Archive for January, 2010


The Canterbury Tales and the Medieval Tradition of Encyclopedic Works.

The huge masterpiece by Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales, comes from a tradition of long, encyclopedic style works in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Philosophers and theologians in the Middle Ages, particularly in the 12 and 1300s, wrote “sums” of all their knowledge concerning philosophy or theology. The most famous was Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica, a work thousands of pages long, in many volumes, in which he professes an encyclopedia of Christian theology. Others, like Duns Scotus, did the same thing.

Chaucer, however, decided to write a fictional, poetic narrative to serve as an encyclopedia of human character. By having thirty pilgrims from many different walks of life tell a story on their way to the shrine, and a story back, Chaucer intended to cover the entire spectrum of character and humanity.

Chaucer’s Original and Gigantic Plan for the Work.

Chaucer’s original plan for The Canterbury Tales was to have 120 stories, two for each pilgrim to tell on the way to Canterbury, and two to tell on the way back. He never realized the complete project, having written twenty two stories instead. In fact, they never reach Canterbury in The Canterbury Tales, so the gigantic work in of itself is incomplete. Many scholars like to call each section of the work a “fragment.” If Chaucer had completed his original plan, the work would have been massive, probably about the size and scope of Aquinas’s Summa.

Needless to say, what we have is large as it is, and has come down to us as one of the most central works in English literature. Each of the tales is unique, and represents both the character who tells it, and an aspect of the moral, social and economic world in which they live.

Chaucer’s Revolutionary Use of “Character” in Literature.

One of the major contributions Chaucer made to English literature is the development and depiction of human character. Before and during Chaucer’s time, character was never very developed in literature. Characters in any piece of fiction or religious presentation tended to be “types,” meaning abstract representations of concepts, like Vice, Virtue, Patience, Charity, etc. Authors were never particularly interested in character in the sense of psychology like we are today. In fact, our modern notion of character is pretty distant even from Chaucer. It was not until Shakespeare that character truly becomes central to the literary experience, and he owed a lot to Chaucer’s depiction of character. Chaucer’s characters of the Wife of Bath and the Pardoner greatly influenced Shakespeare, and you can see echoes of them in many of his plays.

Don’t Confuse The Canterbury Tales with Literary Realism.

The fact that Chaucer forefronts characters and places them in a leveled and social world should not make us confuse his The Canterbury Tales with realism, a confusion that is easy to make. Although it is a significant development in literature that Chaucer depicts all walks of life in a common social setting and told from a familiar point of view (something I will discuss separately), the situation of the pilgrimage as he presents it is far from realism. None of these characters would ever have mingled together and engaged in such a prolonged activity as they do in The Canterbury Tales in the 1300s.

The Convention of the Framed-Narrative, or the Framing-tale.

Pilgrimages were very common, and Chaucer uses one as a convention by which to gather many different personages together, and to create a situation by which they can deliver different stories. The convention of a group of people telling each other stories in order to kill time has a long tradition, and has appeared in many works of literature up until today. A work of fiction in which the plot involves a story or stories told by a character(s) within the narrative is known as a framing tale, or today a framed narrative. In his travels through Italy, it is highly likely that Chaucer had been influenced by Boccaccio’s Decameron. The narrative is about a group of people stuck together in a dwelling in quarantine because of the plague, and they decide to pass the time by telling each other stories.

The Legacy of Framed Narratives

One of the most famous modern framed narratives is Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness. The enigmatic seaman, Marlow, tells the crew of a ship docked in the Thames waiting for the tide to rise, his story of leading a crew on a ship traveling into the heart of the Congo to retrieve the mad engineer of an ivory outpost, Kurtz.

Of course, television sitcoms love to use the framing-tale technique when the characters are holed up somewhere, or need to pass the time, and each one tells a story from the past. Movies, too, like to use framed narratives. One that comes to mind at this moment is The Princess Bride.

January 30, 2010 at 7:07 pm Leave a comment


The General Prologue.

Below, I offer guiding questions for each section of the General Prologue. Again, use the questions as a guide for your reading, and things to think about. And you can respond to anything here you want for your weekly writing responses.
Lines 1 – 18

How does Chaucer describe the season and the setting for the narrative poem? How do you think that the season is significant?  What is important about the fact that the poem is set in the month of April?  How is nature described, and how does the description of nature connect then to the description of people gathering for a pilgrimage?

Lines 19 – 34

Why do you think that it is important that the poem makes an “I,” the first person pronoun, pronounced?  What effect does it have on the poem that it is introduced by an “I?”

What is significant about the fact that the narrator and the other 29 pilgrims gather at a tavern?  Why is it important that the narrator emphasizes the sense of “fellowship?”

Lines 35 – 42

Describe the narrator’s tone in the opening of the poem.  What kind of narrative voice does he assume? What does his narrative voice suggest / foreshadow concerning the rest of the poem?

The Catalog of Pilgrims in the General Prologue, lines 43 – 717.

Do you think that there is any significance to the order in which Chaucer presents each pilgrim? If so, what is the logic behind the order?

Explore how Chaucer / the narrator develops his description of each pilgrim. What specifics does he emphasize?  Why does he emphasize certain aspects of each pilgrim?

Which pilgrim and description of him / her do you like the most?  Why? What is it about Chaucer’s description that interests you?

What social aspects to life and the world does Chaucer seem to emphasize in his descriptions of the pilgrims? What sorts of things does he seem to satirize?

The Narrative Voice

The voice of the narrator in The Canterbury Tales is very significant. The narrative poem is told from the specific, unnamed “I” who describes each pilgrim. How would you describe his voice? What is the narrator’s attitude toward everything and everyone? Does he seem to be a kind person? A reasoned person? A malicious person? A judgmental person? Is there any way in which you can “picture” the narrator in the same way that the narrator offers us “pictures” of each pilgrim?

The narrator describes each pilgrim sort-of “warts and all,” meaning he offers the good, the bad and the ugly. Some of the pilgrims are downright odious people. What sort of attitude does the narrator have toward each of them?  Does he judge and / or condemn any of them?  What do you make of his stance?

Lines 720 – 744

After offering a description of each pilgrim, the narrator digresses on the manner in which he plans to narrate the pilgrimage and all of the stories. What things about his storytelling technique does the narrator seem to defend? Why do you think he makes a big deal out of claiming he wishes to tell the stories straight and true?  How does he use both Christ and Plato to defend his storytelling style?

The Host at the End of the General Prologue.

What function does the host of the Tavern play at the end of the Prologue?  Why does it seem essential that Chaucer include the Host of the tavern in the scheme of The Canterbury Tales?

January 30, 2010 at 7:05 pm Leave a comment


1. How does the Wife of Bath defend her many marriages and her philandering in the first 60 or so lines of her Prologue?

2. The Wife of Bath invokes “Experience” at the very opening of her Prologue, and refers to the valors of her “experience” throughout the Prologue. Why might such an invocation of Experience as the test of human nature come across suspicious to a fourteenth century audience? Why do you think we should question her absolute reliability upon “experience” as her foundation?

3. What are the characteristics of most of her marriages? What are her husbands like? How does she wear all of her husbands out?

4. What is different about her last husband (now suspiciously dead, too) than her previous four (lines 510 – 550)? What makes him far more challenging for the Wife of Bath?

5. How does the Wife of Bath finally win sovereignty over her final husband (lines 795 – 817)? What does her unequivocal desire for sovereignty in marriage mean (lines 817 – 830)? How do you think we should read it?

6. How is the Wife of Bath’s Tale ironic, considering her character as she presents it in her Prologue?

7. The Wife of Bath’s Tale is in the tradition of an “Arthuriad,” which essentially means a fairytale / romance in the vein of King Arthur, Camelot, and the Knights of the Round Table. How does her Tale, despite the fact that it is ironic, relate pretty perfectly to the Wife of Bath, her experience, and in particular, her notions of female “sovereignty?”

8. What might the Wife of Bath’s Tale (particularly its ending) say about her psychologically? How might she be feeling now in life, particularly since she claims in the Prologue that she has had “world enough and time,” and now only has “chaff” to give when she once had “wheat?”

January 30, 2010 at 7:03 pm Leave a comment


Repeated Narrative and Plot Types.

In the last class we discussed how certain plots repeat throughout literature, and are common as a motif, even up until today. I discussed primarily the narrative of the journey and the quest. This is one of the most popular “masterplots” in literature. Particularly in a knight’s romance, like Sir Gawain, the journey and the quest is essential. Gawain journeys beyond Camelot in quest of the Green Knight. In most journey and quest narratives, the protagonist — after a series of encounters, trials, and hardships — returns home, having gained some sort of knowledge about his / her self and the world. It is important to note that as literature grows more modern, particular literature into the twentieth century, the journey and / or return home is usually negative, degenerate, pessimistic. For example, in most of the narratives in which a soldier leaves home for war in the 1900s (WWI, WWII, Viet Nam, etc.), his / her return is usually dark, as in Hemingway’s soldiers who feel a sense of hopelessness and betrayal.


Masterplot is a term used by literary studies to describe any deep, underlying narrative structure that has repeated over a long period of time and in many different literary pieces. Masterplots can be simple to complex. For instance, there are many stories with the masterplot of a young boy who experiences something that serves as an initiation into adulthood.

Many masterplots derive from sweeping social /political / religious world-views passed down through the centuries. American literature developed the fairly new masterplot in the 1800s of the individual who can accomplish anything. This has come in literature to be known as the “Horatio Alger” story: the idea that, even if you are dirt poor and have seemingly no hope of a better future, through hard work and luck you can become a millionaire, or a leader, or somehow famous and anointed. Barak Obama, in many ways, has stirred the imagination of America because of the masterplot that, in this country, anyone can become president.

In the Middle Ages up through the Renaissance, almost all of the masterplots have a Judeo-Christian context. Many of the Christian masterplots remain strong in literature today, although in more secularly disguised forms. The many narratives of the Old and New Testaments have inspired and perpetuated variations of their stories. For instance, notice in class how a student pointed out that Gawain’s encounter with the Green Knight in the beginning of the poem resembles the story of David and Goliath.

The Genesis Story of the Fall of Man and Original Sin

There is perhaps no masterplot more prevalent in literature of the Middle Ages than the Fall of Man. In fact, the Genesis stories all remain powerful masterplots for literature today.

The Fall

One of the most common motifs that repeat in narratives of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance is the Genesis story of the Fall and Original Sin. Adam is the ultimate “archetypal” character in that he is the “first man,” and he gives into Eve’s temptation. Together, Adam and Eve break God’s one and only rule in the Garden, and as a result, they lost paradise and their consummate contact with God.  Generally, narrative theology and literature interprets Adam and Eve’s fall resulting from their lack of trust in God. Instead of having trust and faith in God, they trusted only themselves.

Various Narrative-types that Reflect the Fall.

Literature has reworked the Fall as a masterplot repeatedly up until today. It can be seen in numerous contexts and themes in narratives:

  1. The protagonist tempted by some representation of “forbidden fruit,” giving into temptation, losing some form of a “paradise.”
  2. The notion of the temptress, or “evil woman” throughout literature, referring back to the archetype of Eve.
  3. The story of a protagonist who is a good person, has some position of authority, power or well-being, and through some flaw, trusts only him/herself, or has too much pride, or can’t see beyond a particular interest, and has a fall.
  4. Any narrative that shows a movement from an original situation that is pure, or good, or innocent, or has a sense of well-being, and then turns into something impure, adulterated, ,guilty or unsettling.  The romantics loved poetry and narratives about how the growth from childhood to adulthood is like a fall, or losing paradise.
  5. Any narrative in which the protagonist diverts his / her faith in something other than God; or in which the protagonist does not fully or adequately have faith in God when he / she should.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight very much emphasizes the story of the Fall and Original Sin. The audience to the poem in the 1300s would have readily recognized all of the Biblical symbols and motifs in the poem, and they would have seen the narrative as a sort of illustration of the Genesis story of the Fall.

January 30, 2010 at 7:01 pm Leave a comment


Along with Dante and Shakespeare, Chaucer is one of the three or four most important figures in the history of literature. He is considered by many to be the father of English literature, particularly since he was the first major poet to use and to legitimate the vernacular English language in writing as opposed to Latin or French.

Chaucer’s Birth and Family

Chaucer was born in 1343 in London to a family of wine merchants. He began life, therefore, in a middle class background, which is a crucial aspect of his writing and the times he lived in. Unlike most authors and poets of his time –or any time up until the eighteenth century, for that matter — Chaucer’s life was well documented, mostly because he gained entrance to and traveled in illustrious and royal circles.

His big break came when he was a teenager. Since his father sold wine to members of nobility and royalty, he was able to get his son a job as a page to the court of the Countess of Ulster. This job essentially gave him a “foot in the door” to a career working with nobility and, eventually, royalty.

Chaucer’s Rise up the Aristocratic and Royal Ladder

After he was a page for the Countess, Chaucer worked for various members of nobility and for the state as a courier, a diplomat, a civil servant, and eventually for the king as a collector and surveyor of scrap metal (whatever that would have meant in the late 1300s).

During the early phase of the Hundred Year’s War, Chaucer went with the English army as part of King Edward III’s campaign against France, and was captured during the siege of Rheims in 1360. It is a testament to how valued Chaucer was that the King of England himself contributed the sum of money that released Chaucer from ransom, and returned him to England.

Chaucer’s Influential World Travelling

In his capacity as a diplomat and a envoy, Chaucer traveled all over Europe, a privilege only a small handful of people experienced. In his travels, he came into contact with a vast diversity of people from all social strata and cultures. In a diplomatic mission to Genoa and Florence in 1373, Chaucer came into contact with the burgeoning of the Renaissance, which had a giant influence on him and, as a result, the course of English literature. He came into contact with Italian poetry, narrative, painting and architecture. The writing, in particular, would influence The Canterbury Tales.

Chaucer Dies Having Known and Worked for Three English Kings

In the last fifteen or so years of his life, he ran Customs for the port of London for the King, a very executive job. During this time he started writing. In 1389, he was appointed to the important job of clerk of the King’s works, a sort of foreman job for planning and executing any of the kings building projects. One of his last jobs was as forester for King Richard II, who was overthrown by Henry IV. Despite the overthrow, Henry IV kept paying Chaucer’s pension until Chaucer died around 1400.

A middle class son of a wine dealer grew up to work in the service of three British kings, Edward III, Richard II and Henry IV, all who admired him, and he went on to write some of the most central pieces of English literature!

The Rise of a Middle (or Merchant) Class.

Chaucer’s incredible career reflects the changing social and economic structures of England in the late 1300s. Before the 1300s, as I discussed, there were basically two classes. There was the Nobility, the wealthiest one or two percent of England, and there were the Serfs, everyone else.

As centuries passed, families began to pass on skills at trades and crafts they would pass on. By the time of the 12th into the 13th century, the products that peasants or serfs were able to make became a commodity for exchange. Instead of importing goods, or having certain products costume made expensively, aristocrats and nobility began to buy from and realize the benefit of trading with domestic and local merchants. Instead of enslaving the masses to maintain agriculture, those with money began to cultivate certain populations for the products and services they could offer. Particularly as trade between nations began to grow, London evolved into a bustling port.

This collapse in the two class society created a more mobile middle class that broke from agricultural serfdom, and began to find economic autonomy servicing the rich and, as time goes on, each other. By the time of Shakespeare, the popularity of theater was the result of a rapidly grown middle class that has some disposable income and a desire for leisure earned after a work week.

Chaucer grew up and lived during this expansion of a merchant class. Because his father served an important recreational function for the wealthy — wine distribution — he had connections through clients that allowed Chaucer entrance into a noble and aristocratic world.

As he worked his way up the ladder in the aristocratic and royal world of London (much like a young person working his way up the corporate ladder), Chaucer had access to and enjoyed many of the privileges of nobility. Importantly, he was not aristocracy, nobility or royalty. Evidence shows that he knew and fraternized with all of them, including three kings, but there were certain realms in which he would not be included, such as a Grammar School or University education. But, because of Chaucer’s work and access, and because class barriers allowed him to associate with all walks of life, he had exposure to a vast variety of humanity and experience, which is reflected in his writing, particularly The Canterbury Tales.

In short, he was a true social and literary Renaissance man many decades before the Renaissance itself settled in England.

Even though Chaucer is one of the three or four most important figures in English literature, it is important to recognize that no one at the time, including himself, would have called him a “poet” or an “author.” Chaucer would have called designated himself at whatever job he worked, such as Comptroller, or Forester, never, “poet.”

Writing in the Middle Ages and the early Renaissance, was not a career. There were no career writers in England until the eighteenth century, when the publishing industry made it possible for writing to become a commercial enterprise.

Poets or narrators, like Chaucer, created their work on the side. They usually distributed their work to other members of the court or nobility in limited circulation. Or, as in the case of Sir Gawain, a poem was written and used for an aristocratic or royal event, like a wedding, birthday or holiday. The Canterbury Tales was more than likely distributed for readership amongst Chaucer’s friends and colleagues in the various aristocratic spheres he traveled.

Depending upon how you choose to interpret a work, audience can be an important factor. It could be significant to know, for instance, when you read “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” that only rich and noble men would have read it.

January 29, 2010 at 12:55 pm Leave a comment


In college, I had to read the entire Canterbury Tales in the Middle English, untranslated. Despite the fact that Chaucer’s masterwork is one of the most enchanting pieces of literature, I had a miserable experience. Therefore, I am giving you here two links to online translations of the Canterbury Tales, which is much easier reading, and you lose only a small amount of the original meaning.

However, read some parts of the General Prologue in the untranslated version in your book to get a feel for the original language, its cadence, its sound, and oftentimes its own historical and cultural beauty. Try to read some of the original version out loud to hear what it sounds like.

Here is a link to translation.

January 29, 2010 at 12:54 pm Leave a comment


Here are some questions for thinking, reading and writing that I wanted to offer you last Friday. Look through them all: I divided them up for each important section / stage of the poem. The questions can help you with reading, re-reading and interpretation.

The Opening Historical Invocation Juxtaposed to the Scene of Camelot.

1. Why does the narrator of the poem give a history of England from ancient Rome up until the point in which the poem begins? What effect does this condensing of history have? Following the history, the poet describes Camelot and their holiday partying. Why does the Yuletide description of Camelot follow the history? What does the description of Camelot say about King Arthur’s court?

The Entrance of the Green Knight.

2. How is the Green Knight received in Camelot when he enters? What opinion does he have of Camelot? Why do you think that Gawain volunteers to take up the Knight’s challenge of the beheading game? Why is Gawain essentially putting his head on the block? Why do you think the Green Knight comes to Camelot to invite this challenge?


3. Knowing the importance of courtesy in the poem, examine how Camelot treats the Green Knight?  Yes, the Green Knight is extremely odd — the jolly green giant carrying an ax — but he bears a great deal of symbolic expression in his attire and his voice that Camelot should be able to understand.

Gawain’s New Role.

4. What does Gawain represent when he takes on the Green Knight’s challenge? Why does Gawain volunteer?

5. Examine the symbolic language of Sir Gawain’s armor, and the care with which he dresses for his journey.  What does his armor say about Gawain and the kingdom he represents?

Gawain’s Perilous Journey

6. On Gawain’s “perilous journey” battling beasts and trudging through snow, he prays when he nearly freezes to death, and the Baron’s castle appears. Why should Gawain be suspicious of the castle in an Oasis of lawn and deciduous trees? What should it remind him of?

7. How is Gawain received at the Baron’s castle? Consider how Gawain is dressed and the various instruments he bears with him on Gringolet. How do you think Gawain should be received in contrast to his reception at the Castle? How does his reception parallel and contrast to the reception that the Green Knight receives at Camelot in part I?

The Exchange Game and Courtly Love — The Test of Gawain’s Virtue.

8. What should the Game of Exchange that the Baron proposes remind Gawain?  Examine the significance of Exchange games/challenges. What do thy test? What aspects of Gawain’s character and values are being tested / challenged?

9. Examine the paradoxical and excruciating position he is in with the Baron’s Lady?  How, in many ways, does Gawain find himself in a no-win situation for a Knight?  Remember the post of key concepts I had publishes a few days ago concerning the Knight and Courtly Love.

The Green Girdle: A Seriously Absurd and Absurdly Serious Symbol.

10. What does the “green girdle” represent in the context of Gawain’s quest, his virtue, Christianity, the whole kit-and-kaboodle?  In many ways, the climax of the narrative comes when Gawain accepts the Lady’s gift of the green girdle.  The audience to this poem would have gasped in recognition of this climactic moment. Why?  What does Gawain’s acceptance of the gift symbolize and why is it so important? In particular, why is it important that he does not give it to the Baron at the end of the day when Gawain received the fox?

Surprise! Gawain Caught on Candid Camera.

11. Did the Baron’s disguise as the Green Knight at the end of the narrative come as a surprise?  Should it have come as a surprise?  What  might it say about Gawain that he is taken by surprise by the ruse?  How does his surprise parallel the many twists and turns that carry Gawain along in the journey / plot?

The Judgment of Gawain. (Go on, get out of here, you rascal.)

12. What is the Baron’s attitude toward Gawain?  How does he judge the Knight?  According to the Baron, what are the results, so to speak, of Gawain’s test? What does the outcome of Gawain’s test / challenge say about not just Gawain, and not just Camelot, but all of humanity?

The New Hero? A New Dawn for Camelot?

13. Does Gawain return to Camelot in triumph?  Defeat? A combination of both? Does the conclusion of Gawain’s journey represent anything about human beings?

14. In honor of Gawain, everyone at Camelot sports green girdles. Now this is clearly meant to be funny — almost slapstick. At the same time, what does the green girdle come to represent?  Why is it significant that everyone wears it?

January 22, 2010 at 3:18 pm Leave a comment


Below are a series of questions for thinking and responding. I have offered some key quotes from the poem as a way to explore specific places in order to understand the whole of the poem. For your weekly writing, you may choose one or two questions I post, or anything else that interests you, and write a page or so response. This is a space for your to write freely, creatively, and unedited. I am not grading your weekly writing on content, but just that you do it. Consider this writing an opportunity to brainstorm ideas for a possible paper, and as an opportunity to explore interpretive approaches to the readings by writing down your thoughts. You are welcome to put your weekly writing in the Journals Section on Campus Cruiser, or on a Word document you attach in an e-mail. Most importantly, this shouldn’t be high pressure, but a relaxing and free way to explore on ideas, confusions, questions, thoughts, etc.

Even if you don’t choose to respond to one of these below, it is helpful to read the passages and the questions anyhow, for it will help you to piece the poem together and to interpret it.


Lines 85 – 94.

But Arthur would not eat till all were served;

So light was his lordly heart, and a little boyish;

His life he liked lively–the less he cared

To be lying for long, or long to sit,

So busy his young blood, his brain so wild.

What does the description of King Arthur say about him as a king? What does it say about Camelot? Why is this description important in the context of the poem, particularly in the beginning in which Camelot is depicted in full party mode?

Lines 309 – 315.

“What, is this Arthur’s house,” said the horseman then,

“Whose fame is so fair in far realms and wide?

Where is now your arrogance and your awesome deeds,

Your valor and your victories and your vaunting words?

Now are the revel and renown of the Round Table

Overwhelmed with a word of one man’s speech,

For all cower and quake, and no cut felt!”

Why are the words of the Green Knight to Camelot important?  What does it say about that which he challenges them in his test, the Beheading Game?  What is he testing?


Lines 763 – 768.

No sooner had Gawain signed himself thrice

Than he was ware, in the wood, of a wondrous dwelling,

With a moat, on a mound, bright amid boughs

Of many a tree great of girth that grew by the water–

A castle as comely as a knight could own,

On grounds fair and green, in a goodly park . . .

What is important about this vision of the Baron’s Castle, popping up out of thin air after Gawain prays to God and Mary that he won’t freeze to death?  What about the manifestation of the castle should make Gawain suspicious?  Why doesn’t he seem to notice anything symbolic about it? What do you think the poet intends the reader / audience to know about the Baron’s castle?


Lines 1770 – 1776

For that high-born beauty so hemmed him about,

Made so plain her meaning, the man must needs,

Either take her tendered love or distastefully refuse.

His courtesy concerned him, less crass he appear,

But more his soul’s mischief, should he commit sin

And  belie his loyal oath to the lord of the house.

“God forbid!” said the bold knight. “That shall not befall!”

In this moment with Gawain on the third night of his “test” at the Baron’s castle, he attempts to resist the scantily dressed Lady once again. How does this passage reflect the codes and paradoxes of Courtly Love?  What is Gawain’s excruciating position?  How are the last three lines in  particular a foreshadowing and an irony, knowing what Gawain does shortly?

Lines 1851 – 1858.

“For the man that possesses this piece of silk,

If he bore it on his body, belted about,

There is no hand under heaven that could hew him down,

For he could not be killed by any craft on earth.” [The Lady to Gawain]

Then the man began to muse, and mainly he thought

It was a pearl for his plight, the peril to come

When  he gains the Green Chapel to get his reward:

Could he escape unscathed, the scheme were noble!

Gawain accepts the Lady’s offer of the magical Green Girdle. This is the crucial moment of the poem. On what levels does Gawain greatly fail (fall) here?  In a Christian context, what does his action (accepting the green girdle) represent? What does it say about him as a human being and as a knight?  How harshly do you think we should or are meant to judge him?


Lines 2357 – 2368.

For that is my belt about you, that same braided girdle,

My wife is was that wore it; I know well the tale,

And the count of your kisses and your conduct too,

And the wooing of my wife–it was all my scheme!

She made trial of a man most faultless by far

Of all that ever walked over the wide earth;

So it is Gawain, in good faith, to other gay knights.

Yet you lacked, sir, a little in loyalty there,

But the cause was not cunning, nor courtship either,

But that you loved your own life; the less, then, to blame.”

The Green Knight reveals himself to be the Baron of the Castle. He does so jovially, all in good humor. How does he address Gawain here, and how does he judge him?  He claims that Gawain’s only two faults were lacking a little loyalty with his wife, and loving his own life. How do you think the poet wants us to judge Gawain based upon this, particuarly in a Christian context?


January 22, 2010 at 3:16 pm Leave a comment


Symbols were of great importance to the medieval world. Everything in the world — objects, people, events — had symbolic weight. Today, in 2009, we still live in a world that we understand through symbolic expression, but on a different level than the Middle Ages.

What is the Symbol?

Carl Jung theorized in the early twentieth century that our unconscious is shaped by a collective of symbols that we inherit and pass down to each other, known as Archetypal Psychology.
Carl Jung theorized in the early twentieth century that our unconscious is shaped by a collective of symbols that we inherit and pass down to each other, known as Archetypal Psychology.

Every critic, scholar, theologian, hermeneuticist has his or her own interpretation of the symbol, its function and expression. But there is general agreement that the symbol is an object, entity, image, mark (etc) that represents something else by resemblance, association or convention. There are myriad forms in which symbols become manifest, a great deal of them which we recognize reflexively. For instance, we instinctively know the red means stop, whereas green means go. This is color symbolism at the simplest. We know that a yellow diamond shaped sign with a black zig-zag arrow means that the road ahead will have several twists and turns.

On a more c0mplex end of symbolism, all language is essentially symbolic. Words are not the objects themselves which they represent. Words are images /marks / illustrations that represent the thing they signify. In other words, the word “cat” is not the cat itself, but represents the object or idea of a cat.

Paul Tillich, the early twentieth century existential theologian, was one of the most cogent writer concerning symbolism. He made a crucial claim about symbols. According to Tillich, whereas a sign merely points to the thing for which it refers, a symbol signifies and participates in that which it signifies. For example, the American flag is a piece of cloth, a mere object. Yet, it signifies a whole shit load of concepts and emotions. But when we see or address the flag, it does not remain separate from the things it represents. The flag becomes almost one in the same with that which it represents, participating in the ideas of freedom, equality, patriotism, etc. (Sometime such participation can create interpretive friction. Consider the huge flag-burning debate in the 1980s that cost Michael Dukakis the presidency. Now thinking of this, consider the Eucharist debates during the Reformation that tore Europe nearly apart. Does the bread and wine become the body and blood, or does it symbolize the body and blood of Christ only by representing it?)

The Symbolic Mind of the Middle Ages

The mind and the eyes of people in the Middle Ages saw the world through the lens of Christianity, and the Church’s vast array of symbols. Bible interpretation of the early Church in particular developed the notion that people, objects and events all have hidden and latent meaning. A great deal of symbolic and metaphorical understanding of literary interpretation derives from such figures as St. Augustine, who brought coherence and unity between the Old and New Testaments by claiming that everything in the Old Testament are “figures” or “types” that foreshadow the events (particularly Christ) of the New Testament.

Augustine may very well be the most important and influential figures in the relam of not just symbols, but our understanding of language. Many scholars argue that he is the father of semiotics.
Augustine may very well be the most important and influential figures in the relam of not just symbols, but our understanding of language. Many scholars argue that he is the father of semiotics.

Augustine and other early Church fathers developed a sacramental theology, in which everything becomes a signifier for a greater and transcendent Truth of God. As the years passed up until the time we are currently studying, the 1300s, symbolic language had become extremely complex and diffuse within the vision and thought of everyone. It spilled over into “fringe” sorts of realms, too, like omens, superstitions, numerology, prognostications. Augustine’s obsession with the Trinity compelled him to see threes and triples in everything in life, and this sort of thinking led many thinkers to see significance and coincidences in all kinds of numbers. Apocalyptic date-setting become not only popular, but could lead to mass panic at certain periods in history, like the year 1000, 1666, 2000, and, as I understand it, whatever year coming up soon that everyone claims that Mayans predicted the world would end.Catholicism had developed lengthy interpretations of the numbers one through ten that had vast theological meanings.

Bottom line, most people in the Middle Ages saw the world around them in terms of symbols. They were guided by a visual world in which everything in nature became a sign for something transcendent, much like the way in which road-signs guide us in our travels.

Symbols and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

The poet made Sir Gawain a symbol-rich text, both because of the allegorical significance he / she tried to express, and because symbolic language was second-nature. Often symbols in the poem are not necessarily important because of what they represent, but whether or not the characters recognize them. I dwelt upon the entrance of the Green Knight into Camelot because it is important to realize how much King Arthur and his Knights do not recognize the blatant symbolism that accompanies their visitor. This blindness instantly reveals Camelot’s youth, but it also represents how Camelot needs to take their eyes away from those “earthly” things that make them love life so much, and direct their vision toward higher Christian truths and values.

Importantly, Gawain fails to recognize symbolism that glares him in the face during his journey. The poet utilizes a great deal of dramatic irony to reveal symbolic ignorance. Dramatic irony means when a poet shows a protagonist(s) unaware of ideas or events that are clearly apparent to the reader. One of the most clear uses of dramatic irony is the horror movie motif of a woman wandering through a house unaware of the zombie axe murderer that we know has crept into her bedroom (or some variation of this scenario). The most famous use of dramatic irony is the ancient Greek play Oedipus the King. Oedipus commands a ruthless investigation of the kingdom to find the murderer, while the whole time we know that Oedipus is, ironically, looking for himself.

When a Castle appears in an oasis of “green” after Gawain prays for salvation, we know that this must be somehow part of the GREEN Knight, although Gawain seems ignorant. The Baron’s Game of Exchange does not seem to make Gawain suspicious.

The crucial time that Gawain seems to recognize the symbolic significance of something is when the Lady offers him the magical green girdle. Importantly, though, Gawain accepts it anyhow.

January 22, 2010 at 3:14 pm Leave a comment


Coventry, a beautiful city in Midlands, England. It was nearly flattned by German bombers during the blitz in World War II.

There are several important issues central to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and the cultural period in which it was written.

The poem was written around 1350, which is a rough estimate. We have no idea who the author was, which is why he or she is referred to usually as “the Gawain Poet.” Obviously, it was written by someone with a great deal of learning. Untranslated, the poem is in a high Mid-lands Middle English, meaning the author came from somewhere north of London, perhaps near the Cambridge or Oxford area. What you are reading is a translated version. In the original Middle English, you would have a very difficult time understanding it.

More than likely the poem was written for an aristocratic or royal family to be the centerpiece of Yuletide celebrations. It seems meant to be read before an audience, perhaps with children present, sitting around a fire. Notice how there is definitely a narrative voice, the poet posing as a storyteller who recounts a narrative meant to be both entertaining and educational.

The Romance

The poem reflects and uses many social conventions and norms of the fourteenth century. It is a product of a literary tradition that had been developing for a couple of centuries known as the Romance. The Romance was born in France in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. It was derived from Roman stories of adventure–hence the “roman” in Romance. The medieval romances were usually long prose and poetic narratives about the travels and adventures of knights of a royal court. Most Romances involved tests, challenges, and quests that deal with moral issues of Christianity.

King Arthur, legendary and mythical hero of England.

King Arthur and Camelot

In England, the Romance was most influenced by the legend of Camelot. Derived from chronicles, mostly believed to be fictional, Arthur was an early Briton who fought off the Romans in England during the fall of the Holy Roman Empire. King Arthur and his royal court of Camelot is (despite some people who like to try to prove it was real) a myth, probably generated for nationalistic reasons in the twelfth century. King Arthur was one of the original kings of England who took the country out of the hegemony of the Roman Empire. He ruled with a judicious and Christian hand, and formed around his round table at Camelot a group of loyal knights who honored him and protected the kingdom for Christianity. Camelot has come to represent in literature all that is great and noble about England–despite its legendary and ignoble fall from grace.

The Roman Catholic Church

The Roman Catholic Church is central to Romance, British literature from the thirteenth to the sixteenth century, and British culture and politics in general. Since the collapse of the Roman Empire in the sixth and seventh centuries, Europe and England fell into a long period of disarray, what truly was the “Dark Ages.” The Roman Empire had offered continuity, stability and law for many centuries that came to a sudden end. Christianity, which had been established by the Roman Empire in the fourth century, became assimilated by the “barbarians,” and by the ninth and tenth centuries, Christianity was diffuse across all of Europe and England. The Roman Catholic Church was the one and only Church for nine or ten centuries. Although the Catholic Church had an authoritarian control over pretty much everything, it also offered Europe the unity, stability and continuity lost after the fall of Rome. So it was a double-edged sword: the Church was a bit like dictatorship, but it also created a much needed stability.

The PROS of the Roman Catholic Church:

It unified the disparate peoples and societies left behind by the collapse of Rome. All parishioners, anyone who entered the Church, was equal in the eyes of God. Therefore, aristocrats and peasants all sat in the same Church. The Church offered many hopeless people something in which to believe.

The CONS of the Roman Catholic Church:

Well, it was the only gig around. Because it was the ONLY Church, Rome had a monopoly over salvation. You had to gain salvation through the offices of the Church. Therefore, the Church could single-handedly damn you. Excommunication from the Church was a fate worse than death for many. This kind of control wielded by the Church grew insidious and sinister as the centuries passed. Particularly for a population dominantly illiterate, the Church could exploit vast amounts of faithful. This led, of course, to the practice of Indulgences, which meant that people who were excommunicated, or fallen from the Church’s graces, or who had loved ones trapped in Purgatory, could pay a Pardoner money he would bring to the Pope to pray for your soul, and get you back into the Church. The Church essentially extorted large sums of money out of millions of poor people, which led eventually to Martin Luther’s criticism, his split from the Church, and the start of the Reformation.

The Crown

The other dominant, ruling power during this period was the King. Therefore, in the Middle Ages, two separate but equally powerful entities ruled all of Europe: The Church and the Crown. The institution of a King essentially developed from both the notion of a Caesar and the Nordic kinsman. Essentially, a King was the wealthiest and most powerful figure in a large area around whom everyone else gathered to seek protection. In return for protection, the people would work for the kingdom. As a result, the society of the Middle Ages for many centuries was divided exclusively between Royalty (Nobility) and Serfs. Nobility accounted for as little as one percent of the population, who owned and controlled most of the land, and everyone else (Serfs) who tended the land in return for protection. This bifurcation between Serfs and Nobility began to break down with the birth of the merchant class, which started happening around the time of Sir Gawain, but an issue I will reserve for Chaucer.

The Knights
The Knight’s armor was important not just for protection, but for its symbolic value. Notice how much time the Gawain Poet spends on describing Gawain arming himself before he goes on his quest for the Green Knight.

The Knight

For literature, and for our purposes, the Knight is one of the most important figures for both the Crown and the Church. The Knight was a nobleman who serves both the King and the Catholic Church. His duties are to protect the values and the court of the King and to protect the morality and truth of the Church. Therefore, the Knight’s calling is one that must be of the most virtuous. The Knight’s duty is to be the best example of virtue and good works for a kingdom. Therefore, in all of the Knight’s activities, he must always protect the Church and the faithful–including Serfs, members of monasteries, aristocrats, any faithful–from evil at the same time that he must protect the kingdom. Therefore, a Knight must be exemplary in both word and deed.


You will notice that the word courtesy, and the issue of being courteous, shows up on almost every page of Sir Gawain. Courtesy in the fourteenth century means something far more important than the please, thank-you, holding open doors and shaking hands it does today. Notice that the word courtesy has the word court in it. To be courteous means to uphold and demonstrate all of the high values and virtues of the King’s court. Therefore, courtesy means to be faithful, virtuous, a defender of truth, a fighter of the devil, and a resister of temptation. So when Gawain feels the burden of being courteous, it means everything that he must uphold and defend in the name of Camelot.

By the 1600s, there were many guide books on how to engage in courtly romance, The Courtier being the most famous.
By the 1600s, there were many guide books on how to engage in courtly romance, The Courtier being the most famous.

Courtly Love (or Chivalry).

A lot of misunderstanding has surrounded the medieval notion of courtly love. It has a very rich and central tradition in literature, and has come down to us enveloped in a haze of romance. Courtly love means the romantic interaction between a knight (or nobleman) and an already taken Lady of the court. (Not quite as hygienic as we’d want!) The idea between courtly love is that a knight falls in love with a Lady who is already married or arranged for marriage. The Knight cannot ever act upon his desires, but all of his actions for the Lady have the goal of sleeping with her. A great paradoxical situation, to say the least! If the Knight acts upon his desires, he shames the calling of his vocation, and fails in being courteous. Therefore, the Knight engages in a complex series of Platonic maneuvers designed to sleep with the Lady while never doing so, maintaining the intensity of his love for her while restraining his physical desires. So the Knight will ply the Lady with gifts, with music, with poetry and with adventurous deeds, like slaying a dragon in her name, fighting a battle for her, winning in a tournament, etc. Too, the Knight will do everything he can to protect her from malevolent forces, to save her from danger, etc.

In the legend of King Arthur, Lancelot engaged in a courtly love-romance with Guinevere. The tragedy of Camelot is that Lancelot did sleep with Guinevere, dooming his reputation and destroying his calling, sullying the Queen, and nearly bringing down the Arthur’s kingdom.

The idea of courtly love has its Christian centrality. For a Knight to resist his desires for a Lady, he fights off the evil of temptation. Courtly love becomes a moral test for the Knight, which he must endure. In many ways, the greater the suffering, the more the Knight virtuously succeeds.

As the Middle Ages drifts into the Renaissance and the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, courtly love becomes a very complex social thing, with its own detailed codes of conduct, rules and regulations. In the seventeenth century, several exemplary books of conduct were written, The Courtier being one of the most famous. In literature, the concept of courtly love transformed into the most common theme of romance in poetry of the Renaissance, unrequited love. Central to most sonnet cycles of the time is the narrative of a poet who falls for a woman who does not love him in return, either for personal reasons or because she is already taken. In the sonnet cycles, the poet does everything possible to win her love, and eventually burns out on his own passion.

The Journey and Quest

The most common narrative motif in all of literature is the journey and/or quest. HERE IS ONE OF MY BIGGEST TIPS TO ALL ENGLISH STUDENTS. Nearly every piece of literature can be interpreted as being metaphorical of a journey or quest.

The journey / quest can mean, of course, many things. Most literature from antiquity up until the Renaissance involves a hero who sets out on a journey in quest of something, undergoes many adventures, hardships, tests, travails. Often a tragedy and comedy is distinguished by the result of a journey or quest. If the hero finds what he needs or fulfills some desire, the narrative is a Comedy. If the opposite, it is a Tragedy.

Literature came to birth as a journey narrative: The Illiad and the Odyssey, particularly the latter. The most famous quest narrative is, in many ways, the search for the Holy Grail.  The Grail quest has developed into many different narratives in which a protagonist searches for something divine, magical, or something that holds a key to great power, answers, wishes, knowledge, etc.

Too, in journey / quest narratives, it is significant if the hero returns home in the end, or moves on. If he returns home, you have the stability of a full circle, and a sense of completion. If the hero moves on, the narrative becomes open-ended, leading to uncertainty and the promise of a sequel.

In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Gawain leaves Camelot on a journey in quest of the Greene Chapel and the Greene Knight, in order to fulfill his end of the bargain. In the end, he returns to Camelot, enacting a full-circle.

With a journey / quest motif, you should try to interpret what the hero searches for beyond the literal, and what his return home or continuing on represents. Here is another big hint: Almost all journey and quest narratives have as a dominating theme the search for self-knowledge.

I know this is quite reductive, and it is. What a good interpreter must do is seek a more detailed and specific interpretation beneath the general one. In other words, it won’t do much good to argue in every paper you write in college or graduate school that the piece of literature is about the protagonists search for self-knowledge.

In the case of Gawain, the weakest and most inexperienced Knight in Camelot, try to think to yourself what specific knowledge about himself he searches, and what he discovers concerning himself as an individual and a member of a Church and a kingdom.

January 18, 2010 at 1:17 pm Leave a comment

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