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The Syngne of Surfet and the Surfeit of Signs in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

The Syngne of Surfet and the Surfeit of Signs in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

[152] Sir Gawain and the Green Knight contains many words and terms that ask for more than a narrowly secular reading of the poem to account for them. Examples that come readily to mind include "couetyse" (2374), "faut" (2435), "teches" (2436), "surquidré" (2457), and "surfet" (2433).1 These and other words possess strong theological valence, and they are as important to interpreting the poem as are words that derive from courtly or heroic or other codes. As part of a book in progress, "The Knot Why Every Tale is Told": Toward a Poetics of the Knot in Western Literature from the Classics to the Renaissance, I am preparing a study of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight that focusses on the figure of the knot in the poem, its relation to the similar figure in Dante's Commedia, especially the Paradiso, and the importance of the figure to understanding the theological vocabulary of Sir Gawain. The following remarks derive from this study-in-progress, and although necessarily they must abbreviate many of my findings to date, they still provide a reliable sketch of several crucial elements in the figure of the knot in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, especially the "syngne of surfet" and the surfeit of signs in the poem.2

Near the end of Sir Gawain, Gawain explains why he accepts the Green Knight's offer of the green girdle: not for its fabulous worth nor for its curious workmanship,[153]

`Bot in syngne of my surfet I schal se hit ofte,

When I ride in renoun, remorde to myseluen

þe faut and þe fayntyse of þe flesche crabbed,

How tender hit is to entyse teches of fylþe.'

2433-36

Throughout the latter part of his adventure, of course, Gawain identifies his error by many names (most notably, perhaps, by the crucial pair of terms, "cowarddyse and couetyse"--2374), but "surfet" is, by no means, the least of these.3 Echoing as it does "surquidré," which the Green Knight says he came to "assay" in Arthur's court (2457), and in many ways synonymous with superbia, "surfet" points to that excess traditionally known as pride; and here it is probably best taken to refer to an excess of self-reliance, a pride of mind: Gawain relies on his own "good" judgment in deciding to take the green girdle from Bertilak's Lady when, in fact, his judgment, far from good, is actually corrupt--and corrupt, moreover, in a particular way.

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