The Strategy of Challenges: Two Beheading Games In Medieval Literature

The Strategy of Challenges: Two Beheading Games In Medieval Literature

By Barry O’Neill

Game Equilibrium Models IV, ed. R. Selten (Berlin, 1991)

beheading - British Library Royal 10 E IV   f. 208

Abstract. I use game models to analyse two mediaeval tales about remarkable challenges. The goal is to understand their plots and to clarify in general why challenges are made and accepted. Children’s contests of daring provide a simple context to study challenging, and I argue that children seek a certain reputation; they want to be known for placing a high payoff weight on others’ estimate of that very weight. This definition might seem circular, but it leads to well‑specified, solvable games. The model for the children’s dares is modified in steps to fit the mediaeval stories. Game theory has treated language as a way to transmit information, but here verbal challenges are speech acts, or “performatives” in Austin’s sense, that trigger the concern for reputation. The analysis of challenging is relevant to international conflicts where large powers’ make commitments and struggle in the Third World over “credibility.”

Introduction: The Middle English poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and its Old Irish ancestor The Feast of Bricriu recount a remarkable stranger’s challenge to the hero, in effect, “You can chop off my head if you’ll let me return the blow.” Old romances and sagas teem with challenges, but this one puts the hero in a genuine dilemma. This paper analyses the situation using the theory of games, to clarify some obscure plot elements and to show that the best action is strategically interesting, that it exacts real risks, costs and tradeoffs. A game approach reveals some of the reasons why their storylines are so successful.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight survives in one small manuscript (British Library, Cotton Nero A.x). Its script and language indicate that it was written in the late 1300s. Authorship then conferred less personal celebrity and the poem bears no signature. It would likely have been read aloud to a gathering, and its length of 2500 lines would have taken up several nights, like a television mini‑series. The poem was unknown to the literary world for four and a half centuries, until the palaeographer Sir Frederic Madden published it in 1839. Since then it has prompted a great scholarly outpouring: the number of books and papers is nearing one thousand, and only the writings on Beowulf and Chaucer’s poetry surpass this amount for an English work of such antiquity. It has been popular with general audiences, and can be read in Breton, Turkish, Japanese and several other languages, or viewed as a motion picture starring Sean Connery as the fierce green man.

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