be structured by five "handsels" which are analogous to the five virtues of the pentangle and closely related to the structure of the nine colored capitals in the Gawain manuscript. In a series of appendices (pp. 281-376), Phelan develops at length his theory and practice of "semantic collation," or "quantum semantics," a method ofrelating two texts by mapping the intersection oftheir semantic fields and subsets of those fields. The last appendix is his presentation of a thesaurus ofSir Gawain and the Green Knight, a detailed classification ofthe text's semantic classes, the lexemes by which they are expressed, and the frequency with which these lemmata occur. The method of semantic colla­ tion is applied to Gawain throughout the book in a series of "diptychs" in which the poem is compared with other Middle English romances, but also with Gilgamesh and T. S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral. In all of this Phelan has demanded much, of himself and of his reader, and while...