The Disappearing King: Bolen and Woods and Courtly Manners

I like legends.  They generally move at a fast pace, have lots of action, quick speech, and are sort of the equivalent of a Marvel film (I can’t wait to see Dr. Strange).  At the same time, just as a Marvel film can be seen as just an action movie, I feel that poems such SGGK are often shrugged off as superficial.  As I’ve noticed in my latest reading of SGGK and through the reading of Bolen (and LOTS of essays from the back of the Norton’s Critical Edition.  Got to love those supplemental readings!  I’m serious), the plot is anything but simplistic, and Gawain is a lot more complex than he originally appears.

Gawain is a creature of his trope.  He is a courtier who knows how to work a crowd.  His quick thinking saved both the life and the dignity of King Arthur, as outlined in Bolen’s reading of the five lines in which Gawain begs for the honor of combating the Green Knight.  Gawain is not just a warrior, he’s an expert politician.  By helping Arthur save face, the Pearl Poet paints a perspective that few Arthurian artists dare try: he shows flaws in the supposedly golden rule of Arthur.   Arthur is seen as flustered.  He doesn’t respond to a challenge, and gets angry.  Gawain’s treatment of Arthur suggests that he might not be very open to the opinions of others.  King Arthur of the Round Table sits at the seat of honor.  What happened to him?  I think that perhaps Gawain takes over for Arthur in more than just the contest.

Usually, Arthurian legends follow Arthur and his great deeds.  We hardly hear anything of Arthur throughout the poem.  Gawain is in the spotlight.  The action focuses strongly on Gawain and his moral, religious, and psychological  struggles.  The plot of Morgana didn’t even concern Arthur.  She was ultimately trying to bother Guinevere with her actions.  So what happened to Arthur?

In the article by Woods, the colors and nature motifs are explored in depth.  Gawain must battle the Green Knight, who very possibly represents nature or jealousy.  This power or force of green is arguably more powerful than Gawain.  It is only by his mercy that Gawain lived.  He initiated the combat, and is the visible challenger throughout the poem. Gawain, the finest Arthurian knight, is not even a match for Morgana or Nature’s challenger.  This seems like foreshadowing for Arthur’s kingdom’s fall.

I realize that I meant to discuss Sir Gawain’s diplomacy, and ended up talking about the downfall of the Arthurian age.  I don’t believe that the two are unrelated.  When a country stand on political correctness, it generally means that the society is about to collapse.  It’s a sign of a discontented people.  Arthur, in his little bubble at X-mas time, next to his grey-eyed Guinevere, is part of a dying world.  The intricacies of his castle are seen as colorless in comparison to the Green Knight’s castle.  Even Guinivere’s eyes are colorless.  As a symbol of her kingdom (as seen in the Bolen article), she reads as closed off, colorless, and possibly empty.  If Guinevere is representative of the people of Camelot, it’s no wonder that Arthur’s reign is coming to an end.

One thought on “The Disappearing King: Bolen and Woods and Courtly Manners”

  1. Not to worry about your the change of direction of your post. Sometimes our original intentions lead us to even more ideas and open our eyes to other conclusions. The end of the Arthurian age is an interesting concept here and I would be curious to see the amount of legends that predate SGGK compared to the number that come after. This could be another clue and metric in this claim.

    Showcasing Gawain’s diplomacy over any of Arthur’s feats in a legend could signify the coming of an end. The idea of Gawain saving Arthur from this confrontation while helping Arthur save face suggests that Arthur no longer has what it takes to lead from the front. This being said, it leaves room for others to step up, such as Gawain, and take over where Arthur had previously done before. Where else would others rise to replace Arthur?

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