Sir Gawain and the Green Knight presents an important lay perspective on the function of sacraments in the development and performance of spiritual and self-reflective identity in the late middle ages. The text identifies confession and mass as focal points in Gawain’s adventure, and its dependence on formal, ritualized devotional practices to articulate his heroic self in turn depends on the audience’s personal and intellectual engagement with a world ordered by the theology of the Church. The events of the text tempt, surprise, and redeem Gawain and its audience; our ability to engage critically with the sacramental underpinnings of Gawain’s adventure transforms him from a holy fool, subject to the machinations of villains and the mercy of God, into an active agent in his own salvation.
Four sacramental elements stand out. First, Gawain’s attendance of mass between his armoring and departure from Camelot resolves him, liturgically, to his fear of death and spurs him on to confront nature as a deadly and disruptive force. Second, his horseback lamentation and bequest to the Lord and Mary for a Christmas mass to attend in Fitt II seems to save him from a chaotic other-world of nature as wilderness. Third, each bedchamber scene in Fitt III is followed by Gawain’s prompt attendance of morning mass, seemingly to guard him against sexual transgression, and finally Gawain’s confession before the Green Knight and ultimate sacramental getaway offer a profound escape from death, securing the sacraments as fundamental to Gawain’s Augustinian realization of self. Many critics have noted that Gawain and the Audience stand between nature and culture, lost. Moral virtue and self-reflection, as they are performed in formal confession and liturgy, guide our hero out.
In Fitt II, as Gawain is armed and made ready for adventure, we see Mass included as integral to his preparations. The arming sequence surrounding the mention forms a descriptive catalogue of meaning systems to which Gawain is, by osmosis, attached. The poet is, notably, less interested in the effect of the knight fully armed than the process by which the armor is applied:
Þenne set þay þe sabatounz vpon þe segge fotez,
His legez lapped in stel with luflych greuez,
With polaynez piched þerto, policed ful clene,
Aboute his knez knaged wyth knotez of golde;
Queme quyssewes þen, þat coyntlych closed
His thik þrawen þyȝez, with þwonges to tachched;
And syþen þe brawden bryné of bryȝt stel ryngez
Vmbeweued þat wyȝ vpon wlonk stuffe,
And wel bornyst brace vpon his boþe armes,
This formal relationship between body and armor is reflected in the “real” grief and “affected” joy of the court, whose reactions to Gawain’s departure involve more the fulfillment of the duties of friends than genuine expression of woe:
Knyȝtez ful cortays and comlych ladies
Al for luf of þat lede in longynge þay were,
Bot neuer þe lece ne þe later þay neuened bot merþe:
Mony ioylez for þat ientyle iapez þer maden.
We see in both examples a disconnect between the description of ‘actual’, as in flesh and feeling, and the ‘presented’, as in armor and amusement, though the poet considers both descriptions necessary to each system. This dichotomy is further explored –and inverted- by the poet’s exegesis of Gawain’s shield, wherein the ‘presented’ sign, the pentagram, is real, while its ‘actual’ counterparts, the pentagram’s varied and lengthy meanings, exist only as allusion and suggestion:
Fyrst he watz funden fautlez in his fyue wyttez,
And efte fayled neuer þe freke in his fyue fyngres,
And alle his afyaunce vpon folde watz in þe fyue woundez
Þat Cryst kaȝt on þe croys, as þe crede tellez;
And quere-so-euer þys mon in melly watz stad,
His þro þoȝt watz in þat, þurȝ alle oþer þyngez,
Þat alle his forsnes he feng at þe fyue joyez
Þat þe hende heuen-quene had of hir chylde;
Religious images, notably without any of the exegesis or detail expressed above, consummate the armoring and presentation of the shield. In noting that Gawain, “So harnayst as he watz,” attends Mass before receiving his shield, the poet extends the device of ‘armoring’ to Gawain’s soul, completing the preparations. By doubling the pentagram with an image of the Virgin Mother on the inside of the shield, the poet performs the same comprehensive religious extension for Gawain’s heraldry. These images speak for themselves to the poem’s audience: here the exegesis of the Church and the depth of the audience’s dogmatic knowledge perform the work of explanation and description. The poet relies on their function as true ‘symbols’, and their meaning cannot be pinned within the confines of a profane text.
With Gawain’s preparations done, he departs the safe and cultured world of Arthur’s court and ventures, somewhat aimlessly, through “contrayez straunge” where nature seems designed against him. North Wales, Logres, and the Isles of Anglesey appear here so full of “wormez”, “wolues”, and “wodwos” as to constitute an anti-eden, a “dark forest of sin” akin to Dante’s. But if combat with mythical creatures seemed bad, it “wrathed hym not so much þat wynter nas wors.” The passing seasons, expressed at the beginning of the Fitt as redeemed by the cycles of the church-year, turn against Gawain. Nothing, however, troubles him so much as missing Mass on Christmas, for which he prays,
‘I beseche þe, lorde,
And Mary, þat is myldest moder so dere,
Of sum herber þer heȝly I myȝt here masse,
Ande þy matynez to-morne, mekely I ask,
And þerto prestly I pray my pater and aue
He rode in his prayere,
And cryed for his mysdede,
He sayned hym in syþes sere,
And sayde ‘Cros Kryst me spede!’
Here we see Gawain’s piety buoy him; crying for misdeeds and begging Christ for speed, Gawain is directed to Haut-desert (and the plot of the story is propelled) before he crosses himself three times. His journey gives us a panoramic view of a world at odds with men, broken. It symbolically corresponds with Advent and Lent, and this consecration of natural and artistic time frames by reference to the organization of life cycles according to Church doctrine tends, in Gawain, to complicate the symbolic landscape. The flexibility of the poet’s devices in sanctifying the narrative demonstrates the flexibility of the religious ritual vocabulary with which his audience appears to have been familiar.
That flexibility is perhaps most strained in Fitt III. As Gawain’s obligations to feudal camaraderie, sexual affection, Christian piety, and self-preservation come into conflict, Mass and celebratory communion in the hall become stable points in an increasingly ambiguous moral landscape. Opportunities for shame –failure to live up to the reputation of a knight of Arthur’s court- abound in the bedroom and the exchange of winnings, while the glories of combat or “appropriate” sexual release, usually at hand in medieval Romance, remain absent. The world, in Gawain, seems demonstrably ordered against the hero. Nature and culture appear to collide upon man as the “hidden punishments and secret tribulations that befall the sons of Adam” outlined in Augustine’s confessions.
In the third fitt, those tribulations formulate as the parallel pursuits of hunting and flirting, all explored against a sacramental backdrop. Mass is mentioned 5 times in total in the third Fitt, being the first element in the ritual of the Lord’s hunt and Gawain’s first stop after his morning rendezvous. The poet takes care to mention each attendance of the morning ritual specifically: they seem to be a daily practice, no less significant than eating or drinking. It would not do, evidently, to tell us that our hero goes to mass every morning and leave it at that. The location of each sacrament in the course of the day becomes critical: The lord, whose adventures take place after his reception into the body of Christ, operates in a redeemed and ordered world, where man conquers beast and the community functions as one. Gawain, who is only accepted into the body of Christ after his ‘test’ each morning, remains in a state of moral suspension until he successfully negotiates the dilemma and may, in turn, receive the Eucharist. The most critical sacramental moment, however, seems to be Gawain’s formal confession after he receives the fated garter on the morning of the third day:
When ho watz gon, Sir Gawayn gerez hym sone,
Rises and riches hym in araye noble,
Lays vp þe luf-lace þe lady hym raȝt,
Hid hit ful holdely, þer he hit eft fonde.
Syþen cheuely to þe chapel choses he þe waye,
Preuély aproched to a prest, and prayed hym þere
Þat he wolde lyste his lyf and lern hym better
How his sawle schulde be saued when he schuld seye heþen.
Þere he schrof hym schyrly and schewed his mysdedez,
Of þe more and þe mynne, and merci besechez,
And of absolucioun he on þe segge calles;
And he asoyled hym surely and sette hym so clene
As domezday schulde haf ben diȝt on þe morn.
For Gawain, the acceptance of her gift -and close run with sexual transgression- has marked his “sawle”. Such a sin precludes him from participating in the Eucharist and necessitates the more formal confession. The language of the confession recalls that of Gawain’s horseback prayer from fitt II, but here we find it expanded. The presence of a confessor substantiates and focuses Gawain’s meditation on his ‘mysdedez’, but the language also implicates potential failure. Confession depends on the sinner’s honesty; by making explicit the success of the ritual, the poet assures the audience that the truth has been recounted in full. Here we locate the same dichotomy between real and affected that dominated the imagery of the arming sequence. In the succeeding passage, we see this theme developed further.
Gawain’s sin, for the purposes of the poet, lies more in his failure to exchange the garter than in its reception. That makes Gawain’s actions at the final banquet pure deception; here he is symbolically cut off from the body of Christ. While the first arming sequence included attendance of Mass, in the rearming sequence of Fitt IV there is no mention of Gawain’s going to Mass. He remains “in sin” as he approaches the Green Knight.
The first arming sequence established formal dichotomies of sign and signified with regards to armor and body, and speech and truth. These return in Gawain’s departure from Haut-Desert, as do the descriptions of seasonal cycles and the condition of nature from Fitt II. The speech of Gawain’s guide, like that of his friends at Camelot, deceives Gawain, though whereas the comely ladies of Camelot deferred their true feelings out of sympathy, the guide encourages submission to fear:
Forþy I say þe, as soþe as ȝe in sadel sitte,
Com ȝe þere, ȝe be kylled, may þe knyȝt rede,
Trawe ȝe me þat trwely, þaȝ ȝe had twenty lyues
And then he lies, probably at Bertilak’s behest. The Green Knight is the Lord of Haut-Desert, not a man who would slay a monk or a “masseprest”. Gawain ignores him and the ‘truth’ of Gawain’s death is ultimately proven false. This distinction emphasizes the difference, for our medieval audience, between the condition of the world in a ‘state of sin’ and a ‘state of grace’. Gawain, departing Camelot, took courage from his friends and comrades, asking, “’Quat schuld I wonde?/ Of destinés derf and dere /What may mon do bot fonde?’” Departing Haut-Desert, he must bravely ignore the deceitful advice of his worldly companion, seeking truth for himself.
The second armoring sequence extends the theme:
Fyrst he clad hym in his cloþez þe colde for to were,
And syþen his oþer harnays, þat holdely watz keped,
Boþe his paunce and his platez, piked ful clene,
Þe ryngez rokked of þe roust of his riche bruny;
And al watz fresch as vpon fyrst, and he watz fayn þenne
He hade vpon vche pece,
Wypped ful wel and wlonk;
While the armoring sequence at Camelot emphasized the armor’s derivation from the form of the body, here the poet makes note of the armor’s cleanness and polish. Gawain appears proud and stern, a far cry from the bloodied, kneeling figure we shall find restored to honor later on. All systems of sign and signification established in the second Fitt appear in disarray in the fourth, particularly the time cycles of nature:
NOW neȝez þe Nw Ȝere, and þe nyȝt passez,
Þe day dryuez to þe derk, as Dryȝtyn biddez;
Bot wylde wederez of þe worlde wakned þeroute,
Clowdes kesten kenly þe colde to þe erþe,
Wyth nyȝe innoghe of þe norþe, þe naked to tene;
Þe snawe snitered ful snart, þat snayped þe wylde;
The harmony of man and beast described by the hunting sequence and the church-year passage is gone. Gawain world has come apart; his forty days in the desert continue.
As the themes of the text turn against Gawain, his unconfessed deception waxes in our minds. When he is restored to good faith, and laughter, by Bertilak, we find sacramental language makes its way into the text once again:
Þou art confessed so clene, beknowen of þy mysses,
And hatz þe penaunce apert of þe poynt of myn egge,
I halde þe polysed of þat plyȝt, and pured as clene
As þou hadez neuer forfeted syþen þou watz fyrst borne;
And I gif þe, sir, þe gurdel þat is golde-hemmed,
For hit is grene as my goune.
Gawain’s safe escape involves the intervention of sacramental language and ritual, including kneeling, into the secular realm of chivalry. With this, the conceit of the text’s sacramentality reaches its apex, returning us to Augustine’s Confessions: “God of goodness, what causes man to be more delighted the salvation of a soul who is despaired of but is then liberated from great danger than if there has always been hope or if the danger has only been minor?” Gawain has turned to Mass and Confession in search of “cleanness” several times over the course of the poem; when the fatal moment comes, his desperate recourse to the performative vocabulary of confession saves him. Even the colors of that moment ring with allusion to the church year: red blood, white snow, a green knight.
Though sacrament forms only one of many thematic operations in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, it stands among the most alien of medieval cultural languages to the modern viewpoint. Tracing its subtleties through the text, we find Gawain’s crisis takes on new dimensions for the audience and gain an access point into the depth of the poem’s solutions. The symbolic languages inherited from Confession and the Liturgy of the Eucharist enriche the work’s conceptual syntax, particularly for the development of Gawain’s character. Gawain seems more alive than many of his counterparts in similar romances; such language is partly why.