I met with an independent study student today about Sir Gowther. Without much luck, we tried to track Gowther’s developing relations with dogs after the Pope demands he “eyt no meyt bot that thu revus of howndus mothe” (296). At an Emperor’s palace, he “droghe” a bone from a spaniel, “and gredely on hit he gnofe” (355-6), and, when the Emperor’s daughter places a loaf of bread in one dog’s mouth and flesh in another’s, Gowther “raft bothe owt with eyggur mode” (449). Subsequent encounters with dogs (512-16, 610-11, and 649) are vaguer about how Gowther eats.
To resist masochistic readings of Gowther and to lessen the humiliation of his penance: these were my desires, and they came to nothing. There’s just something irredeemably wretched and, well, bestial about the Pope’s alimentary injunction and Gowther’s obedient food-snatching. And there’s no development at all: Gowther and the dogs just don’t get along. But this, however, is the case only at the Emperor’s place. My student and I noticed that Gowther’s first encounter with dogs violates the Pope’s strictures: when he is outdoors, resting on a hill, Gowther receives his food as a gift.
He went owt of that ceté
Into anodur far cuntré,
Tho testamentys thus thei sey;
He seyt hym down undur a hyll,
A greyhownde broght hym meyt untyll
Or evon yche a dey.Thre neythtys ther he ley:
Tho grwhownd ylke a dey
A whyte lofe he hym broghht;
On tho fort day come hym non,
Up he start and forthe con gon,
And lovyd God in his thoght. (Sir Gowther 307-18)
Far from a humiliation, this encounter is a moment of tenderness, an astonishing tenderness, really, for a narrative that otherwise swings wildly between sadism and piety, and more often that not, combines the two. In today’s conversation, I identified this encounter as a utopic moment. For a time, Gowther is trying to do nothing; he is out of doors, out of all civilized organization of space; and for three days, he suffers–or, better, enjoys–a dog’s charity. Only when he finally gets up and goes does he secure this charity to a proper, divine source. But before he substitutes a divine for a demonic telos, before he stands up, before he begins to make his way to a court where he meets dogs who, there, function only in a grotesque mimesis of animality, before all this, in that time on the hill, Gowther has found, with this dog, another way of being.
It’s a pity Gowther didn’t end at line 318, or even a few lines earlier.