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Tracy (2009 Congress)

Larissa Tracy
(Longwood University, Farmville, Virginia)
“‘So he smote of hir hede by myssefortune’:  The Real Price of the Beheading Game in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Malory”

Abstract of Paper Presented at the 42nd International Congress on Medieval Studies (Kalamazoo, 2009)
Session on “Bark at the Rune:  Transforming the Medieval Werewolf”
Sponsored by the Research Group on Manuscript Evidence
Organized by

[Published on our first website on 0000}

The beheading game is a popular motif in a wide variety of medieval texts from the earliest challenge in the Old Irish Bricru’s Feast, to the heady companionship of Bendigeidfran in the Mabinogian, and the artful dislocation of the Green Knight in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.  In most of these texts, the continued speech of the dismembered head, rather than serving as a frightening portent of impending death (except perhaps for Gawain), is a magical marker of the continuance of life and the endurance of magical belief.   However, late medieval authors like Thomas Malory strip away the levity of beheading as a game, and focus on the silence evoked by needless killing and the failures of knighthood.  In earlier texts the beheading motif contradicts the human fallibility of knighthood, but Malory reaffirms the reality and consequences of such “games” when Gawain accidentally beheads a woman pleading for her love.

In the very dangerous world of the fifteenth century, human heads do not reattach, nor do they talk.  The beheading games of Bricru’s Feast, Branwen Daughter of Lir, and SGGK provide a striking contrast to Malory’s stark episode, where Gawain, now a seasoned knight, fails to grant mercy and must wear his penance around his neck.  Unlike Gawain’s encounter with the Green Knight, which serves as a training exercise for the realities of knighthood, Malory’s Gawain must learn a bitter lesson beyond his own shame.  By silencing his heads, Malory voices his disillusionment with the magical elements of earlier Arthurian tradition and rejects the romanticism inherent in texts like SGGK, in which there are no real consequences, and no one really loses their head.

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Website Editor’s Note:  Another Abstract by Dr. Tracy for Paper in one of our sponsored Session appears here: