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'Sir Gawain and the Green Knight' and the Idea of Righteousness.

This refreshing book belongs to a new series, Dublin Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature. Consolidating his published articles, Morgan challenges varieties of received critical |dogma' concerning SGGK, including the assumptions that the Green Knight is altogether ambiguous and that the temptation scenes evince comedy or farce. Such talk of ambiguity and comedy, he argues, demeans both the clarity of the poem and the seriousness of its exposition of Gawain's moral trial. Perhaps critics have allowed themselves to indulge in suspect psychological inference (diagnosing Gawain's eventual self-condemnation as |unbalanced', for instance), instead of attending to the remarkable precision with which the poet develops the idea embodied in the celebrated pentangle device.

Morgan quite uncompromisingly affirms that |the narrative is controlled not by the states of mind of the characters in it, but by the imposed abstract idea' (p. 94). Idea is here to be construed in its technical sense: scholastic philosophy provides the context for this reading, partly because the pentangle symbol can be connected with scholastic discussions of gradations of soul, though the evidence given (pp. 88-9) seems to beg distinctions between what Aquinas and Dante conceive as five-sided and what the Gawain-poet conceives as five-pointed. Nevertheless, scholastic moral philosophy is very penetratingly deployed to show how the poem explores the pentangle's paradigm of trawpe or |righteousness'. An impressively intimate knowledge of Aquinas here genuinely clarifies such matters as the nature of Gawain's |perfection', the elements of |ignorance' and |passion' in his sin, and his penitential rigour as against the court's joy at the end.

Defending the unambiguous |handsomeness' of the Green Knight, Morgan memorably attempts at one point to calculate the height of some giants in the Inferno. His own book is so lucidly revisionist as to make some of the previous |giants' of Gawain scholarship, including editors, look surprisingly vulnerable. Although he too summarily banishes comedy at Gawain's expense from parts of the poem, and although his dependence on Aquinas (not to mention Spenser) will irk some readers, his is an important, thought-provoking study.
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Author:Blamires, Alcuin
Publication:Medium Aevum
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1992
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