The Luminary Postgraduate Magazine Lancaster University

'alle his fetures fol?ande, in forme þat he hade': Recovering the Body and Saving the Soul in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Devani Singh


In contrast to the three companion poems with which it is bound in British Library MS Cotton Nero A.x., Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (henceforward Sir Gawain), it has been noted, is 'a Christian poem, but it is not a religious one'.1 Yet the Arthurian world of this poem, too, is host to theological concerns and moral dilemmas as experienced by the principal figures in Pearl, Cleanness, and Patience. In particular, the poet of Sir Gawain demonstrates a preoccupation with the taut line between the inevitability of death and the promise of eternal life in heaven.2 In attempting to negotiate this tension, Gawain must ultimately relinquish his status as the knight of the pentangle, and chooses instead to adopt the girdle as an overt reminder of his excessive pride.3 In his scar,4 however, he bears an additional sign of his faithlessness: 'Þis is þe bende of þis blame I bere in my nek [this is the ribbon of this reproof which I carry in my neck]' (2506).5 Since this bodily fissure results from the shattering of Gawain's 'trawþe', or honour, represented in his failure to return the green girdle to Bertilak, the blow may be thought of as psychological as well as physical. It is not just Gawain's body, but his spiritual unity, which has been rent by his misdeed. I intend to argue that Sir Gawain maps out a correspondence between corporeal integrity and spiritual wholeness, recognising the human body as 'a lost principle of unity, a meaning-laden spatial centre, a microcosm'.6

Before turning our attention to the text itself, it is essential to inquire into the idea of the body in the Middle Ages. As Kevin Marti succinctly observes, 'medieval man's body constituted his single most important aesthetic and perceptual framework' (p. 4). And this physical primacy is unsurprising, for the individual medieval body was seen as a microcosm of that Ultimate body: corpus Christi (Marti, p. 6). As a series of concentric circles connected to the mystical body of Christ, individual bodies of Christians achieve salvation by virtue of this common membership: 'man fell and is raised again as one body' (Marti, p. 14). Thus, the result of this mystical union is the embodiment of Christ in man, and of the spatial macrocosm of the universe—at which Christ is centred—within the microcosm (Marti, p. 11). In a schema where 'every Christian's body becomes a new centre of the universe' (Marti, p. 11), the implications of bodily violence and dismemberment are accordingly momentous.

It has become almost a critical commonplace to note that Sir Gawain presents a fundamental paradox regarding the nature of Christian chivalry: while God demands that believers renounce the flesh, the society of Arthurian romance is redolent with the trappings of the material world.7 My argument focuses on the poem's exploitation of this paradox, observing that Gawain's physical body, like the painted emblem of the pentangle itself, is bound up with spiritual values and symbolic valences ultimately threatened by an agent of alterity.

In his excursus on Gawain's shield, the narrator unequivocally reveals the significance of the pentangle to his audience, 'þof tary hyt me schulde [though it will delay me]' (624). The pentangle employs a succession of five symbolic fives which together represent the knight's 'trauþe': Gawain's five wits; his five fingers; Christ's five wounds; the five joys of the Virgin; and a pentad of personal virtues—'fraunchyse [liberality]', 'fela?schyp [brotherly love]', 'clannes [cleanness]', 'cortaysye [courtesy]', and 'pité [compassion]' (652-654). The narrator equates these five units of five with Gawain himself:

Now alle þese fyue syþez, for soþe, were fetled on þis kny?t,
And vchone halched in oþer, þat non ende hade,
And fyched vpon fyue poyntez, þat fayld neuer,
Ne samned neuer in no syde, ne sundred nouþer,
Withouten ende at any noke I oquere fynde,
Whereeuer þe gomen bygan, or glod to an ende. (656-661)

Now all these five groups [of five] were indeed fixed on this knight and each one interlaced with another, so that none came to an end, and were established on five points that never failed, nor were ever brought together in any side, nor separated either, without end in any angle that I find anywhere, where the process ever began or came to an end.

The properties of the pentangle are 'fetled' onto Gawain's person, marking his body as one with the symbolic perfection the pentangle represents. Gawain's five-fingered perfection also carried resonance of his virtues for the poet's medieval audience, with each digit from the thumb to the fifth finger representing justice, prudence, temperance, courage, and obedience respectively (Green, p. 187). These ideological correspondences between the body and one's spiritual fortitude indicate the severity of the threat of bodily injury to Gawain. A further symbolic valence of this presentation of Gawain's body is related to the idea of the number five. The symbolic correspondence between the body and the number five was not foreign to the Middle Ages, but prominent in the religious doctrine of the time:

The doors to the Holy of Holies, the doors to eternal life, are hinged on pentagonal posts five cubits high (III Kings 6: 31-32). Bede's comment, repeated in the Glossa Ordinaria and therefore standard throughout the Middle Ages, explains that the pentagonal posts signify the body with its five senses which is destined to be admitted to heaven, and the five cubits signify that this destiny is achieved only by those who serve God with the five senses of the body and the five senses of the heart. (Green, p. 157)

In Pearl, the poet effectively deploys medieval numerology theory to catalogue the layout and architecture of the Heavenly Jerusalem. And so Bede's exegesis, which conceives of the sacred pentagonal posts as the human form, may be a further analogue to the fives by which the poet deems Gawain to be perfect. The symbolic qualities of the pentangle, the poem implies, are 'fetled on þis kny?t' by way of his body, since it too is associated with the number five. The pentangle may thus signify not only Gawain's virtues, but reflect the way in which the medieval body is inextricably linked with one's spirituality.

The figure of alterity which threatens Gawain's corporeal integrity is an example of a 'meruayle [marvel]' (94) about which the youthful Arthur wishes to hear before he will eat at the Christmas feast. Yet for all his marvellous nature, there is enough ambiguity surrounding the figure of the Green Knight to enable us to conclude, with Burrow, that the surprise visitor to Camelot is less otherworldly than he may initially seem, since he reflects courtly ideals of the medieval male in his attire and physical constitution.8 The narrator experiences a similar indecision as to the nature of the intruder: 'Half etayn in erde I hope þat he were, | Bot mon most I algate mynn hym to bene [I think he was half-giant on earth but at any rate I declare him to be the biggest man]' (140-141). Like Gawain himself before his exploits at Hautdesert, 'alle his fetures fol?ande [every part of him matching completely]' (145) with each other, and he is perfect in form. There is, of course, a caveat to this elegant stature, but the narrator reserves it for the climactic final lines of the 'wheel':

For wonder of his hwe men hade,
Set in his semblaunt sene;
He ferde as freke were fade,
And oueral enker-grene. (147-150)

For people were amazed at his colour, ingrained in his outward appearance; he behaved like a bold warrior, and bright green all over.

The 'wheel' stanza focuses almost exclusively on the wondrous hue of the knight, but curiously includes a comment on the green man's bold, knightly behaviour. The incongruity of this line amidst the suspenseful progression to the revelation of the Green Knight's colour reinforces his status as a knight, though it is ultimately qualified by his greenness. Notably, this revelation of the knight's colour would have been as dramatic to the poem's medieval audience as it is to Arthur's court, for the illustrations in the manuscript do not depict the Green Knight's skin itself in his eponymous hue, but in that fleshly colour shared by all the other characters featured.9 I am attempting to show that the Green Knight is not portrayed by the poet as an absolute Other, despite his green skin. Rather, his horse and his green and gold clothing reinscribe him into the realm of chivalry, producing a '“second body,” whereby the ornamentation of the enclosure epitomises the character of the enclosed' (Marti, p. 160).

But if the Green Knight loses some of his supernatural difference because of his courtly garb, it is only to assume another form of qualified alterity when he is beheaded by Gawain. In a medieval context, to lose one's head is to disrupt the intricate rings of corporeal and metaphysical unity within which the universe is ordered (Marti, p. 14). The Green Knight defies this model. For Helen Cooper, his Otherness consists precisely in his ability to avoid complete transformation after the beheading. 'That the Green Knight's decapitation makes no difference to his behaviour, speech, or control of his own actions,' she concludes, 'makes him much more terrifying' (Cooper, p. 288). The episode is rich with paradox: his severed head continues to speak after it has rolled on the floor, yet memorably, he bleeds red—'Þe blod brayd fro þe body, þat blykked on þe grene [the blood spurted from the body, shining on the green]' (429)—just as Gawain does later in the poem, and indeed, as the Lamb does in Pearl.

Because it belongs to the most ominous figure in the poem, the problematic identity of the challenger is worthy of closer investigation. His body resists simple interpretation in its permutations, thereby constituting exactly the sort of qualified Otherness identified by Cooper. In his greenness and his ability to survive decapitation, the Green Knight is Other—distinctly different from Arthur's mortal knights. In his clothing, his physical build, and his mounted position on his horse, he is remarkably similar to any of the knights of Camelot. Thus, he can be said not to signify in any concrete sense and ultimately, 'The power of the image is its emptiness, for the reader to fill with meaning if he or she wishes' while 'unity is shown as broken' (Brewer, p. 10). What, then, is the function of this nebulous figure within the poem? I would like to suggest that the Green Knight is the first manifestation of a fractured form in Sir Gawain, since his physical instability is symptomatic of, or perhaps even precipitated by, a hermeneutic disunity. As the above discussion has shown, he appears to be neither fully knight nor giant; neither mortal nor immune to bleeding; neither Bertilak de Hautdesert nor Knight of the Green Chapel.10 Accordingly, his encounter with Gawain replicates this disunity in Arthur's knight and, by way of his wound, exposes Gawain as an imperfect microcosm of a more perfect mystical universe.

Despite certain parallels between the two figures, Gawain's body differs from that of the Green Knight in crucial ways. These differences are the result of their fundamentally distinct roles in the poem: while the Green Knight is the aggressor, quickly deemed suspicious by Camelot and readers alike because of his bizarre appearance, Gawain is the hero of the romance, whose physical form is expected to be flawless and whole in a way which that of the Green Knight is not. As the knight of the pentangle, Gawain is said to be perfect in a constellation of five fives, a combination of physical and moral qualities 'in bytoknyng of trawþe [as a sign of truth]'(626). Indeed, both the pentangle and the human body consist of a series of pentads. Accordingly, Marti confirms that the pentangle is an emblem of corporeal unity: 'Based on the body as minor mundus, the pentangle itself contains five parts which reiterate the structure of the whole: it is a group of five fives, a microcosm enclosing five microcosms' (Marti, p. 161). The Green Knight, by contrast, suffers no lasting blemish on his person; his identity is more malleable than Gawain's, since he does not simply inhabit the poem's allegorical realm. The narrator may furnish an interpretation of the significance of the pentangle because, in the poem at least, its meaning is static.11 But unlike Gawain, the Green Knight is not defined by a rigid symbol; the narrator cannot tell whether he is a giant or a man because he fails to signify. He is the hermeneutic opposite of the pentangle and thus, of Gawain. Defined in the scheme of the poem by an emblem of perfection, Arthur's knight does not have the capacity to adapt to a change in his bodily makeup without changing something of his essential nature in turn.

Because the medieval body is thought of as a microcosm of the universe as ordered by the divine, throughout the poem Gawain's suffering is manifest in physical form, thereby reflecting the reciprocal relation between bodily and spiritual fragmentation. His extended ordeal in the wilderness is particularly trying, not because of the battles he must wage with otherworldly creatures, but because of the inhospitable climate itself:

For werre wrathed hym not so much þat wynter nas wors,
When þe colde cler water fro þe cloudez schadde,
And fres er hit falle my?t to þe fale erþe;
Ner slayn wyth þe slete he sleped in his yrnes
Mo ny?tez þen innoghe in naked rokkez,
Þer as claterande fro þe crest þe colde borne rennez,
And henged he?e ouer his hede in hard iisse-ikkles. (726-732)

For fighting did not trouble him so much that winter was not worse, when the cold clear water
was shed from the clouds and froze before it might fall to the faded earth; nearly slain by
sleet, he slept in his armour more nights than enough, on bare rocks where the cold burn runs
clattering from the crest, and the frozen water hung high over his head in hard icicles.

However, this episode is another spiritual test for Arthur's knight, which he can successfully overcome only through his appeal to 'lorde | and Mary' (753-754)—that is, through a display of faith achieved by commending himself to the protection of Christ: 'He sayned hym in syþes sere, | And sayde “Cros Kryst me spede!” [He crossed himself several times and said: “Christ's cross speed me”]' (761-762). Yet the dangers of this episode are figured in physical terms: Gawain must sleep 'in his yrnes [in his arms]'; the 'naked rokkez' remind us of the frailty of the knight's own body; and the icicles which 'henged he?e ouer his hede [hung high over his head]' ominously evoke the axe of the Green Knight, which has by now been lingering in Gawain's mind and threatening dismemberment for a full year. When it does materialise on the horizon, Hautdesert castle appears 'pared out of papure [cut out of paper]' (802) and indeed, may possibly be interpreted as a form of divine aid. But this detail is less significant for our purposes than the fact that Gawain endures bodily hardship in a time of potential spiritual crisis; only when he has exhibited faith in Christ and in the Virgin is he restored to physical security, by virtue of the appearance of Hautdesert.

The bedroom scenes in which Lady Bertilak attempts to seduce Gawain support my argument that the desire to contain and clothe the body is a move towards effecting a corresponding stability in the microcosm of one's self. In battle or during travel, Gawain's body is protected by his elaborate suit of armour, which for a medieval knight was evocative of the 'armour of God' and the 'shield of faith' described in Ephesians (Green, p. 181-182). Gawain's shield alone, a physical object doubly fortified against penetration with the pentangle on one side and the image of Mary on the other, exemplifies the dualism through which a medieval knight's armour could represent spiritual enclosure. In the bedroom with Lady Bertilak, however, Gawain is stripped of this protective vestment. In these comical episodes, he hides under the bedclothes and requests permission to get out of bed so as to 'busk me better'—to properly array himself (1220). This seems to me to suggest more than a modest embarrassment about his nakedness. Intertwined with the Lady's sexual advances is the threat to Gawain's chastity, for he is no less than the knight of the Virgin.12 The image of a timid Gawain hiding under the covers, occasionally peering through the curtains at the Lady, is incongruous with his reputation as one skilled in amorous affairs and 'hendelayk [courtesy]' (1228). 13 And so Fitt III, with its elaborate symbolism and symmetry, suggests the similarities between the scenes of Bertilak's hunt and the Lady's attempted wooing of the knight. For the first time in the poem, the reader has an insight which Gawain lacks, since the parallels between the two types of hunt are made clearer by the structure of the text itself. Crucially, this vantage point serves to heighten the reader's awareness of the possible crisis which Gawain may face; unlike the knight, we witness the physical violation of the deer, boar, and the fox, realising the imminent threat to Gawain's chastity and spiritual well-being in turn.

Upon her first visit to his chamber, the Lady flirtatiously remarks to Gawain, 'I schal bynde yow in your bedde' (1211). We might compare this aggression to the corresponding action on the hunt, where Bertilak butchers the deer: 'To hewe hit in two þay hy?es, | Bi þe bakbon to vnbynde [To cut the carcase in two, dividing it along the backbone]' (1351-1352). The two processes of binding and unbinding seem to be semantic opposites but, with Gawain, we later find out that they are contextually similar. Gawain appears to be safer from harm remaining in bed than out on the hunt with Bertilak. The narrator is complicit in this deception of the reader, remarking,

Whyle oure luflych lede lys in his bedde,
Gawayn grayþely at home, in gerez ful ryche
of hewe. (1469-1471)

While our gracious knight, Gawain, lies in his bed, comfortably at home in bedclothes splendid in hue.

Yet the uncomfortable proximity of the Lady paradoxically threatens to unbind his endless knot, to un-do his 'trauþe' in much the same way that Bertilak's hunt results in the physical unbinding of the deer's carcass. Indeed, to allow Lady Bertilak to bind him in his bed would be to cleave through the intricate knots of the pentangle. With its wealth of signs and hermeneutic ambiguities, Sir Gawain illustrates that even the seemingly most secure positions can become one's undoing. In the case of the bedroom scenes, that which seems to secure the body (the chamber set up as it is in contradistinction to the more violent milieu of the hunt) is actually more perilous to the knight, and that which is explicitly framed in terms of bodily security is, in fact, hazardous to his spiritual well-being.

To end my discussion of the body in Sir Gawain, I will now address one of the most symbolically rich elements of the poem: Gawain's wound. Because of the vigorous scholarly debate on its interpretation and implications for the outcome of the text, it is first necessary to briefly outline the principal arguments advanced on the topic. Paul Reichardt has been a chief contributor to the dialogue, and associates Gawain's wound with Aquinas' belief that bodily wounds correlate with what Reichardt terms 'the faculties of the soul'.14 He notes the belief that Christ's physical wounds can heal our spiritual imperfections, which are wounds of a different, lesser sort (Reichardt, p. 156). Reichardt also identifies the site of Gawain's wound, the back of the neck (cervix) as the locus of pride in Biblical anatomy (Reichardt, p. 157). While I find his application of these and other aspects of medieval theology to Sir Gawain illuminating, I must disagree with his reading of the pentangle: 'Read in relation to each other, the pentangle and the sacred wounds are opposites; one is the proud sign of human sufficiency and the other a reminder of the need for divine aid' (Reichardt, p. 159). It is not difficult to challenge this oversimplification, as the text furnishes several examples, the most cogent of which is the fact that the pentangle is only half of the symbolism carried by the shield, for 'In þe inore half of his schelde [Mary's] ymage [is] depaynted [the knight had (Mary's) image fittingly painted on the inner side of his shield]' (649). Christianity and courtliness, represented by the pentangle, are not presented as irreconcilable in Sir Gawain (Brewer, p. 12). Reichardt, however, interprets the wound in the poem as a reminder of Gawain's propensity to err. Later commentators have variously identified Gawain's wound as a manifestation of original sin, the inevitability of human imperfection, and divine grace. 15

As noted above, the wound is a result of the third swing of the Green Knight's axe, a retaliation necessitated by Gawain's concealment of the girdle from Bertilak: 'At þe þrid þou fayled þore, | And þerfore þat tappe ta þe [On the third (occasion) you failed in that respect, and therefore you must receive that tap]' (2356-2357). But it is also a pseudo-beheading, or at least a replacement of that act, since the Green Knight should have decapitated Gawain if he wished to adhere to the rules of the game. Within the iconographic tradition of depicting St. Thomas Becket, beheading is a popular representation of the saint's last moments, since an eyewitness account relates that Becket was stabbed in his head, with his blood and brains leaking onto the cathedral floor.16 But whereas Becket's beheading ensures his martyrdom, Gawain's pseudo-beheading—the nick on his neck—reveals his faithlessness. 'It is a sign of the saint's faith that she can withstand, often without flinching or registering any sign of frailty, all manner of bodily assaults short of beheading', notes Owens. Gawain is unable to exhibit similar fortitude: he 'schranke a lytel with þe schulderes for þe scharp yrne [shrank a little with his shoulders on account of the sharp iron]' (2266). Gawain's flinching indicates that he lacks faith in the protection of God; this faithlessness is also the reason he accepts the Lady's girdle. However, as a devout knight, he should also be aware of the inconstancy of life itself, and affix his mind to the eternal realm. But Gawain failed to hand over his winnings on the third day because he 'lufed [his] lyf [loved his life]' (2368) and consequently desired to keep the girdle. Ironically, his desire to protect his physical being from death results in both a bodily and spiritual decline.

At this point, I would like to make a subtle but important distinction between Gawain's wound and Gawain's scar, since the disambiguation of these terms may assist in elucidating the implications of the Green Knight's blow. Spearing notes that Gawain keeps the girdle because he is unable to forgive himself even after the wound heals, but I believe that the reason Gawain keeps the girdle is precisely because the wound behind his neck has healed, becoming a scar.

'Lo! lorde,' quoþ þe leude, and þe lace hondeled,
'Þis is þe bende of þis blame I bere in my nek,
Þis is þe laþe and þe losse þat I la?t haue
Of couardise and couetyse þat I haf ca?t þare (2505-2508)

'Look! Lord,' said the knight, and took hold of the belt, 'this is the ribbon of this reproof
of this reproof [i.e. the scar] which I carry in my neck. This is the injury and the damage
which I have obtained because of cowardice and covetousness, which infected me there';

Gawain introduces the girdle in relation to his scar, as a more tangible band of the guilt he bears in his neck; it is a physical object, capable of being 'hondeled'. Since the medieval paradigm of the body dictates that one's corporeal integrity reflects the larger macrocosm of the universe, it is not illogical for Gawain to wear the girdle as a reminder of the concealed scar; the scar itself is a remnant of his wound, which is, by extension, a memento of his faithlessness to Bertilak and to both the pentangle and the Virgin. The concentric circles upon which the medieval universe was structured support such an interpretation.

What are some of the interpretive implications of reading the girdle as a reminder of the scar? For one, it qualifies the Green Knight's declaration of Gawain's purification at the Green Chapel:

Þou art confessed so clene, beknowen of þy mysses,
And hatz þe penaunce apert of þe poynt of myn egge,
I halde þe polysed of þat ply?t, and pured as clene
As þou hadez neuer forfeted syþen þou watz fyrst borne (2391-94)

You are confessed so clean, your offences acknowledged, and have had penance plainly from the point of my blade. I consider you cleansed of that guilt and purified as completely as if you had never transgressed since you were first born

Although Bertilak pardons Gawain and he reclaims a form of corporeal unity with the healing of his scar, he nonetheless bears a new blemish on his person. Whether the Green Knight's clemency at the Green Chapel constitutes a macabre Sacrament of confession remains disputed. Assuming that this is the case, however, does not preclude the possibility that Gawain remains fundamentally changed by his misdeed. Although sinners in Pearl are eventually forgiven through the mercy of Christ, that poem privileges moral spotlessness—in the form of virginity17 —and within its theological framework, only those who have never sinned may become Christ's brides: 'Forþy vche saule þat hade neuer teche | Is to þat Lombe a worthily wyf [Therefore every soul that never had a stain is an honoured wife of that Lamb]' (Pearl 845-846). In the Heavenly Jerusalem, these bearers of pearls are 'maydennez an hundreþe þowsande | And fowre and forty þowsande mo [a hundred thousand virgins and forty-four thousand more]' (869-870). And the poet has repeatedly conveyed the immaculate nature of the Pearl, as in the first group of five stanzas, where the concatenation phrase is 'withouten spotte' (24). Arguably, Gawain may no longer attain the same moral cleanness which the Pearl possesses.

At the moment of confession, as noted by Jill Mann, 'The integrity of Gawain's “prys” is recreated' and he assumes a new value within the poem.18 Indeed, the Green Knight's reference to effect of 'þe poynt of myn egge' implies that he, too, realises Gawain is now changed, at least physically. Pearl's brides of Christ also bear a bodily inscription which reflects their value: 'On alle her forhedez wryten I fande | þe Lombez nome, Hys Faderez also [I noticed the Lamb's name written on all their foreheads, and also His Father's]' (Pearl 871-872). Their bodies are defined in terms of their relationship with the divine, and this inscription confirms their pure status. By contrast, Gawain's scar is delivered within the human realm, and is a reminder of his moral fallibility. He may be 'polysed of þat ply?t, and pured [. . . ] clene', but his body, even with its healed scar, remains less perfect than before. This leads us to a further implication of interpreting the girdle as an overt reminder of the visually obstructed scar: the Green Knight is content to forgive Gawain only after having effected a new type of unity between his physical and spiritual states. The encounter in the Green Chapel may thus be viewed as a reckoning in which Gawain's punishment is commensurate with his new 'pris'. The Green Knight is satisfied at the instant of the blow, now that Gawain's body once more equates with his physical symbol (the girdle/scar). He is now 'clene' in spirit, and his scar facilitates his ongoing process of contrition in much the same way that the Lamb's flowing blood in Pearl renders him more perfect because of this imperfection. 19 Gawain has sinned against God and Bertilak alike, but he confesses, and his cleaved flesh gradually becomes fused. Smitten by the Green Knight's axe and made to suffer physical pain, Gawain is now 'polysed als playn as parchmen shauen [polished as plain as shaven parchment]' (1135), the expression the God of Cleanness employs to describe those who are redeemed. With the blow from his challenger, Gawain receives a wound which becomes a scar, a permanent reminder of his shame. Employing the girdle as a further token of his scar indicates Gawain's meditation on his faithlessness, and the corporeal unity of the knight's body is thus restored.

Not only was the body of Christ thought to enclose the body of Christendom in medieval theology, but Christ's wounds themselves represent a prominent aspect of the period's religious iconography. Christ's side-wound was often mandorla-shaped, and many mappae mundi and cosmological diagrams were drawn in like manner, so as to evoke the containment of the universe within the figure of Christ. 20 These depictions of 'the all-encompassing body of Christ' reflect the fact that people frequently used their own bodies as spatial referents for the mystical body of Christ (Areford, p. 236). Because of the concentric spheres thought to constitute the universe, the divine wounds were often characterised as textual matter written on the body of Christ. 'Thy body is lyke a boke written al with rede ynke; so is thy body al written with rede woundes', writes Richard Rolle (Marti, p. 53). The poem's treatment of Gawain's injured body reflects a similar attitude to the wound; not only does his wound evoke those of Christ, but the Green Knight's comment comparing Gawain to parchment is an explicit reference to his body, which is like a clean writing surface from which the text has been scraped. The reference to bodily writing indicates that this redemption is achieved through Christ, whose own bodily inscriptions—his 'rede woundes'—facilitate the human return to grace.

As a permanent mark borne on the body, the scar is necessarily inseparable from the knight, as he acknowledges even after the wound has healed. The girdle-scar pair enables Gawain to understand his misdeed and to fuse the fragmented components of his bodily microcosm back into order. Moreover, Gawain's wound evokes the eternally-bleeding wounds of corpus Christi, the means through which he is redeemed and which, in the poem's religious scheme, offer Christians eternal life. In this way, his eventual comprehension of his wrongdoing and lack of faith amounts to a type of restorative force, akin to the Green Knight's uncanny ability to replace his head after decapitation. Gawain has discovered that repentance, in the form of reflection on the 'token of vntrawþe [token of infidelity]' (2509), permits him to reclaim his bodily and spiritual integrity; for all its ephemeral nature, it is the girdle which now protects Gawain's body, re-covering its wholeness, and rebinding what was undone.



1 Helen Cooper, 'The Supernatural', in A Companion to the 'Gawain'-Poet, ed. by D. Brewer and J. Gibson, (Cambridge: Brewer, 1997), pp. 277-291 (p. 285).

2 Following Malcolm Andrew, and in the absence of compelling evidence to the contrary, my arguments function in keeping with the theory of common authorship. See M. Andrew, 'Theories of Authorship', in A Companion to the 'Gawain'-Poet, ed. by Brewer and Gibson, pp. 22-33.

3R.A. Shoaf, 'The 'Syngne of Surfet' and the Surfeit of Signs in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight', in The Passing of Arthur: New Essays in Arthurian Tradition, ed. by Christopher Baswell and William Sharpe (London: Garland, 1988), pp. 152-167.

 4The distinction between the wound and Gawain's subsequent scar is discussed below.

 5All Sir Gawain quotations and translations are from J.R.R. Tolkien and E.V.Gordon, eds., Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, 2nd edn, rev. N. Davis (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967).

6 Kevin Marti, Body, Heart and Text in the Pearl-Poet (Lewiston: Edwin Mellen, 1991), p. 1.

7Derek Brewer, 'Introduction', in A Companion to the 'Gawain'-Poet, ed. by Brewer and Gibson, pp. 1-20 (p. 12).

8John Anthony Burrow, A Reading of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1965).

9A.S.G. Edwards, 'The Manuscript: British Library MS Cotton Nero A.x', in A Companion to the 'Gawain'-Poet, ed. by Brewer and Gibson, pp. 207-213.

10Nickel dismisses the notion that the Green Knight's analogue in medieval literature is a vegetation or solar god, the Devil, or Death itself, and identifies human counterparts instead. See Helmut Nickel, 'Why was the Green Knight Green?', Arthurian Interpretations, 2.2 (1988), pp. 58-64.

11For a reading of the pentangle as an ambiguous emblem affording both necromantic and religious protection, see P. Hardman, 'Gawain's Practice of Piety in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight', Medium Aevum, 68.2 (1999), pp. 247-262.

12For Brewer, chastity is the “magic” talisman that protects Gawain. See p. 19.

13 A slightly different version of this image is reproduced as one of the illustrations in British Library Cotton Nero A.x. Gawain's naked body is visible from the shoulders up.

14P.F. Reichardt, 'Gawain and the Image of the Wound', PMLA 99.2 (1984), p.156.

15For the former two views see the exchange of notes between T. Farrell, P. Murphy, R. Osberg, and P. Reichardt, all in 'Gawain's Wound', PMLA 100.1 (1985), 97-99. For the lattermost position see A.C. Spearing, The Gawain-Poet: A Critical Study (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976), p. 220.

16 M. Owens, Stages of Dismemberment (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2005), pp. 37-38.

17 In this respect, it differs from Cleanness: see Cl l. 697-708.

18 See J. Mann, 'Price and Value in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight', Essays in Criticism xxxvi (1986), 199.

19 H. White, 'Blood in Pearl', RES xxxviii (1987), 1-13.

20D. S. Areford, 'The Passion Measured: A Late Medieval Diagram of the Body of Christ', in The Broken Body: Passion Devotion in Late-Medieval Culture, ed. by A. A. MacDonald, H.N.B. Ridderbos and R.M. Rchluseman (Groningen: Egbert Forsten, 1998), pp. 211-239, (pp. 228-235).

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