The Defended Narrative in ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’
This text copyright © 2008 Dr Anne Wilson
A defended narrative uses outer defences rather than a move structure.
It’s my argument that the text of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight includes a hidden plot in which a forbidden adventure with a lady is safeguarded by the honouring of two bargains. The plot constructs the safeguards out of narrative material which supplies the necessary bargains. The honouring of the first of these bargains – the beheading game – forms the outer defence and the honouring of the second – the exchanges of winnings – forms an inner one. The courtly material in the text belongs to the Gawain-poet’s overlay, where the author adapts the ritual material into that favourite medieval theme, the test.
The adventure with the lady is forbidden in the plot because she belongs to someone else. She also belongs to someone else in the overlay, but in the overlay she has come into Gawain’s bedchamber because she is testing him, while in the plot she is there because the hero has summoned her up. In the overlay, she belongs to a character called Sir Bertilak de Hautdesert, while in the plot she belongs to a figure called ‘the Green Knight’, whose origin is a beheading bogey belonging to the primal world of the unconscious. Ritual plots are about raw, primitive feeling, while courtly themes are highly sophisticated and artificial: the contrast could not be greater. In this text, where the courtly joins forces with the primitive, Sir Bertilak plays the part of the Green Knight and the whole scheme is blamed on Morgan le Fay, while the primitive plot gets on with its business underneath and completes its course with the absolution given by the beheading bogey.
So the Gawain-poet’s romance has to rub along with a ‘hidden’ plot which inevitably conflicts with his chivalric themes. The curious partnership, where neither narrative knows about the other, provides a very rich text for audiences and plenty of intriguing problems for critics. A ritual plot is always dominant – an author cannot change its course – and its purpose is serious, probably functional, in the brain. We may be encountering a product of a lifelong storytelling process essential for the mind. It might be seen as a bit of biology, but nonetheless a valuable addition to our literature.
The task of finding out how this plot works has to be accomplished without the help of a move structure. It was my first defended narrative, half-way through my investigation, and the study I made of the text early in my career was a casualty of my not having grasped its structure. When I returned to it fifteen years later, I stood back from the details and suddenly saw the whole thing visually as an adventure surrounded by safeguards. This solution has now helped me to identify other defended narratives, where the defences take less visible forms or are only partial structures. Defences are a difficult but important area, revealing the amazing phenomenon of the ritual plot more clearly. Plots construct their defences out of narrative, and in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight there is a magnificent dual construction, two nightmare bargains selected by unconscious thought to protect the hero. The unconscious knows more about nightmare than consciousness does, and its stories are among the best constructed and most popular in the world.
In coming to my solution I was enormously helped by the quality of the whole text, by the rich detail at both levels of narration. There is much to learn from exploring the conflicts between two levels of narration, and interpretation is little use before we have accomplished this satisfactorily. Where the enigmatic end of the romance is concerned, I had as my basic observation that the Green Knight heard Gawain’s confession and absolved him, in spite of Gawain’s prior confession before the priest at the castle. Meanwhile, the confessions appear paired, cowardice with covetousness and treachery with lack of fidelity. Cowardice and lack of fidelity are knightly offences which must belong to the overlay, while covetousness and treachery are the offences which commonly appear in the ritual plots, and seem inappropriate in the Gawain-poet’s romance. I see a significant duplication here: the matter of the overlay and the matter of the plot appearing side by side. In my work, such features cannot be passed over: there are indications of a serious crime running parallel with a courtly theme of knightly misdemeanours.
Primitive as it is, the ritual plot does have a concern with good and evil, but this concern is part of an unconscious world and not subjected to rational scrutiny. As such it is dealt with by magic. An investment of power in the bargains makes a ‘dangerous’ adventure possible, and an investment of power in the confession and absolution at the Green Chapel removes guilt and fear. The devices tend to be piled on; one alone is seldom enough. There are two bargains, not one, and then the addition of a confession and absolution described in detail. Meanwhile, the overlay’s concern with good and evil is recognisable to the conscious mind and dealt with by the author’s moral themes.
For a full discussion of this text, see The Magical Quest, pages 189-212.
This text copyright © 2008 Dr Anne Wilson
Please do not copy or quote from this text without acknowledging the author.