17.02.03, Hatt, God and the Gawain-Poet

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Kerilyn Harkaway-Krieger

The Medieval Review 17.01.03

Hatt, Cecilia A. God and the Gawain-Poet: Theology and Genre in Pearl, Cleanness, Patience and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Cambridge: D.S.Brewer, 2015. pp. 249. ISBN: 978-1-84384-419-8 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Kerilyn Harkaway-Krieger
Gordon College

Cecilia Hatt's God and the Gawain-Poet will be of interest not only to those who work on any of the four poems contained in the Cotton Nero A.x manuscript (London, British Library), but also to those interested more generally in questions of theology and literature in late medieval England. Although Hatt overtly states that she does not envision herself contributing to a broader conversation about "religion and literature," nor does she situate her work in the robust conversation about "vernacular theology" that has sprung up in the last fifteen years (by which I simply mean the increased attention to devotional and theological texts in English rather than Latin), her careful reading of the four poems to see what they reveal about the author's theological commitments should be seen as a welcome contribution to these conversations. In particular, Hatt's attention to how the poet's formal choices reveal his theological vision adds to our understanding of theology done in the vernacular (and at a time when "form" and "formalism" may be losing their appeal). As the book's subtitle suggests, certain religious commitments become apparent only when we attend to the ways in which the poet both uses and then frustrates formal expectations.

Even more compelling than her reading of the poet's use of genre, though, is Hatt's elucidation of a coherent theology undergirding all four poems. It has, of course, been a matter of debate whether these four poems are all authored by the same person (and another matter of debate regarding what we can discern about the identity of this remarkable poet). Hatt's argument, while on the one hand assuming a singular author, also creates a compelling argument for such authorship, given the consistency of the theological vision that she finds across the poems. This vision is rooted in the physical world, but Hatt rejects strongly David Aers' and Nicholas Watson's earlier arguments that the poet is attempting to craft a theology that would have been compatible with the interests of the nobility or gentry. Against what she identifies an Augustinian reading of the poems (one which downplays the physical world by privileging the spiritual and eternal), Hatt argues for what she considers a Thomistic or Aristotelian interpretation, a theological vision that embraces the sacramental value of the physical world. This leads to the poet's commitment to the "giftedness" of all things (both of the self and of the material world). The Gawain-poet, she argues, turns to his own artistic forms as a response to this giftedness, just as he shows us characters within his poems who utilize their own skills and wisdom (however imperfect these may be) to respond to God. This responsiveness is thus that of creatures who recognize their own indebtedness to a Creator. The theological narrative she identifies in these poems is thus that of Creation--Consummation, rather than Creation--Fall--Redemption. God's generous act of creation awaits its final fulfillment in his consummation of all things, but in the interim, his creations respond in gratitude. Both the poet's own obsessions with artistic form and the propensity we see for skillful creation within the narratives themselves are signs of the poet's commitment to the material medium of God's creation and creaturely response.

In her chapter on Pearl, Hatt takes a strong line against several critical trends regarding the poem. The first is an earlier tendency to discuss the poem as a dream vision. While Hatt does acknowledge the framing narrative of the dream, the poem does not fit well alongside other dream visions, which, she suggests, focus on what happens to the dreamer, whereas in Pearl, the poem is about the dreamer's evolving understanding, an evolution represented in both the narrative and the poetry itself. She similarly dismisses readings of the poem as "mystical," "visionary," or "ineffable." When it comes to the poem's theology, Hatt does focus on representations of the superabundance of grace, but on the whole she finds the poet to be successful in representing that abundance. Hatt also disagrees with critics who side with the pearl-maiden (as one whose teaching is meant to obviously correct the dreamer's somewhat sullen adherence to his own errors) or with the grieving dreamer (against the rather callous pearl-maiden and those particularly harsh aspects of her teaching). Both the dreamer and the maiden are, in Hatt's estimation, aspects of the grieving jeweler, both are contained within the fictional character's psyche, and the dream itself is the process through which he comes to reconcile the two. The maiden, then, doesn't tell the jeweler anything he doesn't already know--he is simply coming to terms with his what his own faith provides him.

In discussing Cleanness, Hatt points out that God's vengefulness is a result of his role as Creator. God-as-Creator is naturally enraged when matter (his creation), is violated in one sense or another (as Lot's daughters are violated, or as Belshazzar violates the Temple). Returning the Aristotelian paradigm, matter is the imprint of the soul, not its container, and so there is no dichotomy between matter and spirit, inside and outside. Hatt argues that Cleanness focuses only on this aspect of God--an aspect seen particularly clearly in the Old Testament narratives--but she acknowledges that any aspect of God, if taken in isolation, necessarily results in a distortion.

The Patience chapter seems to digress from the tight link between theology and form that the earlier chapters establish. Much of this chapter is spent, not on the poem itself, but on the substantial debate surrounding several aspects of the biblical book of Jonah. In both Pearl and Cleanness, Hatt's argument is that the poems are not typical examples of their genres (of dream vision and sermon), her most insightful analysis of Patience focuses less on genre and more on the poet's development of the character of Jonah himself (which nevertheless helpfully anticipates her analysis of Gawain's shortcomings).

The final chapter on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is excellent, and certainly of interest to anyone fascinated by this exceptional poem. Hatt starts with a repetition of her strong objection to critical readings that downplay or marginalize the poem's religious content. This poem reveals the poet applying the theological insights developed in the other three poems--Gawain and the court fail to recognize the giftedness of their own being and the world around them, and thus misunderstand the nature of Christian ethics. We see this failure most clearly in Gawain's inaccurate assessment of his own virtue--Hatt argues that he sees his virtue (both courtly and religious) as external to him, a feature which identifies him and which will be able to dictate the terms of the plot. The romance genre encourages readers to concur in Gawain's Pelagianism, and it's only upon later readings that we learn to be suspicious. Gawain's own failures trigger readerly recognition that religious ethics are relational, setting the Christian in right relationship with God and with others (rather than a quality one "possesses"), but it seems that by the end of the poem, Gawain and the court have still failed to grasp this point.

Hatt also works to overturn readings of the poem that set it up as a Pelagian intervention on the behalf of wealthy readers by showing how it is the court's own responses that settle otherwise open-ended opportunities. The Green Knight's initial challenge, for example, is not necessarily violent (the "exchange of blows" could be truly a friendly game, Hatt suggests), but it is precisely Arthur's response that determines that this will be a martial contest. Similarly, Gawain approaches the second exchange of blows as an ordeal (one capable of revealing the truth of his character)--even though, more generally, the truth-revealing capacity of the ordeal was soundly rejected by the Fourth Lateran Council, in favor of confession as a more flexible process capable of accounting for the complicated admixtures of human motivation. Gawain does in fact go to confession twice in the poem, but it seems for him to be an action he completes (another sign of the virtue he already possesses), rather than a process of self-examination. Hatt argues that the pentangle functions analogously, as an externalized marker of Gawain's virtue which he himself relies on, but which does not actually correspond to his interior state, as it is so often assumed to.

Hatt's discussion of second readings and the propensity of the poem to initiate debate among its readers leads her in this final chapter to make some suggestions about author and audience. The poem is tongue-in-cheek, she suggests, and submits that the poet was a cleric writing to an educated readership. She finds the poem to be highly referential and at times ironic, suggesting that only a highly literate audience would get all of the jokes. Part of the undermining of Gawain's character is done by way of reference and irony, which clerical readers would likely recognize, but perhaps not knightly readers. In the appendix, she further explores some possibilities about the author and his milieu, suggesting that the author was more likely to be part of a clerical house, rather than an aristocratic one, and tentatively submitting her own candidate as the Gawain-poet, one Robert Hallum.

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