contributor.author: Miriam Youngerman Miller, University of New Orleans

title.none: Putter, Sir Gawain (Youngerman Miller)

identifier.other: baj9928.9701.002 97.01.02

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Miriam Youngerman Miller, University of New Orleans, mymeg@uno.edu

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1997

identifier.citation: Putter, Ad. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and French Arthurian Romance. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995. Pp. xii, 279. $49.95. ISBN: ISBN 0-198-18253-8.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: Bryn Mawr Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 97.01.02

Putter, Ad. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and French Arthurian Romance. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995. Pp. xii, 279. $49.95. ISBN: ISBN 0-198-18253-8.

Reviewed by:

Miriam Youngerman Miller, University of New Orleans
mymeg@uno.edu

The title of Putter's book, based on his Ph.D. dissertation written under the supervision of Jill Mann, might lead one to expect a traditional source study. In the case of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight such studies have, as Putter notes, concentrated on similarities of plot and the beheading game, exchange of winnings, and Potiphar's wife motifs. Putter's emphasis, however, is on the "broader connections -- connections...between the heroic ideal in Gawain and in earlier Arthurian romances, between their interest in polite manners, [and] in peaceful interpersonal relations" and on the shared "stock of literary motifs and conventions out of which courtly romancers constructed their fictional worlds" (4-5). Putter's argument, I think, amply justifies his assertion that SGGK "is a conventional romance, deeply rooted in the tradition of the Old French roman courtois...." (244).

Putter organizes his study into four chapters which demonstrate how conventions found in French Arthurian romance from Chretien on are realized in SGGK and concludes with a fifth chapter on the social context and function of the Arthurian romance. This organization reflects Putter's dual interests, on the one hand to illuminate SGGK by looking at its sources and analogues in the French tradition, and on the other, to place this romance in the social history of the High and Late Middle Ages. Putter himself notes the difficulties which can arise from combining these two approaches in one work of scholarship, but defends his decision to do so, saying that both, "one complementing the other," are needed to understand the similarities between SGGK and its French predecessors and that therefore he has "attempted to balance the two approaches" (8-9). One might question whether Putter has indeed achieved balance here. The social issues Putter raises in the last chapter receive, perhaps of necessity, a relatively cursory examination, and perhaps it would have been better to reserve them for a more complete -- and possibly more convincing -- discussion in a second book.

The first chapter, "The Landscape of Courtly Romance," examines the use of setting in SGGK and its French precursors. Putter ascribes the introduction of the "gaste forest" (Wild Forest) motif to Chretien and notes that he pioneered this motif at exactly that time when the real wild forests were rapidly disappearing from the European landscape (16-17). In Chretien and those who follow him in the romance tradition the forest is opposed to the castle, the wilderness to the court. Putter notes that the "dichotomy between centres of civilization... and the barbarism of the countryside had been a fixture of classical thought," but quotes Le Goff who asserts that "this opposition is not found again in the medieval west, or rather it appeared only in part, when the urban renaissance which began in the twelfth century was accompanied by literary and legal revivals" (41). It is, however, a commonplace in the reading of Old English poetry, and in particular of Beowulf, to note the thematic opposition of the light and joy of the hall with the fearsome dark of the waste surrounding it. Putter concurs with Le Goff's statement that the opposition of city and countryside in the Middle Ages is in fact "an opposition between 'that which is built and cultivated versus the desert'" (41n.). Given the emphasis on the "building" of Heorot, perhaps the lapse that Le Goff and Putter see here between classical use of this motif and its re-emergence in their view in the High Middle Ages and in the works of Chretien is more illusory than real. I bring this up only to suggest that it is possible that the Gawain-poet who is after all a master of the alliterative style (whether that style is a revival or survival of older practice) may have encountered this dichotomy in older English literature as well as in the works of Chretien and his French successors. Whatever the source of this idea, Putter makes a number of provocative points about it in this chapter. For example, if the castle represents progress and the civilizing impulse and the forest with its Wild Man inhabitant, the stumbling-block on the path to civilization, then the park, the wild forest tamed and circumscribed, mediates between the two, helping to define both. Hence, Putter notes the more positive attitudes concerning the forest expressed in the hunting scenes in, say, Yvain and SGGK as opposed to the more negative attitudes in the questing episodes.

On the other hand, Putter occasionally goes out of his way to belabor a point which has already been widely acknowledged, as, for example, when he credits Chretien with introducing the subjective point of view into the Old French romance and the Gawain-poet for doing likewise in the Middle English romance (35), and when he notes out that the castles described by Chretien and the Gawain-poet represent the dernier cri in military construction techniques -- and not some fanciful depiction of fairy-tale architecture. However, his fundamental point that the use of setting (forest and castle) in the French Arthurian romance tradition and in SGGK "represents yet another victory of civilization over bare existence and a celebration of the possibilities of culture" (50) is, I think, well supported.

Moving on from the consideration of landscape as demonstrating a "marked interest in the cultivation of refinement," Putter asserts that the "notion of courtoisie" is the "fundamental preoccupation of...Arthurian romances as a whole" (51), and in the second chapter,"The Convention of Hospitality," describes the protocol of hospitality as it is depicted (in very similar terms) by Chretien and the Gawain-poet. The meat of this chapter is the juxtaposition of the Arthurian romance with the contemporary courtesy book tradition. Although, as Putter himself acknowledges, the Gawain-poet's indebtedness to courtesy literature has been noted elsewhere, Putter's contribution is to demonstrate that the Arthurian romance tradition as a whole is similarly indebted. He sees this preoccupation with the etiquette of hospitality as another reflection of the "civilizing impulse" of the Arthurian romance, the same "civilizing impulse" which, according to Putter, underlies the description of the castle and the courtly way of life it contains. Further, Putter sees the conventions of hospitality as a means of exploring important thematic material: like no other romancers, Chretien and the Gawain-poet explore the discrepancies between faces and feelings that go hand in hand with the codification of an etiquette of hospitality to which the courtesy books were giving a start. And alongside the discrepancy between faces and feelings which etiquette encourages, there appears the possibility of deceit, a theme that appears with great frequency in the romances of Chretien, his continuators, and Gawain. (99)

The third chapter is devoted to the temptation scenes, as Putter's organization roughly follows the narrative flow of the romance -- first the journey from court to court through the Wild Forest, next the dynamics of Gawain's reception as a guest at Castle Hautdesert, and now the events which take place in Gawain's guest chamber. Using the Perlesvaus as a point of comparison, Putter devotes this chapter to exploring the thematic use of the Gawain-character's "reputation as a womanizer" (102), a reputation which has reached the tempting ladies long before they meet Gawain himself, and to considering how the ambiguities of luf- talkyng allow the Gawain-characters to withstand their would-be seductresses while yet fulfilling the demands of courtesy. Finally this chapter looks at how Chretien and the Gawain-poet create and then undermine the illusion of a magical world, manipulating expectations and playing games of belief and disbelief with both their heroes and their audiences. Essentially Putter's point here seems to be that Chretien, other French romancers, and the Gawain-poet have created a sort of metafiction in which the behavior of the characters is conditioned by the expectations derived from their own reading of the romance tradition, hence the lady's expections that the Gawain she meets will behave like the consummate ladies' man she has read about and Gawain's pains to exploit the ambiguities of luf-talkyng, thus preserving his (literary) reputation while deflecting the lady's advances. Putter takes this a step further to argue that the root of Gawain's failure is his belief that he is in the fairy-tale world of the romance where magic talismans really do work: What Gawain learns from the Green Knight...is not simply that it is foolish to suspend this distinction [between the "real" world and the world of make-believe] and the distinctions that inevitably follow -- those between mine and thine, between the privileges of guest and host, between self and the knights of romance who can do the impossible when armed with love-tokens. He learns also that to believe one can get away with suspending these distinctions is to believe in magic. (144)

The fourth chapter, "Honour and Honesty: The Heroic Ideal in Courtly Romance," looks at the beheading game and its resolution in light of the Ciceronian distinction between honesty (the morally right) and expedience (the advantageous). Putter defines honour as the "esteem with which one is held in the opinion of others" an esteem which ultimately must be wrested from rivals by "aggressive assertiveness" in "confrontations which typically involve brute force" (157) and sees honour in this sense as characteristic of the epic hero, the hero who is, like Beowulf, lofgeornost (156). (Strangely, Putter does not acknowledge that "most eager for praise is not the only epithet applied to the dead hero at the end of Beowulf. In the same breath -- perhaps awkwardly for Putter's argument -- he is also praised for his mildheartedness.) Putter sees a redefinition of honour along Ciceronian lines in the romances of Chretien and the Gawain- poet: The difference between their Arthurian world and the epic world lies rather in what it takes to be the source of honour. ...this source is not the extortion of submission by force, but personal integrity. (158)

For Putter, then, this paradigmatic shift accounts for Lancelot's apparently self-abasing behavior in "Le Chevalier de la charrete" -- which is opposed by Meleagant's adherence to the older code of honour, self-aggrandizement achieved by the exercise of brute force -- and Gawain's refusal to take the guide's offer of an easy way out of his beheading game bargain.

The final chapter, "The Social Function of Courtly Romance," moves away from the analysis of the texts themselves outward to the social context which produced them. Putter's principle argument about the social function of the roman courtois is that, contrary to the received opinions of generations of critics, the courtly romance is not "a conservative expression of medieval knighthood," being neither committed to "conservative feudal values" nor "hostile...to efficient government and to the increasing importance of merchants and skilled workmen" (189). Rather he sees SGGK speaking for the interests of all three orders -- clerics, knights, and merchants -- and he does not see this fusion of interests as a "radical break from a tradition that eulogized a troubled feudal nobility averse to social change" (196). Instead he sees the Gawain-poet, in this regard as in others, following the lead of Chretien de Troyes who wrote for "patrons committed both to reviving commerce and to consolidating their power at the nobility's expense" (196).

Putter's argument rests heavily on his identification of the authors of Arthurian romance as clerics, " ...Arthurian romances...were not written by knights but by clerics" (197). He goes on to say, "As we have seen, the Gawain-poet probably was a cleric" (197). What we have in fact seen earlier in the chapter is that one of the Gawain-poet's discourses is clerical (referring specifically to Gawain's confession to Bertilak). This glosses over the fact that the Gawain-poet is conversant with a large number of specialized fields of knowledge, including hunting, law, fashion, and architecture. Putter also states that "research into the sources of his poems would suggest a clerical background" (194). But Putter's own work suggests a wide variety of sources, not all of which would seem to be exclusively the province of a cleric. I personally am unwilling to make the leap from these bits of evidence to "they [Arthurian romances] were not written by knights but by clerics" or even to the qualified "the Gawain-poet probably was a cleric." I would have to say "not proven." The same applies to Putter's efforts to associate the Gawain-poet with London which seem both unconvincing and beside the point. The plain fact is that the Gawain-poet remains stubbornly anonymous, and any argument which refers itself to his "biography" ventures onto shaky ground. I am not even convinced that the poem's preoccupation with conscience, honesty, politeness, tact, self-restraint, and self-awareness require or even suggest clerical, as opposed to lay, authorship.

However, the tacked-on and incompletely argued final chapter does not negate the value of Putter's book. While I do not see it as a dramatic breaker of new ground, I do think it is solidly researched and well written, blessedly free of pretentious jargon. For the many who approach the Gawain- poet from the perspective of his English precursors and contemporaries and who are not particularly conversant with the French Arthurian tradition, this book is of considerable value.