Editors: George W. Tuma, Professor Emeritus of English, and Dinah Hazell, Independent Scholar
Hosted by the English Department, San Francisco State University


Semantic Social Games and the Game of Life in
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Arrow-Odd’s Saga

Jefferey H. Taylor

One of the most sexually charged episodes of late medieval English literature is the seduction game unleashed on poor Gawain by Lady Bertilak in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.1 Sex never occurs, but as a substitute climax to the game Gawain accepts a magic girdle from Lady Bertilak that will supposedly turn away any blade. Their sexual game and the parallel gaming of Bertilak’s daily hunting and butchering of animals describe a mystical realm more “real” than the court from which Gawain has ventured. This contrast contains a critique of human perception and the game of social affairs, but it is also an affirmation of the greater sexual game in Nature that produces and maintains life in the fallen, mortal world. The Scandinavian Arrow-Odd’s saga2, a late medieval “romance” saga, also contains an episode in which the giving of a magical, blade-turning garment substitutes for a sexual act. Into both of these medieval romances enters the question of the authors’ uses of the eniautos daimon, or seasonal woodland deity, a mythic motif of ancient provenance.

The mythic power of this motif has been somewhat muted in the criticism for many decades due in part to the rejection by C. S. Lewis and other critics of anthropological approaches to literature. In light of the profound shift in anthropology since Lewis’s day, we should re-examine the daimon motif and discover the resonance it has for the central themes of both of these tales, though certainly not in a way that reduces literature to a branch of sociology or imposes hidden ancient meanings on medieval texts, as Lewis seemed to fear. Rather, this archaic symbol of natural fecundity resonates well with the literary and cultural exigencies of the late medieval period. In both Arrow-Odd’s saga and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight the experiential and epistemologically precarious nature of human life is emphasized in contrast to the shallow semiotic games that make up the artificially harmonious rules of polite society and symbolic logic. In this way these tales reflect the shift in late medieval culture from the formalist realism of the early scholastics to the experientialist attitudes of the nominalism and mysticism that underlay the flourishing of the arts in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Indeed, from early on, the fantastical elements in romance literature represent a resistance to formalized and circumscribed constructions of social contexts and human experience.

For many years most Gawain criticism has eschewed mention of the mythic connections between Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and ancient European seasonal rituals. C. S. Lewis’s attack against John Speirs’s anthropological reading of the text (with the help of a few others such as Charles Moorman) seems to have dampened explorations of the mythic content in this poem for many decades. Yet, can Lewis’s weak dividing of the curriculum between anthropologists and literary critics stand up in our day? Post-modern challenges to the boundaries of genre render moot Lewis’s insistence that literature illuminates anthropology but not anthropology literature. Of course early twentieth century anthropology tended to be reductionist, seeking universals. The new anthropology, promulgated by scholars such as Clifford Geertz and Mary Douglas, seeks to localize rather than generalize. It is not critically productive to ignore the overwhelming fact that the Green Knight is the seasonal woodland daimon and that much of the action of the story follows the pattern of ancient ritual. This does not mean that we reduce this exceptional poem to the status of an anthropological icon, nor must we equate the Green Knight with the ancient elements from which it is derived. Yet if we examine the poem in the context of the late medieval period, we find that its use of the eniautos daimon motif resonates well with the cultural questions of its time, both popular and scholastic.

In his critique, C. S. Lewis presupposes that the author and audience of the poem would not have known much about the Green Man, that this ancient motif was only the agent of an exciting story, but where is the evidence for this lack of cultural knowledge on the part of the contemporary audience? On what grounds it is assumed that medieval peoples were not aware of their various cultural inheritances? Since there seems to be more evidence to the contrary, even in the text itself, let us start from the opposite assumption: that people of that day encountering this poem would have recognized the Green Man as the ancient vegetation spirit. Of course, this does not mean the author and audience were secretly pagans. Nor are we uncovering a buried treasure of an earlier time reflected in this late work. But neither is this motif merely ornamental. Its use matches the literary needs of the author to express an essential element of the poem’s theme, and since this poem has all the trappings of popular culture rather than esoteric discourse, the author’s expectation must be that the audience will understand the resonance intended.

It is a commonplace in the interpretation of culture and literature to recognize that cultural customs and symbols do not necessarily disappear or become merely residual when social and cultural changes render them archaic. There are many possibilities for the cultural elements of earlier times to remain functional and productive. In fact, sometimes life conditions continue to defy new perspectives, and so debunked constructions remain functional. For example, the concepts of ‘sunrise’ and ‘sunset’ are illogical but still functional because they respond to our life conditions, and so we continue to use them with the added understanding that these terms do not represent our current astrological paradigms. Other potentially annoying or harmful customs have great staying power, such as the need to wear business suits and ties in a sweltering North American summer. Sometimes powerful symbols do become arbitrary and ornamental, but often the basic emotive communication comes through. Bunnies and eggs on Easter echo with new life, rebirth, and resurrection, though some of the ancient associations might make us blush. So, to say a cultural element is archaic only refers to whether it still responds to the life conditions that originated it, but this says nothing about the potential for the construction to continue to function in many important ways. Older cultural elements often become aesthetic elements of new culture; some are merely ornamental, but others carry much meaning and, indeed, are often some of the most powerful concepts in literature and art. For example, the use of classical mythology by medieval and modern cultures is a monument to the great semantic utility of myths and symbols that no longer reside at the ritual center of culture. Imagine how strange it would be to assert that Alan of Lille’s Venus and Genius in the Plaint of Nature have no critically illuminating relationship to the classical Venus and Genius but are merely the source of a good story. Of course, Alan’s figures certainly are not equivalent to the classical ones, but their resonance with the classical figures are an essential part of Alan’s production of new meanings.

The Green Man of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, then, is an archaic motif with great semantic possibilities—but the meanings of these symbols in this context tell us about a late medieval culture, rather than their ancient ritual source. What, then, could the emotive echoes of this ritual be communicating to the late medieval audience? What we uncover from such a search is not the old, pagan culture secretly surviving the centuries, but a late medieval culture in part evoked by ancient symbols whose qualitative values, though related to their ancient source, have no doubt changed through time. Indeed, Nature as a force is important to medieval culture, especially as concerns the fallen state of the mortal world. According to standard medieval beliefs, after sin and death come into the world through the Fall, Nature defeats death through procreation, making possible the mortal realm in which we live. This follows Alan of Lille’s assertion that Nature is charged by God to preserve the world from death by means of procreation, which is called lex natura or natural law (Fox 7). Procreation allows creatures to defeat death by constantly creating life anew. For human beings, though, this law is not enough, since they have rational minds and immortal souls. For humanity there is a further law, lex positiva or established law, which gives hope for defeating death individually by following the revealed laws of God. A fourteenth-century expression of this theology may be found in John Gower’s Confessio Amantis:3

For God the lawes hath assised
As wel to reson as to kinde,
Bot he the bestes wolde binde
Only to lawes of nature,
Bot to the mannes creature
God yaf him reson forth withal,
Wherof that he nature schal
Upon the causes modefie. (VII. 5372-79).

For God has decreed the laws
Of both reason and nature;
However, he binds the beasts
Only to the laws of nature,
But to the human creature
God gave him reason in addition
So that he would adapt nature
In accordance with conditions.

This theology, quite current in the late medieval period and present in all the major English authors of the time, resonates well with Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Gawain in the final test is very tempted by lex natura. He believes he is going to die, and Lady Bertilak seems to be offering him ample chance at procreation. Yet he must balance this with lex positiva, both in the laws of God, represented to him by the image of the Virgin on his shield, and in the lesser, though for Gawain essential, rules of knightly courtesy. It is not hard, then, to find poignant resonance for the eniautos daimon in this poem, both in its ancient symbol as a fertility deity and in the popular theology of the day. Recently Peter J. Leithart has reminded us that the central message of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is the Christmas/Easter message of Christian theology, that resurrection has defeated death, and “because it has been, it will continue to be defeated” (24).

Of course, these attitudes toward Nature, God and law change over time and, as with all cultural elements, are localized in various ways. Late medieval philosophy and art were heavily influenced by the epistemological uncertainty of nominalism. This epistemology is also derived from the concept of the Fall. Before the Fall Adam and Eve have direct communication with God; afterwards they are left to their own mortal perceptions. So, for example, in the York Mystery Cycle’s depiction of the Expulsion, Adam’s speech about their terrible loss reaches its pinnacle when he becomes fully aware of his new epistemological state:4

A, lord, I thynke what thynge is this
That me is ordayned for my mysse;
Gyffe I wirke wronge, who shulde me wys
    Be any waye? (105-08)

Ah, lord, I wonder what thing is this
That is given me for my miss;
If I work wrongly, who should guide me
    By any way?

He then looks out on the world of nature that used to obey him. All he can “assaye” is that “Alle this worlde is wrothe with mee” (110, 115). Bereft of direct communion with God, fallen humanity is caught in an epistemologically precarious state, having the ability to know, but not certainty of knowledge.

According to Ockham’s nominalism, the games of language and logic in which we live are social constructions, local agreements on meaning, with no assurance of universality. This is not nihilism, though, since he rejects metaphysics in favor of epistemology. Human reality from this perspective is a social reality, a series of semantic games that we play with each other. These games are very meaningful and therefore real, but are insubstantial when compared with the experience of Nature to which they are but the façade. Though in early medieval scholasticism Nature implies the human ability to understand the harmony of ideal forms, for the late medieval nominalists, Nature is ultimately inscrutable, and human knowledge at best considers probabilities. Human claims to wisdom, to understanding reality, usually reduce to knowing the rules of the social games, the semantic realities on which we agree, and, since we invent the rules, we can know and use them and believe we have wisdom. However, when we try to understand beyond these games we run into the inscrutability of Nature and real experience. Logic works on paper. Life is lived in time and space. Reality at its core is experiential.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a story about how Nature gives Gawain an experience, a knock on the head to teach him how precarious human understanding really is. One obvious lesson from Nature is that you will not go on forever, but the fecundity of Nature is greater than your individual life, and so life goes on through the renewals of procreation. However, embedded within this simple outlook is a sense of the shallowness of mortal constructions of meaning, a picture of the nominalist epistemology of fallen humanity—the ability to perceive, but poorly so. The emphasis in the late medieval centuries on an honest view of the limitations of human knowledge was a reaction against the extreme realism of the High Scholastic period. In this nominalist atmosphere of confrontation with traditional formalisms, the human perspective was constructed as absurdly limited, hence the buffoon-like construction of late medieval narrators and the cynically comic tone of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Wise nominalists are wise because they know they know nothing—that is, they cannot reduce their experiences to the boredom of logical certainties. For the nominalist, the only certainty is the inevitability of surprise and bafflement in experience. J. Stephen Russell argues that Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a literary work that demonstrates the fluid power of nominalism over the rigidity of scholastic realism. Russell reads the “faërie” elements, Bertilak, his wife, Morgan and so on, as a nominalist challenge to the ridiculously automaton nature of Camelot and its inhabitants (53-55). This socially disruptive function of the fantastical elements is arguably common to romance literature and undoubtedly precedes the academic nominalism of the later centuries of the period. In general, the fantastical elements in the romance tradition are less obvious in their symbolic correspondence than the supernatural, allegorical elements of scholastic literature or even the cultural-mythic milieu that underpins both genres. In this sense, they represent the inherent difficulty in finding a symbolic correspondence for experience. Nature is richer, more powerful, less predictable and therefore more exhilarating and dangerous than the constructions of reality that we try to impose on our lives. Our reductionist desires are understandable—we want stability, predictability and security—but are nonetheless untenable in the face of natural experience.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is filled with these contrasts between humanity’s social, symbolic view of the world and the overpowering and inscrutable framework of Nature. In striking support to this idea are the elements that Sir Gawain and the Green Knight shares with Arrow-Odd’s saga, a Scandinavian romance. This saga is about a Viking who a witch prophesies will live three hundred years, wander always, and do things no other men could do, but Odd hates her for saying this and bloodies her nose for it (4-7). He then goes on with his youthful Viking existence. His adventures for three hundred years are the tale, and in it he changes dramatically from a macho Viking to a gentle and wise king and father.

One similarity between the two works is that Odd is also connected with the seasonal myth. Late in his career Odd wanders into the forest and dressing in birch bark becomes the Barkman. He stays dressed like this for years and in this guise eventually becomes a servant of the King of Russia, though he claims to be weak and worthless. After beating the king’s best men at all sports and drinking and poetry, the bark dress is peeled away to reveal a handsome, well-dressed and princely Odd beneath (75-94). This motif of the reborn Barkman is familiar from James Frazer’s The Golden Bough and constitutes one of the main stories linked with the resurrecting eniautos daimon of ancient Europe. Another similar use of this motif in late medieval literature is in the popular lay Sir Orfeo, a retelling of the Orpheus myth but greatly mixed with Celtic and Germanic motifs. Orfeo, after wandering in the woods for many years and winning back his wife, Heurodis, from the Fairie King, returns to his court where he is stripped and cleaned and re-emerges as the king of the land. The widespread use of this motif testifies to its currentness in late medieval culture.

Another similarity between Odd and Gawain is that Odd also receives a magic, blade-turning garment as the substitute conclusion to a sexual encounter. Odd is on a vengeance spree in Ireland for the killing of his foster brother, Asmund, when he finds some women in a hole in the ground. One of the women, Olvor, is incredibly beautiful, and so he decides to drag her to the ship to rape her. Olvor promises to give Odd a magic shirt that will stop any blade if he will not rape her and if he will leave Ireland and seek no more revenge (28-32). Gawain’s encounter with Lady Bertilak contrasts with Odd’s in many interesting ways, but concludes on a similar theme: Gawain does not give in to sexual urges and receives the Green Girdle from Lady Bertilak. The pointed differences, however, also have implications for the theme. Unlike Odd’s interrupted encounter, Gawain’s is entirely a game set up by Morgan le Fay and Bertilak to test Gawain. Also, the Green Girdle does not seem to have true magical qualities, but Odd’s garment definitely does. Indeed, Gawain’s encounter is, perhaps, a parody of an ancient theme, especially since the traditional predator and prey roles are gender-switched in Gawain’s case. For Gawain the encounters with Lady Bertilak are very real, as is his fear of dying at the hands of the Green Knight, but the underlying truth, that this is another of Bertilak’s games, greatly emphasizes the sense of life and society as games whose rules and boundaries are often contradictory.

Odd and Gawain both refuse immorality for a promise of survival. The prevailing ideology of the day contends sharply that immoral sex is against Nature and does not lead to survival. Indeed, the violation of natural law by the sexual immorality of humanity is Nature’s very complaint in Alan of Lille’s Plaint of Nature, a “plaint” echoed forcefully in Cleanness, another poem widely attributed to the Gawain-poet. Yet, for both Gawain and Odd, agreeing to accept the magic garment represents violating their social standing, the semantic game giving way to the expediencies of survival. Gawain must lie to Bertilak about his winnings of the day, which is a breach of courtesy and violates the rules of the game he has agreed to play. When Odd returns to his ship he is ridiculed by his companions for wanting to leave Ireland without seeking vengeance for the murder of a brother.

Odd and Gawain both take journeys to supernatural realms which are more vibrantly alive than the normal lands from where they venture. The games at Bertilak’s castle are the sustaining games of life: hunting, butchering, feasting—and the parallel games of courtship. The butchering details especially lend an uncanny naturalism to the castle activities in comparison to Camelot’s Christmas games. For Odd, his whole life of three hundred years is his supernatural journey. The scenes in the saga shift from historical surroundings to fantasy realms without any major shift in style or focus. Indeed, as for Gawain, Odd’s supernatural sojourns often seem more real than more normal scenes. Commenting of Odd’s life among the Giants, Paul Edwards and Hermann Pálsson write: “Curiously, the giant seems closer to normality than the Christians as we move freely across the borderline between the commonplace and the fantastic” (xii). In Giantland Odd is given as a plaything to a Giant girl who sees him as a harmless toy until he makes her pregnant, asserting his natural fecundity over her construction of him as a thing of play.

Both Odd and Gawain are profoundly changed by their adventures in fantastic realms. They do not want their painfully enlightening journeys, but are fated to go on them by the will of others. Odd is completely against his foster father’s inviting the witch over for the prophecy. In revenge against this action Odd leaves Berurjod forever and takes his foster brother Asmund with him. For Gawain, it is Arthur’s insistence on seeing a wonder before dinner that cues the entry of the Green Knight, and it is Arthur’s prideful response to the Green Knight’s taunt that forces Gawain into the beheading game. Despite their unwillingness to go, Gawain and Odd are shaped by their adventures, which include the eventual giving in to Nature’s power, with death as the price of life. For Odd this resignation begins when he gives up pursuing his evil doppelgänger Ogmund, bred by the Nature-worshipping Lapps and Permians to thwart their famous enemy Odd. Neither can ever defeat the other, but Odd’s attempts to defeat Ogmund always result in the deaths of his friends. After Odd’s last attempt to defeat Ogmund, he gives up the fight and settles down to be the good King of Russia and a model husband and father (103-08). This sets the stage for Odd’s eventual return to the island of his birth and his final surrender to death after three hundred years.

For Gawain, giving in to Nature’s power comes from receiving the return stroke from the Green Knight or Bertilak. He flinches at the first stroke, a natural reaction of self-preservation despite his knightly oaths. The Green Knight taunts him for this and then feints the second stroke to test Gawain’s resolve. The third and final stroke barely nicks him. His immediate reaction to this nick is defensive, since in the social game he has fulfilled his oath.

‘Blynne, burne, of thy bur, bede me no mo!
I haf a stroke in this sted withoute stryf hent,
And if thow rechez me any mo, I redyly schal quyte,
And yelde yederly agayn—and therto ye tryst—
            and foo. (2322-26)

‘Hold your attack, sir, don’t try it again!
I have passively taken a blow in this place,
And if you offer me another I shall repay it promptly
And return it at once—be certain of that—
           with force.

However Bertilak’s revelations and social taunting humble him at last:

            At the thrid thou fayled thore,
            And therfore that tappe ta the.
‘For hit is my wede that thou werez, that ilke woven girdel,
Myn owen wyf hit the weved, I wot wel for sothe. (2356-59)

            You failed me the third time
            And took that blow therefore.
‘For it is my belt you are wearing, that same woven girdle,
My own wife gave it to you, I know well in truth.

The failings that Gawain thought were secrets are revealed, and, deeply embarrassed, he confesses all to Bertilak (2374-88). Gawain learns wisdom through this shrivening and humbling experience. In the final scene he is the only sober mind among the game-playing children of Arthur’s court. In “The Medieval Knighting Ceremony in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” Victoria Weiss says that Gawain has been tried and found less than perfect, but that this recognition of his human limitations transforms him (186-87). In “Gawain and Aeneas,” Alfred David notes that both Aeneas and Gawain fall short of social perfection trying to save their own lives, but that Gawain gains an awakening from his imperfection that grants him wisdom (408-09). This enlightenment by way of facing our epistemological limitations is the very argument behind Ockham’s critical nominalism, which advises a healthy skepticism of systems of knowledge, as opposed to the Idealist’s or Realist’s tautological worship of our own semantic games.

Perhaps critics have stayed away from examining the mythic content of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight because of the interpretive problems that cultural mixing inevitably entails. Yet heroic literature always has at its source the mixing of once disparate cultures. Julia Bolton Hollaway bravely tackles this problem by suggesting that “[t]he poem presents the dialectic of the old fertility ritual of time and life and death . . . and the new liturgical ritual of Christ’s mass” (168). However, this being a medieval work, what we have is not a modern dialectic of conflicting cultural roots but a glimpse at the layering of cultures that produces the new culture, a juxtaposition of many elements, “a characteristically medieval . . . unity within multiplicity” as Penelope Doob suggests (173). Nominalist epistemology opens up possibility in meaning with the same hand that closes the door on universal certainties, producing a pluralism that need not synthesize into any harmonious and ideal structure. And it is this open-ended pluralism, spurred by a healthy epistemological humility, that fueled the great art and thinking of the late Middle Ages. This is the late medieval cosmology informing Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and, to some extent, Arrow-Odd’s saga, a perspective that carefully differentiates the unnerving mysteries of experience from the parlor game certainties of logic.


1All references and translations for Sir Gawain and the Green Knight are from James Winny’s dual-language edition. Return

2All references to Arrow-Odd’s saga are from the translation by Paul Edwards and Hermann Pálsson of Örvar-Odds saga. Their translation is based on Jónsson’s edition in Fornaldarsögur Northurlanda, Vol. II. Return

3The quotation is from Peck’s edition of Confessio Amantis. The translation is mine. Return

4The quotation is from Beadle’s edition of The York Plays. The translation is mine. Return

Works Cited

Alan of Lille. The Plaint of Nature. Trans. James J. Sheridan. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1980.

Arrow-Odd: A Medieval Novel. Trans. Paul Edwards and Hermann Pálsson. New York: New York U P, 1970.

Cleanness. The Poems of the Pearl Manuscript. Ed. Malcolm Andrew and Ronald Waldron. York Medieval Texts, second series. Berkeley: U of California P, 1978.

David, Alfred. “Gawain and Aeneas.” English Studies 49 (1968): 402-09.

Doob, Penelope B. R. “Late Medieval Literature: Ricardian Poetry.” Approaches to Teaching Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Ed. Miriam Youngerman Miller and Jane Chance. New York: MLA, 1986. 171-76.

Douglas, Mary. In the Active Voice. Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982.

Douglas, Mary, ed. Essays in the Sociology of Perception. Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982.

Fornaldarsögur Northurlanda, Vol. II. Ed. Guthni Jónsson. Rejkjavík: 1950.

Fox, George C. The Mediaeval Sciences in the Works of John Gower. New York: Haskell House, 1966.

Frazer, Sir James. The Golden Bough. New York: Macmillan, 1922.

Geertz, Clifford. Local Knowledge. New York: Basic Books, 1983.

Gower, John. Confessio Amantis. 1966. Ed. Rusell A. Peck. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1980.

Hollaway, Julia Bolton. “Introduction to Medieval Culture.” Approaches to Teaching Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Ed. Miriam Youngerman Miller and Jane Chance. New York: MLA, 1986. 161-70.

Leithart, Peter J. “The Sport of Easter.” First Things Apr. 2003: 23-24.

Lewis, C. S. “The Anthropological Approach.” Critical Studies of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Ed. Donald R. Howard and Christian K. Zacher. Notre Dame: U of Notre Dame P, 1968. 59-71.

Moorman, Charles. “Myth and Medieval Literature: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” Medieval Studies 18 (1956): 158-72.

Russell, J. Stephen. “The Universal Soldier: Idealism and Conceptualism in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” Literary Nominalism and the Theory of Rereading Late Medieval Texts: a New Research Paradigm. Ed. Richard J. Utz. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen, 1995. 51-80.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Ed. and trans. James Winny. Lewiston, NY: Broadview, 1992.

Sir Orfeo. Ed. A. J. Bliss. 2nd ed. Oxford: Clarendon, 1966.

Speirs, John. Medieval English Literature: The Non-Chaucerian Tradition. London: Faber, 1957.

Weiss, Victoria L. “The Medieval Knighting Ceremony in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” Chaucer Review 12 (1978): 183-89.

The York Plays. Ed. Richard Beadle. London: Edward Arnold, 1982.