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Sir Gawain - Evil Be To Him Who Evil Thinks

Updated on January 20, 2014
Howard Pyle illustration from the 1903 edition of The Story of King Arthur and His Knights scanned and archived at http://www.gallery.oldbookart.com/main.php?g2_itemId=2708 where it was marked as Public Domain.
Howard Pyle illustration from the 1903 edition of The Story of King Arthur and His Knights scanned and archived at http://www.gallery.oldbookart.com/main.php?g2_itemId=2708 where it was marked as Public Domain.

Everyone likes watching a hero. Storytellers from ancient times to modern tell us tales of heroes - great men or women who serve to thrill us and allow us to vicariously live through their adventure while really facing no danger of our own. Often these heroes can serve as a moral or ethical guide for us and we can learn exemplary behavior from their examples. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Sir Gawain is a character who is always being watched. He is watched by the reader of the poem. As a representative of Arthur's court, his actions and behaviors are under watch by his king and his fellow knights. When he is a guest a Bertilak's castle, he is under watch by Bertilak and even more obviously to Gawain, by Bertilak's wife. As a Christian he always feels himself under the watchful eye of God above. Gawain is especially influenced by one set of eyes upon him, those belonging to the Virgin Mary. This poem is not only about who watches Gawain, but also about who Gawain is watching. When Gawain takes his eye of Mary and accepts the girdle from Bertilak's wife, he is unfaithful to Mary. He rejects her and he rejects his faith. We find out that Gawain is not presented to us as a hero whose example is one to follow. Instead, he is a person given for us to look at and learn from his mistakes, and by learning from these mistakes, save ourselves from hellfire.

Gawain, being a man of faith, knows that he is always being watched from above. To remind him of this fact, he keeps an image of the Virgin Mary on the inside of his shield where he can see her. Laura Mulvey in Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema uses the example of the cinema to write about issues involving looking at others and being looked at ourselves. She states, "In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its fantasy on to the female form which is styled accordingly" (Mulvey 1175). What is it that Gawain is projecting on the image of Mary? Actually, many things are being projected. For one, a devotion that borders on romantic. Another being Mary as a personal guide leading him to do what is right. Also, Gawain projects on Mary, the idea that Mary is watching him.
The first of these is Gawain's devotion to Mary. He sees her as his lady. The history of religion is full of language that relates the religious experience to the language of desire or language of the flesh. A good example is the old testament "Song of Songs" also known as the "Song of Solomon." This book is a short romantic/erotic poem that follows a couple from courtship through consummation and has been historically interpreted by Christian theologians as symbolic of the relationship between Christ and the church or Christ and an individual believer. When being tempted by Bertilak's wife Gawain says,
"'By St. John',
And gave a pleasant smile,
'In truth I have no one,
nor seek one for this while.'" Winny (99).

It is obvious at this point that Gawain is not interested in acquiring a sexual conquest. According to J.A. Burrow "The reference to St. John, if it means anything, means that Gawain is trying to live the life of celibacy for which that saint was famous. (40). In Catholic teachings not only is the Church referred to as the Bride of Christ, but nuns in the Catholic Church are consecrated as Brides of Christ. Sir Gawain in a similar way is pledged to Mary and considers himself loyal to her. It may be that Gawain is keeping himself celibate out of devotion for his lady.
Besides whatever religious/erotic devotion Gawain projects on the female form of Mary, Gawain also uses the object of his gaze as a measure of what is right and wrong.
"the gracious knight
had Her image depicted on the inside of his shield,
So that when he glanced at it
his heart never quailed." Winny (39)
Many people like to keep a religious icon or symbol on them or within their sight to remind them to always do that which is right. In Christianity the eye of God is always watching and some people like to have a physical reminder of that gaze. This is again an area where romantic love and religion overlap because similarly people in a committed romantic relationship also like to keep a physical reminder of the beloved to remind them to always do what is right in a tempting circumstance. Like a man glancing at his wedding ring or a picture of his wife when facing a moment of sexual temptation, Mary on Gawain's shield serves a similar function. She acts as a reminder for him to do what is morally right. Mary reminds Gawain that he is always being watched. He tries to behave accordingly.

Sir Gawain thinks he is always being watched. This is the third thing that Gawain projects on to this image of Mary. "There are circumstances in which looking itself is a source of pleasure, just as, in the reverse formation, there is pleasure in being looked at" (Mulvey 1174). Gawain gets pleasure by imagining that his lady is always looking at him. He enjoys this feeling of being watched over. He asks for Mary's help in the poem, always sure that she is listening to him. Like a pre-teen talking to the poster on her wall or a picture in a magazine of her current crush, Gawain is sure that by looking and talking to his lady, that she is seeing and hearing what is going on with him.

Gawain enjoys looking at and being looked at by this nonthreatening entity that can't talk back to him. He encounters another woman in Lady Bertilak that is a bit more aggressive toward him. Mulvey points out the difference in these two women. " But in psychoanalytic terms, the female figure poses a deeper problem. She also connotes something that the look continually circles around but disavows: her lack of a penis, implying a threat of castration and hence unpleasure" (1177). How do men often deal with this anxiety? "complete disavowal of castration by the substitution of a fetish object or turning the represented figure itself into a fetish so that it becomes reassuring rather than dangerous" (Mulvey 1177). Mary to Gawain is this fetish object. She becomes an object to reassure him in times that are tough. This fetish object becomes someone he can look at, talk to and hopefully receive favors from, but doesn't ask him anything in return. Lady Bertilak is a bit more threatening to Gawain. She tells him what she wants. She demands. She plays on his feelings of duty and honor to get what she wants. In short, she possesses a phallus (symbolically of course). In psychoanalytic terms, Mulvey would tell us Sir Gawain would be intimidated by this woman and the threat of castration she represents already seems to have taken place, as she already possesses the phallus in this relationship. Gawain has a real live woman to deal with and that has him running scared. In the bedroom scenes when approached by Bertilak's wife, Gawain does not have his shield on him. He mentions both God and St. John. Mary being out of Gawain's sight also seems to be out of Gawain's mind. If there is any doubt that Gawain lost his phallus, that doubt is about to go away. Freud said "To decapitate = to castrate" ( 533). Interestingly, It has been pointed out by R.A. Shoaf that January 1, the day on which Gawain is to be beheaded by the Green Knight is a holy day of obligation called the Feast of the Circumcision. (16) This is a day that celebrates Jesus' circumcision. On this day Gawain goes to the Green Knight and though he escapes being beheaded, does receive some skin cut away from his neck. Shoaf sees this cut as reconfirming Gawain's Christianity, but it seems that this skin cut away from below the head is a symbolic circumcision, confirming Gawain no longer belonging to the church. After turning from Mary to the power of the girdle, this circumcision pledges Gawain to the powers of magic.
Gawain did turn from his religion to the powers of magic. Being a knight Gawain is expected to live up to a certain moral standard. He fails in his morality by taking the girdle in the first place.
"Gawain's faith and honor are tested in this text. His shield is two sided; therefore, it is not surprising that he is being tested on chivalric and religious grounds. On the surface it only seems Gawain's purity and loyalty are under strain, but once he takes the magic girdle to preserve himself from an unnatural death, the audience knows clearly and unequivocally that Gawain has transgressed the codes of the church. (Sweeny 152)

It is clear that Sir Gawain was not taking the green girdle just to please Lady Bertilak. He was interested in it from the time he knew that it would save his life. Not only does Gawain stop thinking about Mary, but he also does not trust in her to save him or do for his what is right. Religion is all well and good, Gawain seems to be saying, but saving my life is better. He saves his life, but not his soul. Tison Pugh states; "Jesus' game, nothing less than salvation ... requires its players to adhere to the rules of Christianity with faith, not knowledge" (529). Gawain left behind the faith that he had in his lady Mary and chose to go with the knowledge that this girdle would preserve his life. Gawain later admits his wrong to Bertilak and to the members of his own court, but Gawain is never seen making his peace with Mary. He doesn't pray to Mary for repentance and in the course of the story, he does not go to confession to ask for forgiveness of his failing by accepting the green girdle and thereby accepting magic over faith. Gawain is not a man to admire, he is to learn from only in learning what not to do. The last line of the poem is "honi soit qui mal y pense" - "Evil be to him who evil thinks." The author of the poem realizes that Gawain has not made right with the world and is not right with God. As Mary was a symbol for Gawain before, the green girdle becomes his symbol now. Unrepentant, Gawain chooses to keep a symbol of his fall and even though is enjoying the good life now, will not be enjoying a good afterlife.

Works Cited:


Burrow, J.A. "The Third Fitt" Twentieth Century Interpretations of Sir Gawain And The Green Knight. Ed. Denton Fox. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall Inc., 1968. 35-43. Print.

Freud, Sigmund "Medusa's Head" The Critical Tradition. Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends. Ed. Richter, David A. Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martins, 2007. 533. Print.

Mulvey, Laura. "Visual Pleasure and the Narrative Cinema" The Critical Tradition. Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends. Ed. Richter, David A. Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martins, 2007. 1172 -1180. Print.

Pugh, Tison. "Gawain and the Godgames." Christianity and Literature (C&L) 51.4 (2002): 525-151. Print

Shoaf, R.A. The Poem as Green Girdle. Gainsville, Florida: University Presses of Florida, 1984. Print.

Sweeney, Mickey. "Sir Gawain & the Green Knight; Making Meaning from Magic."
Mediaevalia 23 (2002): 137-157. Print

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Ed. and trans. James Winny. Lewiston, NY: Broadview, 1992.

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