In “An animal studies and ecocritical reading of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” Iris Ralph disentangles contemporary views of the boundaries between the animal world and the world of mankind, to critically and read and reflect on Sir Gawain as a product of its historical moment. Although this text has recently been rediscovered, its audience would have understood scenes involving hunting and the natural world differently from contemporary readership. Using reader-response, eco and historical-cultural critical views, Ralph constructs a reading of Sir Gawain that acknowledges a greater acceptance of the similarities between the animal and human world and evaluates the use of animals in texts as important self-contained characterization and not just allegorical figures with which to read human qualities. Middle English/Norman audiences, according to Ralph, would have understood the animal and animality of the text as not entirely separate from humans, and any reference to animals would have been a glimpse into the animal world and not simply an allegorical trope.
Ralph’s primary argument focuses on the triple hunt scenes, the tripling figures of Bertilak, Gawain and the fox, and attitudes towards animal rights and hunting. Ralph identifies the fox as a subject whose attitudes and behaviors reflect Gawain’s deception and Bertilak’s commitment to truth. Reading Gawain and the fox as foils, and similar subjects (both evasive and elusive) complicates the relationships between the human and animal because the poem notes the similar traits in both subjects and complicates ethical quandaries such as right and wrong and honesty and deception as both human and animal. Although, the fox in Gawain is both a subject and an allegorical stand in for deception and fraud which is consistent with the “literary tradition known as renardie in which foxes are allegorical figures for human deception and fraud” (439). Bertilak engages in deception by hunting, Gawain deceives Bertilak and the fox itself is a literary trope of deceit. Ralph reads this tripling as an ethical argument. The poet conflates the deception of the animal with the deception of humans, further conflating the animal and the human, and also potentially crafting an argument for vegetarianism and greater respect for the animal world or an argument for environmental conversation(438). Furthermore, the poet could be crafting an argument against hunting. Regardless, the poem is engaging with the morality of hunting, and violence in the animal kingdom.
Ralph’s article was an excellent example of Middle English audience analysis through the application of contemporary theory. I was also intrigued that Middle English audiences were aware of, and interested in vegetarianism, conservation, and had such different views of the boundaries between the animal and human world. The use of literary analysis, audience analysis, and contemporary theory engaged with the text in its historical moment, while generating intrigue and understanding for a contemporary audience. My only critique of the article is its narrow view, but I think it’s singular focus on animals in the text reflects its potential for more ecocritical analysis.
While I think Ralph's extension of the fox to Bertilak's deceit is astute, I found her attempt to focus attention onto the physical animal and it's rights and away from the allegory trope unconvincing. In tripling the fox with both Gawain's and Bertilak's deception and seeming devotion to truth, the fox is still used in an allegorical capacity. Furthermore, Ralph complains about the brutal violence during the hunts as excessive and reasons that they provide a point for questioning the ethics of hunting during the time period, especially the fox who is hunted solely for pleasure and therefore dishonestly. However, this ignores the central importance of violence through a gaming motif that has been operating since the Green Knight's challenge. The actions and advantages displayed during the hunt may not be "fair" but neither was the beheading game to begin with. The knight is an anomaly as is the beheading game itself, and there is dishonestly built within it. While it is presented as a game, the agreement to play becomes a type of rash promise since the knight cannot die but his opponent (Gawain) does not know this. This undermines the assumptions built within the game (there can only be one victor) as well as the integrity of the beheading as a chivalric demonstration of strength. The knight manifests largely to test the court's chivalric reputation that is clearly not a reality--he has to goad them into playing which is striking given the court's hearty participation in games during the holiday feasting. While the beheading becomes a clear test of strength and weaponry skill, this is not enough to "win" the game. Gawain's participation in the game will require more than what was originally inferred. It appears that all the rules are not presented as clearly and perhaps ethically as they could be. Furthermore at the castle, the hunts serve to intensify Gawain's predicament, both in the bedroom and for his upcoming visit with the Green Knight. The game, either played in court or exhibited during hunts, still involves real violence and consequences--and like the fox, Gawain is trying to outmaneuver his violent end. I thought the point about Bertilak's discarding of the foxe's pelt was interesting in consideration of the beheading game itself. What is the value of playing the game initially when the core of the game, which looks like a test of strength and accuracy, is not enough to win? And if the point of the game is to test loyalty and truth, then deceit is the fundamental foundation upon which the test is levied--and this is problematic.
I found your response well thought and insightful especially with the points you brought up to talk about the poets possible thoughts on hunting, and the behaviors reflected with these animals. Though I do not agree with the thought that Bertilak is engaging in deception by hunting. Rather I see Bertilak more lined up with the fox when he is perpetrating his identity as the Green Knight as he is deceiving Gawain in that form. You also mention that your only critique is the narrow view with a singular focus on the animals. Are you saying it should be broadened with more ecocritical analysis, and how would you yourself broaden that view.