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4:29pm on Monday, 20th February, 2012:

Gome and Gomen


I just spent several hours reading up on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

Don't you loathe it when you're watching a TV detective series and the detective looks at a scene, "knowing something is wrong" without being able to put their finger on it? It's basically an invitation for the viewer to see if they can spot the clue. Real detectives never get that kind of I-can-see-something-is-out-of-place-but-I-can't-see-what moments. They don't make sense.

OK, so I was looking for a short tale that follows the Hero's Journey in order to get my students to analyse it. Last year we did The First Voyage of Sindbad the Sailor but that was a little short and we finished early, so this time I thought I'd try find something longer. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is too long in its original form, but I can probably use an abridged version as it's the plot I want, not so much the alliterative poetry. The reason I was keen to use it was because it has a "beheading game" in it and I'm teaching it as part of a games module. Ultimately, Gawain breaks the rules of the game and feels shame over it, which is rather interesting.

Then, I had a TV detective moment. There was something I knew about games and something I knew about Middle English that suddenly connected them. But what?

Fortunately, my ability to query my own insights exceeds that of TV detectives and I knew less than a second later. The word bridegroom used to be bridegome, with gome being a Middle English word for man (the Spanish surname Gomez has the same root). The Middle English for game is (er, I guess that's was) gomen. That's a pretty cool similarity: I wonder if the Middle English version of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight uses those words?

Well, yes it does.

It uses gomen several times in several ways (some of which look more akin to meaning play than game if you ask me) and it uses gome even more often in even more ways. It turns out that there's a school of thought which asserts that this is no coincidence and that one of the central themes of the poem is that men treat life as a game. There's even an argument that the poem is itself a game to be played with the audience.

So this is why I just spent an afternoon reading papers about a mediaeval tale when I should have been reading a wad of project reports I'm meant to be externally examining. Damn!

Oh well, that's game designers for you.

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Copyright © 2012 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).