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.