Prosthetics and the Dismodern Body in SGGK

Ok, so here’s my other, longer Kalamazoo paper. I’m returning to this later in the summer for a larger piece, so I’m very much thinking through things still. I am also apparently obsessed with Gawain right now.


Flirting with Integrity: Prosthetics and
the Dismodern Body in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Throughout Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Gawain flirts with bodily integrity, or more to the point, with the desire for it. My use of “integrity” here cuts in two directions, gesturing not only to his ethical character but also to the state of remaining whole and intact. His arming as the pentangle knight conjures the fantasy of a body that is whole, not penetrated, complete; however, each of his encounters in the poem reveal that this seemingly intact body is really a body-in-the-making, or maybe even a body-in-the-unmaking, one that is always at risk of disintegration, dismemberment, and re-configuration. From the very moment that Gawain takes his uncle’s place before the Green Knight, our hero must confront physical and psychological vulnerability. To read this vulnerability, I look to the analyses of disability studies. And although the poem does not explicitly present a disabled or impaired body as we would often conceptualize it, its images of dismembered and incomplete bodies calls forth what Lennard Davis, a noted disability studies scholar, would call the dismodern body. Davis argues that we all begin from a position of disability, that we are all incomplete: “As the quadriplegic is incomplete without the motorized wheelchair and the controls manipulated by the mouth or tongue, so the citizen is incomplete without information technology, protective legislation, and globalized forms of securing order and peace.” In the context of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, then, I would argue that the knight is incomplete without his armor, his bonds of fellowship and loyalty, his reputation, and perhaps even magical objects. The objects and technologies that complete the body are prosthetics, real and virtual devices that fit onto one’s person, yet the hinge or seam is often showing. In this essay, I read the poem through the lens of recent work in disability studies in order to lay bare the anxieties and desires that Gawain and his fellow knights reveal for bodily integrity, and by extension, for the integrity of the body politic.

Before turning to the poem, I want to say a few more opening words about both dismodernism and prosthetics. Although Davis situates dismodernism within contemporary debates about identity and disability, the non-standard bodies of the premodern, figured without current parameters of disability, provide an excellent vantage point for examining the dismodern view of the social and political incompleteness of all bodies. Informed by the work of Davis, for example, Katherine Schapp Williams’s essay “Enabling Richard: The Rhetoric of Disability in Richard III” (2009) traces how “bodily difference” is woven throughout Shakespeare’s Richard III, in the malformed body of the medieval king Richard as well as metaphorically in other characters and in the body politic. Williams concludes that the play “challenges a binary of able/disabled bodies by assuming that every body starts from a position of disability, thus dispensing with the narrative of modernity that insists upon an idealized, able-bodied subject whose full independence suggests perfectibility.” The Middle English poem is similarly marked throughout by not only bodily difference, but also by bodily vulnerability and incompleteness. Although Gawain is seemingly in excellent health, he spends the majority of the narrative under the double threat of physical harm and knightly dishonor. In some ways, Richard III is a negative image of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. In the former, the hunch-backed King foregrounds deformity (both bodily and psychological) and therefore dismisses the idea of the self-sovereign, perfectible subject; in the latter, we are presented with a body that would suggest perfectibility, but is haunted by the imperfect, the incomplete. Both texts, however, come to similar conclusions about the instability of the body politic.

I want to be careful here – I am not arguing that knightly dishonor is automatically equivalent to disability. Nor do I wish to dilute the force of either our sense of disability or prosthesis by introducing these terms into a text without direct representations of impairment or deformity. Rather, the metaphor of prosthesis allows us to think further about how the poem links reputation with ideas of wholeness and integrity, and how the breach of fame is deeply intertwined with the penetration or fragmentation of the body.

The theory of dismodernism makes prosthetics necessary, but they are somewhat undertheorized in that original conceptualization. David Wills, in a touchstone book on prosthesis, traces the development of the term. It was first introduced into English in 1553 as a rhetorical term meaning “attached to” or “adding a syllable to the beginning of a word.” Our contemporary use of prosthesis in the medical sense, as “replacement of a missing part of the body with an artificial one” did not enter the language until 1704. The word might be a post-medieval innovation, but, I would argue, the concepts animate medieval literature nonetheless. There is a double valence to prosthesis here that concerns us. First, it is textual, a linguistic attachment or joining. Second, it is material in the sense of being a literal replacement, such as a prosthetic limb. But in this capacity for replacement, it can also become a metaphor. In Narrative Prosthesis: Disability and the Dependencies of Discourse, for example, David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder explore the dependency of narrative on the idea of deviance and deformity, specifically how narrative closure prostheticizes some initiating disability. In other words, narratives of acceptance or healing neutralize difference. This reading of narrative closure has been introduced into medieval studies through the work of Tory Pearman and others. And we might see it even in the embodied difference of the Green Knight evanescing into the face of Bertilak. In place of narrative closure as a way of providing completeness to inadequate bodies, I want to focus here on how prosthesis can be both completion but also excess. As Wills writes “prosthesis [is] about nothing if not placement, displacement, replacement, standing, dislodging, substituting, setting, amputating, supplementing” (9). Although I want to attend to objects in the poem, specifically the armor, furs, and girdle with which Gawain is outfitted, I want to think about each of these material objects as a replacement, in most cases, for his deformed or absent reputation. The two senses of prosthesis, as textual addition and material object, interweave here.

The first instance of prosthesis in the poem that I wish to look at is the arming of Gawain in the second fitt. He of course suits up in armor to meet a foe who threatens to take his head off, but it is to his shield that I want to turn our attention. This shield is brimming with signification due to the pentangle painted on the outside. Such marks on the shield serve a heraldic purpose, and function as an indication of the knight’s identity and reputation. The poet then goes on to detail the significance of the pentangle:

I am in tent yow to telle, þof tary hyt me schulde.
Hit is a syngne þat Salamon set sumquyle
In bytoknyng of trawþe, bi tytle þat hit habbez;
For hit is a figure þat haldez fyue poyntez
And vche lyne vmbelappez and loukez in oþer
And ayquere hit is endelez (and Englych hit callen
Oueral, as I here, ‘þe endeles knot’). (624-630)

The pentangle originates with Solomon, and there are two important interpretations that the poet offers the reader. First, it “bytoknyng of trawþe,” and as John Burrow points out, the poem is largely about truth. Second, “hit is endelez,” and is known in English as “‘þe endeles knot.’” The idea of the endless knot points to eternity, and to perfection, and thus to wholeness. The poet then goes on to describe why the pentangle is particularly fitting for Gawain. He expounds upon five sets of five – “his fyue wyttez” (640), “his fyue fyngres” (641), “þe fyue woundez” of Christ (642-643), “îe fyue joyez” of Mary (646) (it should also be noted that Gawain bears the image of the Virgin Mary on the inside of his shield, a feature that belongs to Arthur in other texts), and the five virtues of knighthood: “fraunchyse,” “felaȝschyp,” “clannnes,” “cortaysye,” and “pité” (640-643). The five sets are all connected to each other, the poet tells us, like the “endeles knot” of the pentangle itself.

The pentangle symbolizes the hope that a knight places in his armor: it is a perfect, unbroken object that cannot be breached. The endless knot, Gordian in its lists, cannot be untied or undone. I should also note that this seems like an appropriately vaunted armor for a knight like Gawain, bearing a name as he does, and coming from a court that seems like it is in its first flowering. The young always think themselves perfectible, if not perfect. What turns the shield from a tool to a prosthetic, however, is how it forges and undoes completeness all at once. Freud’s musings on prosthesis would apply to Gawain here: “With every tool man is perfecting his own organs, whether motor or sensory, or is removing the limits to their functioning. . . . Man has, as it were, become a prosthetic god.” Gawain is certainly holy (even if he is not being prideful as Freud might suggest) in his resplendent armor. The metal of his shield and armor protects his body from the bite of steel, and the perfection of the signs of the pentangle protects his soul. But, we would do well to attend to the final part of the quote from Freud: “When he puts on all his auxiliary organs he is truly magnificent: but those organs have not grown on him and they still give him much trouble at times.” Freud, like many theorists of prosthesis who follow, focus on the seam, the troubling connective tissue between human and technology. When introducing the pentangle, the narrator declares that he is going to relate “quy þe pentangel apendez to þat prynce noble” (619). In the verb “apendez” I hear the original, linguistic sense of prosthesis. This is an entire reputation and symbology being appended, attached to the person of Gawain as a supplement. Although the narrator is at pains to tell the audience how the pentangle represents Gawain, perfect in his knighthood, this freight of prosthetic signifiers proves to give him much trouble.

When Gawain is armed, the audience initially has no reason to doubt the relationship between the young knight and the symbol of the pentangle. But, as readers of the poem know, Gawain falls significantly short of such lofty goals of perfection. Concerning the fifth point of the pentangle, itself divided into five knightly virtues, Gawain seems to become entangled in the impossible demands of fellowship, cleanness, and courtesy. This poor fit between Gawain and his auxiliary organs will continue to be a theme throughout the poem. More than just his failure, however, I would argue that several of the other points of the pentangle cut against the fantasy of wholeness. In its most literal and material sense, this shield should protect Gawain’s all too vulnerable (that is, mortal) body from injury and fragmentation. While several of the points gesture toward sacred or secular perfection, they also simultaneously recall Gawain’s corporeality – his five fingers, the five wounds of Christ (wounds, it should be noted, our knight could not himself survive), and his five wits, mortal and imperfect. The seeming perfection of the pentangle reminds us of mortality and vulnerability despite presenting the inverse image to the world.

When Gawain arrives at Bertilak’s court, however, the inhabitants of Hautdesert refuse to acknowledge the pentangle knight. In fact, they go so far as to divest him of his spiritual armor and instead clothe him as a courtly paramour, reinforcing their notion of him as Gawain the lover, a notion that readers of French Arthurian narratives would share. What is startling here is how much this differs from the Pentangle knight. He leaves Arthur’s court in spiritual armor and now he finds himself clothed in armor of a different sort. In fact, in reading his clothing in both instances as prosthesis, it becomes clearer that the prosthetic here is genre, that it is an intertextual reputation or set of expectations appended to his person. In the first place, he was the most perfect of knights, just what is needed for heading out into the Wilderness of Wirral to seek the Green Chapel. Then, he is the courtly lover, ready to engage in the battle of wits with Lady Bertilak. And of all the moral challenges that Gawain faces at Bertilak’s court, none are so perilous as the traps he becomes ensnared in as a result of this reputation. For example, Lady Bertilak, during the bedchamber scenes, uses her knowledge of Gawain’s prowess in matters of courtly love in order to trap him. She taunts him by accusing him of not living up to her image of him:

‘Now He þat spedez vche speech þis disport ȝelde yow,
But þat ȝe be Gawan hit gotz in mynde!’
“Querfore?’ quoþ þe freke, and freschly he askez,
Ferde lest he hade fayled in fourme of his castes.
Bot þe burde hym blessed and ‘Bi þis skyl’ sayde:
‘So god as Gawayn gaynly is halden,
And cortaysye is closed so clene in hymseluen,
Couth not lyȝtly haf lenged so long wyth a lady
Bot he had craued a cosse bi his courtaysye,
Bi sum towch of summe trifle at sum talez ende.’ (1292-1301)

While his appended reputation here accords with others’ expectations of him, the reputation of the courtly Gawain does not seem to describe the character in the poem. Though her expressions of disbelief in his identity are meant to test him—a test that results in his accepting the Green Girdle—the reader may also share a similar incredulity. If he is known for his ability to woo women, he certainly does not acquit himself terribly well with the Lady, who persistently baits Gawain in this fashion. During their encounters in his bedroom, she signals to him that she recognizes him and his reputation: “‘For I wene wel, iwysse, Sir Wowen ȝe are, / Ȝat alle þe worlde worchipez; quereso ȝe ride’” (1226-27). In response to her praise, Gawain gets the opportunity to comment on the reputation that others keep attributing to him. His response is one of disavowal:

‘Þaȝ I be not now he þat ȝe of speken—
To reche to such reuerence as ȝe reherce here
I am wyȝe vnworþy, I wot wel myseluen—’ (1242-1244)

This is not the first time that he has labeled himself as unworthy. When he takes over the Beheading Game from Arthur he calls attention to his unworthiness, but that could be a fairly standard expression of humility when speaking to a social superior. At that point, though, neither the narrator nor others had done much to identify Gawain’s reputation, except maybe for the fact that he had a seat next to Guinevere, which would be a seat of honor. The dissonance between his fame and his actions continues throughout the poem, and here Gawain recognizes the disjunction. He recognizes his identity, as the lady constructs it, to be a site of alterity – a “he” opposed to an “I.” In the disjunction between Gawain’s subjectivity and the reputation accorded to him we can once more see the seam of the prosthetic, material clothing and a textual and generic set of expectations that do not lay well upon him.

For both the armor and the courtly clothing, Gawain could be said to be passing as the sort of knight the reader (and members of the court) expect. I take this notion of passing from Gillian Nelson Bauer’s “The Werewolf’s Closet: Clothing as Prosthesis in Marie De France’s Bisclavret.” In Bauer’s account, the wolfish lord in Bisclavret uses clothing as a prosthetic “not to cure him of his disabling lycanthropy but to allow him to pass, unobserved, within court society” (262). Where the lord in Marie de France possesses a more recognizable form of embodied difference, Gawain represents the dismodern subject. He begins from a state of incompleteness, of vulnerability, that he seeks to redress through adopting various prosthetics throughout the narrative. In this sense, the clothing prostheticizes Gawain, as Mitchell and Snyder might read it, in an effort to repair or cure his bodily vulnerability. But, for most of the poem we can only see the exterior, the prosthetic auxiliary organs that Gawain wears. Louise Fradenburg’s analysis of the tournament in medieval Scotland provides a useful reference point for this problematic of Gawain’s identity and reputation. Fradenburg lays bare the performative vacuity of the tournament knight: “This knight represents, therefore, a kind of phenomenological crisis: a present without a past, an outside without an inside, whose armor is his decoration […].” His armor gestures towards a reputation that he does not own. He puts it on like the knight at play, constantly anterior to the name that he bears. In this sense he is more like the Redcrosse knight of the first book of Spenser’s Faerie Queene. He is a neophyte wearing arms that have either belonged to someone else or that he has not yet earned. This is another way to read the fact that the Virgin Mary is painted on the interior of Gawain’s shield, for it was Arthur in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain that bore the Virgin inside his shield. While I would not argue that Gawain is completely an empty suit, he has certainly borrowed from his uncle’s closet.

I am, perhaps, being a little flippant toward our hero here, presenting him like a boy at play rather than a knight. In thinking about the issues of play, though, I am also thinking about Allan Mitchell’s discussion of “postural schema” in his excellent book, Becoming Human. Mitchell writes “Postures, gestures, manners, gait all show the traces of the world playing off against the body.” In other words, the objects we use, whether they’re toys or cutlery or, I would add, armor and clothing, orient us toward and within the world.

In closing this essay, I want to look at the final prosthetic of the poem: the green girdle. On the third day of encounters between Gawain and Lady Bertilak, the rules of engagement are starkly different than during the first two. The lady makes only half-hearted attempts at seducing the knight, and this time focuses on that other staple of courtly romance, the exchange of tokens. First, she wants something from Gawain, and she desires to give him something in return. Still resisting, not realizing that the game has changed, Gawain turns down a ring from the lady. She then offers him a green lace, which he also at first turns down. Gawain is aware that to give in to the lady, he would be a traitor to the lord that he has made an agreement with. His change of mind occurs when one game irrupts in the middle of the other, when the mortal peril of the Beheading Game becomes a part of the Exchange of Winnings Game. The lady reinterprets the lace into terms that Gawain can better understand, telling him that the lace will protect him from any man on earth (1851-1858). As simply human, neither magical nor a paragon of virtue, Gawain finds himself desperately in need of some aid. This temptation proves too much for him to resist. She adds a condition upon his acceptance of the lace—that he tell no one about it. Without yet knowing it, Gawain has already failed the Beheading Game. He already proved himself to be something other than the paragon of courtly lovers in the first two days of the temptation, but by accepting the green lace he comes up short of the standards of the pentangle. By putting his faith in the green lace, he abrogates two of the pentads that the poet accorded to him: his spiritual perfection signaled by his reflection on the five wounds of Christ and the five joys of Mary. And with the pentangle as a sign of “trawîe,” which could refer to his covenant with the Green Knight and the Lady, he becomes a knight of “untrawîe,” with the pentangle being replaced by the green lace.

Where the armor and courtly clothing give a sense of completion as supplement to Gawain’s vulnerable body, enclosing himself in a protective exterior, the girdle first at seems more like a surplus but then becomes a replacement. Though modern fascination with techofuturist and posthumanist prosthesis focuses on technology as a way of augmenting our bodies, we might consider here substituting magic for technology. Is the promise of the green girdle that different from the promise of gadgets that augment or extend our natural abilities? Further, Gawain’s adoption of the girdle effects a series of replacement, a process deeply implicated in prosthesis. First, as I noted, the girdle’s magical abilities replace the faith Gawain should have placed in not only his spiritual armor but also in the reputation the armor was supposed to represent. After his failure at the Green Chapel, Gawain decides to keep the green lace after all. He takes it as a “syngne of [his] surfet”, and later when he recounts his experience to Arthur and the court, he refers to it as “‘þe token of vntrawþe þat I am tan inne’” (2509). It might seem strange or even silly to describe Gawain’s untruth here as a form of amputation, but could there be a greater harm done to a knight? His reputation is like a part of his body, and not it is missing, absent. Diseased, it was cut away, or worse, found to have never been there to begin with. Gawain’s somberness at the end of the poem is the twitching of a phantom limb, of his missing reputation. Now all he has is this girdle, which serves as a constant reminder that the endless knot of the pentangle was only ever a fantasy.

In a seeming act of generosity and good humor, Arthur comforts Gawain by attempting to turn the green lace into a positive symbol by having the court adopt it. For the second time Gawain encounters laughter in the face of his understandable anguish at his tarnished reputation. The green lace, which was a signifier of his personal appropriation of failure, becomes a public sign of the court. The private merges with the public, and his self-fashioned fame gives ground once more to a public conception of him. No longer a sign of just Gawain’s struggle, it now accords with the fame of the Round Table. Shortly after this the poet invokes the Brut-tradition again to close the poem, providing an ominous note to such fame. The darker tones of the ending conflict with the laughter and gaiety of the court, and Gawain finds his personal identity submerged in the larger renown of Arthur and his court. The green lace, and the story it tells, serves as a fitting symbol for the reputation of the Arthurian court. It tells a story of divided loyalties, the dangers of seduction, and familial strife, that is, the very qualities that bring about the infidelity of Guinevere and Lancelot, the death of Arthur and Gawain, and the end of a kingdom. The lace that Arthur directs his knights to take up reminds the readers of the story that will soon unfold, of knight pitted against knight as a kingdom tears itself apart. By taking up the green lace and Gawain’s failure at Hautdesert, Arthur unknowingly confronts his own future. Despite the “first age” and youthfulness of the court, dissolution haunts the entire poem. It reminds us, as David Wills would have it, that “the whole never was anywhere, neither in the singular nor in the total, because the parts were always already detachable, replaceable, because the transfer effect upon which the general is constructed is there at the very beginning, in the nonintegrality of that beginning, called prosthesis” (15).

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