CREATIVE PROJECT BY TIM MIN JIE
A Series of Blacked Out Poems from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Visual Art / Literary Art (Blackout Poetry)
An Interpretation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Real and Imagined Animals in Medieval Literature (YHU2330)
My intention in creating this series is to foreground the theme of human vulnerability, particularly our shared vulnerability with the more-than-human world, that stands out to me in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Quoting Judith Butler, Steele (2011) writes,
“… humans reject their involvement in ‘primary vulnerability’ shared by all worldly beings, all of whom can be damaged; all of whom can cease to be, even die … humans construct themselves as properly vulnerable only before God, other humans” (p. 66)
In response to Steele’s argument, I hope to highlight human vulnerability in the face of nature at large, and the shared bodily and fleshly existence that connects all living beings. This series consists of five poems titled “Opening”, “Journey”, “Hunting”, “The Boar”, and “Bodies”. The non-specificity of the names is intentional, as the themes the poems deal with are not confined to the world of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, but pertinent to the medieval chivalric world as a whole and even to contemporary concerns. These five poems are formed by picking out sections of the original poem where human centricity and human superiority ring strong. I then black out parts of the poem with the goal of decentering the human and/or sense of human ascendency and centering the more-than-human and/or the entanglements that humans share with the more-than-human world. I elaborate more on each poem below.
This poem is the blackout version of the opening of the original poem. Reading this section of the original poem brings to mind Cohen’s (2019) point that the poem “opens up with disaster rather than culminates in flames” (p. 5) with the crumbled city of Troy. Cohen goes on to say that the “Arthurian court is a shelter in the wake of catastrophe. Like Troy, it will not last” (p. 6), emphasising the precarity of the court. On top of the court, the poem’s opening is rife with mentions of other human constructions after the destruction of Troy, like the building of cities, townships, and empires like Britain. In setting human creations beside their destruction, the poem conveys the precarity of human structures in general—one moment they are there and the next, they could be gone. In the blackout version, I sought to highlight this precarity more by blacking out parts that focus on human affairs (e.g., the conquests, the constructions of buildings, the glorification of Arthur, the excesses of the court); in turn, the grandeur and expansiveness of nature (which are diminished in the original version) are emphasised. I hope that this conveys the sense of the smallness and vulnerability of humanity in the face of nature, thus destabalising the security that humans in this part of the story seem to have bought into.
For this poem, the original version was the passage in which Sir Gawain has just left the Arthurian court to begin his long and arduous journey through the wilderness. Following the Opening poem, I wanted to continue the theme of human vulnerability in the face of nature. Hence, I blacked out parts that focused on Sir Gawain’s interiority and actions, and retained parts that focused on the environment around Gawain (including the animals he ran into). What stood out to me after doing this was how the various environmental bodies (e.g. the “bleak terrain”, the “brook”, “the mountains”) and the other lifeforms Gawain meets (e.g. “serpents and snarling wolves”, “bulls, bears and the old wild boar”) shape up to sound like a list, thus emphasising the vastness and diversity of the more-than-human world. With Gawain de-emphasised (he is only mentioned once at the start), and with the poem ending with an icy description, the smallness and vulnerability of Gawain is foregrounded.
Particularly, I decided to remove the line “with no friend but” in the original “with no friend but his horse through forests and hills”. Reading the original line felt almost oxymoronic to me—Gawain has a horse that accompanies him through so many trials and tribulations, yet the horse is not even considered a legitimate companion. By erasing “with no friend but”, together with the emphasis placed on the diverse terrains Gawain covers, I hoped to highlight the extensive labour of the horse and how crucial the horse was to Gawain’s survival, aspects that I felt were unfairly diminished in the original version.
This poem came from one of the hunts that Bertilak engages in. In the original version, the poem is peppered with descriptions of the hunters celebrating their killings (e.g., “the ring of beaters who bellowed boisterously”, “the lord’s heart leaps with life”) and descriptions that valorise the hunters (e.g., “so perfect and practised were the men”)—those were the parts I blacked out in order to draw attention to the violence exerted on the animals by the hunters, both psychologically and physically. Steele (2011) writes that these hunts primarily work to assert the elites as masters of violence. Given that hunts were a significant part of chivalric culture, I hope that this poem brings out the fact that chivalric culture is based on violently dominating the more-than-human world.
In this poem, I wanted to zoom into the killing of one animal, to reinforce the brutality of the hunt. I chose the boar given that it is considered one of the fiercer and more feared animals in medieval hunting culture (Yamamoto, 2000, p. 126). Thus, the brutal killing of the boar would more effectively reflect the violence and bloodlust of the hunters. I chose to black out parts that refer to the boar (e.g. “the boar’s”, “the hog’s”) in the lines “knifing the boar’s neck” and “bursting the hog’s heart”, respectively, so as to focus on the mutilated body.
This poem was taken from the passage where Gawain receives a blow from the Green Knight. I blacked out parts about the Green Knight’s actions and the directions of the axe, so that the poem could focus on Gawain’s body. I also decided to black out “the knight’s” from the line “the blade bearing down on the knight’s bare neck” to convey the flimsiness of chivalric, self-affirming titles in the face of impending death.
The previous two poems focus on the bodies of the hunted animals. In this poem, I wanted to focus on Gawain’s body as he receives the blow, as a parallel to the fleshly bodies of the hunted animals. This is inspired by Yamamoto’s comments (2000):
“… the hunts in the poem provide a ‘bodily’ subtext to the narrative of Gawain’s … subsequent journey to the Green Chapel. Hunting … (as a discourse) rested upon a forgetting of the fact that humans are bodies too … This interpretation of the hunts involves a shift of emphasis away from individual animals and towards their common fate … when we hear about … how (Gawain) flinches from glinting blade of the axe, we do think back to the cornered boar and fox—which too shrank from the hunter’s bright sword.” (p. 130-131)
Hence, I thought that this poem would be a good one to follow from the previous two poems and a fitting way to end the series by re-emphasising the shared bodily vulnerability between humans and non-humans. I decided to name the poem “bodies” instead of “human bodies” as an attempt to further blur the boundaries between human and the more-than-human; if one does not know where the poem was taken from, one might assume that this poem is still describing the hunted animals, thus reinforcing Yamamoto’s point that we forget that we are bodies too.
Armitage, S. (2007). Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (A New Verse Translation). W. W. Norton & Company. https://isbnsearch.org/isbn/9780393334159
Cohen, J. J. (2019). The Love of Life: Reading Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Close to Home. In V. Nardizzi & T. J. Werth (Eds.), Premodern Ecologies in the Modern Literary Imagination (pp. 25–58). University of Toronto Press. https://doi.org/10.3138/9781487519520-005
Steele, K. (2011). Chapter 2: Mastering Violence. In How to Make a Human: Animals and Violence in the Middle Ages (pp. 61–67). The Ohio State University Press.
Yamamoto, D. (2000). Chapter 5: Bodies in the Hunt. In The Boundaries of the Human in Medieval English Literature (pp. 99–131). Oxford University Press.