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,
`Bot in syngne of my surfet I schal se hit ofte,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.
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.'2433-36
For vch mon had meruayle quat hit mene my3tThis 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?
þat a haþel and a horse my3t such a hwe lach,
. . .
Al studied þat þer stod, and stalked hym nerre 
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
And quy þe pentangel apendez to þat prynce noble 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:
I am in tent yow to telle, þof tary hyt me schulde.623-24; emphasis added
Hit is a syngne þat Salamon set sumquyleHere 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.
In bytoknyng of trawþe, bi tytle þat hit habbez,
For hit is a figure . . .625-27; emphasis added
Bot in his on honde he hade a holyn bobbe,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:
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
And hit [the ax] watz don abof þe dece on doser to henge,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  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.
þer alle men for meruayl my3t on hit loke,
And bi trwe tytel þerof to telle þe wonder.478-80; emphasis added
And of alle cheualry to chose, þe chef þyng alosedFour 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:
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
Bot to take þe toruayle to myself to trwluf expoun,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  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 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
If any so hardy in þis hous holdez hymseluen,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  weapon, committing himself thus to a life-imperilling encounter a year hence.9
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, 
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.285-94
Neve minor neu sit quinto productior actuAgain, further forward in time, St. Augustine observes, of an action recorded in Scripture, that
fabula quae posci volt et spectata reponi.
nec deus intersit, nisi dignus vindice nodus inciderit.12
Cuius actionis figuratus quidam nodus nisi huius numeri cognitione et consideratione non soluitur.13Next, 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,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.
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
But God it wot, er fully monthes two,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.
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
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.16Clearly, 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
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.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 addedIn 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 ampletrans. Mandelbaum, pp. 300-01
 He was simply not large enough for such largess. No man as man is.`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
--he is also tolerant now of alternative, even radically different interpretations:`þis is þe token of vntrawþe þat I am tan inne,
And I mot nedez hit were wyle I may last'2509-10
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  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.; &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.2513-18
Rome, Italy, 1983 - Gainesville, Florida, 1986