A Re-Hearing of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

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A Re-Hearing of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

As J.A. Burrow has recently reminded us, Middle English literature "requires the silent reader to resist, if he can, the tyranny of the eye and to hear. Certain of the writings ... make a further requirement. They treat the reader, not just as a hearer, but as an audience or group of hearers" (Medieval Writers 1). Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is such a poem, a literate composition designed for oral performance, bearing the imprint of a poet skilled at once in manipulating a text and using it to affect his audience in ways outside the scope of the oral poet. It is with this dynamic between text and audience in mind that I approach the process of "re-hearing" Sir Gawain. In doing so I hope to achieve some clarification of what Tolkien referred to as one of the "structural failures" of the poem the failure of Mary, Gawain's protectress, to receive any further acknowledgement after Gawain twice asks her help, during his journey and in the final temptation scene.

Studies of structural repetition (Howard 1964, 430-33; Burrow 1966, 87-97) and numerological patterning (Hieatt 1968, 129-31; Eckhardt 1980, 141-55) demonstrate the Gawain-poet's ability to exploit the spatial and temporal control afforded by the technology of writing (Ong 1971, 23-27). As Kent Hieatt has shown, he consciously uses numerological patterns. Line 2,525, the last long line of the poem, echoes the opening line and reinforces the emphasis given to five and twenty-five in the description of the pentangle. In a similar manner, notes Hieatt, in the "companion poem Pearl, the line that echoes the first line of the poem is 1,212, and 12 is probably the significant numerical structure in the poem" (Eckhart, 1980, 65-78). While such numerological structuring would of course go unnoticed by an audience during performance, its existence gives us a picture of a poet able to apply a fairly sophisticated process of organization to the physical text. In this paper I will examine another method of textual structuring, one which deals primarily with color patterns rather than numerical sequences, though predictably the two appear to be interrelated.

The poem deals almost exclusively and abundantly in reds and greens. Red, the color of Gawain's symbol of perfection, the red-gold pentangle on a red field, appears

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