Odysseus and Gawain: Quest Narratives and the Concept of Guilt
In the first chapter of his novel, How to Read Literature like a Professor, Thomas C. Foster discusses the idea of a quest narrative. “They [protagonists] go because of the stated task, mistakenly believing that it is their real mission. We know, however, that their quest is educational. They don’t know enough about the only subject that really matters: themselves” (Foster 3). Essentially, while a hero may set out on a journey with a specific goal in mind, he will undoubtedly gain invaluable knowledge about himself along the way. At first, this explanation may seem extremely limited. If “the only subject that really matters” is the hero, why should any other person read their story? However, authors of quest narratives often write to enlighten their audience about the condition of humankind. Their message could focus on either the vulnerable, broken, greedy, or even ignorant condition of mankind. In the poems, the Odyssey and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, both Homer and the Gawain-poet send their heroes on quests in order to develop the idea that all humans, even heroic warriors and knights, are subject to fault.
In the Odyssey, Odysseus’ goal is to reach home. At the beginning of the epic, Odysseus is found near the end of his journey and is isolated with Kalypso on her island. Although they had sexual relations, Odysseus felt that “the sweet days of his life time were running out in anguish over his exile, for long ago the nymph had ceased to please” (Odyssey 5.159-161). In other words, Odysseus longs “for the sight of home” (5.229). This pitiful longing asserts Odysseus’ goal and that Odysseus is not perfect as he allows anguish to consume him. In all, this pitiful longing asserts the humanness of Odysseus. However, this realization may come as a shock to Homer’s audience. Odysseus is perceived as the ideal Greek hero. While relaying his story to the kingdom of King Alkinoös in Book Nine, Odysseus explains that he had sex with Kirke and Kalypso, “but in [his] heart [he] never gave consent” (9.37). Not only does he possess faithfulness to his wife, but he possesses great skill in battle and extremely persuasive oratory abilities. While speaking with Eumaios, Odysseus is described as “the master of improvisation” by Homer’s narrator (14.228). Despite this set of convincing facts about Odysseus, he is still mortal. Throughout his travels, this truth is revealed. In all, he acquires a sense of irresponsibility; he loses his entire crew of men, he is sexually unfaithful to his wife, he breaks the code of honor, he displays hubris, he displays impiety, and he allows his men to preemptively release the bag of winds. Specifically, Odysseus’ visit to the Kyklopes’ island serves as an example of many of these behaviors. He breaks the code of honor by entering the Kyklopes’ cave without permission. After escaping this unwelcomed place, Odysseus yells to the Kyklopes, “If ever mortal man inquire how you were put to shame and blinded, tell him Odysseus, raider of cities, took your eye: Laertes’ son whose home’s on Ithaka!” (9.551-552). Here, Odysseus demands recognition for his impressive escape strategy. While this recognition is well deserved, Odysseus acts out of excessive pride, hubris, to gain it. Odysseus also voices that, if possible, he would kill the Kyklopes, send him to hell where “the god of earthquake could not heal” him (9.573). Questioning Poseidon is a great act of impiety. All this behavior is strangely uncharacteristic of Odysseus. However, a purpose of these inconsistencies does exist.
The events that Odysseus experience on this travel transcend a simple arrival at home. The purpose of his quest is to re-identify himself as the King of Ithaka, a place of civilization, after the long and taxing Trojan War, a place of savagery. Although an odd way to discover this, one must remember that growth only results from pain. The gods understood this. Zeus declares that while Odysseus’ “destiny is to see his friends again under his own roof,” he “will have no company, gods or men” to get him there (5.46-47, 36). This tactic does work well. Not only does Odysseus return home, defeat the suitors, and bring peace to Ithaka, but he shows respect to the suitors. When Eurykleia rejoices at their death, he reprimands her, “No crowing aloud, old woman. To glory over slain men is no piety” (22.461-462). Odysseus also yields to Athena and “his heart was glad,” an act of piety (24.610). He rediscovers his identity of piety, humility, and respectfulness along a taxing journey and is now fit to be a King. In all, Odysseus discovers that he is prone to many faults despite his successful life. On a deeper level, this suggests to readers that no human is perfect.
Likewise, Sir Gawain experiences a similarly taxing and self-revealing sort of quest. His goal is to find the Green Knight and receive the deathblow of his axe because of the “Christmas game” that he agreed to play (Sir Gawain and the Green Knight I.283). Although a noble gesture of Gawain, this agreement displays the idea that Gawain is too confident in himself as he literally agreed to a death sentence. Similar to the reaction of Homer’s audience after realizing the imperfection of Odysseus, the Gawain-poet’s audience may be shocked to discover that Gawain is not perfect either. He is skilled in rhetoric, charming, courteous, brave, noble, self-sacrificing, and probably a dashing specimen of masculinity. Gawain’s brave and sacrificial act of taking King Arthur’s place in the beheading games suggests a parallel between him and Christ. When he arrives at Lord Bertilak’s court, the poet references Gawain as “so comely a mortal never Christ made as he” (II.870-871). The shield that Gawain receives to protect him during his journey further develops this idea. The shield possesses many Christ-like qualities. The shield “shone all red, with the pentangle portrayed in purest gold” (II. 619-620). While the red represents the bloodshed of Christ, the gold represents the royal divinity of Christ. Ultimately, the shield represents the moral perfection of Christ. Consequently, this suggests that Gawain possesses moral perfection as “all his fealty was fixed upon the five wounds that Christ go on the cross” (II.642-643). Despite this perception, Gawain discovers his humanness on this “quest”.
At first, Gawain’s likeness to Christ is upheld. He valiantly braves the forest and remains faithful to his mission until he reaches “a castle cut of paper for a king’s feast” (II.802). Once he enters the castle, he displays courtesy in Lord Bertilak’s court and even agrees to play Bertilak’s game. However, Gawain reaches his major downfall the third day that he is staying in Bertilak’s castle. The belt that Lady Bertilak offers to Gawain presents a way for him to succeed in his goal without dying as well. Like any human who values life would, Gawain takes the belt. After the transaction, Gawain “agrees that not a soul save themselves shall see it [the belt] thenceforth with sight” (III.1864-1865). This means that Gawain will break the rules of the exchange game that he is playing with Lord Bertilak. With this one decision, Gawain’s piety, bravery, honesty, honor, nobility, and self-sacrificial nature disappear. He can no longer be likened to Christ. Gawain’s humanness cannot be denied.
Although discouraging, this realization serves a bigger purpose. After surviving the agonizing beheading game, the Green Knight, or Lord Bertilak, calls Gawain out on his dishonesty with the belt. He says that Gawain’s dishonesty occurred because Gawain lacked “a little loyalty in there” and “loved [his] own life” (IV.2366, 2368). After hearing this, “all the blood of [Gawain’s] body burned in his face” as he realizes his fault and shame (IV.2371). However, the Green Knight allows him to keep the belt because it will remind him of “the faults and the frailty of the flesh perverse” (IV.2435). Gawain accepts the belt and symbolically, this belt now replaces his shield. This further symbolizes his inconsistent human nature: the nature of all men. Gawain now better understands himself and helps the audience better understand the nature of mankind.
In all, these two texts appear to simply relay the journeys of two heroic characters. Odysseus faces countless obstacles on his way home and Gawain faces strange and unconventional obstacles on his way to his destiny as well. However noble these characters may appear, the audience discovers that both are still human. Subconsciously, both characters discover their real identity while they consciously discover their destination. The subtle discovery suggests that all mankind are at some point blind to the undeniable nature of men: no man is perfect.
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