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The Magical as the ‘Other’ in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Sayantika Chakraborty, Independent Scholar, Kolkata


Composed during the fourteenth century, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight depicts the events that take place after a mysterious green-colored knight rides into King Arthur’s court in Camelot in the mid-winter, when everyone is busy feasting. The mighty Knight presents a challenge to the court: he will allow himself to be struck by one blow, on condition that he will be allowed to return the strike the following New Year’s day. Sir Gawain takes up the challenge only to find with much amazement that the Green Knight picks up his own severed head and rides away, leaving Gawain to carry forward the challenge and come after him. This leads to Sir Gawain taking up the journey to the castle of the Green Knight, in course of which he encounters many miraculous experiences. The foremost amongst these encounters is the one at the castle of Lord Bertilak, where Gawain takes shelter for a few days and has to take a vow, as a knight, to remain faithful to the host. At the castle Sir Gawain encounters the Lady Bertilak who tries to seduce him and an old woman whom he does not recognize. However, sensing his impending death, Sir Gawain breaks the vow by secretly accepting from Lady Bertilak a magical green girdle which would apparently protect the person wearing it. Sir Gawain, on meeting the Green Knight withstands two blows by his axe, but gets nicked at the third, which angers him. However, the most surprising lesson along with a tinge of morality is then revealed. Green Knight exposes himself as Lord Bertilak himself. He tells Sir Gawain that the old woman at the castle of Lord Bertilak was Morgan le Fay, Sir Gawain’s aunt and half-sister of King Arthur. It was her plan to send the Green Knight on the magical errand apparently to expose the false myths about the Arthurian knights. Green Knight explains how Sir Gawain has failed as a knight since he was afraid of death and accepted the green girdle as a protection. Ashamed, Sir Gawain rides back to Camelot and tells his fellow knights about the lesson he derived from this journey to Green Chapel. The knights at the court of King Arthur decide to wear the green girdle as an emblem of this moral lesson and also to stand in solidarity with the quest Sir Gawain underwent.

Many of the most resonant motifs of Arthurian romances are linked to the supernatural elements such as quest and adventure, magic and enchantment, prophecy and destiny, miracle and marvel and so on. The leitmotif of the supernatural is a constant presence in the Arthurian romances which can be traced back to the early twelfth century and which have received some modern-day treatments. Writers from medieval era such as Chretien De Troyes (a late twelfth century French poet), the anonymous Gawain-poet (a fourteenth century English poet), Thomas Malory (a fifteenth century English poet) to Tennyson (a nineteenth century English poet laureate) and T. H. White (a twentieth century English author), Marion Zimmer Bradley (a twentieth century American author) – all of them have tried their hands at the interweaving of the magical and the supernatural in Arthurian legends. It should, however, be noted that despite the numerous accounts of Arthurian romances depicting the Knights Yvain, Perceval, Tristan, Gawain, Lancelot encountering the magical in their journeys, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight remains probably the most interesting amidst them because of its magical elements being intertwined with a moral lesson.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is often explained on symbolical and metaphorical levels. For instance, the colour green identifies the Green Knight with a vegetative deity or a fertility god whose death and resurrection symbolize death and rejuvenation in nature. (Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, xviii) The story is also read as an allegory that depicts the fallibility and immaturity of human nature and how human beings strive for perfection in their imperfect nature. (Sir Gawain, xii) Turning away from these popular readings, this paper attempts to read the projection of the magical in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight as a representation of the ‘Other’. The magical prowess, that Green Knight has been endowed with, can be associated with a form of ‘otherness’, in the sense in which magic is something alien to the European. The root of the magical is always outside the normative and the civilized world. The ‘mysterious’ green-colored Knight comes from a distant land to display his magical prowess to the ‘civilized’ world of Camelot. His magical endeavours and the other magical elements present in this poem can be posited as an interesting encounter between the ‘Self’ and the ‘Other’. This paper is primarily an attempt to explain this encounter between the world of magic and the world of reality in terms of two critical concepts. Michel Foucault’s idea of ‘heterotopia’ and Edward Said’s take on the ‘Orient’ as the ‘Other’.

Michel Foucault illustrates the concept of ‘heterotopia’ in his essay entitled ‘Of Other Spaces’. He depicts ‘heterotopias’ as follows:

“There are also, probably in every culture, in every civilization, real places…which are something like counter-sites, a kind of effectively enacted utopia in which the real sites, all the other real sites that can be found within the culture, are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted. Places of this kind are outside of all places, even though it may be possible to indicate their location in reality. Because these places are absolutely different from all the sites that they reflect and speak about, I shall call them, by way of contrast to utopias, heterotopias.” (‘Of Other Spaces’, 3-4)

The function of these ‘heterotopias’ is complicated. Foucault explicates that either their role is to construct an “illusion that exposes every real space, all the sites inside of which human life is partitioned, as still more illusory…Or else, on the contrary, their role is to create a space that is other, another real space.” (‘Of Other Spaces’, 8) Thought in conjunction with Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, one finds that the Green Knight’s appearance and acts to place him into a realm that is not our everyday world. It is almost like an illusory place. He is a stranger to the known world: “what was most uncanny was, he was green from head to toe”. (Sir Gawain, 7). Indeed, words like ‘uncanny’ or ‘unnatural’ are used to describe or characterize the magical world or the Green Knight who embodies the magical. Indeed the Green Knight is an ‘uncanny’ figure, in the Freudian sense (as Freud explicates in his essay entitled ‘Uncanny’) in which the uncanny or unheimlich is described as that which is strange, or ‘familiarly unfamiliar’ appearing with an element of threat or clinically, a ‘return of the repressed’ in a disguised form. (‘Uncanny’, 2) The world of the magical is at once a familiar and unfamiliar world. The Green Knight is after all a knight, hence he is familiar. However, his greenness turns him to an unfamiliar entity. The response to the Green Knight is thus marked by fear and humour. While the Queen and some others are rather afraid of the Green Knight who offers himself to be beheaded, the King considers the Green Knight’s appearance as a fitting ‘marvel’ on the New Year’s Day. (Sir Gawain, 16) The world of the magical in its interaction with the ‘real’ world at Arthur’s Court thus becomes a counter-site in the Foucauldian sense since the magical here represents, contests and inverts the everyday world. The magical and the supernatural space of the Green Knight’s Green Chapel where Sir Gawain is to go to keep his oath is similarly a heterotopia which is constructed in terms of blending the familiar (‘chapel’ related to the Christian world) and the unfamiliar (‘greenness’ of the chapel, representing the magical) and which in a way contests the world of the Arthurian knights. They are there, yet the full perception of them is not possible in any way. In another sense, the castle of Lord Bertilak, where Morgan Le Fay the magician stays and where Sir Gawain spends three days, gets kisses and a girdle from the Lady, and gives back only the kisses to the Lord of the house (and not the girdle), becomes a space of ‘enacted utopia’ (Of Other Spaces, 3) since Sir Gawain can get whatever he wants. It is within this magical space of the castle that Sir Gawain can even get back his own life by taking the girdle (which he hides from the Lord Bertilak) from the Lady whose sexual temptations he successfully counters.

However to take the girdle from the Lady in order to avert death on the part of Sir Gawain is very much a behavior of an ordinary mortal and not that of an ideal knight of the Arthurian world, who would heroically uphold virtues even at the cost of his life. In this way, the magical space of the castle and later on the Green Chapel expose the ordinariness of Sir Gawain and the vanity of the Arthurian knights. The green girdle here becomes an object that brings the normative Arthurian world and the magical spaces of the romance in dialogue. By wearing the green girdle in memory of Sir Gawain’s failure as a knight or as an acknowledgement of the limits of the Arthur’s best knights, the normative world of the Arthurian knights (Self) seems to define or reconstitute itself in relation to the alternative/magical (Other).

The world of the magical is not only an ‘other’ space; in one sense the magical is also the ‘evil’. Morgan le Fay, the sorceress, is central to this discourse. The entire narrative of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is set in motion by the ‘evil’ endeavours of Morgan le Fay that IS hatched to plague Guinevere, the wife of King Arthur. Being the half-sister of King Arthur, Morgan le Fay wanted to avenge her half-brother. In most of the Arthurian romances, Morgan le Fay is presented as the enemy of Camelot. Here her medium of plaguing Arthur is Green Knight, the representative of the magical prowess she is endowed with. It is to be noted how Morgan is represented in the poem. She is not only the cause of the intrusion of the uncanny into the normative world of Arthur, a world which is thereby destabilized; she is also a radical alterity insofar as she is presented as the opposite of youth and beauty as embodied by the Lady Bertilak. The description of Morgan lies in sharp contrast with that of Lady Bertilak: “These ladies were very unlike in appearance,/ for the younger was fresh, while the other was withered./Bright red adorned the first lady all over;/rough wrinkled cheeks hung slack on the other.” (Sir Gawain 31)

And

“The old lady’s neck was covered by a wimple,/ pulled over her sallow chin with chalk-white veils./Her forehead was masked in silk, muffled all over,/covered and screened with jewellery all around,/So nothing could be seen but her grey eyebrows, /Her eyes and nose and her bare lips, /Which were ghastly to look at and horribly chapped.” (Ibid)

In this context, it is noteworthy how the idea of the ‘Other’ or the production of alterity has been powerfully formulated in Edward Said’s Orientalism, which is a critique of how ‘Orient’ is depicted and described in the eyes of the West. Said identifies a European cultural tradition of ‘Orientalism’, which is a particular and long standing way of identifying the East as the ‘Other’ and inferior to the West. The East becomes repository of the aspects that the West does not choose to acknowledge, the illogical and the barbaric, for example. As Said writes: “The European is a close reasoner; his statements of fact are devoid of any ambiguity; he is a natural logician, albeit he may not have studied logic…his trained intelligence works like a piece of mechanism. The mind of the Oriental, on the other hand, like his picturesque streets, is eminently wanting in symmetry. His reasoning is of the most slipshod description.” (Orientalism, 38) Said argues that ‘Orient’ and ‘Occident’ worked as oppositional terms, so that the ‘Orient’ is constructed as a negative inversion of Western culture and this constructed difference helps the West to assert its superiority.

The notion of alterity in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is based on a similar difference between the normative and the magical. The normative is the domain constructed in terms of rationality, ethics, and ‘civilizational’ values (chivalric codes), while the magical is the domain projected as irrational, supernatural, and evil. This is particularly noticeable in the different responses to the Green Knight as found within the text. While Arthur views the marvelous appearance of the Green Knight at his court as fitting for the festive mood, most of the other witnesses at Arthur’s court including Guinevere are rather afraid of the Green Knight. Again as Gawain approaches the Green Chapel, he is told that the owner of this chapel, meaning the Green Knight, is a cruel murderer. At other places in the text, the Green Knight is described as “some kind of half-giant”, a “monstrous apparition” (Sir Gawain, 7), and so on. The magical activities of the Green Knight are further associated with witchcraft as the inhabitants of Arthur’s court have apparently seen many marvels but nothing like this, so they assume it must be magic and witchcraft. Further, as has already been pointed out, Morgan le Fay is presented as a sorceress, looking rather like a witch and having rather an evil intention.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight emphasizes the dependence of the self upon the other by twisting the binary of the self/other. In the great bulk of Arthurian romances (for example, those by Chretien de Troyes), the Arthurian knights have won over all enemies including the magical and the demonic. In one sense, these ‘enemies’ have always performed the role of the flawed, imperfect ‘other’ who as if existed only to be defeated or destroyed by the conventionally invincible Arthurian knights who would thereby become legends. The Gawain-poet gives a unique twist in his poem by making the magical win over the Arthurian knight and thereby exposing the limits of the entire Arthurian system. If the Green Knight is the other then Sir Gawain is the self and the self seems to recognize itself, especially its vanity, by encountering the other. However, at the end of the poem, the decision to wear the girdle that literally comes from the domain of the magical other is indicative of a long-lasting effect that the other exerts upon the self. This is a significant point. While the Green Knight as the magical other is posited as an uncanny entity which is different from the self, the text of the poem reveals a process of construction, deconstruction, and finally reconstruction of the knightly self of the Arthurian knights. Once this reconstruction is completed the magical other apparently has no more function in the text. That is, once the Green Knight is revealed to be the Lord Bertilak, the magical other is no more central to the narrative. The reader from that point onwards is directed to the domain of the self, to the space of the Arthurian court. As if the intrusion of the other in the domain of the self was just a necessity. As if the other was just an essential construction for the survival of the self. As if the poem is more about the Arthurian self than about the magical other.

In conclusion, it will not perhaps be altogether irrelevant to refer to G.W.F. Hegel’s notion of ‘Independence and Dependence of Self-Consciousness’. Hegel takes the idea of self-consciousness and asserts that one becomes aware of one’s self only by seeing oneself through the eyes of the other. Hegel begins his essay by stating that ‘Self-consciousness exists in and for itself when, and by the fact that, it so exists for another; that is, it exists only in being acknowledged.’ (Independence and Dependence of Self-Consciousness’, 111) One of the implications of this rather dense statement is the idea of the recognition and constitution of the self based on the interdependence between two consciousnesses. Hegel speaks of the struggle for recognition implied in the very notion of self-consciousness and according to him this struggle is always between two opposing aspects or between the self (master) and its other (slave) whose interrelation is based on inequality. As Hegel asserts, the master sees the slave as an object rather than a subject. And through asserting or perpetrating his selfhood through his bondsman, the self-consciousness of the master arises. However, at the same time, the bondsman is potentially able to discover himself as subjugated and then challenges and threatens the master. In the case of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the magical other contributes to the emergence of the knightly self in its reformed avatar. Initially what was posited as outside the normative becomes essential in the recognition of Sir Gawain’s true self. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight thus demonstrates the significant dependence of self upon the other, of sites upon the counter-sites.

References

Anon. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Trans. Bernard O’Donoghue. New York : Penguin. 2006. Print.

De Troyes, Chretien. Four Arthurian Romances “Erec et Enide”, “Cliges”, “Yvain”, and “Lancelot”. Gutenberg.org. N.P. N.D.Web.10 August. 2015.

Foucault, Michel. Of Other Spaces. Trans. Jay Miskowiec. Architecture. (October, 1984). mit.edu. N.P. N.D. Web. 10 August. 2015.

Freud, Sigmund. ‘Uncanny’. Trans. Alix Stratchey. mit.edu. N.P. N.D. Web. 10 August. 2015.

Hegel, G.W.F. ‘Independence and Dependence of Self-Consciousness: Lordship and Bondage’. Phenomenology of Mind. Trans. A.V. Miller. New York : Oxford University Press. 2004. Print.

Said, Edward. Orientalism. 1977. Odsg.org .N.P. N.D Web. 10 August. 2015.

Sayantika Chakraborty is an independent scholar from Kolkata. She completed BA in English (Hons.) from West Bengal State University (2012) and MA in English from Presidency University (2014). Both in BA and MA, she stood First in the First Class. Immediately after MA, she taught at R.K.S.M.V.V College as a Guest Faculty for six months. At present she is preparing herself for formal research.