Posted by: Brad Nixon | January 2, 2018

Cherchez les Femmes; It’s All Their Fault (per Sir Gawain)

As each New Year approaches, my holiday tradition is to reread the Middle English verse romance, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. This year, I asked readers to suggest what aspect of the poem I should address. I received an excellent suggestion: Focus on the female characters of the poem.

Gawain is fertile ground for the topic. 4 very different women appear in the story. A lot of scholarship’s focused on them. I learned some new things as I approached the poem from this perspective.

The Queen

The story opens as Christmas celebrations prevail at Camelot, presided over by King Arthur and the first of the women, Guinevere (or Guenevere). Guinevere doesn’t have much of a role beyond being the legendarily gracious and beautiful lady of Camelot. As in numerous tales, Guenevere’s eyes come in for lavish praise. They’re gray. Something about gray eyes drove Medieval guys wild, and Guenevere’s got ‘em.

She has no lines and doesn’t take part in the action other than to sit at the main table during the celebrations and look lovely. As we’ll see, her renowned beauty is part of the story.

Another Queen … of Heaven

As Gawain puts on his armor and assembles his weapons for his quest for the Green Chapel, we learn that he ─ the purest and most valiant knight of all ─ has an image of the Virgin Mary depicted on the inside of his shield. When battle gets fierce or fearsome foes threaten him, a glance at her face restores his courage and sustains him.

Mary was a central figure in 14th Century Catholic Europe. It would be difficult to overstate her role as the ne plus ultra of the ideally virtuous female. Gawain’s reputation as a superbly upright man makes it natural for him to be “her” knight.

On Christmas Eve, Gawain’s spent nearly 2 months wandering through the wilderness looking for the Green Chapel, and calls on Mary to lead him to some place where he can at least celebrate mass for the savior’s birthday. Lo! He suddenly encounters a vast castle, greater than any he’s ever seen.

The Lady of the Castle

That impressive estate is ruled by a burly, capable lord who has an astoundingly beautiful wife. She is, in fact, unique in all women ever described in Medieval literature; Gawain thinks she’s more beautiful than Guenevere.

The poet gives us ravishing descriptions of the lady’s beauty, grace, clothing, jewels and manners. In that mysterious castle hidden deep in a forest, Gawain’s encountered a lord and lady who just might be equal to or better than Arthur and Guenevere.

One thing: Although she’s front and center in extensive passages that follow ─ hundreds of lines of the poem ─ with extensive dialog and a rapier wit and a sharp, scheming intelligence, at no time is this woman named. She is the lady of the castle, described with nearly every synonym for “woman,” “wife” “lady” and so on. Neither Gawain nor we ever learn her name, nor does Gawain ever seem to inquire.

The Old Crone

Accompanying the beautiful young lady, there’s another woman of royal degree at the castle. She’s the antithesis of her younger counterpart: old, haggard, with a stout, ungainly figure, wrinkled skin and in every way as unattractive as the poet can portray her. While Gawain’s at the castle, we learn nothing about her relationship to the lord and lady or her name. Although she’s present for all the holiday celebrations, we never hear her speak or see her do anything that affects the story. But she’s always there, and one wonders why this story needs a stock Medieval figure like “the old crone.”

A Temptress Revealed

The beautiful lady of the castle figures in the poem’s central action. That “action” occurs in three memorable bedroom scenes. While her big, bearded he-man of a husband is off hunting on 3 successive days, the lady slips into Gawain’s bedroom, sits on the edge of his bed and proceeds to taunt him fairly directly about the fact that if he’s really the world’s most valiant knight, the envy of all men, shouldn’t he be doing something rather decisive about the presence of a beautiful woman in his bedroom?

Over the 3 days, we get a pointed portrayal of a woman who’s up to something, although we can’t figure out any more than Gawain can what it might be. Gawain’s hard-pressed to respond modestly to suggestive conversation from his hostess, repeatedly falling back on protestations of his desire only to engage in conversation and nothing more.

Each day, Gawain finally yields only when “commanded” (the word the poet uses) by the lady to kiss her: once the first day, twice the second and three times the final day. The notion that the chivalrous knight takes no overt action toward or against a lady unless it is by her desire is central to scores or hundreds of other tales of the era. The woman, however nameless, motivated by something we don’t understand, is in control.

Cherchez les Femmes!

At the end of the story, the monstrous Green Knight reveals he’s Gawain’s host from the castle, transformed through wizardry. The entire year-long travail, including those 3 days of temptation by his wife, were all part of a plot hatched by the ever-devious Morgan le Fay, who was the old crone in the castle. Aha! Endlessly jealous of her half-brother Arthur, Morgan constructed the complex scenario to discredit Camelot and the knights, proving that their vaunted virtuousness was a sham and ─ she hoped ─ literally scaring the beautiful Guenevere to death with the appearance of the horrific Green Knight. One mean old sorceress.

Here, I’m sorry to report, Gawain practically slaps his forehead, declaring that it’s just like women. He cites those tried-and-true examples of admirable men betrayed by women: Sampson (Delilah), David (Bathsheba), Solomon (Sheba) and ─ here it comes ─ Adam (Eve with that apple)!

Gawain actually says at this point: “It were a great joy could we love them well yet believe them not, if only a man could manage it.”

Poor Gawain. His career of near-legendary virtue spoiled by one conniving woman through the agency of another more beautiful than Guenevere herself! What’s a man to do?

My thanks to the brilliant and highly educated woman who suggested this year’s topic. After 4 decades of reading the poem, I learned a number of things I’d overlooked before.

Comments?

© Brad Nixon 2018

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Responses

  1. This is precisely the sort of introduction to apparently impenetrable literature that makes it more inviting. My copy of Sir Gawain will be arriving in a couple of days.

    One detail did stand out: the name of Morgan le Fay, the old crone in the castle. I wondered if she might be the source of the mirage called Fata Morgana that’s so well known to sailors. So it is. Here’s a bit of information. There are a lot of videos online showing the phenomenon.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the link. What version of SGGK are you getting?

      Like

      • Penguin classics

        Like

      • Ah, translation by Brian Stone, I think. Not one I know, but I’ll see if I can check it out. Enjoy!

        Liked by 1 person


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