Gawain’s Lying Laughter

The plot of Gawain and the Green Knight centers around agreements. Gawain’s search for the green chapel begins in an attempt to fulfil his vow to exchange blows with the Green Knight.

The Green Knight leaves, holding his decapitated head; Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, England, c. 1400; British Library, Cotton MS Nero A.x, f. 90v.

The journey leads into a second set of agreements—in the three days that he stays with Bertilak (the green knight in disguise), he and Bertilak agree to exchange whatever winnings they gain by day when they meet again at night. Although Gawain successfully exchanges winnings two out of the three nights, kissing Bertilak for each kiss Bertilak’s wife gave him, he keeps a girdle that Lady Bertilak claims protects the wearer from blows: Þer is no haþel vnder heuen tohewe hym þat myȝt (1853).

Gawain’s girdle isn’t the only powerful girdle in medieval literature. Here St. Cuthbert’s girdle cures Aelfflaed. Bede, Prose Life of Cuthbert, Durham, last quarter of the 12th century; British Library, Yates Thompson MS 26, f. 48v.

Thomas D. Hill argues that Gawain’s failure to exchange the girdle is only a venial sin. He bases this argument on Augustine and Aquinas. St. Augustine says that jokes are not lies because the speaker’s disposition and tone are joking. Hill then proposes that tone and disposition must also apply to Thomas Aquinas’s much later concept of jocose lies, or lies that are told for pleasure, which Aquinas categorizes as venial sins.

Hill’s article points out that each exchange of gifts and vow to exchange them on the next day drips with the language of games, joking and laughter (283). Since the agreement to exchange winnings was made for entertainment under mirthful conditions, he suggests that Gawain’s decision to keep the girdle is a venial sin—St. Augustine argues that jokes are not lies. However, Augustine’s jokes use extralinguistic cues like tone of voice and demeanour to communicate the truth non-verbally.

Bertilak preparing to return Gawain’s blow; Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, England, c. 1400; British Library, Cotton MS Nero A.x f. 125v.

This doesn’t happen with Gawain and the girdle. At the exchange where he keeps the girdle, he is mirthful. The text calls him “Sir Gawayn þe gode, þat glad watz with alle” (1925), speaks of his joye, ‘joy’, and emphasizes that he and Bertilak “maden as mery as any men moȝten” (1953). Despite this display of gladness, joy and mirth, Gawain’s disposition does nothing to communicate that he has the girdle. In fact, it conceals his oath-breaking—Gawain blends into the mirthful atmosphere that Bertilak has established at each of the previous exchanges of winnings.

Lines 1935-1971 of Gawain, in which Gawain and Bertilak exchange winnings for the last time; Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, England, c. 1400; British Library, Cotton MS Nero Axx f. 117r.

This is the opposite of St. Augustine’s jokes—Gawain’s non-verbal communication assists his deception of Bertilak.

Bertilak’s laughter, mirth, and games also conceal lies of omission. He withholds information that he can survive a beheading, that he is also the Green Knight, and that he’s asked his wife to tempt Gawain. Yet, he controls the atmosphere of each exchange. He challenges Gawain to a Crystmas gomen, a Christmas game, and appears in the midst of a feast (283). This decision also places the exchange of winnings in the Christmas season—he tells Gawain to come a year afterwards. While Bertilak portrays both oaths as entertainment, their apparent levity both masks and contrasts Bertilak’s darker intentions. Unlike Augustine’s jokes, the non-verbal communication and mirth of Gawain aids in deception rather than revealing the truth.

Rachel Hanks
PhD Candidate
Department of English
University of Notre Dame

Works Cited

Andrew, Malcolm, and Ronald Waldron. The Poems of the Pearl Manuscript: Pearl, Cleanness, Patience, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Univ of California Press, 1982.

Hill, Thomas D. “Gawain’s Jesting Lie: Towards an Interpretation of the Confessional Scene in Gawain and the Green Knight.” Studia Neophilologica 52, no. 2 (January 1, 1980): 279–86. doi:10.1080/00393278008587778.

A medieval depiction of a feast; Speculum humanae salvationis, London, 1485-1509; British Library, Harley MS 2838, f.45r.

Woden and Oðinn: Mythic Figures of the North

King Arthur is not the only legendary figure used to legitimize rulership in medieval England. Long before Geoffrey of Monmouth’s 12th century Historia Regum Britannium, the most influential mythic ancestor of the English people was Woden.

Woden is presumably derived from a common god of the pre-Christian Germanic peoples and is often identified with the pagan god Oðinn, who was worshiped in early medieval Scandinavia and called the Alföðr (“Allfather”) in Old Norse. This legendary figure was later understood to be an ancestral chieftain from whom the Anglo-Saxon kings claimed descent and thus the authority to rule in England.

18th century image from Icelandic MS, Reykjavík, Stofnun Árna Magnússonar, SÁM 66 © All Rights Reserved.

Woden remains an obscure and enigmatic figure in the extant written records from Anglo-Saxon England. Like Oðinn, he is often understood in surviving narratives as a deified chieftain who becomes the godhead of the Norse pantheon. It is impossible to tell precisely how analogous the Anglo-Saxon chieftain Woden and the Norse god Oðinn might have been by the time the Angles, Saxons and Jutes invaded, conquering the once Roman island of Britannia. Scholars have debated the role and significance of these respective pagan deities and their potential relationship with each other.

Woden, from Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica and a medical charm with Odinic parallels from the so-called Lacnunga (found in British Library Manuscript Harley 585), seems to be a warrior-god; however, the sparse evidence undermines any clear portrait of this mythic figure. Ælfric, Abbot of Eynsham, (whose homilies are preserved in four extant manuscripts) composed a 10th century sermon titled De falsis Diis “Concerning false gods” that contains a fairly involved discussion of the gods, equating them to figures in the Roman pantheon, likening Woden to Mercury. Woden weirdly makes his way back to Iceland, via Ælfric’s sermon recorded in the 14th century Hauksbók (Icelandic National Library, AM544 4to). Wulfstan II, Archbishop of York, later expands on Ælfric’s work in his 11th sermon by the same name (found in Bodleian Library, MS Hatton 113).

18th century image of Oðinn riding Sleipnir. From Icelandic MS, Reykjavík, Stofnun Árna Magnússonar, SÁM 66, f.80v © All Rights Reserved.

More regularly attested and clearly defined is the Norse god Oðinn, who is associated with runic wisdom and reigns in Valhalla (The Hall of the Slain). One-eyed Oðinn rides on his magical, eight-legged horse called Sleipnir, and according to surviving Icelandic literature from the 12th century onward, he will battle the wolf Fenrir, child of Loki, during the final apocalyptic battle known as Ragnarǫk.

Illustration of the wolf Fenrir biting the right hand off the god Týr, from an Icelandic 18th century manuscript, SÁM 66, f.78v © All Rights Reserved.

Oðinn is featured throughout Norse literature in texts such as Snorra Edda or Prose Edda, written by the famous Icelandic author Snorri Sturluson in the early 13th century, which survives in seven extant Icelandic manuscripts some from as late as the 18th century such as SÁM 66 (housed at Stofnun Árna Magnússonar), ÍB 299 4to (housed at the Icelandic National Library) and NKS 1867 4to (housed at the Danish Royal Library). The anonymous collection of so-called eddic poems, often referred to as the Elder Edda or Poetic Edda (and located in Reykjavík, Stofnun Árna Magnússonar, GKS 2365 4to—pet-named “Codex Regius”), is another wealth of Odinic knowledge. This collection begins with the famous Old Norse poem Vǫluspá, in which a prophetic vǫlva (“seeress”) describes the creation and end of the world to Oðinn.

Image from Snorra Edda, showing Oðinn, Heimdallr, Sleipnir and other figures from Norse mythology. From the late 17th century Icelandic manuscript ÍB 299 4to © All Rights Reserved.

But in post-conversion England, Woden was not usually considered to be the father of the gods. More often, he was viewed as the ancestral patriarch English royal lineages.  Check back next week for more on this enigmatic figure!

Richard Fahey
PhD Candidate
Department of English
University of Notre Dame

Special thanks to Tim Machan for his contributions to this post.

 

Further Reading:

Abram, Christopher. Myths of the Pagan North. Continuum, 2011.

Davis, Craig R. “Cultural assimilation in the Anglo-Saxon royal genealogies.”  Anglo-Saxon England 21 (1992): 23-36.

Hill, Thomas. D. “Woden and the pattern of nine: numerical symbolism in some old English royal genealogies.” Old English Newsletter 15.2 (1982): 41-42.

John, Eric. “The Point of Woden.” In Anglo-Saxon Studies in Archaeology and History 5. Oxford University Committee for archaeology, 1992.

Meaney, A L. “Woden in England: a reconsideration of the evidence.” Folklore 77.2 (1966): 105-115.

Meehan, Bernard. A reconsideration of the historical works associated with Symeon of Durham: manuscripts, texts and influences. University of Edinburgh, 1979. Dissertation.

Moisl, Hermann. “Anglo-Saxon royal genealogies and Germanic oral tradition.” Journal of Medieval History 7.3 (1981): 215-248.

North, Richard. Heathen gods in Old English Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Rowsell, Thomas. Woden and his Roles in Anglo-Saxon Royal Genealogy. Medievalists.net, 2012.

 

Primary Sources mentioned concerning Woden/Oðinn:

Ælfric, Abbot of Eynsham.  Homilies of Aelfric: Volume 2 . John C.Pope (ed). Oxford University Press, 1968.

Bede. Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Colgrave, Bertram, Mynors, R.A.B. (eds). Oxford University Press, 1969.

Grattan, J. H. G (trans). Anglo-Saxon magic and medicine: illustrated specially from the semi-pagan textLacnunga.” Oxford University Press, 1952.

Orchard, Andy. The Elder Edda. Penguin Classics, 2011.

Sturluson, Snorri. Edda. Anthony Faulkes (trans and ed). David Campbell Publishers, 1987.

Wulfstan. Homilies of Wulfstan. Dorothy Bethurum (ed). Oxford University Press, 1957.