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Back to School 2017

Off with His Head!

Last year, I began to read the new section in my Norton Anthology of English Literature (Eighth Edition, Volume 1). Previous readers of my website might recall the detailed, somewhat didactic zeal with which I marked my progress in this book (mid-august-2015), and my sense of literary derring-do regarding medieval tales (october-2015).

This section of the tome begins with the introduction to “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” — and I will confess right here and now that my first mental response to “Green Knight” was the image of an environmental warrior in green gear: scratchy, ineffective, recycled post-consumer synthetic chain mail. Most uncomfortable and, fashion-wise, quite unpalatable, even offensive. (The warrior might take note that the Crusade to save trees has resulted in clothes of plastic that endanger not only the Planet, but, those lesser beings, humans.)

On I read through several lengthy paragraphs in the small but enthralling print, learning much about the “so-called Alliterative Revival” which was news to me! I thrilled to the idea that Sir Gawain “epitomizes this first blooming of Arthurian chivalry, and the reputation of the court rests upon his shoulders.”

The author (unknown, of course) sets the bar high for this character! Oh! What joy!

I then began the next paragraph . . .

"Ostensibly, Gawain’s head is what is at stake. The main plot belongs to a type folklorists classify as ‘The Beheading Game,’ in which a supernatural challenger offers to let his head be cut off in exchange for a return blow.”

It was at this point that I decided to conduct some reading reconnaissance and venture forth into the oncoming pages of a duel between a supernatural force and a mortal (aka Gawain). I thumbed through the pages to perform an accurate count; and I heartily advise any student of reading to undertake such a task to avoid frustration and boredom, or at least to minimally measure and gauge the odious journey in store for her. I thereby discovered so many pages ahead of me that I gave up thumbing with my index finger.

I located the end page number and subtracted it from the first page: a noninclusive 51 pages, to be exact, extended, like a gauntlet, before my weary eyes.

I wondered:

Do I need to read this material?

What compels me to stick with it when Chaucer beckons me from beyond the wall of the 51st page? Is there a Cliff Notes version? Could I live with myself if I submitted to Cliff? I mean, it is “cheating.”

My only other transgression with the condensed-soup version of literature took place during home-schooling a fast-paced instruction of Hamlet. I’d not read that play, and I was undecided about whether to read the tragedy strictly for the purpose of teaching it. After learning of the poison-in-the-ear incident, I became rather hands-off about the actual text.

I did, however, need to learn enough about the basic themes and characters of the play to teach, without any confusion or indecision, about the existentially-fraught Dane and the overwrought Ophelia, in grave distress, floating amidst her flowers, as well as to state, with a semblance of certainty, sufficiently plausible didactic declarations on the doomed, the dead, and the dreadfully deceived.

Obviously, I am not a Hamlet fan. Macbeth, however, is one Shakespeare play that I’ve read with zest at least six times. I could therefore eagerly instruct and expound with enthusiasm upon the murderously bloody power-monger warrior and his bloodless wretch of a wife, along with those three twist-of-fate Witches.

The point to be made here is that if a teacher cannot be exuberant or exhilarated about a text, there is no justifiable reason for a student to be either. The question — “Do I need to read this material?” — is an entirely legitimate one, even if you, as student, are not brave enough to pose the question to Teacher.

Sometimes we receive an assignment that must be assigned; sometimes we receive an assignment that delights beyond any expectation; and sometimes we receive an assignment that is an utter waste of time. When reading is completely voluntary, the aforementioned question can be your friend. At other times, it is a silent, secret ally. The best way to become schooled in reading Great Books is to become your own teacher, your own student, your own critic. You might eventually become your own writer!

For any student of literature or reader of fine tales, questioning the worth of any writing is very sensible and sound. It is even laudable. The spectre of 50+ pages of dry-as-dust literature, staring monotonously and ominously at you, the Reader, should give you more than one pause. You ought to have plenty of them!

I therefore wondered aloud if I could dispense with Sir Gawain — Off With His Head!

I also wondered aloud if Cliff (who was a real person) would have bothered with notes for this one. Yes, indeedy, Cliff did write splendid notes for “Sir Gawain.” I methodically perused them online. I saw that we . . . head back, yet again, to the Ancients!

The Trojan War, the Iliad, the Aeneid . . .

For the most vivid summary of my stolid sensibility toward those major works of literature, I refer the reader to this essay may-2014. My mind, which can be headstrong, was therefore made up:

Off with Gawain’s head!

In all fairness to Cliff, however, I quote some of his analytical summary:

“The poet's appeal to the epics of the Classical world is an example of translatio imperii, or the transmission of the empires of old into the medieval world. It is also a reminder that great empires rise and fall, in their turn. The cycles of history are not so different from the cycles of the year, which figure prominently in the poem, or the cycles of failure and recovery that Gawain will experience.”

The cycles of rise and fall in my literary experience do not exactly mirror those of Sir Gawain, but they have been strenuous enough that I avoid climbing the mountains of any epic, exhausting myself as I go along, wracking the brain in my head to figure out just what is being said and — what does it mean?

And then, does it mean anything to me?

More questions to ponder, my Reader-Friend.

It was thus with heralded triumph, and with the speed of Nike, that I finished the critical literary introduction to “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” My eyes were green with the thought of another poem, perhaps one a bit more practical in its point. Triumphantly, I skipped over Gawain, and I tripped into Mr. Chaucer and his Canterbury tales.

May we all trip-a-trip!  (See back-story)

To return ever so briefly to this momentous introduction:

“ . . . Whether or not he [Sir Gawain] succeeds in that contest is a question carefully left unresolved— perhaps as a challenge for the reader.”

This ambiguous ending was a challenge that this challenge-driven novelist chose not to take!

I have heartily revisited Mr. Geoffrey Chaucer and his delightfully innovative “framing device” of the tales that involve late medieval character types within “estates satire”. Those pages offered solid reading material for many a wet, cold, winter night. Although I must avow that “The Wife of Bath” was a bawdy bore! I did, however, proceed to read her tale with patience, since patience is such a virtue.

Chaucer cannot please everyone, but he did manage to keep his head and his wits about him! He knew the value of patience!