Neighboring Wastelands in SGGK

I delivered this paper at the Sewanee Medieval Colloquium in April 2016

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Neighboring the Wilderness in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Richard H. Godden

During the New Chaucer Society meeting in Portland in 2012, I attended a panel discussion that endeavored to bring together two of the conference threads – Oceans and Neighbors. On one hand, these two could not seem further part: the former concerned with the oceanic, ecological flow, and the latter concerned with the bonds of antagonism and love that co-exist (if uncomfortably) between human actors. In the Q&A, I asked how it is that we could enter into a neighboring relation with the ocean. At the time, I was thinking more about environmentalism than ecology – I was thinking of good stewardship of the waters, and not interdependence. In the following remarks, however, I want to re-visit this question from a different angle. Rather than thinking about brighter tomorrows, I want to think darker ecologies. Moving from the ocean to the wilderness of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, I want to explore Gawain’s travels as being something other than a journey into and through the otherworld. I want to consider what it means to neighbor the wilderness.

While there have been several ecological readings of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, many have focused on the insistent greenness and otherworldliness (also associated with the color green) of so much of the poem.[1] But despite these green encounters, Gawain’s travels through the wilderness of Wirral reveal a terrain nearly devoid of vegetation or color (outside of the stark colors of winter), one that is alien and inhospitable. The landscape is so bleak that the narrator even tells us that “For werre wrathed hym not so much þat wynter nas wors” (726). [2] (HANDOUT 1) The inclement landscape, with its barren rocks, that he temporarily inhabits on his quest poses a greater danger than the beasts, monsters, and wild men he encounters. In this paper, I wish to do that which Gawain is loathe to do: linger among the “naked rokkez” (730) of the wilderness.[3] I do so to pursue not a green reading, but rather a “dark ecology” — as Timothy Morton describes — in order to ask what it means to neighbor resistant, uninviting landscapes. By extending Morton’s insights into the ethics of neighboring in relationship to ecology, I argue that neighboring nature in the poem reveals an ecological other that resists possession. The barrenness of the “naked rokkez” stands in stark contrast to fantasies of dominion. In doing so, these spaces dissolve the comforting and familiar invitation of land that so many medieval texts favor, instead providing alien, uncanny spaces that cannot be so easily inhabited. To approach the poem ecologically, I am dividing this paper into two sections: time and space, and I hope the two will come together.

  1. Time

As Morton Bloomfield once remarked, the poem is “soaked in time in all its aspects.”[4] We begin with the Brut-tradition, with the rise and fall of empires. In a quick sketch, almost like a “Previously On” on a tv show, we are told of the Fall of Troy, brought about by treachery, and we are told of the diaspora of Trojans who found the various cities of Europe, including Britain. We are brought up to the current moment in the text with the introduction of Arthur, but after such an opening, we must approach the ensuing narrative with some trepidation. We all know the story – Arthur falls, must fall, and so his kingdom will fall and another will rise.

Although this is a palpably familiar history, the Gawain-poet encapsulates this history within more dizzying experiments with time in the poem.[5] By this I mean the rapid escalation of temporal sequence, what Morton might refer to as time-lapse, which he describes as follows: “By speeding up the world, time-lapse photography makes things that seem natural reveal something monstrous or artificial, an uncanny, morphing flow.”[6] (HANDOUT 2) The sweep of history is, here, reduced to a list, a few feet of poetry. Such accomplishment passes by so quickly that I am reminded of Carl Sagan’s Cosmic Calendar where the events of greatest magnitude for human history are shown to be contained within a single day of the year. Similarly, how many metrical feet would Arthur’s reign take up in a universal history?

The short historical precis that opens the poem marks one such instance of time-lapse, but the changing of the seasons in fitt II provides a touchstone for the temporal vertigo that I observe in the poem. This is a beautiful scene, cinematic and awesome as winter gives way to spring gives way to summer, and so on. In describing this scene as beautiful it does not yet seem particularly uncanny, but the lines that introduce the changing of seasons are (to me at least) quietly unnerving: “A ȝere ȝernes ful ȝerne, and ȝeldez neuer lyke, / êe forme to îe fynishment foldez ful selden” (468-69).  The year runs quickly, and the beginning and end rarely match. What should be a comforting meditation on the cyclical and enduring change of seasons is launched by an observation about alterity in time, the unforeseeable future.[7] Further, the changing of the seasons begins and ends in winter – a time not for renewal but for strange encounters, and for nervous meditations upon upcoming voyages into unknown lands. The changing of the seasons is also littered with anthropomorphic touches, imprinting human action – “Wroþe wynde of þe welkyn wrastelez with þe sunne” (525) – upon the actions of the natural world. And yet, despite the attribution of recognizable human actions to the weather, the inexorable grind of time remains impersonal, detached from human yearnings and emotion. The seasons change and yet Gawain will soon have no choice but to begin his “anious uyage” (534). It would, perhaps, be better to say that these anthropomorphic details signal the inhuman, not the human, an unsettling recognition that alienates even as it invites.

If the changing of the seasons is still mostly beautiful, we might find a darker ecology in the next moment of time-lapse – Gawain’s travels through the wilderness of Wirral, or as the poet puts it, “contrayez straunge.” If this were an action movie, we would see Gawain scrambling over cliffs, traversing through black rocks, and notably, fighting an absurd, frankly parodic number of foes. We are told that

Sumwhyle wyth wormez he werrez, and with wolues als,

Sumwhyle wyth wodwos, þat woned in þe knarrez,

Boþe wyth bullez and berez, and borez oþerquyle,

And etaynez, þat hym anelede of þe heȝe felle. (720-723) (HANDOUT 3)

So, for those keeping track, he fights worms (or likely, dragons), wolves, wodwos (or wildmen), bulls, bears, boars, and etaynez (giants). Any one encounter with just one of these creatures could serve as the climax of a scene if not an entire poem. The speedup of time-lapse renders this series of climactic moments as uncanny, piling one upon another until it almost cannot be taken seriously or as real. These monsters and other non-human creatures are what Morton might call strange strangers, those figures whose strangeness only increases the more intimate with them we become.

In tracing the the uncanniness of Gawain’s encounters, I am looking to find the neighborly in the ecological others of the poem. At first, this list of foes would seem unlikely candidates for the neighbor. George Edmonson, in his excellent book The Neighboring Text, offers the following gloss on the position of the neighbor:

Located somewhere between familiarity and anonymity, between the family unit and the polis, the neighbor stands as that intimate other whose recognition we crave, and with whom we can partially identify, but who also displays a strange, potentially hostile desire—a death drive—that uncannily threatens the dream of community. There is an amorphous quality to the neighbor, a kind of liminality, that fundamentally confuses our approach to the neighbor both in theory and in practice. The neighbor is both intimate and strange, both proximate and remote, both reassuring and threatening; he rattles us even as he ratifies us.[8] (HANDOUT 4)

 

There seems to be little familiar in the dragons and other creatures that Gawain battles, except that they are reassuring in their ability to be defeated, to be conquered. Gillian Rudd, for instance, observes that “he needs the adventure in an Other world to secure his own identity as a questing knight of Arthur’s court.”[9] I would go further and say that, despite his increasing discomfort during the scene, Gawain, in fact, seems most like himself during these stanzas than perhaps anywhere else in the poem. This is the only time that we see him be truly successful. For the most part, he proves himself to be a valiant warrior here, unlike his failures at Hautdesert and the Green Chapel. And yet, the numbers of these creatures continue to multiply. The battles only seem to come to an end because he travels through the land. Had he stayed, presumably he would have continued battling dragons and giants and wolves.

Morton further describes the eventfulness of encountering these figures, “whose strangeness is irreducible: arrivants, whose arrival cannot be predicted or accounted for.”[10] (HANDOUT 5) Relating the strange stranger both to Derrida’s arrivant and to Zizek’s invocation of the neighbor[11] (which Edmondson’s analysis is also reliant upon), Morton argues that, “If anything, life is catastrophic, monstrous, nonholistic, and dislocated, not organic, coherent, or authoritative.”[12] We could compare such figures to the strangeness of the Green Knight, who begins as strangely strange but seems to become familiar by the end.[13] But, if we imagine the Green Knight as occupying just a half-line in that list of encounters, he becomes strange once again. Familiarity, perhaps, is temporary and fleeting.

  1. Space

While on his hunt for the Green Chapel, the narrator goes to great lengths to describe how injurious and inclement winter is for our knight:

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 myȝt to þe fale erþe;

Ner slayn wyth þe slete he sleped in his yrnes

Mo nyȝtez þen innoghe in naked rokkez,

Þer as claterande fro þe crest þe colde borne rennez,

And henged heȝe ouer his hede in hard iisse-ikkles.

Þus in peryl and payne and plytes ful harde. (726-733)

Threatened from above by sharp icicles, from below by barren rocks, and from all around by the unforgiving cold, Gawain makes his journey in “peryl and payne and plytes ful harde,” a condition that pervades the entire poem. Gawain spends more than enough nights in this state. In fact, the narrator tells us that the parade of creatures Gawain faces were far preferable to the inclement desolation of the land and environment that Gawain is so uncomfortably inhabiting when he meets these foes. In the first part, I looked at time-lapse and the uncanny effects of swift time. Here, I want to think of the still-image (or at least a recurring image), this one vision of Gawain among the naked rocks.

The use of “naked” to describe the “rokkez” is an intriguing choice. According to the Middle English Dictionary, “naked” can mean “(a) Of ground: without fresh vegetation, barren; also, not covered (as with a carpet or blanket); of autumn: devoid of green vegetation, sere; of trees: not covered with leaves, leafless; ~ of leves, stripped of leaves” or “(b) not covered with tissue or flesh, bare.” Or, in a definition that initially seems inappropriate to this context, “naked” can mean “(e) of the heart: lacking human affection, unfeeling.” (HANDOUT 6) I suggest that the “naked” in “naked rokkez” constellates these meanings, drawing them together into a dense thicket of possible interpretations.

At its most basic level, we understand that the rocks are stripped bare, not covered by vegetation or other foliage. They are barren. But in their bareness they also evoke the fleshy vulnerability of Gawain, who, even enclosed in armor, seems as if naked before the weather and the world he finds himself in. I would also argue that the rocks here are indeed unfeeling, lacking human affection, much like the changing seasons. To put it more directly, these rocks do not reinforce the narratives we wish to tell about the land through which we travel. This can be best seen through a comparison. For example, compare the Wilderness of the Wirral to the description of Britain in Geoffrey of Monmouth:

At this time the island of Britain was called Albion.  It was uninhabited except for a few giants.  It was, however, most attractive, because of the delightful situation of its various regions, its forests and the great number of its rivers, which teemed with fish; and it filled Brutus and his comrades with a great desire to live there.  When they had explored the different districts, they drove the giants whom they had discovered into the caves in the mountains.  With the approval of their leader they divided the land among themselves.  They began to cultivate the fields and to build houses, so that in a short time you would have thought that the land had always been inhabited.[14] (HANDOUT 7)

 

Brutus encounters a lush, delightful land just waiting to be cultivated. The land Gawain finds instead is one despoiled, barren, unfit for inhabitation. You might think the land in Sir Gawain had never been, and more importantly, never would be inhabited. This comparison between the lush land Brutus encounters and Gawain’s strange yet desolate country might suggest a reading where the land has been progressively despoiled through time. Instead, I would suggest that this is not a tale of post-despoliation, but rather one that resists entirely the possibility that this land can ever be possessed.

To understand this further, I want to try to think about this desolation through the ethics of the neighbor. Morton observes that “The ecological thought thinks the strange stranger as the other mind, the other person, the neighbor, to use the Judeo-Christian term (“Love thy neighbor as thyself”).” In discussing the strange stranger as neighbor, Morton looks to the difficult strangers of Wordsworth’s poetry, but also, like Žižek, to the Muselmann, the “living dead” of the concentration camps whose zero level of being serves as an exemplary figure of the neighbor, this uncanny figure who eschews the beautiful, who is ultimately not inviting. However, in “Monsters and Other Neighbors,” Žižek also discusses the figure of Odradek in Kafka’s “Cares of a Family Man.”[15] Odradek is a curious creature which looks like a “flat, star-shaped spool for thread”, and is made up of broken-off bits of thread, but yet still retains some human-like qualities, such as the ability to stand upright and to speak. Significantly, when questioned about where it lives, Odradek would reply “No fixed abode.” Instead, it occupies liminal spaces such as stairwells and lobbies. In Odradek, Žižek sees not just the neighbor, but jouissance embodied: “jouissance is that which we cannot ever attain and that which we cannot ever get rid of.”[16] There is a comforting fantasy that Žižek gives us, that the encounter with the neighbor happens in liminal spaces or in spaces marked off as non-human. But, as Morton would remind us: “The ecological thought permits no distance. Thinking interdependence involves dissolving the barrier between ‘over here’ and ‘over there.’ […] thinking interdependence involves thinking difference. This means confronting the fact that all beings are related to each other negatively and differentially, in an open system without center or edge.”[17] (HANDOUT 8) Strange strangers are everywhere, including at Bertilak’s court, but also, perhaps, in the naked rocks themselves. When thinking the neighbor, Žižek and others tend to look for the inhuman in the human. But, I wonder about looking to the space, the land itself as the inhuman other that we can neither attain nor get rid of. The final line of Kafka’s story is “but the idea that he is likely to survive me I find almost painful.” Instead of the inhuman Odradek, I would like to think of this as the land that survives us, whose survival is almost painful. The landscape Gawain traverses is one not possessed or cultivated. Unlike the comforting fantasy of dominion we get in Geoffrey of Monmouth, the characters in Sir Gawain have an uncanny relationship to the land itself. The time-lapse speed up of events in the beginning of the poem does not tell the story of land being variously conquered and possessed, but rather of land and territory unpossessed.

Gawain’s dwelling among the “naked rokkez” lays bare the difference to be found in stone. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, in his Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman, observes that “Something potentially propulsive unfolds within both frames at the moment of contact between mortal flesh and lithic substantiality: the advent of a disorienting realization, no matter how dimly perceived, that stone’s time is not ours, that the world is not for us, even as material continuity becomes palpable.”[18] (HANDOUT 9) Cohen would remind us that “rocks and people inhabit temporalities and magnitudes profoundly different.” To read the rocks as an ecological neighbor is to restore this multitude of temporalities to the poem. The land has its own history, and we feel vertiginous as we realize that we are not at home in it, that we are only dwelling, for a while.

III. Naked Neighbors

In closing this paper, I remain intrigued by the poet’s use of “naked” to describe the rocks. The poet uses “naked” only a handful of times, and only once is it used to describe something inhuman like rocks. For the other times, the adjective “naked” is mostly used to describe either the bare throat of Gawain or the same body part of Lady Bertilak, such as her “naked lyppez.” Closer to the description of “naked rocks,” the poet also uses “naked” to detail how punishingly cold the winter is when Gawain seeks the Green Chapel in fitt IV – “Clowdes kesten kenly þe colde to þe erþe, / Wyth nyȝe innoghe of þe norþe, þe naked to tene; / Þe snawe snitered ful snart, þat snayped þe wylde” (2001-2003). (HANDOUT 10) The “naked,” that is, the vulnerable or poorly outfitted, will be harmed by the harsh winter cold. This one word, “naked,” brings together the many catastrophic elements of the poem. Gawain’s bare neck is emphasized, but so is the alluring quality of Lady Bertilak’s body. It consistently emphasizes vulnerability and seduction. In this one word, we can find the essence of the Arthurian story, at least of its ending. When Gawain comes back to Arthur’s court bearing the green lace as a sign of his untruth, Arthur encourages the court to take it up as a public symbol of the court, in honor of the young knight who has returned to them. Time speeds up again as this act forces us to consider how the ending of the Arthurian age is due to divided loyalties, betrayals, seduction, exactly the travails that Gawain experiences in the poem. In a poem framed by the translatio imperii of Trojan refugees conquering and possessing Europe, the uncanny spaces Gawain reluctantly lingers in tells a different story, of land and territory unpossessed. Ultimately, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight dissolves the comforting and familiar invitation of land or sweep of history in favor of alien, inhuman vantage points. To neighbor the wilderness is to realize we are at home everywhere and nowhere.

[1] See, for example, Gillian Rudd, Greenery: Ecocritical Readings of Late Medieval English Literature (Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 2007). Also see Carolyn Dinshaw, “Ecology,” in A Handbook of Middle English Studies, ed. Marion Turner (West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013), 347–62; Alfred K. Siewers, “Ecopoetics and the Origins of English Literature,” in Environmental Criticism for the Twenty-First Century, ed. Stephanie LeMenager (New York, NY: Routledge, 2011), pp. 105–20.

[2] The Poems of the Pearl Manuscript, eds. Malcom Andrew and Ronald Waldron (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1996).

[3] Rudd takes a similar approach, focusing on the Wilderness of Wirral, though we come to different conclusions regarding the relationship between Gawain and these landscapes.

[4] Morton W. Bloomfield, ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: An Appraisal,’ PMLA: Publications of the Modern Language Association of America 76.1 (1961): 7-19, p. 19. For further considerations of time in the poem, see John K. Crane, ‘The Four Levels of Time in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,’ Annuale Mediaevale 10 (1969): 65-80; Jane Tolimieri, ‘Medieval Concepts of Time and Their Influence on Structure and Meaning in the Works of the Gawain-Poet,’ Unpublished Dissertation, 1989; Richard H. Godden, “Gawain and the Nick of Time: Fame, History, and the Untimely in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” Arthuriana 26, no. 4 (2016), forthcoming.

[5] For instance, see Ian Bishop, ‘Time and Tempo in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,’ Neophilologus 69.4 (1985): 611-619.

[6] Morton, The Ecological Thought, p. 43.

[7] S. L. Clark and Julian N. Wasserman, “The Passing of the Seasons and the Apocalyptic in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” South Central Review 3, no. 1 (1986): 5–22. Clark and Wasserman argue that the ‘fourteenth-century poet not only knows that Camelot has fallen but also fears that his own society is likewise unraveling, and in his poem of Arthurian society’s failure–a failure in a line of failures stretching from Troy–he attempts to warn of impending doom facing New Troy, that is, London. Thus, the poem reaches outward from its own time to the present. In the same way, the present is reflected in the past of the poem, in that the apocalyptic worldview of the poet is the first cause of his portrayal of the crumbling world of the Arthurian court. In other words, the threatened collapse of the poet’s own society serves to explain the fall of Camelot’ (8).

[8] George Edmondson, The Neighboring Text: Chaucer, Boccaccio, Henryson (Notre Dame, Ind: University of Notre Dame Press, 2011), p. 10.

[9] Gillian Rudd, “‘The Wilderness of Wirral’ in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” Arthuriana 23, no. 1 (2013): 52–65, 60.

 

[10] Morton, “Queer Ecology,” p. 276.

[11] Slavoj Žižek, “Neighbors and Other Monsters: A Plea for Ethical Violence” in The Neighbor: Three Inquiries in Political Theology (University of Chicago Press, 2010).

[12] Morton, “Queer Ecology,” p. 275.

[13] I’m indebted to Carolyn Dinsahw’s reading of the foliate heads and the Green Knight in “Ecology.”

[14] Geoffrey of Monmouth, The History of the Kings of Britain, trans. Lewis Thorpe, 1st edition (New York: Penguin Books, 1977), p. 72.

[15] Žižek, pp. 159-160.

[16] Žižek, p. 164. He further describes Odradek “as an object that is transgenerational (exempted from the cycle of generations), immortal, outside finitude (because outside sexual difference), outside time, displaying no goal-oriented activity, no purpose, no utility, is jouissance embodied.”

[17] Morton, The Ecological Thought, p. 39.

[18] Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2015).

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