A Note on Descent Themes in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

by Jonathan A. Glenn

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight [ Note 1 ] continues to provoke interpretive debate among students of English medieval poetry. In my observations here, I do not wish to engage in the larger issues of debate about this poem, but rather briefly to explore the implications of four short words.

One of the descriptive phrases used of Bertilak de Hautdesert’s castle in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight has attracted frequent and admiring readerly attention for its striking vividness. I quote the entire sentence of which it forms the last line:

Chalkwhyt chymnees þer ches he innoȝe
Vpon bastel rouez, þat blenked ful quyte;
So mony pynakle payntet watz poudred ayquere,
Among þe castel carnelez clambred so þik,
Þat pared out of papure purely hit semed. (798-802)

Of this last line—“pared out of papure”—Tolkien and Gordon note in their edition: “It is evidently the elaboration of the castle workmanship that the simile is meant to emphasize; there is no suggestion that it was insubstantial” (100).

True enough. Interestingly, however, the same striking phrase occurs in Cleanness, [ Note 2 ] a poem apparently by the same author, in a description of the service at Belshazzar’s feast:

Burnes berande þe bredes vpon brode skeles
Þat were of sylueren syȝt, and served þerwyth,
Lyfte logges þerouer and on lofte coruen,
Pared out of paper and poynted of golde. . . . (1405-08)

Again, this is (simply?) an elaborate description, and the details may well be drawn from real fourteenth-century feasts. Chaucer’s Parson’s Tale, for example, includes the following in “pride of table”: “Also in excesse of diverse metes and drynkes, and namely swich manere bake-metes and dissh-metes, brennynge of wilde fir and peynted and castellated with papir, and semblable wast, so that it is abusion for to thynke.” [ Note 3 ] Even if Cleanness is describing a real decoration at feasts, however, one may still ask what might prompt the author to extend this phrase to the castle in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

An obvious question with an obvious answer: the two looked somewhat alike. Yet likening the jovial Bertilak’s castle to paper table decorations still seems, to me, strange, and I turn to the contexts of the occurrences of this phrase to clarify its significance.

Though Cleanness is not a romance as such, it uses the phrase under discussion in a context where its artificiality reinforces the increasing “thingification” of damned Babylon. [ Note 4 ] To get immediately to the most vivid indication of this objectification, compare how Belshazzar begins in Cleanness with how he ends. He begins by making, worshipping, and breaking idols:

Bot fals fantummes of fendes, formed with handes,
Wyth tool out of harde tre, and telded on lofte,
And of stokkes and stones, he stoute goddes callz,
When þay ar gilde al with golde and gered wyth syluer;
And þere he kneles and callez and clepes after help;
And þay reden him ryȝt rewarde he hem hetes,
And if þay gruchen him his grace, to gremen his hert,
He cleches to a gret klubbe and knokkes hem to peces. (1341-48)

And this is how Belshazzar ends:

Baltazar in his bed watz beten to deþe,
Þat boþe his blod and his brayn blende on þe cloþes. (1787-88)

The king becomes the objects he worships in his descent. [ Note 5 ]

Similarly, the phrase “pared out of papure” occurs in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight at a moment when the hero teeters on the brink of a final descent. Gawain has with Gringolet faced a series of foes, both strong and strange, creatures of the wasteland that so often in the English literary tradition has signified outer darkness [ Note 6 ]:

Sumwhyle wyth wormez he werrez, and with wolues als,
Sumwhyle wyth wodwos, þat woned in þe knarrez,
Boþe wyth bullez and berez, and borez oþerquyle,
And etaynez, þat hym aneled of þe heȝe felle. . . . (lines 720-24)

Though Bertilak’s castle appears as if by magic in answer to his prayer, still the castle’s artificiality and Gawain’s admittedly natural failure to recognize its connection with his quest emphasize the increasing isolation of the hero and, perhaps, his potential dehumanization as object of Bertilak’s apparently light-hearted hunt—and one is reminded of Frye’s remark that “in romance the paradisal is frequently a deceitful illusion that turns out to be demonic” (98).

Gawain’s exchange of winnings at the end of each of his days at the castle suggests, as is usually noticed, that Gawain is truly the hunter hunted: Gawain wins each day something belonging naturally to Bertilak (a series of kisses from Bertilak’s wife), and if the parallels between Bertilak’s hunts and Gawain’s bedroom are as close as is usually maintained, we may suspect that the fruits of the hunts, even the “foule fox felle” (line 1944), belong somehow naturally to Gawain, not simply because of his agreement with his host. Gawain’s confusion of identity manifests itself as well in his difficulty in answering the lady’s embarrassingly persistent questions about his identity: his answers might have been easier had he known clearly who he was.

“Pared out of papure” is a minor detail of diction in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and its sibling-poem Cleanness, yet a comparison of the two occurrences suggests that in each case the phrase nicely emphasizes the alienation and objectification—the “thingification”—of descent.

Copyright © 1980, Jonathan A. Glenn


[ Note 1 ] Cited here by line number from J. R. R. Tolkien and E. V. Gordon, eds., Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, 2nd ed., ed. Norman Davis (Oxford: Clarendon, 1967). [Return to text.]

[ Note 2 ] Cited by line number from the edition in Malcolm Andrew and Ronald Waldron, eds., The Poems of the Pearl Manuscript (Berkeley and Los Angeles: U of California P, 1979). [Return to text.]

[ Note 3 ] The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, ed. F. N. Robinson, 2nd ed. (Boston: Houghton, 1957) 241. [Return to text.]

[ Note 4 ] Northrop Frye argues that “all stories in literature [not only romances] are complications of, or metaphorical derivations from, these four narrative radicals”—that is, the descents and ascents described in his book, The Secular Scripture: A Study of the Structure of Romance (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1976). (For the assertion quoted here, see 97). My experience confirms this claim of wide applicability to literary structures. [Return to text.]

[ Note 5 ] See my “Dislocation of Kynde in the Middle English Cleanness,” Chaucer Review 18 (1983): 77-91. [Return to text.]

[ Note 6 ] Frye notes the animal imagery pervasive in themes of descent (see, e.g., 104, 111, and 115); he observes further that the “surrounding forest itself” often plays a significant role in the descending journey (104). For an extensive survey of the romance use of forest, see Corinne J. Saunders, The Forest of Medieval Romance: Avernus, Broceliande, Arden (Cambridge: Brewer, 1993). [Return to text.]