Gawain’s Departure from the Peregrinatio
Berger, Sidney E.
Essays in Medieval Studies vol. 2 (1985)
The journey that Gawain takes from Arthur’s court to Bertilak’s castle, then to the Green Chapel, and back to Arthur’s court clearly fits the pattern of a medieval peregrinatio. Writers of the Middle Ages used the peregrinatio or pilgrimage to describe spiritual progress through a worldly metaphor. The motif is used by Dante in the Divine Comedy (where the narrator, on his “journey through life,” is diverted from the earthly world to a pilgrimage through Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise); and Chaucer uses it in the movement of his pilgrimage from London to Canterbury. Dante’s journey to Beatrice and Chaucer’s from the sinful Tabard Inn to the tomb of St. Thomas Beckett a place where the pilgrims can receive absolution for their sins obviously represent spiritual as well as literal movements in the traditional peregrinatio. The Gawain-Poet, clearly familiar with the tradition of peregrinatio as we can see by his use of it in Pearl, uses it here not to demonstrate his hero’s movement toward spiritual perfection (which was traditionally the aim of the itinerant), but rather to parody the notion of the possibility of such progress. Gawain is supposedly the purest of Arthur’s knights, yet his preoccupation with Christian doctrine and with Mary (both shown in the device on his shield and inhis frequent Christian prayers) is undercut by his more urgent concerns retaining his life and his worldly reputation. In the Gawain-Poet’ s handling of the peregrinatio motif, Gawain falls short of his reputation as a faultless knight and fails in the goal of his journey. Yet as he comes less to embody knightly ideals, he becomes more individual and finally can represent, if anything, only a picture of a solitary human being in a difficult world.