Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and the Semiotics of Ontology

Semiotica, Vol. 21, pp. 267 - 293, 1977

27 Pages Posted: 14 Mar 2010

Date Written: 1977

Abstract

The third section of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight takes place in an inverted universe, a liminal world apart from the mundane, and serves to reveal the ontological structure of the medieval universe. This is achieved through the juxtaposition of three hunts, temptations, and exchanges that take place on each of three successive days. The hunts involve Sir Bercilak and a deer, a boar, and a fox; the temptations involve Sir Gawain and Bercilak's wife; and the exchanges take place between Gawain and Bercilak at the end of each day. When considered in light of Edmund Leach's structuralist account of taboo we see that the hunt between man and fox is anomalous in a way that parallel's Gawain's acceptance of the lady's girdle, also on the third day. These two transgressions mark the division of the moral universe into three realms, the animal or natural, the human or cultural, and the divine. The fact that such boundaries can only be marked by transgression explains why, at the end, Gawain's neck is spared by the Green Knight and why Gawain's fellows regard his scar as a badge of honor.

Keywords: romance, semiotics, ontology, hunt, ritual, sacrifice, taboo, animal, exchange

Suggested Citation

Benzon, William L., Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and the Semiotics of Ontology (1977). Semiotica, Vol. 21, pp. 267 - 293, 1977. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1570242

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