The realism of the poem further strains the conventions of the genre. Romance literature usually has tenuous links with reality. Gawain's journey is, in the words of Bercovitch "vividly realistic". Wilson states "other romances mention both fictional and actual places, but in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight the factual topography is noticeable in being, apparently in minute particulars, not just actual, but the original audience's very own". The specific locations take us away from the world of the romance fantasy and ground us in the reality of North Wales and Cheshire:"He ne3ed ful neghe into Pe NorPe Wale3.
Alle Pe iles of Anglesay on lyft half he halde3 ...
Ouer at Pe Holy Hede, til he hade eft bonk
In Pe wyldrenesse of Wyrale" (ll.697-701).
This reality of location serves to accentuate the danger of the supernatural elements contained within it:"Sumwhyle wyth worme3 he werre3, and wyth wolues als,
Sumwhyle wyth wodwos Pat woned in Pe knarre3" (ll.720-721).
Here again, we can see the poet's use of ambiguity to create unease. Monsters in a fantasy world are frightening and distant; if they are in a world that we know and recognise, they are all the more terrifying. As Bercovitch states: "the juxtaposition of actuality with the marvellous becomes largely a means of stressing the former."
There is also ambiguity to be found within the character of Sir Gawain. At first glance, he is the typical romance hero - proud, strong and tied to the chivalric code. Endurance was a key characteristic of the romance hero and it is in the loneliness of Gawain's journey that we first begin to see signs of realism in the figure of Gawain:"Pus in peryl and payne and plytes ful harde
Bi contray carye3 Pis kny3t tyl Krystmasse euen, al one" (ll. 733-735).
Thus Gawain shows human weakness - it might even be claimed that it is through this humanity that he resolves the mystery of the Green Knight.
It is through breaking the chivalric code - not returning the girdle in the agreed gift- exchange with the Green Knight - that Gawain fails in his test. His failure is exacerbated by his failure to confess. However, it would be wrong to presume that the poet is here criticising Gawain. The romance genre portrays knights as without fault, striving continually to achieve perfect adherence to the chivalric code. Similarly, the code is upheld as untouchably just. The Gawain poet asks us to question both of these conventions. Gawain is not without flaw. It is indeed his human characteristics that make him a proper character rather than merely a representational figure. The fact that Gawain breaks the code is both a marker of his own humanity, and a subversion of the romance genre. By making Gawain the poem's hero, and then making him break the code which is supposed to define the entire genre, the poet asks us to consider whether the code is itself flawless. By this, the Gawain poet signals the end of the romance genre.
The reaction to Gawain's failure is in itself ambiguous. The magnanimous reaction from Arthur and Bertilak, who understand that although Gawain failed in the final test, he showed courage and honesty in this failure, is contrasted with the shame that Gawain feels at breaking the chivalric code:"For care of Py knokke cowardyse me ta3t
To acorde me with couetyse, my kynde to forsake,
Pat is larges and lewte Pat longe3 to kny3te3".
Our understanding of the poem depends upon whom we agree with. I would argue that given the subversion shown throughout the rest of the text, the poet intends us to understand that the code is not the only measure of heroism: Gawain fails his test, but in doing so succeeds in becoming as heroic a figure as any other romance knight.
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