Though it hold up this Tale

Reading through Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, you encounter these passages where the poet lingers on details. Perhaps it feels like lingering to me. But then sometimes the poet admits as much. Take for example when Sir Gawain puts on his armor. We get a beautiful description, finally falling upon the pentangle star painted on his shield.

A pentangle star, painted pure gold, Shone at its center. He swings it by the belt, Then tosses it across his neck. And the sign Of that star, its perfect points, fitted That prince, and I'll tell you how, though it hold up This tale.

The poet proceeds to explain the significance of the pentangle for 40 lines — how it is a “symbol of truth”, how “each of its angles enfolds the other,” how it is called “the infinite knot,” how it relates to the five senses, Christ's “five wounds on the cross.” These details wash over you. The tangent becomes the meat of the poem. But then the poet throws us back into the story as Sir Gawain gets on his horse.

I don't know how to describe such moments. They at once baffle and delight me, not feeling like tangential speed bumps but like a beautiful view you want to linger on. Reading such passages slowly allows me to take more in. Such lingering creates a richer reading experience. The speed bumps of a work become what makes the work special.

Umberto Eco brings this up in Chronicles of a Liquid Society in an essay titled “The pleasure of lingering”:

Lingering was something a certain Monsieur Humblot didn't approve of when he rejected Proust's [work] for the publish Ollendorff: “I may be slow on the uptake,” he wrote, “but I just can't believe that someone can take thirty pages to describe how you toss and turn in bed before falling asleep.” A denial of the pleasures of lingering would thus prevent us from reading Proust.

And maybe Sir Gaiwan too.