The Green Knight Code

February 10, 2011

Well, I finished re-reading The Da Vinci Code. Then I drank some beer in an attempt to kill the brain cells where awareness of it is stored, but that failed. Then I read a well-written mystery novel and had a nap, and now I feel a little better.

From the moment of its publication, people have been writing refutations of the “facts” presented in the book, so, at least for the moment, I will confine my comments to the general category of “random stuff that irritated me.” Today’s topic is Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (SGGK), an Arthurian romance from the fourteenth century and one of the glories of the so-called Alliterative Revival (I say “so-called” because it was really more of a survival than a revival). Brown mentions SGGK twice. Both mentions are brief, but annoying.

I’ll deal with the second reference first. In the exciting and suspenseful database-search scene (chapter 95), a computer, having been fed the search terms “knight,” “London,” “Pope” and “tomb” within a 100-word proximity of the terms “grail,” “rose,” “sangreal” or “chalice” (p. 381), spits out the title, “Grail Allegory in Medieval Literature: A Treatise on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” As far as the plot is concerned, this result is irrelevant–“Not many mythological green giants buried in London,” as the librarian says (389)–so one has to assume it’s an attempt by the author to tie SGGK to the grail/bloodline of Jesus/sacred feminine fantasy he’s been weaving.

There’s something a bit odd about the title though. Certainly, the poem can be read as an allegory (of the Christian variety),and like many medieval grail stories, it is a quest romance. But it is not a grail romance. There’s no grail: the word isn’t even mentioned. Granted, it is one of the premises of The Da Vinci Code that references to Mary Magdalene and her descendants had to be hidden in allegory (or “symbology”), but it must be hidden very well indeed in SGGK. Not only is there no mention of Mary Magdalene or her bloodline, there is no reference to the grail which symbolizes the bloodline. If the grail exists in the poem at all, it is through allegory. So something (I have no idea what) represents the grail allegorically, and the grail allegorically represents Mary’s womb. The Gawain-poet was one sneaky, clever dude.

In the first reference to SGGK, Brown makes the connection between the poem and Mary Magdalene even more explicit.  Langdon tells Sophie,

“The Grail story is everywhere, but it is hidden. When the Church outlawed speaking of the shunned Mary Magdalene, her story and importance had to be passed on through more discreet channels…channels that supported metaphor and symbolism.” [ellipsis in original]

“Of course. The arts.”

“….Some of today’s most enduring art, literature, and music secretly tell the history of Mary Magdalene and Jesus.”

Langdon quickly told her about works by Da Vinci, Botticelli, Poussin, Bernini, Mozart, and Victor Hugo that all whispered of the quest to restore the banished sacred feminine. Enduring legends like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, King Arthur, and Sleeping Beauty were Grail allegories….(p. 281)

So SGGK definitely has something to do with the grail, Mary and Jesus and the sacred feminine. It’s hard to see what, though. Let’s take a look at the sacred feminine’s representatives in the poem. There’s Morgan le Fay. In some modern Arthurian tales, such as Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon, Morgan is presented in a favorable light. SGGK, however, is not a modern tale. When she first appears, she is described as old and unattractive: her eyes are bleary, her skin wrinkled, her chin black, her body short and thick and her buttocks swollen and broad (ll. 947-969). When her identity is revealed, she is called a “goddess,” (l. 2452), but she seems more like a typical sorceress. She has transformed an ordinary knight into the Green Knight and sent him to Arthur’s court in order to frighten Guinevere, hopefully to death.

The other prominent woman in the poem is the wife of the Green Knight (or Sir Bertilak as he’s known when not enchanted). On her husband’s orders (and according to Morgan’s plans, presumably) she visits Gawain in his room on three successive mornings and attempts to seduce him. When the seduction fails, she tempts him to accept a green girdle which will supposedly protect him from harm. Gawain and Bertilak have agreed to exchange whatever they acquire during Gawain’s stay (Bertilak spends each day out hunting a different animal). Gawain fails to give the girdle to Bertilak. As a punishment for this minor failing, the Green Knight gives Gawain a slight nick with his axe (rather than beheading him or seriously injuring him as he would have done if Gawain had succumbed to the seduction).

It’s not really looking very good for the sacred feminine–one hag and one seductress. Gawain’s speech in which he gives examples of men who have been brought to sorrow through the wiles of women doesn’t help the case much either (he mentions Adam, Solomon, Samson and David). He concludes that men would be better off if they could love women well, but not believe them (ll. 2407-2428).

To be fair though, there is one unambiguously positive female in SGGK. And her name is Mary. And she is associated with the pentagram, which, as all readers of The Da Vinci Code know, represents Venus and the sacred feminine. Gawain bears a pentangle on his shield. He wears the pentangle because, as an endless knot, it represents the perfection he aspires to as a knight. The five points also have symbolic significance. Gawain is said to be faultless in his five senses; he never fails with his five fingers; he puts his trust in the five wounds of Christ; in battle, he receives strength from contemplating the five joys that the Virgin Mary had in her son; he has five virtues (generosity, fellowship, purity, courtesy and pity). He is so devoted to the Virgin Mary that he has her picture painted on the inside of his shield (ll. 619-670).

So, there you go: SGGK does encourage devotion to Mary. Wait, that’s the wrong Mary, isn’t it? As with his references to the Holy Grail and the bloodline of Jesus, the Gawain-poet kept his theological unorthodoxy very well hidden indeed.



Andrew, Malcom and Ronald Waldron, eds. The Poems of the Pearl Manuscript. Rev. ed. Exeter Medieval English Texts and Studies. Exeter: U of Exeter Press, 1987. My apologies to Ronald Waldron, whose name got cut off the scan above.

Brown, Dan. The Da Vinci Code. New York: Anchor-Random, 2003.

Letters in the Eyes of the Mona Lisa?

January 20, 2011

The recent accounts in the media that an Italian researcher had uncovered tiny letters in the eyes of the Mona Lisa seemed suspicious, especially since in no account that I have seen has anyone bothered to print a picture of the supposed micro-signature. Well, Joe Nickell has seen this sort of claim before, and he has some background on the people who are making this extraordinary claim.  (Spoiler: They harbor  all manner of  improbable beliefs.)


Scientists discover art is rewarding…

January 10, 2011

A group out of Emory headed by senior researcher Krish Sathian has published an article announcing that art is rewarding. Sure, it sounds a bit like discovering, “Hey, Sgt. Pepper is a pretty good album,” but the Emory team is studying the mechanics behind the experience of art and have used fMRI to image the specific areas of the brain that activate when one looks at a piece of art. The paper, entitled “Art for reward’s sake: Visual art recruits the ventral striatum,” appears in the journal Neuroimaging, and suggests that viewing art objects triggers a reward center deep in the brain, the ventral stratium. Interestingly, similar reward activity influences other behaviors, like addiction, gambling and financial decision making.

It’s a very small study, only 8 subjects, so I suspect that art and science afficionados will have to wait for further research into the neurological mechanisms underlying the artistic experience. It is my personal hope that this neuroimaging study will ultimately lead to a cure for abstract expressionism.