The Spherical Logic of “Pearl”


Pearl, the medieval poem from the author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, presents to the reader a dichotomy. The poem claims that once God’s children enter heaven, the ladder of human status – king over knight, knight over peasant – becomes obsolete; replaced with eternal plenty. But the Pearl-maiden asks the Dreamer many times to submit, which is a hierarchical concept. She urges him to submit to her advice, submit to the cruelness of a fallen world, and submit to God. She insists that the Dreamer give up control to higher powers that he may enter the Kingdom of Heaven, all the while asserting that the very purpose of the destination is the experience of radical equity. In other words, the Dreamer – and by inference the reader – must pay a great price to escape subservience. The price? More subservience.

The institutions of men are tyrannical. Only God is magnanimous. The world’s power structures are inescapable, and cause pain because they are flawed – this is not God’s fault. He allows free will on earth; God’s rule in heaven does not interfere with man’s choices below. Unlike humanity, God can have ultimate authority and not be corrupted. This is how he can make everyone equal; not through the elimination of hierarchy, but by enacting that system in its perfect from. Which is why one’s soul must be made perfect too, or else it will not function in a flawless power structure. The path to perfection is through the Son, in “the forme of bred and wyn” (1209-10). The Father is not offering complete freedom, but what he does offer is freedom from want.

Only when the Dreamer plunges into the impassable river – understanding at last the futility of resistance – does he realize that he must embrace the truth of his reality. God, in this poem, represents this truth. Both reality and God reveal themselves through contradictions. The key to understanding our relationship to God is a dichotomy that defies understanding – like Satan’s belated revelation in Paradise Lost: “A grateful mind / By owing owes not, but still pays, at once / Indebted and dischargd” (4.55-7). Humans have the freedom of choice, just as Milton’s Adam and Eve do. But mankind’s “free will” is narrowed to one decision: we either submit to God, or submit to eternal damnation. We automatically reject the cruel unfairness of reality, but to reach wholeness, we are forced to embrace it. We cannot avoid submission to God, for the same reason God cannot submit to us… these things simply are. They are the unavoidable essence of reality. Like Julian of Norwich’s explanation “synne is behovabil,” there are no clear answers to the questions we want to know above all (1.27.938). While God is the answer to these questions (all will be revealed in heaven), he is the restriction of possibility (you must choose heaven to find out).

Article was influenced by the lectures of Dr. Nicole Sidhu, East Carolina University, and Dr. Jordan Peterson, University of Toronto

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