Negotiating normativity: the disruptive wonder of subversive giants : and, Embracing ambiguity: shifting symbols in Sir Gawain and the green knight

UNCG Author/Contributor (non-UNCG co-authors, if there are any, appear on document)
Ariel A. Patrick (Creator)
The University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG )
Web Site:
Denise Baker

Abstract: This paper confronts the traditionally held motif of the violent, lewd giant in medieval literature to explore giants that resist the normative behavior of their nomenclature. The relationship these nonnormative giants have with humans is innocuous and startlingly philosophical, for the interactions often raise existential questions about humanity and society. Yet encounters with these other giants are brief and their presence is seemingly unimportant both to the characters they engage with and the trajectory of the narrative in which they are found. This paper will explore how this broader spectrum of atypical giants from their stories of origin to their appearances in Aucassin and Nicolette, Sir Eglamour of Artois, and Yvain: Le Chevalier au Lion complicates the inherent binaries between man and beast and provokes questions about the limitations of socially-constructed ideologies. The narrative function of these creatures is tied to their expansive bodies, much like their violent brethren, but I propose that they offer more than mere spectacle. Instead, they offer a sense of wonder, and wonder, while akin to spectacle, provides a lasting impact on the onlooker and forces them to reevaluate their systems of codification and processes of meaning-making. Their interactions force an evaluation of entrenched constructs of identity and reconstitute the boundaries of humanity. AND This paper will examine the connections between ambiguity and symbolism in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The poem’s greatest points of ambiguity: Gawain’s confessionals, the legitimacy (or lack thereof) of the knight’s shame, and the fluidity of the girdle’s meaning emphasize the inherently flawed, dual nature of humanity. Scholarship often focuses on these ambiguities without factoring the role of the poem’s two primary symbols, the pentangle and the girdle, in demonstrating that Gawain’s failing as the result of his inherent human imperfection is not as grave an infraction as he perceives. This paper will focus on how the meaning of these two symbols evolves throughout Gawain’s journey, examine critical responses to these symbols, and contrast how the shift of focus from the pentangle shield to the girdle impacts the overall reading of the poem. I propose that these emphatic shifts and the use of symbolism reveal the duality of human nature—one that is suspended between the spheres of social constructs and inherent, uninhibited human behavior. The root of Gawain’s turmoil, even if he is unaware of the source, is this ambivalence, for not even a knight perceived as infallible as he is capable of upholding the values and expectations of two conflicting spheres.

Additional Information

Language: English
Date: 2020
Giants, Medieval Literature, Sir Gawain
Literature, Medieval $x History and criticism
Giants in literature
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Symbolism in literature

Email this document to