The alliterative poems Pearl and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight unite traditional Celtic mythology with Christian orthodoxy to produce a distinctly

The alliterative poems Pearl and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight unite traditional Celtic mythology with Christian orthodoxy to produce a distinctly

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The alliterative poems Pearl and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight unite traditional Celtic mythology with Christian orthodoxy to produce a distinctly British Christianity

The Catholic church in fourteenth century England was undergoing a convulsion. The church was unable to explain why God inflicted the Black Plague on the citizenry, or to conjure up his mercy and end the suffering and death. The Babylonian Captivity saw the papacy in Avignon, under the influence if not the direct control of the hated French. Even when Rome once again became the seat of the Holy See, the Great Western Schism divided the loyalties of Christians between the two rival popes -- who excommunicated each other and all the other's followers. Corruption among the hierarchy of priests and bishops seemed epidemic.

As ever, "The obvious alternative, for anyone wishing to withdraw from the ideological and bureaucratic complexities of the Christian empire, was to return to the simplicity of the Church's founder," (Saul 544). We still see this today, in evangelical and fundamentalist Christian sects.

Lollardy was one reaction to the church's apparent loss of direction. John Wyclif and his followers disavowed the authority of the papacy, the truth of the sacraments, and the dogma and doctrines of the Catholics church.

The alliterative poems Pearl and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight also turn away from the orthodoxy of the Catholic church. By the subtle yet simple technique of excluding Catholic doctrines, and by adapting the mythical British past into the Christian present, these poems illustrate the development of a specifically British Christianity.

While the poems may seem to approve of Lollardy, we would be in error in believing that. Rather, these heretical views all flow from a common wellspring in the English character that would later lead to Protestantism and the establishment of the Church of England.

Veneration of the Virgin Mary was to be scornfully dubbed "Mariolotry" by Protestants, but was at the time (and remains) a central doctrine of Catholicism. Teachings of the church "formed so vital a part of literary backgrounds" (Ackerman 81) that someone unfamiliar with Catholicism would fail to understand the literature of the period. Both Pearl and Gawain treat as normal veneration of the Virgin Mary. This is, however, the only piece of Catholic orthodoxy these poems contain; all the other Christian symbols and allusions are taken directly from the Bible, not the church. Gawain does mention in passing St. Julian (774) and St.

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Peter (813), but is otherwise free of the host of saints that populate Catholic mythology, and "whose heroism is regularly invoked by other religious texts," (Watson 309).

The poems avoid the accusations of heresy that dogged Lollardy; they do not criticize the existing church. "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is by no means a tract for the times. Its allusions to contemporary events, if they exist at all, are slight and glancing, and no more than suggestive," (Bennett 90). Instead, the Gawain-poet reaches back to a mythical English history. When Romulus founded Rome, his fellow veteran of the Trojan War, Brutus, founded Britain (stanza 1). Britain is a more marvellous place than anywhere else in the world: "Mo ferlyes on þis folde han fallen here oft / þen in any oþer þat I wot, syn þat ilk tyme," (23-4).

Pearl never hints at the breakdown of the church in the fourteenth century. "Christian doctrine is not propounded in abstraction, but is discussed with close reference to the realities of the human condition," (Andrew 36).

Pearl is a consolatio, a poem of consolation. The poem is a dream-vision; a jeweller is overwhelmed by his grief for his dead daughter; he clings to her, valuing her even above that "pearl of great price" (Matthew 13:46), the Kingdom of Heaven. It is significant that the Dreamer's guide in this vision is not a priest or pope, nor some officially-canonized saint, but his own daughter, born in England and buried in her soil, appearing to him as a grown woman and a "quene of heuen" (423). "Central to its meaning is the transformation of the Dreamer's state of mind from anguished and rebellious mourning at the beginning to mourning no less intense, but tempered by the ordering of a new metaphysic at the end," (Andrew 30). The Dreamer should not, of course, value corporeal things more than spiritual, but this lesson need not be taught by priests, or a church hierarchy; it requires only knowledge of and faith in the Bible.

"The [Pearl]-poet's clearest and most enduring debt is to the text of Scriptures found in the Latin Vulgate" (Newhhauser 257). The pearl-maiden retells two sections of the Bible: the parable of the workers in the vineyard from "The Gospel According to St. Matthew", and the vision of the Holy City from "The Revelation of St. John the Divine".

Two points are worth remarking. The poem draws exclusively from the Bible itself, rather than on the doctrines of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. And the poem translates the Bible into English, at a time when John Wyclif and his followers attracted suspicion for doing exactly that. The poet brings the Bible to the British people in a familiar and comfortable way, in their own language, through the voice of an ordinary British girl.

"An element of central importance to the poem is the pearl-maiden's extended sermon on the Parable of the Vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16)," (Ackerman 14). The poet retells this parable in its entirety (500-575). While this may seem excessive, let us recall that Bible ownership was not common in these pre-press days, and those copies that did exist were in Latin.

When the parable's dissatisfied labourers, who have worked all day only to receive the same wage as those who have worked only one hour, complain to their employer, he says simply, "Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own?" (Matthew 20:15). We might read this as God saying, "Salvation is mine, to give to whomever I choose, regardless of how much work they've done for me," -- that is, one is saved not by one's works, but by the grace of God alone -- a Lollard doctrine (and one found today in Anglicanism), not a Catholic one. Catholics have drawn on other parts of the Bible to support the idea that the we must perform good deeds against the spiritual credit God gives us toward salvation, for example: "and they were judged every man according to their works," (Revelation 20:13). The poet thus separates the English strain of Christianity from the dogma of the distant Catholic church.

The Camelot romances attempt to add a specifically English aspect to Christianity. The Knights of the Round Table sought the Holy Grail, the cup used at the Last Supper. It was supposedly used to scoop up Jesus's blood at the crucifixion, and entrusted to Joseph of Arimathaea, who brought it by unknown means and motive to England. Unfortunately, there is nothing in the Bible about any Holy Grail, or catching Jesus's blood (which detail seems quite gruesome). Joseph of Arimathaea is barely mentioned in the Gospels (Matthew 27:57-60, Mark 15:43-46, Luke 24:50-53, and John 19:38); in each case he asks Pontius Pilate for Jesus's body, wraps it in fine linen, and entombs it. So the Grail legend is not Biblical. It is, rather, an attempt to integrate Britain into Christian mythology. We see frequent examples of individuals or peoples claiming legitimacy by making themselves part of established legend. The Anglican hymn "Jerusalem" (lyrics by William Blake) tries to integrate England into Christian mythology: "And did those feet in ancient time / Walk upon England's mountains green? / And was the holy Lamb of God / On England's pleasant pastures seen?" The singer pledges never to rest "'Til we have built Jerusalem / In England's green and pleasant land."

"Sir Gawain and the Green Knight owes very little to the Bible by way of direct paraphrase," (Newhauser 258). But it owes a tremendous debt to traditional Celtic legend. The Beheading Game the Green Knight proposes comes from Celtic tales. From the Irish Knights of the Red Branch, "the court of Conchobar [is a] model for that of King Arthur and the deeds of [his nephew] Cuchulainn for those of Arthur's nephew, Sir Gawain" (Campbell 330n). Gawain has another ancestor in Gwalchmei from the Welsh epic Mabinogion; their horses have the same name, Gryngolet. The character also appears in the Welsh Culhwch Ac Olwen; "Gwalchmei was Arthur's nephew and his sister's son" (Jones 175); he got stronger until noon, and then weaker until sunset. Gawain lives up to Christian ideals, but also exemplifies the mythological British chivalric code of honour. The poet unites both the Christian and British ideals, saying that they are equally compatible with the British character.

The poem illustrates a significant amalgamation of traditional Celtic and Christian symbolism when Gawain outfits himself for his journey to the Green Chapel (stanza 25). First he puts on clothes and armour, described in as great a detail as are the Green Knight's (stanzas 8-10). In full armour, Gawain goes to Mass at the High Altar: "So harnayst as he wat3 he herknez his masse / Offred and honoured at the he3e auter" (592-3). Thus Gawain girds himself in two different ways, physically and spiritually, for the fate (certain death) that awaits him.

And then, interestingly, the poet dwells at length on Gawain's third method of protection, his shield. The shield has a pentangle on the front, "depaynt of pure golde hwez" (620), and the poet pauses to explain "quy þe pentangel apendez to þat prynce noble" (623): it is a symbol used by Solomon in the Old Testament "in bytoknyng of trawþe" (626). This is not Biblical; it seems rather an attempt to co-opt a pagan symbol to Christian purpose. (Further to this point, we might note that Gawain sets out on All Hallow's Day -- a pagan feast day co-opted by Christianity and still celebrated as Hallowe'en.) Certainly the attention and detail that the poet lavishes on justifying its Christian nature suggests that it was not familiar as a Christian symbol to the audience of his day. It is a familiar symbol, however: "englych hit callen / oueral as I here þe endeles knot" (629-30).

The poet claims that "Each of the five points of the heraldic pentangle on Gawain's shield itself comprises a pentad of virtues or conditions of virtue" (Allen 182) that Gawain embodies: his five senses (and their keenness), his five fingers (and their sureness), the five wounds Christ suffered on the Cross (representing Gawain's faith), the five joys the Virgin Mary had in Jesus (Annunciation, Nativity, Resurrection, Ascension, Assumption), and the five chivalric virtues (generosity, brotherly love, purity, courtesy, and piety).

On the back of the shield is an image of the Virgin Mary, facing Gawain, "þat quen he blusched þerto his belde neuer payred" (650): "The Virgin's image operates similarly to the lady's girdle as an object actively effective in achieving victory," (Allen 182). The shield thus incorporates both Christian and pagan icons -- Gawain drawing strength from the Christian aspect, and repelling his enemies with the co-opted pagan. His defence depends on a melding of the Christian and the pagan.

Would it be overly analytical to say that Gawain's three means of protection parallel the Holy Trinity? His armour represents the Father; both are the foundations of salvation. Attending Mass represents the Holy Ghost; both are non-physical, non-corporeal. And the shield represents the Son, straddling the old pagan world and the new Christian one.

Sir Gawain rides forth to meet his destiny, seeking the Green Chapel and having adventures along the way. He spends the Christmas holy days at Castle Hautdesert.

Gawain's host at Castle Hautdesert engages him in a game, an Exchange of Winnings: for the next three days, each night they will give each other the prizes they have earned that day. The Lord spends his days hunting, and Gawain spends his lounging about the castle. "Bertilak engages in an expenditure of physical energy, while Gawain, immobilized, suffers a trial both of moral constancy and mannered courtesy. Bertilak's arena is nature, Gawain's society," (Conrad 22). That green is the colour of new growth and nature becomes more significant when we learn that the Green Knight and Bertilak are the same person: pagan nature confronts Christian society.

Lady Bertilak tempts Gawain to adultery, both a sin and an offence to his host's hospitality, "bot he defended hym so fayr þat no faut semed / ne non euel on naw þer halue naw þer þay wysten" (1551-2). (There is some echo here of the tale of Joseph importuned by Potiphar's wife (Genesis 39:7-19).) Gawain is in a difficult spot, "nurnd hym so ne3e þe þred þat nede him bihoued / oþer lach þer hir luf oþer lodly refuse" (1771-2): he can either give in to temptation and commit a sin, or refuse the lady and violate his chivalric courtesy. Here the Bible would seem to be clear: "Thou shalt not commit adultery," (Exodus 20:14, Deuteronomy 5:18). The chivalric virtues are a further code Gawain must live up to -- and it must be noted that this code does not emanate from the doctrines of the Catholic Church, but from native Celtic mythology.

The final temptation the Lady offers him is not herself, but her green girdle. She "for quat gome so is gorde with þis Green lace / while he hit hade hemely halched aboute / þer is no haþel vnder heuen tohewe hym þat my3t / for he my3t not be slayn for sly3t upon erþe" (1851-4). Gawain realizes, of course, that this might be just the thing he needs to survive his upcoming encounter with the Green Knight, and accepts the girdle. The parallel here is clear: "The Gawain-poet sees the Fall of Man re-enacted in the actual sins of individual human beings," (Schmidt 167). Once again it is a woman who tempts man, as Eve tempted Adam in Eden (Genesis 3:6). Further, he does not hand over the girdle to Bertilak, as the Exchange of Winnings game dictates he must. For entirely understandable reasons, Gawain fails the test and succumbs to temptation.

Gawain finally confronts the Green Knight to receive his return blow in the Beheading Game. The Green Knight swings twice, and merely nicks Gawain's neck the third time; this nick he calls "hatz þe penaunce apert of þe poynt of myn egge" (2392). Thus "what we thought of as the main adventure, the Beheading Game, is only a verdict on Gawain's apparently minor 'adventures' in Castle Hautdesert, where Gawain slightly failed a test in complete ignorance of the fact that he was being tested," (Putter 43).

Gawain returns to Camelot, where he relates his adventures, confesses his shame, and vows to wear the green girdle for the rest of his life as "þe laþe and þe losse þat I la3t haue / of couardise and couetyse" (2507-8). The court comforts him, and then agrees "þat lordes and ladies þat longed to þe table / vche burne of þe broþerhede a bauderyk schulde haue / a bende abelef hym aboute of a bry3t grene" (2515-2517). This parallels Christ, as Jesus "endured the cross, despising the shame" (Hebrews 12:2), and the cross became a symbol of pride to Christians.

Both Gawain and Pearl finish with a Christian flourish: "at the end of Pearl [...] the poet insists, without irony, that 'Hit is ful eþe to be god Krystyin' (1202)," (Aers 101). Gawain asks "now þat here þe croun of þorne / he bryng vs to his blysse amen" (2529-30). Both poems reaffirm their faith in God and his Son, having tested Christianity against native British challenges. We find that "Rather than the poor Christ of St. Francis and Piers Plowman, or the teacher of love and kindness in the figure of the Samaritan, or the radical teacher of Lollardy, we encounter a Christ made in the image of a courtly Christianity, one who would have been at home in Camelot or the courts of late medieval England," (Aers 99).

Works cited

Robert W. Ackerman. Backgrounds to Medieval English Literature. New York: Random House, 1966.

David Aers. "Christianity for Courtly Subjects: Reflections on the Gawain-Poet" in A Companion to the Gawain-Poet, pp. 91-101. Derek Brewer and Jonathan Gibson, editors. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1997.

Valerie Allen. "Sir Gawain: Cowardyse and the Fourth Pentad" in The Review of English Studies, vol. XLIII (1992), pp. 181-93. R.E. Alton, editor. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992.

Malcolm Andrew and Ronald Waldron, editors. The Poems of the Pearl Manuscript. London: Edward Arnold, 1978.

Michael J. Bennett. "The Historical Background" in A Companion to the Gawain-Poet, pp. 71-90. Derek Brewer and Jonathan Gibson, editors. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1997.

Joseph Campbell. The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972.

Peter Conrad. The Everyman History of English Literature. London: J.M. Dent and Sons, 1985.

God et al. Holy Bible, King James Version. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Gwyn Jones and Thomas Jones, translators. "Culhwch and Olwen" in The Literature of Medieval England, pp. 172-86. D.W. Robertson Jr, editor. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1970.

Richard Newhauser. "Sources II: Scriptural and Devotional Sources" in A Companion to the Gawain-Poet, pp. 257-75. Derek Brewer and Jonathan Gibson, editors. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1997.

Ad Putter. An Introduction to the Gawain-poet. New York: Addison Wesley Longman, 1996.

Felicity Riddy. "Jewels in Pearl" in A Companion to the Gawain-Poet, pp. 142-55. Derek Brewer and Jonathan Gibson, editors. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1997.

Elizabeth Salter. Fourteenth-Century English Poetry: Contexts and Readings. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983.

John Ralston Saul. Voltaire's Bastards: The Dictatorship of Reason in the West. New York: The Free Press (Macmillan), 1992.

A.V.C. Schmidt. "'Latent Content' and 'The Testimony in the Text': Symbolic Meaning in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" in The Review of English Studies, vol. XXXVIII (1987), pp. 145-68. R.E. Alton, editor. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987.

Nicholas Watson. "The Gawain-Poet as a Vernacular Theologian" in A Companion to the Gawain-Poet, pp. 293-313. Derek Brewer and Jonathan Gibson, editors. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1997.

Additional works consulted

Thomas S. Bokenkotter. Concise History of the Catholic Church. New York: Image Books, 1990.

Thomas Cable. The English Alliterative Tradition. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991.

Charles Dunn and Edward Byrnes, editors. Middle English Literature. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1973.

Vernard Eller, editor. A Pearl ... for the Brokenhearted. Washington, DC: University Press of America, 1983.

Kevin Orlin Johnson. Why Do Catholics Do That? A Guide to the Teachings and Practices of the Catholic Church. New York: Ballantine Books, 1995.

Edward Peters, editor. Heresy and Authority in Medieval Europe. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1980.
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