Interconnection Between Public and Private Spheres of Life
As Derek Brewer comments, the Gawain-Poet creates an “honour-driven” society. From this, almost everything within Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is assumed to be in a chivalric context, specifically Gawain’s through the romance typically focusing on an individual knight. These given spheres of chamber, halls and wild are thus within the romance tradition as each area facilitates the testing of honour. The poet’s use of the “private” and “public” –the halls and wild initially assumed to be the public and the chamber as the private –allows the testing of the many different attributes of honour that are embodied through the symbol of the Pentangle. Honour is thus tested in terms of courage in the wild, loyalty within halls and chastity in the chamber. As a person is only considered a true knight through the combination of all attributes embodied by a wider ‘troth’, Gawain must therefore be tested in reaction to different dangers. To be honourable is to also be consistent; the behaviour in private must meet the high moral standard of public behaviour.
Tensions arise between the public and private when they stop remaining separate and one interferes with the other. However tensions also become apparent within each sphere, as to the behaviour considered appropriate for each gender in either public or private. The Temptation Scene explores how physical boundaries are controversially crossed by a woman, consequently testing the limitations of a courtly language of courtesy. In the romance tradition, the nature of a challenge is typically physical combat, so through replacing the opponent with desire the test is instead set on an emotional battleground. So, the true nature of a knight can perhaps be best perceived away from conflict, where they believe they are not judged. Yet the Lady’s behaviour is also judged, as medieval audiences would recognise the established layout of a chamber and also of the Lady’s inappropriate behaviour as a married woman. Through the action occurring in private, she inherits a masculine freedom that allows boundaries to be pushed, and even crossed. The Lady takes advantage of Gawain’s courtesy in physically passing the boundary of his inner curtain without protest, a private sphere that is assumed mainly for lovers: “and stel to his bedde,/ Cast up the cortyn and creped withinne”. The overall structure of Fitt three and Four echoes the action of creeping “withinne”, as the hunting motifs begin to structurally impede on the chamber scene. At the start of Fitt three, the pattern of progression from chamber, to hunting ground to halls is initially regular, each ending as each verse does. However, the changes begin to occur instead within the stanza: “And, ye, he had lad hem by lagmon […] While the hende knight at home holsumly slepes” (Fitt 3, l.1729-1731). Through the interplay of hunting and seduction now structurally merging in one stanza, it suggests the consequent merging of public and private through the revelation of Gawain’s behaviour in public. Gawain is also aligned with the fox, prompting a reminder of the larger quest that is to end in death. The Lady can therefore be arguably aligned with the hunter. So far she has been encountered only in a public hall where she “ful lovely con ho lete” (Fitt Three, l.1206). As the only evidence of her is as courteous, it must be assumed that she adheres to this moral code in private as well as public. From this, the Lady’s otherwise suspicious behaviour can initially be considered innocent, forewarning that external portrayal is not always consistent with hidden intention. Gawain’s honour, is thus tested through virtues of chastity and not a duel; his defense must be adapted in using a polite “verbal formulae” that would be as socially acceptable in halls. This helps to bring the public to an intimate setting, discouraging seduction through language. However, he is also prevented from expressing his true thoughts, suggesting that upholding a courtly rhetoric overpowers Gawain’s natural right to speech. In contrast, French romances such as The Knight with the Sword, present the private spheres as without this linguistic obligation and Gawain is open in proclaiming “I just want to be your lover.” The knight is unrestrained in both speech and body, proposing that Gawain’s heightened sense of maintaining honour is perhaps not within the tradition, but instead specific to him. Inner strength through chastity as well as physical prowess must be demonstrated by the English version of Gawain, emphasising the perfect wholeness of character emotionally, physically and spiritually needed to fulfil knightly values. The tensions arise within the private through the contradiction of appropriate language; the Lady constantly attempts to bring Gawain from the rhetoric of a chaste, public sphere to the seduction of the private. Tensions between the public and private only arise in Fitt IV, through Gawain’s realisation that the private was always public. Therefore, the romance motif of testing chastity deems the chamber as never wholly private through the judgement of others, whether audience or other characters, that must occur in a public sphere.
The halls are categorised as a romance sphere as the chivalric ideal of “troth” is here publicly demonstrated through the Order of the Round Table; however this is only possible through the internalisation of virtue on an individual level. It must be questioned then, whether “being true” is through loyalty to the Lord, or to oneself and an internal moral system. Derek Brewer says: “Relationships between persons are related to relationships as it were within the individual person” (p.15). Gawain’s interaction with Arthur at Camelot, Bertilak at Hautdesert and The Green Knight in his chapel –his equivalent of a hall– are all based on an internal relationship with Gawain’s honour. He is not obliged by Camelot or Hautdesert’s halls to meet his challenger. Yet the state of “being true” is constantly ingrained on his conscience, therefore he fulfils a promise far beyond the halls it was pledged. Gawain’s dedication of conduct now becomes dangerous as he is unable to judge a situation through anything but a chivalric context, meaning he lacks common sense. As Gawain’s internal morals match his external actions, he expects the same state of “troth” from the Green Knight: The covenaunt shop so Festned in Arthur’s halles; And therefore, hende, now hoo! (Fitt IV, l.2327-2330) The specific definition of “public” must be considered. For Gawain, the public setting of halls outwardly demonstrated virtues, therefore all halls must adhere to the same. Yet “troth”, initially seen as a universal concept, is seemingly specific to Camelot as neither Hautdesert nor the Green Chapel is as it seems, and therefore is not “being true”. Gawain’s unrealistic expectation is emphasised through the label “hende”, as he groups the supernatural Green Knight with his mortal self in the same noun, suggesting that a creature need not be man nor a member of “Arthur’s halles” to uphold this knightly code. Nevertheless, the very chivalric code that dictates Gawain’s honour is surpassed by higher, religious contexts. In labelling the Beheading game as a “covenaunt” when previously described as a “Cristemas game” (Fitt I, l. 283), Gawain almost places the Green Knight as God, in that his dedication to upholding his promise is like a disciple. This divine promise is not only naïve, but tragically ironic as he continues his quest based on his internal honour, and not on the relationship to a character who has previously deceived him. Brewer’s phrase “relationship” is thus rendered useless as the standards of behaviour towards each other apply to Gawain only. Essentially, if a promise is one sided, the Green Knight is under no physical obligation to “hoo” after one blow. Furthermore, the revelation of the supernatural element attempts to mock Gawain’s dedication to the game, as the Green knight and the game act as mere distractions for the true test. Yet the attempt does not quite come to fruition as Gawain’s still completed the journey with the assumption of death, meaning his sense of honour was still true even if his test was not. From this, an unrealistic portrayal of “troth” is perhaps suggested, as Gawain expects to live by this extreme internalised code, of which he can only measure in others through their outward portrayal of character. The different halls that Gawain frequents therefore facilitate a contrast between what a knight expects of relationships “between persons” and the moral code “within” the individual. In this poem, “troth” is a chivalric ideal, and it remains that. It becomes impossible for Gawain’s relationships to ever match up to his extreme, internal morality, and consequently the private sets an impossible standard for public interactions.
As a poem of contrasts, the halls and the wild are presented as antithetical through the civilised and unknown, complicating the classification of both as “public” areas. The court is civilised, defined as public through the presence of many, whereas the wild inhabits part of the public that is defined by being separate from private, comfortable spaces. As Gawain continues his quest in Fitt two, the “public” is defined as whatever resides in the material, made public due to all being able to view it. In contrast to this is the private, mental sphere of imagination, from which Gawain’s prayer for shelter to “hear mass” (Fitt II, l.158) stems from. The private therefore seems to influence the public, as the convenience of shelter links Gawain’s internal wishes too closely with an external reality. Whether Hautdesert is material and available for all to see, or as a supernatural answer to Gawain’s imagination is explored through Gawain as the only available perspective: “the hathel avised,/ As hit schemered and schon thurgh the schyre okes” (Fitt II, l. 771-772). A change in landscape when Gawain is still assumed to be in the same wild invokes suspicion that Hautdesert is supernatural. The Gawain-poet does this through previously situating the journey within a natural landscape recognisable to medieval audiences, then quickly interjecting a “wild” that almost rejects the very label through a fantastical quality. This landscape that “schemered and schon” not only directly contrasts the “peril and payne” (Fitt II, l.733) of the previous wild, but rejects the wild as a typical romance sphere; knights were expected to combat boars and wild men, to face physical challenges. Instead, the emphasis is on mental ability, and thereby the reliability of sight is questioned. Gawain can publicly see the castle, yet this does not necessarily deem it real. An ambiguity in language questions this; the nature surrounding the castle is presented with glistening quality, suggestive of either rain or a mirage appearing in reality. This particularly decorative change in language from an otherwise less stylistic text mirrors the first Fitt, when the Green Knight first appeared “glemered and glent all of grene stones” (Fitt I, l. 172). In using similar language, it considers Hautdesert to be of the same origin, alluding to a connection with the Green Knight and a larger plot than Gawain’s quest. Furthermore, if “public” is defined by what all are able to see, Gawain’s lack of companion poses difficulties. Perhaps the Gawain-Poet constructs him without a guide to fulfil the motif of ‘being lost’, and to question whether something is only real if many people witness it. The audience can then only depend on a singular perspective as they also only receive the description of Hautdesert as Gawain ‘avised’ it, and not before. Whilst being translated by Putter and Stokes as “observed”, it also has a definition of “act of thinking”, presenting the possibility that Gawain only saw the castle as the supernatural reacted to his thoughts. When Gawain is present in other romance spheres –the chamber or the hall– the action is usually controlled by a different character, whether Arthur or the Green Knight, and Gawain reacts accordingly to it. When in the wild, the element of the unknown allows for the possibility of Gawain’s internal thoughts to influence external events. Therefore, as the wild is the only romance sphere where Gawain is solitary, it is also the only sphere where the supernatural can react specifically to him, as opposed to the Green Knight reacting to Arthur’s wish for entertainment in Fitt I. Through this ambiguity of only one perspective, the wild as a sphere and the castle it holds cannot be categorised as public reality or private imagination as the poet refuses to signal enough evidence to definitively place it in either. Especially as the layout of the castle is typical of medieval design, the supernatural begins to appear as the norm; the more reasonable elements introduced within the supernatural, the more everything is assumed to be real. However, it has been previously argued that finding the “fairy castle”, is a self-conscious mocking of the romance genre (Putter, p.53). This deems Hautdesert and its supernatural element as within the romance tradition, and any activity outside of this as reality. According to this interpretation, Hautdesert is a reaction to Gawain’s prayers and is not part of a material reality. Yet it must be questioned what defines reality: if only Gawain can see it, it still remains in reality for him. Therefore, the private and public realms cannot be antithetical within the wild but instead in a constant intermediate state of uncertainty between what all would be able to see given the opportunity and what only Gawain can see.
The overall structure of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight deems the private as unavoidably impeded on by the public. Whilst the poem until Fitt III defines the “private” as an area behind a locked door, the final Fitt manipulates this; the private is not a physical space, but instead dependent on knowledge. The control of knowledge thus becomes imperative in judging activity as private or public; even what was previously private can transfer to the public based on who is informed of it. Gawain can only keep information truly private if he does not voice it, and even this privacy is disregarded through his subsequent shame that forces a confession to Arthur. Gradon comments that there is “the potential for romance to function as an imaginative commentary on ordinary life” (Putter, p.51). Therefore, through there being only perceived privacy in any of the romance spheres, it could present a commentary on reality that suggests nothing is as it seems, and that one will be tested in life when least expected, as Gawain is.
Bibliography Barron, W. R. J., Trawthe and treason: The sin of Gawain reconsidered (Manchester: Manchester Uni Press, 1980) Brewer, D. ‘Introduction’ in A Companion to the Gawain Poet ed. by Derek Brewer and Gibson (Suffolk: St. Edmundsbury Press Ltd, 1997) Brewer, E, ed., Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Sources and Analogues,ed. by Elizabeth Brewer (Cambridge: CUP, 1992) Gawain-Poet, Gawain and the Green Knight, ed. by Putter & Stokes (St Ives: Penguin Classics, 2014) Middle English Dictionary, definition of “avise”, accessed on 08/12/2015. https://quod.lib.umich.edu/m/middle-english-dictionary?size=First+100&type=orths&q1=avis&rgxp=constrained
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