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REVIEWS PIOTR SADOWSKI. The Knight on His Quest: Symbolic Patterns a/Transition in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1996. Pp. 289. $37.50. With its poetic richness and interpretive multivalence, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight has happily accommodated modern discussions based on a wide variety of critical approaches. In the first chapter of his book, Piotr Sadowski reviews a number of those discussions, grouping them into five major categories, which he labels the ethnological-genetic, the literary critical, the theological, the psychological, and the literary his­ torical (p. 27). Missing from the list, it will be noticed, are any of the poststructuralist approaches that have been so important in the criti­ cal work of the recent past. Sadowski's own analysis, while it does not completely ignore newer contributions, is generally informed by older, more traditional conversations about the poem. Although the choice to position himself away from the most au courant criticism does limit what Sadowski can contribute to the study of the poem, it is less trou­ blesome than the ahistoricized context Sadowski produces for the Gawain-poet. Among the categories he has identified, Sadowski char­ acterizes his own approach as "closest to historical criticism with ele­ ments of literary criticism and source study" (p. 44). Yet rather than lo­ calizing the poem within its likely provenance, a provenance that has been fruitfully explored (despite the Gawain-poet's anonymity) both by historians and by literary scholars, Sadowski instead sets it within the old monolithic Middle Ages, in which texts from different centuries and different locations across Europe are presumed to "represent an es­ sentially homogenous and unified picture of the world, of the kind spo­ ken of some time ago by C. S. Lewis" (p. 15). Such presuppositions may put off some prospective readers. Nonetheless, the book is not without interest. Along with its anatomy of traditional approaches to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Sadowski's first chapter also includes a delineation of his own critical framework, that of systems theory. He is perhaps too sanguine about the exactness and objectivity of his approach, about its capacity to offer a "holistic view of literary reality" (p. 49). Yet he is at the same time surely accu­ rate in praising the systemic approach for its versatility and complex­ ity. The approach allows Sadowski to come at the poem from a variety of angles, examining the relations among text, author, and audience as he considers the mythic patterns manifested in the elements of Gawain's quest. In this view, Gawain becomes a kind of Everyman, presented 327 STUDIES IN THE AGE OF CHAUCER with a set of tests and transitions that force him to confront the in­ evitable limitations of the human condition. Following the introduc­ tory discussion are chapters entitled "The Temporal Structure of Sir Gawain," "The Greenness of the Green Knight," "Sir Gawain's Pentangle," "Gawain's Threefold Temptation," and "The Head and the Loss Thereof." The systemic approach, with its use of charts and diagrams to quan­ tify observations, serves Sadowski best in the book's fourth chapter, "Sir Gawain's Pentangle: The Imago Hominis and the Virtue ofTemperance." Drawing on the poem's description of the pentangle as "a syngne pat Salamon set sumquyle / In bytoknyng of trawpe" (lines 625-26), Sadowski makes connections with salient biblical passages before mov­ ing on to consider the numerological symbolism associated with the number five and the geometrical properties of a pentangle (most no­ tably, the properties of the golden section ratio inherent in its con­ struction), with the ultimate goal of illuminating Gawain's virtues as they are reflected in the sign. Sadowski's observations are evocative rather than definitive, and readers unfamiliar (or uncomfortable) with geometry may not find enough documentation and explanation to fol­ low the argument fully. Moreover, even in this chapter Sadowski shies away from particularity as he considers the intellectual context that might have produced the poem's elaborately explicated sign ofthe pen­ tangle: "It is not unlikely that the Gawain-poet was himself familiar with some Hermetic and Neoplatonic texts," Sadowski writes, "because the intellectual sophistication of the pentangle passage clearly calls for...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1949-0755
Print ISSN
0190-2407
Pages
pp. 327-329
Launched on MUSE
2018-01-03
Open Access
No
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