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Frustrated readers and conventional decapitation in 'Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.'(Critical Essay)
The Modern Language Review. 97.4 (Oct. 2002): p793-802. From Literature Resource Center.
Abstract: 

The character of Sir Gawain in 'Sir Gawain and the Green Knight' and other texts is multivalent. Besides the image of Gawain as the courtly lover in medieval romances, he also had a reputation as something of a hothead, and these contradictory images both come into play in 'Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.'

Full Text: 

Recent criticism of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight has emphasized the instability of signs throughout the poem. Is the host Bertilak, or the Green Knight? Is the old woman a guest of the house, or Morgan la Faye? Are the games of exchange Christmas interludes, or tests of character? Is the green lace a magical talisman, or the decoration on an axe, a mark of shame, or a mark of honour? The poem's hero is faced with a dizzying array of ideas, people, and items, each of which require explanation, and the various challenges confronted by Gawain led R. A. Shoaf to say that there is a 'crisis of interpretation' throughout the poem. (1) Even the identity of the poem's hero is open to interpretation, and many critics have remarked on the disparity between Gawain's reputation for courtly refinements and his own self-image. The members of Bertilak's court are familiar with the knight's proclivity for dalliance, and when he arrives at Hautdesert they expect that they 'Schal lerne of luf-talkyng' from their distinguished guest. (2) Indeed, much of the comedy of the latter half of the poem results from Gawain's attempts to evade the amorous reputation he earned in other tales of adventure, (3) and when the lady of the castle chastises him for not living up to her expectations, Gawain can only respond, 'I be not now he pat ze of speken.' (4)

Sir Gawain is not the only knight of the Arthurian world with a recognizable 'character'. While Arthur is the centre of the court and Guenevere is his unfaithful queen, the supporting cast is also imbued with fairly consistent characteristics: Mordred is the consummate villain, Galahad is the ideal of Christian good, Lancelot is the best lover and fighter, Kay is foul-mouthed, and Dinadan, if we want to look at minor characters, is the practical one. But perhaps none of the Arthurian knights is so set in his role as Sir Gawain, Arthur's courteous and amorous nephew. Gawain's character was established for the academic world by B. J. Whiting in an oft-cited paper, the original intention of which 'was to make a brief comment on the opening of Chaucer's Squire's Tale, a passage in which Gawain's courtesy is thrown into bold relief'. (5) What Whiting produced was an exhaustive study of Gawain's reputation for both courtesy and seduction, the 364 footnotes of which contain references to many of the medieval texts which describe Gawain excelling in those related virtues.

The encyclopaedic nature of Whiting's research might argue against a revisionist view of Sir Gawain, but just as Kay was not always a foul-mouthed oaf, (6) so Gawain was not always the model of courtly behaviour. In their earliest appearances both of these knights are heroic fighting men, but despite their changing images throughout the Middle Ages, it is Kay's reputation for a sharp tongue and Gawain's reputation for courtesy which are the starting points for many modern studies. Thomas Wright, for example, suggests that focusing on 'such issues as Gawain's reputation as the father of fine manners' is a rewarding way to teach Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. (7) John Martin cites Whiting's study to support his position that 'Although in Arthurian romance the Round Table was renowned as a center of courtesy, of all Arthur's knights, Gawain was far and away the most famous for his cortaysye', and John Finlayson refers to the same study when he argues that the courtly Gawain is 'the knight known for his "daliaunce and fair langage"'. (8) Both A. C. Spearing and D. S. Brewer have also examined Sir Gawain and provided detailed analyses of the hero's adherence to the principles of courtesy. (9) It would be misleading to suggest that these studies accept a unidimensional image of Gawain as the courteous and amorous knight, but that is certainly the picture from which they begin. Larry Benson goes so far as to suggest that Gawain seems to be fighting against his own reputation throughout Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, (10) and Arthur Lindley sees a disparity between the courteous Gawain of romance and the pentangle knight of the poem. (11) Arguing that courtesy is actually subverted, deconstructed, and transformed through the carnivalesque, Lindley begins with the assumption that the Lady (and the audience) regard 'the courtesy Gawain sees as essential to his character as a set of sporting rules and/or literary conventions'. (12)

These studies all begin with an image of Gawain as the courtly lover, and, for the most part, they ignore the long and diverse literary history that Gawain had within Arthurian traditions. Whiting, who canonized this image of Gawain, did recognize that his reputation changed over time, but he devotes only a very small paragraph to Gawain's appearances outside of romances. (13) Early Welsh texts mention Arthur's nephew and greatest knight, but it was through Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britannie that Gawain was brought to a wide audience and to British historiography. In the late Middle Ages, and in Britain in particular, Geoffrey's text remained immensely popular, surviving in some 215 manuscripts. (14) The work was accepted as a historical account and woven into the larger fabric of both insular and world history by numerous chroniclers. These texts were in turn translated and adapted by their own successors, leading Robert Hanning to assert that 'Until the sixteenth (and in some quarters the seventeenth) century, British history was Geoffrey's Historia, expanded, excerpted, rhymed, combined, or glossed.' (15) Geoffrey's representation of Arthur, and of Gawain, circulated with the many adaptations of his work, and these chronicles 'were the primary source of knowledge in medieval England concerning King Arthur and the Arthurian era'. (16)

Geoffrey's Gawain, it must be stressed, is not the model of courtesy found in later romances and he is mentioned in the Historia in only three scenes. Early in Arthur's reign we are told of his birth and his education at Rome under Pope Sulpicius. Near the end of the reign Gawain is seen fighting against Lucius, and we are told of his death during the ill-fated return to Britain. (17) Gawain's largest and most important scene comes early in the campaign against Rome, but here he is actually something of a hothead, who fails in his one opportunity to excel at courtly behaviour. After Arthur defeats the Giant of St Michael's Mount, he sends an embassy to the Romans to ask them to withdraw from Gaul. His messengers are Boso, Gerin, and his nephew Gawain. A group of young British knights certainly do not view Gawain as the paragon of courtliness, and they see this as an opportunity to quicken the pace of the war: '[...] cepit instimulare Galgwainum ut infra castra inciperet quo occasionem haberent congrediendi cum Romanis'. (18) Indeed, Gawain is up to their challenges. After delivering their message, the ambassadors are insulted by the nephew of the emperor, a certain Gaius Quintillianus:

[...] interfuit Gaius Quintillianus eiusdem nepos qui dicebat Britones magis iactantia atque minis abundare quam audacia et probitate ualere. Iratus ilico Galgwainus euaginato ense quo accinctus erat irruit in eum et eiusdem capite amputato ad equos cum sociis digreditur. (19)

The scene is short, swift, and striking and it precipitates the first major battle of the Roman campaign. The dramatic value of the scene was quickly realized, and most chroniclers who make use of Geoffrey's Historia as a source include it. The earliest surviving translator, Wace, heightens the drama of the scene by changing Quintillianus's words into direct speech:

Quintilien empres lui sist

Ki la parole empres lui prist;

Sis nies esteit, mult orguillus,

Chevaliers mult contralius.

'Bretun, dist il, sunt vanteur

E mult sunt bon manaceur.

Vantances e manaces unt,

Assez manacent e poi funt.'

Encor, co crei, avant parlast

E les messages rampodnast,

Mais Walwein, ki s'en coruca,

S'espee traist, avant passa,

Le chief li fist del bu voler;

As cuntes dist: 'Alez munter!' (20)

The Gawain who appears in these very popular historical texts is not concerned with diplomacy or courtesy. This Gawain is a military man who values actions over words.

As well known as these twelfth-century texts were and are, they are rarely cited in studies of the character of Arthur's nephew in late medieval English romances. (21) But as Whiting himself points out, 'Chroniclers of British history pictured the "historical" Gawain as he appeared in Geoffrey long after he had been firmly established as a hero of romance.' (22) Despite this caveat, Whiting's analysis of the three groups into which 'the medieval Matter of Britain falls easily' implies a chronological progression from chronicle to episodic romance to Malory's Morte D'Arthur and beyond. (23) It is not surprising, therefore, that critics of late medieval English romances approach Gawain with a stereotypical image of him as the courteous knight of romance. Brewer, for example, recognizes that the Gawain who appears in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight more closely resembles the character found in the alliterative Morte Arthure than Whiting's courtly lover, but he still falls into the mistake of viewing the different Gawains chronologically. Rather than accept that the historical and romance Gawains are both current at the time Sir Gawain was written, he states that the Morte 'is based on the chronicle stories of early Arthurian romance, and so, though late fourteenth century in date, represents the first Arthurian stage'. (24)

But the alliterative Morte, which will be discussed below, is not anomalous in presenting a historical Gawain in the fourteenth century; many chroniclers follow Geoffrey and Wace and describe not only Gawain's birth and death, but also his shining moment in the Roman camp. Peter Langtoft (c. 1307), for example, includes a sparse account of the incident:

Un chuvaler parlayt, Quyntillyus par noun,

'Bald en dit, coward en fet, tuz jurs est li Brettoun.'

Wawayn se retorne cum hardy baroun,

Et coupe de bon braundon la teste del feloun. (25)

Robert Mannyng, who translated Wace in the 1330s, gives a slightly more elaborate account of the scene:

A knyght per was hight Quintelyn,

sibbe pe emperour & his cosyn,

contrariosly to Wawayn spak

& vilensly behynd his bak.

'Bretons,' he said, 'ere bot auantours

& manace mykille at rebours.

ze manace ay, it salle be so,

pe dede is nouht pat ze do.

Alle bostely ze prete;

do in dede, pe manace lete.'

Wawayn listend him inouh

& smertly his suerde out drouh,

& smote his hede of alle quite. (26)

An adapter of Mannyng's text enjoyed the passage so much that he altered Quintillianus's insult to reflect the Celtic background of the British:

'per bostful wordes ar nought to seke

per dedes ar nought worp a leke.' (27)

Even Sir Thomas Gray's Anglo-Norman Scalacronica, begun in 1355, contains an account of the scene:

Vn prince de Rome, neuew l'emperour, Quintinius, qi hauteigne estoit & surquiderous, disoit a Gawayn qe touz bretouns sount auaunteours de parol & en fait assertz mole, pur quoy ny gist graunt acount dez queles parolis. Gawain mounta en ire, sacha l'espei, sodeignement coupa la test Quintinius. (28)

While Gray and Peter Langtoft add little to the scene, Mannyng increases the insult by elaborating on Quintillianus's mutterings: now they are spoken behind the backs of the British embassy. His adapter also increases the villainy of Quintillianus by adding the reference to leeks, presumably an ethnic slur aimed at the Celtic Britons.

Robert of Gloucester, writing in the last years of the thirteenth century, also added to the scene, but in a way which presumably increased the honour of Gawain, rather than the churlishness of his Roman counterpart:

Quintylian is neueu ansuerede atten ende

pat he nas nozt puder ycome out henne uor to wende

Ac gouerni france pat of rizte of rome was

& pat bote zelpinge & bost mid brutons noping nas

Sire wawein pe gode knizt was p wrop ynou

& among al pat folc hupte ner & is suerd adrou

& smot of pat heued anon & pat heued wip him nom

& wip is felawes to is hors vor horn alle zut he com. (29)

Two significant changes have been made to the original story in this version. First, Quintillianus is not simply the nephew of the emperor, but he is also the governor of France and it is he who refuses to leave France to Arthur; (30) second, Quintillianus is not merely beheaded, but his head is carried away by Gawain during the Britons' hasty departure. The scene thus echoes Arthur's own adventure against the Giant of St Michael's Mount, here played out in miniature by the king's nephew and the nephew of a new tyrant.

The most elaborate fourteenth-century retelling of the scene is found in the alliterative Morte Arthure. Like the chronicles from which it derives, the Morte presents a Gawain who is not the paragon of courtliness known to modern readers of romances. Although Gawain's role is greatly expanded in this version of Arthurian history, his encounter with Gaius Quintillianus, here an earl and the emperor's uncle, still figures prominently:

Thane answers sir Gayous full gobbede wordes--

Was eme to be emperour and erle hym selfen,

'Euere ware pes Bretouns braggers of olde.

Loo! how he brawles hym for hys bryghte wedes,

As he myghte bryttyn vs all with his brande ryche!

zitt he berkes myche boste, zone boy pere he standes!'

Than greuyde sir Gawayne at his grett wordes,

Graythes towarde ze gome with grucchande herte;

With hys stelyn brande he strykes of hys heuede,

And sterttes owtte to hys stede and with his stale wendes. (31)

Gawain's actions in this telling, as in all retellings of the scene, mark the beginning of the actual fighting against Rome, as well as his own emergence as one of Arthur's best knights. The scene in all of these versions occupies a pivotal moment in Arthurian history, and, within historical traditions at least, it is Gawain's moment in the spotlight. Gawain shows himself to be a rash, bold youth who is willing, contrary to what Quintillianus says, to back up his words with actions.

A fourteenth-century reader of Arthurian literature need not rely on chronicles for this image. It also appears in the earlier romances of Gawain's own birth and youth which are set in the historical world. The longest account, De ortu Waluuanii nepotis Arturi, shows us a Gawain very much like that presented by Geoffrey and his adapters. As Mildred Leake Day points out in her edition of this Latin romance, 'The character of Gawain is above reproach, and there is no courtly love at all.' (32) The romance is a fair-unknown story which follows the outline of Gawain's life as told by Geoffrey. Gawain is the son of Anna and Loth (here an illegitimate son) and as a youth he finds his way to the court at Rome. Gawain meets the pope, but is trained by the emperor before returning to Britain to join Arthur's court. Arthur refuses to accept the young knight (known only as the Knight of the Surcoat) until he performs a feat which the rest of Arthur's knights are unable to perform. Gawain does not wait long, for Arthur and his men are soon overcome attempting to free a lady from a pagan king. As the British knights flee, Gawain rides into the midst of the pagan army, slaying all he encounters:

Miles igitur cure tunica armature absque sui detrimento habita victoria capud regis diademate insignitum abscidit, ipsius vexillo infixit, ac in sullime erigens; ad regem Arturum cure sua puella prope remeavit. Ovansque aulam ingressus, qua rex Arturus super belli infortunio tristis et merens residebat, 'Quonam sunt,' exclamat, 'O Rex, tui famosi athlete, de quibus te adeo jactabas neminem eorum parem virtuti?' (33)

Now that he has shown himself worthy by beheading the pagan king, Gawain's true identity is revealed and he joins Arthur's knights.

What is most striking about these scenes is that they contradict the assumptions about Gawain and the Arthurian world with which many modern critics approach romance literature. In Geoffrey's Historia Gawain hears the manhood of British knights insulted, and instead of engaging in verbal repartee with the insolent Roman, he promptly springs into action and beheads the hapless slanderer, thus proving that British actions are equal to British words. In the final scenes of De ortu the pattern is reversed, but intact. After beheading a king who has harassed Arthur, Gawain himself asks where the courage of the British is to be found. The answer, of course, is that the courage is within him, and he is accepted back into British society and chivalry.

For a fourteenth-century audience, well-read in the Brut tradition, this image of Gawain was every bit as current as the courtly lover described by Whiting. What reaction should we expect from such an audience, therefore, when an intruder enters Arthur's hall and asks, 'Wher is [...] | pe gouernour of his gyng?' (34) or when that same intruder characterizes the knights of the Round Table by saying 'Hit arn aboute on pis bench bot berdlez chylder. | If I were hasped in armes on a heze stede, | Here is no mon me to match, for myztez so wayke'? (35) Finally, what is to be expected when Gawain hears the deeds of the British compared unfavourably to their words:

'What, is pis Arpures hous,' quop pe hapel penne,

'Pat al pe rous rennes of purz ryalmes so mony?

Where is now your sourquydrye and your conquestes,

Your gryndellayk and your greme, and your grete wordes?

Now is pe reuel and pe renoun of pe Rounde Table

Ouerwalt wyth a worde of on wyzes speche,

For al dares for drede withoute dynt schewed!' (36)

We may well imagine a fourteenth-century audience listening to these lines (they are, of course, spoken by the Green Knight), smugly assured that Gawain will eventually behead the insolent intruder. That is, after all, what the Gawain of history does.

It could be argued, however, that Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is neither a history nor a chronicle. It is certainly a romance, and Paul Strohm claims that 'we know all along that Gawain is in a tradition of romance, because of its focus on the growth of the hero and its movement from martial to amatory testing to the "other" spiritual world of the green chapel'. (37) But if we all know by the end of the poem that it is a romance, the beginning of the poem has led us to believe that it is the historical world in which the action takes place. The poem opens with an elaborate Trojan introduction, beginning 'Silken pe sege and pe assaut watz sesed at Troye', (38) and thus establishes for the reader a historical setting in which to interpret the adventure. The history of post-lapsarian Troy is recalled for the first two stanzas as the poem describes the foundation of European realms and outlines the genealogy of British chivalry and Arthur's kingdom. (39) John Finlayson noted the disparity between the opening of the poem and its eventual content, stating that

The formal opening of Sir Gawain (ll. 1-35) is quite unusual for a courtly or adventure romance, and its 'historical' material (whatever its ultimate significance) might be expected to lead its hearers to anticipate a 'chronicle' romance, such as The Destruction of Troy, The Wars of Alexander, or the alliterative Morte Arthure, a 'tragedy' such as Troilus and Criseyde, or a Brut. (40)

For an audience familiar with Geoffrey's Historia (and the Brut tradition which followed it), (41) or a poem like the alliterative Morte Arthure, part of the expectation of Arthurian history was a Gawain who could not control his temper, and who was prone to beheading those who implied that the British were all talk and no action.

It comes as no surprise, therefore, that the Green Knight loses his head, and that it is Sir Gawain who performs the deed. After the head has been severed, and as the knights and ladies of Arthur's court uncomfortably 'hit foyned wyth her fete, pere hit forth roled', (42) the fourteenth-century audience listening to the tale is allowed a moment of self-satisfaction as clever predictors of the narrative's direction. But Gawain does not ride off triumphantly, and it is not he, as in Robert of Gloucester's Chronicle and in De ortu Waluuanii, who picks up the severed head. Instead, the Green Knight does not fall, 'Bot styply he start forth vpon styf schonkes, | And runyschly he razt out, pere as renkkez stoden, | Lazt to his lufly bed, and lyft hit vp sone.' (43)

The resolution of the scene is certainly bizarre and surprising, but the surprise goes beyond the Green Knight's survival and the grizzly picture of a decapitated body searching for its own rolling head. A knowledgeable audience, which shares an image of Gawain drawn from historical sources, is also surprised by the complete reversal of its own expectations. In order to survive this adventure Gawain must be more than the haughty hero of history, and the Green Knight's insults must be silenced with more than the swing of a sword (or an axe). An audience for whom chronicles 'were the primary source of knowledge [...] concerning King Arthur and the Arthurian era' (44) could not help but be surprised that they have misinterpreted Gawain and the setting in which he finds himself. The surprises, of course, keep coming. The wooing scenes clearly demonstrate that Gawain's alter ego as Whiting's courtly lover is also insufficient, both as a persona for the hero and as an interpretative tool for the audience. The poem even attempts to impose a third identity on the hero: the knight of the 'pentangel nwe'. (45)

Modern critics recognize that 'Gawain's name raises expectations which are not always fulfilled', (46) but by focusing on a single aspect of Gawain's reputation, his courtesy, these studies deny the multivalent nature of the hero which the poem clearly recognizes. The name 'Gawain' does indeed raise expectations, but those expectations change depending upon the setting. As the poem moves from the world of empires and history to the world of bedrooms and romance, the expectations placed on Gawain are also transformed, and in each venue Gawain reveals that he is 'not now he pat [we] of speken'. In the end, an audience attempting to interpret Gawain within the varied traditions of Arthurian literature remains as frustrated as the hero as he attempts to interpret Bertilak and his court within a single adventure.

(1) See R. 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 (New York and London: Garland, 1988), pp. 152-69.

(2) Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, ed. by J. R. R. Tolkien and E. V. Gordon, 2nd edn, rev. by Norman Davis (Oxford: Clarendon, 1967), l. 927.

(3) See Martin Stevens, 'Laughter and Game in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight', Speculum, 47 (1972), 65-78; Arthur Lindley, '"Ther he watz dispoyled with spechez of myerthe": Carnival and the Undoing of Sir Gawain', Exemplaria, 6 (1994), 67-86 (pp. 74-75).

(4) Sir Gawain, l. 1242.

(5) B. J. Whiting, 'Gawain: His Reputation, His Courtesy and His Appearance in Chaucer's Squire's Tale', Mediaeval Studies, 9 (1947), 189-234 (P. 189).

(6) On the literary history of Kay see Linda Gowans, Cei and the Arthurian Legend (Cambridge: Brewer, 1988).

(7) Thomas L. Wright, 'Luf-Talkyng in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight', in Approaches to Teaching 'Sir Gawain and the Green Knight', ed. by Miriam Yougerman Miller and Jane Chance (New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1986), pp. 79-86 (p. 79).

(8) John W. Martin, 'The Knight Who Stayed Silent through Courtesy', Archiv fur das Studium der neuren Sprachen und Literaturen, 210 (1973), 53-57 (P. 57 n. 6); John Finlayson, 'The Expectations of Romance in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight', Genre, 12 (1979), 1-24 (p. 9)'

(9) See A. C. Spearing, Criticism and Medieval Poetry, 2nd edn (London: Edward Arnold, 1972), pp. 28-50, portions of which were reprinted as A. C. Spearing, 'Gawain's Speeches and the Poetry of "Cortysye" ', in Critical Studies of 'Sir Gawain and the Green Knight', ed. by Donald R. Howard and Christopher Zacher (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1970), pp. i74-8i; D. S. Brewer, 'Courtesy and the Gawain-Poet', in Patterns of Love and Courtesy: Essays in Memory of C. S. Lewis, ed. by John Lawlor (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1966), pp. 54-85.

(10) Larry Benson, Art and Tradition in 'Sir Gawain and the Green Knight' (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1965), pp. 95-104.

(11) Lindley, 'Ther he watz dispoyled', pp. 78-79.

(12) Lindley, 'Ther he watz dispoyled', p. 75. For similar approaches see also Roy M. Luizza, 'Names, Reputation and History in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight', Essays in Medieval Studies, 6 (1989), 41-56, and Joerg O. Fichte, 'Historia and Fabula: Arthurian Traditions and Audience Expectations in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight', in Festchrift Walter Haug und Burghart Waehinger, ed. by Johannes Janota, 2 vols (Tubingen: Max Niemeyer, 1992), 11, 589-602.

(13) Whiting, 'Gawain', p. 195.

(14) For a discussion of the dissemination of Geoffrey's work see Julia Crick, The 'Historia Regum Britannie' of Geoffrey of Monmouth, IV, Dissemination and Reception in the Later Middle Ages (Cambridge: Brewer, 1991), passim. Crick points out that simply in terms of surviving manuscripts, Geoffrey's work ranks among the five most popular histories, which include the works of Valerius Maximus, Orosius, Justinus, and Josephus: Crick, Historia, p. 9.

(15) Robert Hanning, The Vision of History in Early Britain: From Gildas to Geoffrey of Monmouth (New York and London: Columbia University Press, 1966), p. 174.

(16) Lister Matheson, 'King Arthur and the Medieval English Chronicles', in King Arthur Through the Ages, ed. by Valerie M. Lagorio and Mildred Leake Day, 2 vols (New York and London: Garland, 1990), I, 248-74 (p. 248).

(17) Geoffrey of Monmouth, 'Historia Regum Britannie' of Geoffrey of Monmouth, I, Bern, Burgerbibliothek, MS. 568, ed. by Neil Wright (Cambridge: Brewer, 1984), chs. 152, 154, 173, 177.

(18) '[The group] began to urge Gawain that he might incite an incident in the camp, by which they might have the opportunity of fighting with the Romans': Geoffrey, Historia, ch. 166.

(19) 'Gaius Quintillianus was there, who said that the Britons were more bountiful with boasting and making threats than they were strong in courage and prowess. Gawain was immediately enraged, drew his sword from the scabbard, rushed at him, and cut off" his head, then withdrew to the horses with his companions': Geoffrey, Historia, ch. 166.

(20) 'Quintilien sat by him and spoke next; he was his nephew and very proud, a most refractory knight. "Britons", he said, "are boasters and make some very fine threats. They're all boasts and threats, they menace in plenty and do little." He would, I think, have spoken further and insulted the messengers, but Walwein, who was furious, drew his sword, rushed forward, and made his head fly from his body. "To horse!" he said to the counts': Wace, Wace's 'Roman de Brut: A History of the British': Text and Translation, ed. and trans, by Judith Weiss (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1999), ll. 11741-54. Lazamon's translation closely follows Wace's text. See Lazamon, Lazamon's Arthur: The Arthurian Section of Lazamon's 'Brut' (Lines 9229-14297), ed. by W. R. J. Barron and S. C. Weinberg (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1989), ll. 13196-204.

(21) Even papers by Joerg O. Fichte and Roy M. Luizza, whose titles promise studies of Sir Gawain's relationship to history, do not include a single citation of a medieval historical work. See Fichte, 'Historia and Fabula', passim; Liuzza, 'Names, Reputation and History', passim.

(22) Whiting, 'Gawain', p. 194.

(23) Whiting, 'Gawain', p. 195.

(24) Brewer, 'Courtesy', p. 82.

(25) 'A knight spoke, his name was Quintilianus, | 'The Briton is always bold in word and coward in deed.' | Gawain turns, like a bold baron, | And cuts the wretch's head off with his good sword': Peter Langtoft, The Chronicle, ed. and trans, by Thomas Wright, 2 vols, RS, 47 (London: Longman, 1866-68), 1, 194 and 195.

(26) 'Robert Mannyng, The Chronicle, ed. by Idelle Sullens (Binghamton: Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 1996), sect. I, ll. 12312-23.

(27) Mannyng, Chronicle, Lambeth revision, sect. 1, ll. 12317-18.

(28) 'A Roman prince, the nephew of the Emperor, Quintinius, who was haughty and proud, said to Gawain that all of the British were boasters in speech, and soft in action, for which reason he did not lay a great account on such speech. Gawain grew in anger, unsheathed his sword, and suddenly cut off the head of Quintinius': Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 133, fol. 77r. This portion of the Scalacronica remains unedited. For a transcription of the Arthurian portion see Richard J. Moll, 'Facts and Fictions: Chronicle, Romance and Arthurian Narrative in England, 1300-1470' (unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Toronto, 1999), pp. 322-56.

(29) Robert of Gloucester, The Metrical Chronicle, ed. by William Aldis Wright, 2 vols, RS, 86 (London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1887), ll. 4263-70.

(30) This fact seems to have been repeated by Jehan de Waurin. 'Quintilien, qui estoit ordonne gouverneur sur toutes les provinces de Gaulle par le decret du senat, et avoit ceste legation moult contre ceur': Jehan de Waurin, Recueil des croniques et anchiennes istoires de la Grant Bretaigne, present nomme Engleterre, ed. by William Hardy, 5 vols, RS, 39 (London: Longman, 1864-91), 1, 402. 'Quintilian, who had been appointed governor of all the provinces of Gaul by a decree of the senate, and was not well disposed towards this embassy': John de Wavrin, A Collection of the Chronicles and Ancient Histories of Great Britain, Now Called England, trans, by William Hardy, 3 vols, RS, 40 (London: Longman, 1864-91), 1, 366.

(31) Morte Arthure: A Critical Edition, ed. by Mary Hamel (New York and London: Garland, 1984) ll. 1346-55.

(32) The Rise of Gawain, Nephew of Arthur (De ortu Waluuanii nepotis Arturi), ed. and trans, by Mildred Leake Day (New York and London: Garland, 1984), p. xvii.

(33) 'The Knight of the Surcoat, having gained victory without injury to himself, cut off the head of the pagan king with the royal diadem still in place, fastened it on his standard, and, raising it on high, returned to King Arthur with the lady by his side. Exulting, he entered the hall where King Arthur, depressed and grieving at the misfortune of war, was seated. He cried out, "Just where, O King, are your famous champions of whom so long you boasted that no one is their equal in courage?"': Rise of Gawain, pp. 120 and 121.

(34) Sir Gawain, ll. 224-25.

(35) Sir Gawain, ll. 290-92.

(36) Nir Gawain, ll. 309-15.

(37) Paul Strohm, 'Middle English Narrative Genres', Genre, 13 (1980), 379-88 (p. 386).

(38) Sir Gawain, l. 1.

(39) Sir Gawain, ll. 1-35. Note also that at the conclusion of the poem the poet invokes pe Brutus bokez' as guarantors of the veracity of the tale: Sir Gawain, l. 2523.

(40) Finlayson, 'Expectations of Romance', pp. 4-5. See also p. 4 for definitions of these different kinds of romance. For discussions of the opening stanzas see Alfred David, 'Gawain and Aeneas', English Studies, 49 (1968), 402-09, and Theodore Silverstein, 'Sir Gawain, Dear Brutus, and Britain's Fortunate Founding: A Study in Comedy and Convention', Modern Philology, 62 (1965), 189-206.

(41) The prose chronicle known as The Brut, whether in French or in English, contains an abbreviated Roman campaign which omits the beheading of Quintillianus.

(42) Sir Gawain, l. 428.

(43) Sir Gawain, ll. 431-34.

(44) Matheson, 'King Arthur,' p. 248.

(45) Sir Gawain, l. 636.

(46) Luizza, 'Names, Reputation and History', p. 41.

<ADD> RICHARD J. MOLL VILLANOVA UNIVERSITY </ADD>

Source Citation   (MLA 8th Edition)
Moll, Richard J. "Frustrated readers and conventional decapitation in 'Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.'(Critical Essay)." The Modern Language Review, vol. 97, no. 4, 2002, pp. 793-802. Literature Resource Center, https%3A%2F%2Flink.gale.com%2Fapps%2Fdoc%2FA100242757%2FGLS%3Fu%3Dlincclin_socc%26sid%3DGLS%26xid%3D3c21477c. Accessed 22 Aug. 2019.

Gale Document Number: GALE|A100242757