© The Passing of Arthur: New Essays in Arthurian Tradition, ed. Christopher Baswell and William Sharpe (New York: Garland, 1988), pp. 152-69: with full attribution, may be read or copied without prior permission for any non-commercial purpose.

The "Syngne of Surfet" and the Surfeit of Signs 
in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

web counter
web counter

R. Allen Shoaf
University of Florida

In Memoriam
Judson Boyce Allen

[152]   Sir Gawain and the Green Knight contains many words and terms that ask for more than a narrowly secular reading of the poem to account for them. Examples that come readily to mind include "couetyse" (2374), "faut" (2435), "teches" (2436), "surquidré" (2457), and "surfet" (2433).1 These and other words possess strong theological valence, and they are as important to interpreting the poem as are words that derive from courtly or heroic or other codes. As part of a book in progress, "The Knot Why Every Tale is Told": Toward a Poetics of the Knot in Western Literature from the Classics to the Renaissance, I am preparing a study of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight that focusses on the figure of the knot in the poem, its relation to the similar figure in Dante's Commedia, especially the Paradiso, and the importance of the figure to understanding the theological vocabulary of Sir Gawain. The following remarks derive from this study-in-progress, and although necessarily they must abbreviate many of my findings to date, they still provide a reliable sketch of several crucial elements in the figure of the knot in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, especially the "syngne of surfet" and the surfeit of signs in the poem.2
    Near the end of Sir Gawain, Gawain explains why he accepts the Green Knight's offer of the green girdle: not for its fabulous worth nor for its curious workmanship,[153]

`Bot in syngne of my surfet I schal se hit ofte,
When I ride in renoun, remorde to myseluen
þe faut and þe fayntyse of þe flesche crabbed,
How tender hit is to entyse teches of fylþe.'
Throughout the latter part of his adventure, of course, Gawain identifies his error by many names (most notably, perhaps, by the crucial pair of terms, "cowarddyse and couetyse"--2374), but "surfet" is, by no means, the least of these.3 Echoing as it does "surquidré," which the Green Knight says he came to "assay" in Arthur's court (2457), and in many ways synonymous with superbia, "surfet" points to that excess traditionally known as pride; and here it is probably best taken to refer to an excess of self-reliance, a pride of mind: Gawain relies on his own "good" judgment in deciding to take the green girdle from Bertilak's Lady when, in fact, his judgment, far from good, is actually corrupt--and corrupt, moreover, in a particular way.
   Gawain's judgment is corrupted not only by "surfet" but also by signs--to be precise, by the plethora of signs that confront him in his world and that by their very multiplicity vex and question any exclusivity in interpretation; the girdle, in this light, then, is not only, as Gawain says, a "sign of surfeit," but also yet one more in the surfeit of signs that beset the Arthurian kingdom and that challenge its capacity to interpret them.
    The most obvious instance of such a challenge involves the Green Knight himself--Arthur and his knights have not the foggiest notion what he means when he bursts into the castle at Christmas:
For vch mon had meruayle quat hit mene my3t
þat a haþel and a horse my3t such a hwe lach,
. . .
Al studied þat þer stod, and stalked hym nerre [154]
Wyth al þe wonder of þe worlde what he worch schulde.
For fele sellyez had þay sen, bot such neuer are;
Forþi for fantoum and fayry3e þe folk þere hit demed.
233-34; 237-40; emphasis added
This passage is remarkable in many ways, not least among them the number of words and phrases that relate to the process and the difficulty of interpretation. But it is most important from the present perspective for its indisputable insistence on the incapacity of the courtiers, despite their extensive acquaintance with wonders, to interpret the Green Knight; even after having seen many wonders, even after studying the Green Knight, they cannot interpret him--perhaps because they have seen too many wonders?, even perhaps a surfeit of wonders?
    In light of such a passage, it is clearly more than just a convenience to speak of a crisis of interpretation in Sir Gawain; indeed, one can argue that the whole plot of the poem follows a succession of such crises. But for present purposes, I would like to narrow the focus to the emphasis on the role played in such crises by the surfeit of signs. And at this point, it might be useful to make a list of the principal signs in the poem--although this list, long as it will be, is clearly far from exhaustive.
   Such a list, arguably, should begin with the two most portentous signs in the poem, at least after the Green Knight himself--namely, the pentangle and the green girdle. The pentangle is even introduced with a suggestion of the difficulty in interpreting it:
And quy þe pentangel apendez to þat prynce noble
I am in tent yow to telle, þof tary hyt me schulde.
623-24; emphasis added
[155] If there were no difficulty, the poet would, of course, not protest so much; but he does protest, especially the amount of time it will take from his narrative, and this in itself is a sign of difficulty. He then goes on to describe the, so to speak, genealogy of the pentangle:
Hit is a syngne þat Salamon set sumquyle
In bytoknyng of trawþe, bi tytle þat hit habbez,
For hit is a figure . . .
625-27; emphasis added
Here we have three terms insisting on the hermeneutic process which the pentangle necessitates, and the poet continues with some thirty lines of interpretation in fulfillment of that process and its expectation. And, as all modern students of the poem know, countless lines and pages have been written, in just the past forty years, in the effort to interpret, in turn, his interpretation.4 Clearly, it is not illegitimate here to speak of a surfeit.
    It is also legitimate to speak of surfeit with regard to the green girdle. For example, the green girdle is often mentioned in the same breath with words for sign and signifying. As we have seen, it is called a "`syngne of surfet'"; it is also called a "`pure token'" (2398), a "`token of vntrawþe'" (2509), and, finally, Gawain wears it "in tokenyng he watz tane in tech of a faute" (2488; emphasis added). In effect, the green girdle precipitates a surfeit of words for signifying. Then, in addition, of course, it itself signifies: the trouble is, it signifies something different to everyone who touches it. For Gawain, it signifies his "untruth"; for Arthur's courtiers, it signifies "þe broþerhede" of the Table (2515); for the Green Knight, it signifies "`þe chaunce of þe grene chapel at cheualrous kny3tez'" (2399); [156] for the Lady it signifies, as her gift to Gawain, her great affection toward him; for Gawain, again, finally, in the moment when he takes it from the Lady, it signifies no less than life itself. The green girdle, in effect, is the most critical sign in the poem; it always occasions the crisis of interpretation.
   The poem is prolific with other signs, too. Take, for examples, the following two:
Bot in his on honde he hade a holyn bobbe,
þat is grattest in grene when greuez ar bare,
And an ax in his oþer, a hoge and vnmete,
A spetos sparþe to expoun in spelle, quoso my3t.
206-9; emphasis added
Crucially, the poet refers to the ax as an object "to expoun in spelle," as something, in other words, to be interpreted, as if, almost, the ax were a kind of text. Which, in an important sense it is:
And hit [the ax] watz don abof þe dece on doser to henge,
þer alle men for meruayl my3t on hit loke,
And bi trwe tytel þerof to telle þe wonder.
478-80; emphasis added
Not unlike a text or piece of writing, the ax signifies "bi trwe tytel" the "wonder" which men will tell of it.5 And if the ax is thus a kind of text, it is reasonable in turn to suggest that the text is also a kind of ax, a mysterious weapon challenging the reader to a game in which he may lose his head. Be that as it may, the [157] text is, in fact, a kind of ax in that it cuts between or severs conventional relations between signifiers and signifieds so as to expose and test those conventions in the eerie but brilliant light of its own fiction.6 And our part is necessarily "to expoun [the ax/text] in spelle," even if we thus risk losing our heads.
   Yet another sign in the poem is the "text" of knightly deeds:
And of alle cheualry to chose, þe chef þyng alosed
Is þe lel layk of luf, þe lettrure of armes;
For to telle of þis teuelyng of þis trwe kny3tez,
Hit is þe tytelet token and tyxt of her werkkez.'
1512-15; emphasis added
Four words in this passage--lettrure, tytelet token, and tyxt--insist on textuality, writing, signifying, and interpreting.7 This insistence is echoed and complicated by Gawain's response to the Lady at this point:
Bot to take þe toruayle to myself to trwluf expoun,
And towche þe temez of tyxt and talez of armez
To yow þat, I wot wel, weldez more sly3t
Of þat art, . . .
Hit were a folé felefolde . . .
1540-43, 45; emphasis added
Perhaps so, but such "felefolde folé," such mani-fold or multiple or plural folly is precisely what the critic must always confront, what he or she can never shy away from, at least without [158] resigning the text to a certain darkness; and if Gawain retreats here, if he shuns the interpretive crisis, that just goes to prove the point, that he is not especially critical, that he suffers a certain naiveté, not unrelated I suspect to his "surquidré," that prevents him from really understanding, from fully interpreting the Lady's own text, the words with which she slowly but surely seduces him into trusting her.
    And though I must resist the temptation to multiply interpretations here in what would amount to my own surfeit of signs, I would be remiss in my duty as precisely a critic if I did not observe that, just here, in these passages, this poem about a surfeit of signs is also about criticism: recall that the Greek word, "kritikós," from which criticism derives, means "able to discern and decide," and the justice of this claim will be evident--the poem is also about criticism in that it is about that "distinguishing" or failure in "distinguishing" amidst the "folé felefolde" that is man's best and most characteristic response to the surfeit of signs in his world.8
    Many other signs and terms related to or involved in signification could be added to the list--for examples, "baldric," blasoun," "cote-armure," "fourme," "ferly," "laykyng," "lote," "mervayle," "poynte," "songez," "tale," "ymage." But space does not permit even brief analyses of any of them. Hence, it will be more helpful to evaluate in detail the response of Arthur and his world to the surfeit of signs; this in turn may provide a context for our own response to the poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
    Confronted with a surfeit of signs, members of the Arthurian court often fail to be adequately critical in their interpretations of the signs. Arthur, and Gawain after him, for example, can only interpret the Green Knight's challenge as implying that he, Arthur or Gawain, is to strike the blow with the ax, whereas, in fact, the challenge is sufficiently ambiguous to leave open the possibility of Arthur or Gawain critically choosing the "holyn bobbe" as the weapon to use:
If any so hardy in þis hous holdez hymseluen,
Be so bolde in his blod, brayn in hys hede,
þat dar stifly strike a strok for an oþer,
I schal gif hym of my gyft þys giserne ryche, [159]
þis ax, þat is heué innogh, to hondele as hym lykes,
And I schal bide þe fyrst bur as bare as I sitte.
If any freke be so felle to fonde þat I telle,
Lepe ly3tly me to, and lach þis weppen,
I quit-clayme hit for euer, kepe hit as his auen,
And I schal stonde hym a strok, stif on þis flet.
To be sure, in the moment itself, under the extraordinary influence of the Green Knight's marvelous, eerie appearance, any person might, someone could object, be almost compelled to take the phrase "lach þis weppen" as referring to the ax; but, in fact, just such compulsion is what the critical temperament would try to avoid; the critical mind would see the ambiguity in "lach þis weppen" and would interpret that ambiguity in favor of the object in the Green Knight's other hand, the less lethal weapon, or the "holyn bobbe," with which a blow could be struck but a blow anyone would survive. As it is, Arthur not only chooses under compulsion but apparently, as he does so, takes the Green Knight for a fool--"`And as þou foly hatz frayst, fynde þe behoues'" (324)--an interpretation whose erroneousness he will soon regret. Arthur and Gawain, in short, like the rest of the courtiers, haven't the critical temperament, at least not yet--neither can yet gloss the ax with the "holyn bobbe" and construe the two of them in terms of a different relationship. Hence, each fails to interpret the ambiguity, and Gawain as a consequence takes the lethal [160] weapon, committing himself thus to a life-imperilling encounter a year hence.9
    Such a reading of the challenge prepares a context within which to consider again the green girdle and the pentangle, arguably the two most critical signs in the poem, and the response of Arthur and his court to these signs. If we follow the poem's lead and think now of these signs as knots (see lines 662-5, 2376, and 2487-88), we can test the following formulation of my reading of the challenge: if Gawain fails to interpret the ambiguity in the Green Knight's challenge, it is because, on the one hand, the knot of the pentangle rigidifies his interpretive capacity and, on the other, the knot of the green girdle has not yet bound him in its liberating if also fearful indeterminacy.
    The pentangle and the green girdle are compared each to a knot primarily for the ultimate purpose of the more clearly separating and distinguishing them from each other.10 The pentangle is a knot that can hardly be untied if at all (it is the "endeles knot"--630). The green girdle on the other hand forms a knot easy to untie ("þenne he ka3t to þe knot, and þe kest lawsez"--2376). Each of the knots, pentangle and green girdle, can be reckoned further, by extension, a figure for poetry--the pentangle as knot, a figure for abstruse and ornate and difficult poetry, to some extent defying interpretation; the green girdle as knot, a figure for a more open and free and possibly more humane poetry, easier to interpret.
    Such an understanding of the knots finds important warrant in the example, almost certainly familiar to the Gawain-poet, of the famous "nodo" in Dante's Purgatorio, canto 24, the knot which Bonagiunta da Lucca says prevented him and Guittone and the Notary from writing in the "dolce stil nuovo" (Purg. 24. 55-62).11 The "nodo" here figures a poetry and a style too complicated and abstruse to grant the spontaneity and liberality of the "dolce stil nuovo."
    Both Dante and the Gawain-poet depend on a very ancient tradition in which the knot is frequently a figure connected in some way or another with textuality. For example, Horace writes in the Ars Poetica: [161]
Neve minor neu sit quinto productior actu
fabula quae posci volt et spectata reponi.
nec deus intersit, nisi dignus vindice nodus inciderit.12
 Again, further forward in time, St. Augustine observes, of an action recorded in Scripture, that
Cuius actionis figuratus quidam nodus nisi huius numeri cognitione et consideratione non soluitur.13
 Next, Chaucer, a contemporary of the Gawain-poet, provides important evidence. The Squire, whose narrative skill leaves something to be desired, calls rather too much attention to himself in the following passage:
The knotte why that every tale is toold,
If it be taried til that lust be coold
Of hem that han it after herkned yoore,
The savour passeth ever lenger the moore,
For fulsomnesse of his prolixitee,
And by the same resoun, thynketh me,
I sholde to the knotte condescende,
And maken of hir walkyng soone an ende.14
Here the knot has tied the narrator in knots, and we learn much of Chaucer's attitude toward the Squire by ourselves untangling this rhetoric.
    Chaucer offers us another, even more important example, which I must mention if only briefly. In Book 5 of Troilus and [ 162] Criseyde, the Narrator comments, in a famous passage, on Criseyde's resolve to return to Troy from the Greek camp:
But God it wot, er fully monthes two,
She was ful fer fro that entencioun!
For bothe Troylus and Troye town
Shal knotteles thorughout hire herte slide,
For she wol take a purpos for t'abyde.

TC 5. 766-70; emphasis added
Obviously this passage deserves an entire study to itself. Even so, we can pause here at least long enough to observe that the Narrator's comment suggests that Criseyde cannot hold, cannot bear, an intricate or complex meaning. As we learn elsewhere in the poem, she is like a text or indeed the parchment of a book which, however cannot hold the imprint (so to speak) of Troilus's intense even fierce idealism.15 Similarly, in her heart, the meaning in Troy and Troilus cannot form a knot, but like a straight limp rope must on the contrary simply slide through. Criseyde is too mutable for any knot to last in her.
    Finally, a helpful example from Renaissance literature is found in Sir Thomas Chaloner's translation of Erasmus's Encomium Moriae:
I perceive ye loke for an Epiloge or knotte of my tale, but than sure ye are verie fooles, if ye wene that I yet remembre what I have spoken, after such a rablement of wordes powred foorth.16
Clearly, Chaloner's use of the word continues in the same tradition we have been observing in this brief, preliminary list. And many other examples from the Renaissance could be adduced--from Donne's "subtile knot, which makes us man" to Milton's description of the serpent, which "[i]nsinuating, wove with Gordian twine / His braided train."17
    Although the figure of the knot enjoys such a long and intricate tradition, it is another example of "nodo" in Dante's Commedia, this one from the Paradiso, that most fully underwrites the significance of the knot in Sir Gawain and, [163] further, helps to explain why Gawain chose the ax rather than the "holyn bobbe." This example is found in the ultimate canto of Paradiso in Dante's description of his vision of "la luce etterna":
    Nel suo profondo vidi che s'interna
legato con amore in un volume,
ciò che per l'universo si squaderna,
    sustanze e accidenti e lor costume,
quasi conflati insieme, per tal modo
che ciò ch'i' dico è un semplice lume.
    La forma universal di questo nodo
credo ch'i' vidi, perché più di largo,
dicendo questo, mi sento ch'i godo.
Para. 33. 85-93; emphasis added
In its profundity I saw--ingathered
and bound by love into one single volume--
what, in the universe, seems separate, scattered:
substances, accidents and dispositions
as if conjoined--in such a way that what
I tell is only rudimentary.
I think I saw the universal shape
which that knot takes; for, speaking this, I feel
a joy that is more ample
 trans. Mandelbaum, pp. 300-01
This knot is relevant to the knots in Sir Gawain primarily because it also figures for Dante the "volume" which in turn figures the inscribed plenitude of the divine. The knot, in short, is a figure of the book, and as a figure of the book, it must have attracted the Gawain-poet strongly. For in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a "volume" figured as a "nodo" capacitates the understanding of the knots of the pentangle and the green girdle as each a "volume," or text or sign, which, as we have seen, must be read and interpreted, each in its own special way.
    Most particularly, we can see that the pentangle in this figuration appears as a text similar (not, of course, identical) in its mystery and profundity to the "volume" of God himself--this is certainly consonant with the aura of mystery with which the poet surrounds the pentangle--and once we have seen this we can also see, immediately, why Gawain and indeed all of Arthur's court are unable to live up to the ideals figured in the pentangle.  [164] For no one, not even Gawain, can perfectly serve the ideals of the pentangle any more than he or any one else can perfectly interpret the meanings of the "volume" of God.
    Both the pentangle and the "volume," in other words, as knots, are so intricate, so complex, so deeply intertwined, that they defy any merely human attempt at untying or interpretation--where untying or interpretation would imply human control of and power over the knots, pentangle and "volume." Moreover, to assume, even if unconsciously, that one can serve the one, the pentangle, or interpret the other, the "volume," is to commit the sin of pride. The most any one can do is to acknowledge without ever fully knowing the mystery in each. Doing so one can then affirm, with Dante, "più di largo / dicendo questo, mi sento ch'i' godo" ("more largely--with more largess--saying this, I feel that I rejoice").
    The largess of his rejoicing will increase--and just such largess, we should make a special point of noting, since the Gawain-poet clearly noted it, is what Gawain failed in when he tried to be fully and perfectly the knight of the pentangle:
`Corsed worth cowarddyse and couetyse boþe!
In yow is vylany and vyse þat vertue disstryez.'
þenne he ka3t to þe knot, and þe kest lawsez,
Brayde broþely þe belt to þe burne seluen:
`Lo! þer þe falssyng, foule mot hit falle!
For care of þy knokke cowardyse me ta3t
To acorde me with couetyse, my kynde to forsake,
þat is larges and lewté‚ þat longez to kny3tez.'
lines 2374-81; emphasis added
[165] He was simply not large enough for such largess. No man as man is.
    The most man as man can be is humble, ready to acknowledge what he cannot know, as does Dante when he beholds the "nodo" of the "un volume." Any knot man as man ties he must be prepared, however much he dislikes it, to untie. And this precisely because he is bound in a volume, tied in a knot, more mysterious and more intricate than anything he will ever comprehend. And the texts of man, by the same token, howsoever bound or woven or knitted they be, he must be ready to untie or loosen, to analyze, as the contingency of human affairs demands. Man's knots and man's texts and the knottiness of his texts must resemble more the green girdle than the pentangle--otherwise, he risks idolatry and the consequent loss of his humanity.
    The knots people tie in or with the green girdle are knots they can also untie when they have to, when it is called for. Unlike the knot of the pentangle, these knots are hardly geometrically pure, eternal, like numbers or Platonic forms. Quite the contrary, these knots are signs of the human and human signs: they will submit to analysis, and life will go on. Unlike such geometrically perfect knots as the pentangle, transcendental in the universality of their form, these knots, knots like the knot of the green girdle, are not the termination of signification. They are rather terms of signification, leading to more terms, more signification, the endless finitude of interpretation.18
    In light of these comparisons, we can see that when Gawain accepts the ax to answer the Green Knight's challenge, he is indeed the knight of the pentangle, a servant of that knot, thinking to "live up" to it. Rigidly, even legalistically, he responds to the Green Knight, interpreting him as an agent of destruction, if not of malevolence, as a threat and therefore someone to hurt. Although deprecating himself relative to Arthur, his king (and his uncle), nevertheless he obviously assumes he has a duty as knight of the pentangle, and that duty obligates him, knots him, to the challenge--and ties him to it in a way that inhibits his seeing alternatives of interpretation. Like an exegete apparently privileged by the "volume" he glosses, Gawain interprets the situation before him according to the privileged code, unaware in effect of the plurality of codes at [166] large in the world, such that by a different code he could have chosen the "holyn bobbe." The knight of the pentangle, in brief, is the knight of a knot that cannot be untied.
    The knight of the green girdle, however, the knight Gawain has become by the end of his experience, is a knight of a different knot. At the end, he wears and presumably serves under a different kind of sign, one whose significance is not permanently knotted in one, final, exclusive shape. Although he still desires rigid, determinative interpretations--
`þis is þe token of vntrawþe þat I am tan inne,
And I mot nedez hit were wyle I may last'
--he is also tolerant now of alternative, even radically different interpretations:
          ;          &nbs p;          and alle þe court als
La3en loude þerat, and luflyly acorden
þat lordes and ladis þat longed to þe Table,
Vche burne of þe broþerhede, a bauderyk schulde haue,
A bende abelef hym aboute of a bry3t grene,
And þat, for sake of þat segge, in swete to were.
His world is now a world that admits of indeterminacy and the concomitant pluralism of interpretation; even if he disagrees with the other courtiers, he does not, to judge from what the poem says, dispute or interrupt their accord. His desire for an absolute [167] is no longer an absolute desire.19 And so it is that two different, even competing interpretations of the green girdle exist side by side now in Arthur's court.
    The surfeit of signs remains, then. Which, in fact, is what we would expect. But there is a difference. Plurality, whether we call it "folé felefolde" or the necessary condition of human liberty, distinguishes the Arthurian world now rather than the randomness and rigidity of the earlier time: the surfeit of signs is recognized as such.20 The presence of plurality does not mean that things are any easier; in fact, just the contrary is probably true. The poem, after all, does end on a note of difference if not disharmony--the courtiers interpret the girdle one way, Gawain another. But the presence of plurality and of its unstable if flexible accord--visible in the ubiquitous baldric of the green girdle--does suggest that Arthur and his court are more aware now of what a sign is, how arbitrary its making, how important its knot. [167-69 Endnotes]

Rome, Italy, 1983 - Gainesville, Florida, 1986