Middle English Word of the Moment

Friday, August 15, 2008

The Love-making of Sir Gawain

Poor Gawain. Everyone imposes expectations on him - the Lady of Hautdesert, Bertilak, the Green Knight, the audience, even critics!

On his quest to seek out the Knight of the Green Chapel to receive the return blow of the axe, Sir Gawain finds himself alone in the wilderness on Christmas Eve. After a solemn prayer to the Virgin to let him find some place to celebrate Christmas as he ought, and crossing himself three times, a castle mysteriously appears between the trees. Entering in that castle, he is welcomed by a jovial, ruddy-cheeked, "bever-hwed" lord (845), his beautiful young wife, and a terribly ugly old matron.

He celebrates Christmas there duly, much to the delight of the castle's inhabitants when they find they have the great and courteous Gawain as a guest, then reluctantly insists that he must press on, to find the Green Chapel by New Year's Day. But - a stroke of luck! - the lord laughs, and tells him that he needn't worry himself for that. The Green Chapel "is not two myle henne" (1078), and Gawain may stay and laze about in bed until the morning of New Year, have a pleasant early-morning ride as far as the Chapel (and there, presumably, lose his head bloodily all over the snow).

So, Gawain sleeps in for three days, while the lord of the castle goes hunting. They make a compact - everything they win during those days, they will exchange at nightfall. Every day the lord goes out hunting, and hands over to Gawain at night the spoils of the hunt. And every morning, the lady of the castle creeps into Gawain's room, in increasingly provocative garments.

A challenge to any hot-blooded young male, one would imagine, and one to which a knight of Gawain's reputation would readily rise in more ways than one. In the large body of French Arthurian literature, with which the Gawain-poet's audience was familiar, Gawain was courteous and loverly to the point of a fault - highly susceptible to the ladies, and not above rape occasionally. So the audience is probably as surprised as the lady when Gawain pulls the blankets up to his chin, feigns sleep, then pretends a complete lack of understanding at her ever-more-explicit little invitations. Finally, she is driven to tease, "Bot that ye be Gawain, hit gos not in mynde" - it is hard to believe that you are Gawain, for the real Gawain would never be closeted alone so long with a lady "bot that he had craved a cosse [a kiss], bi his cortaysye, / bi sum towch of summe tryfle at sum tales ende" (1293-1301).

"By some touch of some trifle at some tale's end" - what an exquisitely, insufferably smooth lover! This Gawain, however, hastily refutes that by protesting that he will kiss at her commandment, invoking the proper mistress/servant relationship of courtly love - and more insistently later when the lady suggests he'd be perfectly in his right to force any woman who would be so "vilainous" as to refuse him his way with her (1495-97). He is devoted to women and exquisite in his courtesy, but for him, this is a public virtue. His courtesy does not allow of fornicating with his host's wife under his very roof.

And of course, there is the tiny detail that Gawain is under verbal contract to return everything he wins during the course of these three days to his host, Bertilak. So he does - almost. One kiss on the first day, two on the second, three on the third, bestowed "as comlyly as he couthe awyse" (1389) in the great hall, and Bertilak makes merry capital out of this. He speaks of the value of the kisses and other winnings in almost capitalistic (yet simultaneously bawdy!) terms. The queer and gender critics, of course, make a good deal more of it. These are the only moments in the poem that can be milked for homoerotic undertones, and they certainly have been milked. Gawain dodges the first implication by insisting on the firm letter of their contract and changing the subject, and effectively repudiates the second by being innocently oblivious to it. The poet leaves very little leeway for a queer reading of the poem. Our innocent young Gawain leaves absolutely none.

So, it's off to the Green Chapel for our hero, hiding the one thing he concealed from his host - the green girdle which the lady gave him on the third day, with the promise that it could save his life. He meets the Green Knight, who feints twice with the axe before delivering the blow - which only nicks his neck. The test is over, but Gawain's near-hysterical relief is short-lived. The Green Knight is revealed to be Bertilak himself in disguise, and the three blows are analogues of the three days in which Gawain did not even know he was being tested. The nick at his neck is due to the one minor (according to Bertilak) point in which Gawain failed - keeping back the girdle that he received from Bertilak's sexy accomplice.

At this point, Gawain completely flies in the face of our expectations. Stunned and ashamed, he flings the girdle at the feet of the still-green giant, and launches into a virulent tirade against the "wyles of wommen", through which so many good men have been "wonen to sorwe":

For so was Adam in erde with one begyled,
And Salamon with fele sur, and Samson eftsones -
Dalyda dalt hym hys wyrde - and Davyth therafter
Was blended with Barsabe, that much bale tholed...
And all thay were biwyled
With wymmen that they used.
Thagh I be now bigyled,
Me think me burde be excused [I ought to be excused].

This is hardly gallant, particularly not the reasoning of the final two lines. Critics have, of course, hastened to excuse or condemn Gawain for this speech, and there are many explanations as to his behaviour, and as many expressions of puzzlement over it. Reading it on a purely character-driven level, however, I don't think this is at all out of line with Gawain's previous views on women. For him, they are the other - to be protected, served, to play pretty love games with, but not true companions, never to be truly understood like men. Courtly love is, on one level, the positive expression of this foreignness, this sense of the mysterious distant female being. But is it any wonder if, at a moment of great stress, after he's been pulled to and fro in such violent emotions over the past ten minutes, he should burst out in a speech that expresses the other side of it, betraying his veneer of manners and all social expectations in his agitation?

All quotes are taken from J. J. Anderson's 1996 Everyman edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, edited together with the other three poems from the single manuscript in which the poem survives, Cotton Nero A.x - Pearl, Purity (or Cleanness) and Patience.

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