This second week, I think I was more on top of things. I read the readings ahead of time, left notes in my margins to refer back to later, and remembered to make my daily blog posts. Some of those posts ended up guiding my thought from one idea to the other, so that as the writing became an atlas of what I was thinking it was also the signpost telling me where to go next. I think that reciprocal relationship involved in writing is really important.
I love the feel and the atmosphere of Round Table stories, and for me the fact that Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was written in verse only strengthened the effect. All these odd characters have to contend with life or death situations that they usually approach with this knightly laissez-faire attitude. It’s just one of the things that make these stories both tragic and very funny. The tale of Sir Balyn and Balan has always been my personal favorite. These two brothers are actually really ridiculous characters-they’re buffoons who can’t do anything right and (until the end) always escape by the skin of their teeth. They spend the whole story trying to prove themselves, but their mistakes have enormous consequences that catch up to them.
One thing in particular in Sir Gawain in the Green Knight really caught my interest. Reading the poem prompted me to do a lot of thinking about games. After all, Gawain’s journey both starts and ends with a game. But what is a game really? I spent a lot of time trying to figure that out. Does a game have to be social? – if so, a chess match between two computers doesn’t fit the bill. Does the structure of the game consist of the rules that limit behavior, or of the set of possible moves each player has at their disposal? Any game must either have an infinite number of restrictive rules or an infinite number of possible moves, if the game is defined in solely terms of what is or is not allowed. And what about Tag? Tag was the game that brought me to my final conclusion. There are really no negative or positive rules to the game Tag. It’s not required of the player who’s “it” to chase the other players, and it’s not required of the other players to run away-in fact, you’ll often see people allow themselves to be tagged or, once tagged, give up trying to tag other players. I chose not to see these cases as exceptions, as being “outside of” the structure of the game. Really, the only fact that defines the game of tag is that one player is “it,” and when that player tags another player they pass on that role. Instead of using negative or positive rules, we can define the game as a relationship between identities. So I’m now entertaining that as a general definition.
The central game in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight would seem to be a great example. Bertilak, beginning the game, assumes the identity of the Green Knight. He comes to the court and challenges any knight who dares to take the role of the striker. In a game, the player’s original identity is unimportant-anybody can just as easily assume the role. This is why both King Arthur and Sir Gawain were equally eligible to strike the Green Knight despite their difference in rank in their, so to speak, “waking lives.” After Sir Gawain beheads the Green Knight, he is held to honor the condition of the game, which is, after all, a relationship between identities. After one year, the striker and the struck switch places and the blow received the previous year is returned. As in a game like Tag or Hide-and-Seek, the players have a great deal of freedom in how they choose to act in these roles. Bertilak, of course, has the option at the end of the game to return Gawain’s blow only lightly. The fundamental relationship between the roles, however-that the striker has to submit himself to a returned strike the following year-is immutable. Only once that condition is fulfilled can Gawain abandon his role in the game and return to his own identity. We see this when, once Bertilak has grazed his neck, Gawain leaps to his feet, throws on his helmet and raises his weapons and shield. The action is a very visible, physical manifestation of the resumption of his typical identity.
This is particular has been really interesting to think about, and it’s something I’m planning to develop further in coming days. For this next week, though, I’m most excited about starting The Canterbury Tales and having a chance to read the verse in the original-I’ve never been able to find a hard copy of the whole thing in Middle English, although I once learned to recite the first fifty lines or so of the prologue. My favorite line was “To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes.” I never learned what it meant.
Today’s Oyster Fact is:
DID YOU KNOW? In the months leading up to the mating season, the oyster’s gonads comprise by far the majority of the organism’s mass.