Art and Tradition in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

I’ve been reading Larry Benson’s (famed editor of the Riverside Chaucer) 1965 book, Art and Tradition in Sir Gawain in the Green Knight in preparation for my online intensive class on Sir Gawain.

What I love about Benson’s work is how he roots the entire thing in the medieval tradition and helps us to read the poem the way that the original audience would have read it. That means throwing off a great many of our modern, unspoken, assumptions about art and storytelling and writing.

Here’s a passage that got me thinking today:

Elaboration, not simplicity, is the ideal of [medieval alliterative] poetry, and its aesthetic has little relation to the modern assumptions that a good style consists in brevity—“so many things in so many words”—and that the best style is one that reflects colloquial speech. Certainly the Gawain-poet could sound colloquial when he so chose ….

But, like most alliterative poets, he prefers elaboration to simplicity. He likes to have a great many more words than things…. His accounts of hunts and banquets sparkle with as much sheer joy in the play of words as in the action represented…. A good poem in this view of poetry is not one that breaks with tradition in order to return to common speech but one that flaunts and capitalizes on its traditionalism, its distance from common speech.

What I love most about this passage is the idea that working within the tradition allows the poet to play and to have joy with words. Our modern bias leads us to believe that tradition is oppressive and thwarts creativity, that only by throwing off the shackles of tradition and pursuing originality can we be truly creative. But for the medieval mind, tradition—and reveling in that tradition—was the place where the poet can truly be creative, where he can play and have fun. And that playfulness and joy is a major part of Sir Gawain and all medieval literature. Interestingly, the more that our modern art has embraced originality, the less joy and playfulness we find in our art. The more we reject tradition, the more that our art tends toward the dark and nihilistic. Or, as TS Eliot says in his essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” the more we pursue originality, the more we end up finding only perversity. And certainly, there is no joy to be found there.

Find out more about my Sir Gawain and the Green Knight week-long intensive class here.

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