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‘Sir Gawain’ and the green girdle

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This is another short essay from my medieval literature subject – if anything I really recommend Sir Gawain and the Green Knight as a very readable medieval English text. There’s a good version by J.R.R. Tolkien even.

The green girdle in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, like the poem itself, evokes a wide range of symbolic connotations for both the reader and its characters. It can be considered a magic talisman, a symbol of shame, a token of courage and nobility, or an emblem of courtly brotherhood.[1] Something of the depth and complexity of the poem is revealed in that the green girdle is properly any and all of these things and much more besides. Interpretation of the girdle is important for reading the sense of Gawain’s physical and ontological quests, and for gauging the nature of his ‘fault’. I will explore the complex nexus of meaning surrounding the girdle and, in so doing, suggest that a deeper understanding of its significance is elicited from the secular and Christian religious traditions reflected, intentionally or otherwise, in the poem.

Interpretation of the green girdle, along with much else in Gawain, depends upon the discernment of a number of different layers of meaning. I wish to focus on the contrasting ideas of a religious test against that of a secular quest. A religious test, at least in the Christian tradition, involves the challenging of a person’s conduct specifically according to a moral framework, while a secular quest is not so ethically or morally focused. The secular quest concerns more humanistic preoccupations such as romantic love, overcoming physical obstacles, or even just raw survival.[2] There is some overlap between these paradigms – these are not rigid dividers but broad thematic models. Importantly they intersect in the concept of medieval chivalry, where the Christian sense of agape overlaps with that of the secular individualistic amor.[3] Furthermore, both concern an exploration of selfhood for the questing knight, namely, an ontological quest; the secular idea of natural self-development or maturity overlaps with the more ethically focused self-judgment of the religious paradigm.[4] These thematic strands are extremely tightly bound in Gawain but also play off of each other on countless occasions, tying both Sir Gawain and the reader into interpretative knots as to the best and most appropriate way of reading such moments. Arguably the most important of such difficult moments, also marking a turning point in the plot, involves the ‘temptation’ or ‘magic’ of the green girdle.

The Lady offers the green girdle to Sir Gawain ostensively claiming that any courtier wearing it “could not be slain through any strategy on earth” (1854).[5] In other words, she implies it is a magic talisman. The idea of magic here is certainly not a conventional Christian notion, hence the green girdle could be considered an idolatrous fetish, set to deceive the Christian knight and violate his moral code. But the Gawain poet never makes explicit mention of this interpretation. In his declaration of shame Sir Gawain calls the girdle “falssyng” (2378), roughly, a treachery, but there is no suggestion that it has caused him to sin in the religious sense. In Celtic myth, a magic talisman often has the effect of revealing or engendering powerful emotions in the mythic hero, inadvertently revealing unrealized aspects of his character.[6] The love potion consumed by Tristan and Isolde in the Tristan myth has just this effect,[7] and, mysteriously, so does the green girdle, which occasions the revelation of Gawain’s imperfect nature. Gawain’s taking of the girdle is the sole reason for the slight cut to the neck bestowed by the Green Knight later in the story. Perhaps engendering this revelation is the true ‘magic power’ of the Lady’s girdle as talisman.

Sir Gawain himself interprets the green girdle negatively, as “a sign of [his] shame [or, surfet, trangression]” (2433). However, exactly what he has to be ashamed of is multifaceted and open to interpretation. We have seen that his transgression is probably not religious sin exactly.[8] It is possible to read the acceptance of a gift from a married woman as symbolically committing adultery, but, once again, this does not seem well supported by the text.[9] Gawain’s transgression appears to be mostly on the secular level of the poem, the level of courteous social conduct. Indeed, the adventure of the entire middle section of the poem, in which Gawain is forced to distribute kisses to a strange lord while engaging in alluring bedroom scenes with his wife, has distinctly unchristian undertones. (It seems almost indecent for the poet to have placed Gawain in this situation in the first place.[10]) However, as titillating as some of these scenes are, the Gawain author seems only concerned with testing Gawain’s secular strength of character, in particular his resolve to act courteously to both the Lord and the Lady. Gawain must hand over all his ‘winnings’ to the Lord, and yet he must also treat the Lady courteously despite her many suggestive requests. By accepting the girdle, Gawain also must abide by the Lady’s request that he keep the girdle hidden from her husband (1862-3). This results in a contradiction for Gawain, who is now in a ‘Catch-22’ situation.[11] Whatever course of action he chooses, whether he hides or declares the girdle, he violates someone’s trust. By this thinking, he should not have accepted the girdle.

230px-Gawain_and_the_Green_KnightHowever, if we bring the Lady’s interpretation of the girdle as magic talisman back into our considerations here, we discover yet another possible justification for Gawain’s ‘shame’, a reason he explicitly mentions as “cowarddyse and couetyse [covetousness]” (2374). The implication is that Gawain took the girdle because he was afraid. Indeed, this seems to be the justification that appears in the text, when Gawain considers that, “It [the girdle] certainly would be splendid to forestall being slain” (1858). (This could also imply that on some level he actually believes in the protective quality of the girdle as magic talisman.) However, one senses that he should also be ashamed of breaking his pact in not declaring the girdle to the Lord even though such a declaration would have nothing to do with fear exactly – only with courteous impropriety. Perhaps it is both.[12]

For all Gawain’s myriad ‘faults’, Bercilak de Hautdesert declares the girdle a token of purity (2398). In this interpretation, Bercilak seems to appeal to Christian notions of sin and forgiveness, considering Gawain absolved of guilt because: “You have confessed so cleanly, proclaiming your faults, / And openly have the penance from the point of my weapon” (2391-2393). Yet he then gives Gawain the girdle to keep, ostensively as a proud symbol of his bravery in meeting the challenge at the Green Chapel (2399). But how has the girdle revealed Gawain’s bravery? If anything, it reveals his weakness, particularly if he took it out of fear and desire for its magical protection. The answer to this question resides again in the secular tradition and not the Christian. Conventionally, the Christian moral code does not celebrate flaws inherent in human nature. The concept of original sin is a negative reality to be condemned and overcome through the grace of God, not something to be celebrated with conspicuous tokens.[13] Yet, Bercilak is quite explicit about this, declaring that Gawain “lacked a little … / not from wild wickedness, nor wooing either, / But because you loved your life” (2366-68). One senses here the affirmation of natural order (as per the secular paradigm), recognized using the language of supernatural grace (as per the Christian).[14]

King Arthur’s court reinterprets the green girdle again, this time seeing it as an emblem of courtly brotherhood, adopted by all the knights in honour of Gawain (2515-2518). Exactly how to interpret this deference towards Gawain is also multifaceted. Some modern interpretations see Arthur’s court as naïve and childish, not without some textual justification.[15] In this view, the green girdles worn by the court represent a mockery, an inauthentic replication of Gawain’s distressing adventure. Yet other commentators consider the court as exhibiting a youthful innocence rather than a deluded naivety. In this reading, the laughter of the court is not a mockery but an affirmation of Gawain’s nobility and courage, and an acknowledgement of the small size of his fault.[16] In this view, the girdle as emblem of courtly brotherhood expresses a sentiment similar to Bercilak’s interpretation of the girdle as a token of natural purity. The wearing of girdles by the whole court would then symbolize the spreading of a humanistic (predominantly secular) courage and nobility among the knights.

This study thus reveals the greater significance of the secular rather than Christian paradigm for interpreting meaning in Gawain. The acceptance of the girdle by Sir Gawain seems to explicitly reveal his fear rather than his lust or his disloyalty to courteous social agreements. The interpretation of the girdle as protective talisman also satisfyingly links the ‘exchange of winnings’ agreement with the ‘beheading’ game – it is Gawain’s fear of the latter than leads to his violation of the former through acceptance of the girdle.[17] The Christian paradigm appears to have little significance until Gawain’s confession of shame. However, the Gawain author and Medieval readers probably would have distinguished no difference between these two aspects of the tale.[18] Gerald Morgan has convincingly argued that what modern critics often see as Gawain’s angry and traumatic self-castigations are more likely conventional medieval penitential practices, considered the more genuine through their dramatic expression.[19] On this interpretation, Gawain graciously admits the girdle as token of shame and ultimately comes to accept it as a token of purity, courage and brotherhood too[20] in the spirit of Christian atonement and in the spirit of secular chivalry (a spirit suggested aptly by the playful tone of the poem).[21] However, while this reading may more accurately reflect historical conventions and authorial intentions, it must be said that it is a comparatively bland and straightforward reading. The complexity and depth of Gawain to modern readers is likely to reside in its elusive, multifaceted interpretative possibilities,[22] even if these are partly the result of historical misunderstandings or unintentionally subversive readings.


Bowers, John M. An Introduction to the Gawain poet. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2012.

Brewer, Elisabeth, ed. From Cuchulainn to Gawain. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1973.

Campbell, Joseph. Creative Mythology. 1968. Reprint, London: Souvenir Press, 2001.

Cooper, Helen. Introduction to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, translated by Keith Harrison, ix-xxxviii. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Morgan, Gerald. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and the Idea of Righteousness. Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 1991.

Silverstein, Theodore. Introduction to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, 1-34. 1974. Reprint, Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1984.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, edited & translated by William Vantuono, revised ed. Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1999.

Stanbury, Sarah. Seeing the Gawain-Poet: Description and the Act of Perception. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991.

Tolkien, J. R. R. Introduction to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl and Sir Orfeo, translated by J. R. R. Tolkien, edited by Christopher Tolkien, 1-15. 1975. Reprint, London: HarperCollins, 2006.

Zimmer, Heinrich. The King and the Corpse, edited by Joseph Campbell. 1948. Reprint, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993.

[1] Sarah Stanbury, Seeing the Gawain-Poet: Description and the Act of Perception (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991), 110.

[2] Note that what I am calling a secular quest may in fact pertain to non-Christian religious traditions such as, in Northern Europe, the vestigial Celtic or Germanic traditions, but I wish to make no historical conjectures here. I use terms like ‘Christian’ and ‘Celtic’ throughout this essay in a purely thematic sense, in reference to the moral test and secular quest paradigms only. These are aids to exploring meaning in the text from our modern standpoint and should not be construed as making judgments about historical precedence or authorial intention. See Heinrich Zimmer, The King and the Corpse, ed. Joseph Campbell (1948; reprint, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993), 34-51 for a complex discussion and interpretation of pagan mythic elements.

[3] For a discussion of agape versus amor, see Joseph Campbell, Creative Mythology (1968; reprint, London: Souvenir Press, 2001), 175-178.

[4] See John M. Bowers, An Introduction to the Gawain poet (Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2012), 40, for a discussion of the ways in which Sir Gawain’s identity is annihilated in the poem.

[5] Line numbers and quotations are from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, ed. & trans. William Vantuono, revised ed. (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1999).

[6] Compare the original ‘beheading game’ in Elisabeth Brewer, ed., From Cuchulainn to Gawain, (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1973), 9-13, which seems to exist to explicitly demonstrate the supreme courage of the Irish hero Cuchulainn.

[7] Campbell, Creative Mythology, 240-242.

[8] Helen Cooper, introduction to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, trans. Keith Harrison (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), xxx. Cooper describes Gawain’s fault as a venial sin. I suggest this equates with what I am calling a ‘secular’ fault, since venial sin means religiously slight or pardonable, not a mortal sin.

[9] J. R. R. Tolkien, introduction to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl and Sir Orfeo, trans. J. R. R. Tolkien, ed. Christopher Tolkien (1975; reprint, London: HarperCollins, 2006), 5. Tolkien suggests that if Gawain has any temptation to adultery, it is absolved through prayer. It is temptation’s blending with the customs of courtesy that trouble Gawain. See also Theodore Silverstein, introduction to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (1974; reprint, Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1984), 11.

[10] For a discussion of the unconventionality of these scenes, see Cooper, introduction, xxiii.

[11] Silverstein, introduction, 14.

[12] Gerald Morgan, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and the Idea of Righteousness (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 1991), 142-3.

[13] Cooper, introduction, xxxii.

[14] For a discussion of natural versus supernatural grace, see Campbell, Creative Mythology, 43, 476.

[15] Bowers, Introduction to Gawain poet, 21-22, 49-51.

[16] Tolkien, introduction, 5; Bowers, Introduction to Gawain poet, 52.

[17] Cooper, introduction, xxv, xxxvi.

[18] See also Zimmer’s argument that the Gawain author does not seem to understand the pagan symbology even as he utilizes it: Zimmer, The King and the Corpse, 80.

[19] Morgan, Gawain and the Idea of Righteousness, 155, 157-8.

[20] Note this could also be seen as part of the transforming ‘magic’ of the girdle as talisman, see Zimmer, The King and the Corpse, 79. Zimmer calls the girdle a ‘talisman of rebirth.’

[21] Bowers makes particular reference of the joyous bob-and-wheel in this respect: Bowers, Introduction to Gawain poet, 15.

[22] It is frequently called ‘ambiguous’ by modern critics: Stanbury, Seeing the Gawain-Poet, 111; Morgan, Gawain and the Idea of Righteousness, 129; Silverstein, introduction, 13.


The Atheist, the Believer and the Confusion on both sides

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This is another piece written for my philosophy class. I’m sure there are “logical” holes and “unverified statements” in it but, honestly, I think it’s a tautology to correctly reason for the inappropriateness of reason. It’s like using emotion to be impassive. (This is another article in my series surreptitiously themed, ‘philosophy is just applying the logic systems of reason to experience, feelings and perception and then wondering why it all doesn’t make sense’…)

“The Christian begins the recital of his faith with the words, ‘I believe’, and it would be an utter distortion to construe this as anything like ‘I have inquired and found it reasonable to conclude’.”

“A person’s belief in anything, including religion, should be directly dependent on the evidence in favour of it.”

Discuss. Is the first of these claims right? The second? Both? Neither? Explain why.

These two statements represent the philosophic debate surrounding religious belief. The atheist thinks religious belief is ‘irrational’ because it is not verified by evidence. The theist argues that the basis of religious belief is not evidence but ‘faith’. I will argue that both misunderstand each other. The second statement is more incorrect as it treats religious belief as if it were a scientific hypothesis instead of a personal conviction. These things are very different. The first statement, made by Richard Taylor, is more correct but Taylor goes on to use faith as supporting religious belief which, as we shall see, is also problematic.

The contention here surrounds the definition of belief – there are two conflicting interpretations involved. The first defines belief as conditioned and adjusted by evidence – this belief we shall call a hypothesis. This is exemplified by the second statement above. The second definition is not conditioned or affected by external evidence – this belief is what Michael Scriven considers as simply confidence in an idea. I believe the impression is much stronger than this; it is really a personal conviction, as represented in the first statement. A hypothesis and a personal conviction are very different things, the former involving knowledge content – a hypothesis expresses fact content about the external world – the latter experience content – a personal conviction is subjective, internal and feeling-based.

Of these two ideas, it is important to note that one is not simply a poor or invalid version of the other. Consider: an incorrect hypothesis is distinctly different from a personal conviction. A personal conviction is expressive of personal experience or subjective impressions. Examples include statement like, ‘I believe in true love’ or ‘I really enjoy playing tennis.’ These statements cannot be ‘proved’ using external evidence as they involve some internal personal evaluation – they are subjective. Contrast this with statements like, ‘I believe I can jump from a ten-storey building and gravity will not pull me down,’ or ‘I believe I can drink arsenic and not die.’ Apart from being externally verifiable through evidence, these statements also do not involve subjective evaluation – they have no feeling content or ‘meaning’ without their factual value.

The cause of contention regarding religious belief is that these two concepts – hypothesis and personal conviction – have become mixed up, their definitions blurred. The situation is rather like that involving a smoker who enjoys smoking so much, it gives her such a personal buzz, that she claims it must be good for her despite the evidence against this. The personal conviction, ‘I enjoy smoking’ has been confused with the hypothesis concerning the physical effects of smoking on the human body, ‘I believe smoking is good for me.’ Examination of the physical effects of smoking (the evidence) by a scientist can invalidate the hypothesis but, unfortunately, for many a smoker this does not affect the personal conviction that smoking is enjoyable. Similarly, the theist’s personal conviction that God exists is not threatened by any evidence to the contrary, however this is only a personal conviction, I am not sure what the hypothesis is that the atheist attempts to invalidate. It may be something like, ‘A physical God exists somewhere overlooking our lives.’ Note that if this is the hypothesis, there is no physical evidence to examine here. God as a physical presence technically cannot be proven to not exist any more that it is possible to prove any negative statement. The atheists position here is that, since physical evidence cannot prove God’s existence, God is merely unlikely.

It has always concerned me that the atheist usually attempts to prove belief in God is irrational rather than harmful. The implication that anything irrational is necessarily valueless or worthless is a disturbing disparagement of important irrational elements in life such as emotional experiences, creativity, love, meaning, etc. Some more extreme atheists have argued that religious belief is harmful but these usually involve criticism of elements only peripherally associated with belief such religious wars, paedophile priests, conservative moral values or hypocritical church leaders. Science might equally be disparaged with reference to nuclear disasters, pollution or chemical warfare. These unflattering elements have no vital link to the core of the belief and prove nothing.

So what is the core of religious belief? To get to the answer to this question we need to examine the common traits of religious experience not popular hearsay or negative offshoot ideas. Michael Scriven says that the popularity of an idea such as religious belief cannot be trusted as evidence in its favour. I agree with this view – just because a large group of people believe something does not mean that they may not all be wrong. But Scriven contradicts himself when he goes on to dismiss religious belief based on refuting the popular views of religious people. This is not examining the physical effects of the belief – it is listening to hearsay.

If Scriven were a medieval doctor trying to discover a cure for disease, what he does here would be like listening to the superstitious stories of the survivors who claim that “I prayed to God,” or “I wore this lucky charm to keep off the devil.” He ignores the physical experience of his patients who, unbeknownst to them, may have saved themselves by simply washing more frequently. Such a doctor ignores the physical symptoms and listens to superstition and hearsay.

The ‘symptoms’ of religion do not include the usual ideas which atheists ‘disprove’ as ridiculous such as a physical God or the system of metaphysical punishment and reward, or even ideas like the Trinity. The essential religious element is a powerful awe-inspiring feeling, of wonder, of the numinous, a strong emotional intuition for a sense of rightness or emotional truth. This feeling is the basis for the personal conviction of religious belief. The internal source of this feeling is the reason why external evidence does not affect such a belief. Furthermore, the conviction ‘God exists’ is only one particular expression of what the religious experience is or means. By challenging this conviction, the atheist philosophy only challenges the particular verbal expression and not the religious experience itself. This is attacking only an associated idea again.

In reality, this verbal expression – ‘belief in God’ – only amounts to something like a metaphor which attempts to describe the religious experience. There is some objection to this idea by religious people as it seems to belittle God, but, significantly, every word we use to describe strong feelings is a metaphor to some extent. When I feel sad, this is an indistinct personal feeling which I may gauge as ‘sad’ or ‘sorrowful’ or ‘suicidal’ or ‘a bit down’. When we experience a personal attraction to another person we may call this ‘love’ or ‘lust’ or maybe I just ‘like’ them. It is significant that we often cannot easily tell which it is. This shows that the words we use are only expressions, verbal approximations for emotional feelings. However, these effects definitely exist to us despite their relatively insubstantial nature and our imprecision in naming each state definitively. Scriven dismisses metaphoric religion on the basis that most religious people deny this reading but once again, he does not listen to his own council – he is listening to hearsay and popular ideas instead of addressing the basis of belief.

So it seems that both sides in this debate are making vital errors. The religious believer, overcome with a powerful feeling of the numinous, explains this as ‘belief in God’, then makes the mistake of over-interpreting this literally, positing a physical God, and denying the feeling and metaphoric basis of the ‘power that fills his soul’. The atheist then comes along and correctly refutes the over-interpreted idea, but rather than criticising the theist’s verbal expression of ‘belief’ as too general or confusing, he dismisses the religious experience altogether. This rightly offends the theist because the atheist is essentially censuring him for having a meaningful experience, indeed this experience is the source of any and all awe-inspiring feelings in anyone’s life. Just as no one is necessarily unable to experience love or anger, even the atheist can feel the awe-inspiring ‘religious’ feeling too, it is simply that the atheist refrains from naming the experience as anything other than ‘joy’ or ‘happiness’. (This vagueness may, disturbingly, devalue such an experience, which is what can happen if you over-emphasise rational thought).

So in conclusion, the first statement is closer to the truth because the second disparages religious belief based on an inappropriate definition – it says all forms of belief must be based on hypothesis which is not the case. However, the first statement is used by Taylor to suggest ‘faith’ is the basis of religious belief and ‘faith’ is another cloaking metaphor for the religious feeling which is only called upon because it is conveniently vaguer and so less refutable by scientific hypothesis. However, later in Taylor’s article he quotes Hume describing faith as “a continuing miracle in [a believer’s] own person.” What could this bizarre sentence mean if it is not a metaphor expressing poetically a numinous feeling-impression? Until either side of the argument is willing to admit the experiential nature of belief or define properly their use of the word ‘belief’ then both sides will be arguing against each other’s own misunderstandings.

Written by tomtomrant

23 November 2011 at 12:16 pm