The Tuesday Tome series has housed some light recommendations as well as some in-depth readings of classics; this article is one of the latter, and the work in question is very classic indeed: the late-medieval verse work Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. One of my many literary interests is how one can gain insight into an often-misunderstood and often-stereotyped era or group through literature, and there are few eras about which there are more misconceptions and simplifications than the middle ages.
In the study of literature, over the past hundred and fifty years or so, there has been growing emphasis on the significance of setting, and particularly on the relationship between space, whether natural, urban, or interior, and the thematic elements with which such study has always been primarily concerned.
There are now myriad papers on the cities in Dickens, the jungles in Conrad and Wells, and the rooms in the works of the Brontës. Such emphases yield valuable insights which should not be restricted to the past couple of centuries of literature. In the late-medieval chivalric text Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, space can be seen, as in the latter case of the Brontës, commenting on the nature of femininity and the human relationships between men and women which take place in that space.
For this text, the speaker creates architectural analogues of the associations between women and men, in addition to juxtaposing differing spaces in creating the same. The poet of Sir Gawain crafts a piece wherein women exert power and claim agency by their utilization of and placement within the physical contexts in which they exist, a situation underscored by the verse’s glorifying diction and deliberate transitional syntax.
Queen Guenevere’s Elevation:
The first female presence to find relevant placement in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is Queen Guenevere at the holiday feast. Her position at the feast is described in the following terms: “The noblest knight in a higher seat, as seemed proper; / Queen Guenevere gaily dressed and placed in the middle, / Seated on the upper level, adorned all about” (lines 73-75).
Immediately, the placement of the female presence in the room is on the same echelon of being as the “noblest knight.” The queen’s empowerment in this passage is matched only by the radiance her outfit grants her. She is subsequently glorified in the same hyperbolic terms as are the knights: “The loveliest to see [. . .] That he had seen a fairer one / Truly could no man say” (81-84). In all aspects she is equal in spatial command to the knights, if not placed even higher by her accoutrements and incomparable beauty.
And as the first fitt of Sir Gawain wears on, we see even the king himself struggling to maintain any kind of superiority over her position, and only doing so with artifice: “Although inwardly Arthur was deeply astonished, / He let no sign of this appear, but loudly remarked / To the beautiful queen [. . .] ‘Dear lady, let nothing distress you today” (467-470).
The speaker notes that Arthur is worried, but makes no such claim about Guenevere. Rather, the speaker asserts only that Arthur shouts this self-assuring proclamation, and does so, as he has by now descended to approach the green knight, from a place in the room lower than the aforementioned height of Guenevere’s seat.
The mirroring of his shrunken confidence in his shrunken position points to a fluidity of male power not seen in female power anywhere in the poem. The enactment of this power is carried out, however, not by Guenevere, but by Lady Bertilak and Morgan le Fay.
Lady Bertilak’s Proximity:
If the spatial location of Guenevere in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is telling, then certainly that of Bertilak’s wife, seen by Gawain as “more beautiful than Guenevere” (945) must be at least as compelling. Indeed, what is found in the third fitt is a complex interweaving of spaces and uses of spaces to communicate the nature of the relationship among Lady Bertilak, Lord Bertilak, and Sir Gawain.
Though elsewhere in Sir Gawain each stanza holds itself to the treatment of one scene or one subject, there are three sudden transitions from the open wintry landscape of the lord’s hunt to the enclosed peace of Gawain’s bedchamber, all occurring mid-stanza (1179-1178, 1468-1469, 1730-1731). And each such successive transition occurs more exactly in the middle of the stanza. While in theory these ought to seem more and more jarring, they become more and more expected as the fitt proceeds, and draw in closer comparison the outside world ruled by the lord and the inside world ruled by the lady.
The structure of these transitions is vitally important as well. Each day in this fitt begins with the wide open world of the hunt, which becomes the narrower world of the chase, which becomes the interior world of the bedchamber, and at last the trapping and slaying of the hunted animal. This has the effect of contextualizing Lady Bertilak’s advances as being those of the band of hunters, and paints Gawain as the pursued object, the animal. This effect is furthered by the layer of complexity which arises when the tokens earned during each day are traded.
It is unclear which half of the game is the hunt. Also, in trapping Gawain by invading his bedchamber, Bertilak’s wife claims a masculine role which is furthered by her appropriation of that space as both classroom, in her sententious sentiments regarding courtesy (1481-1485), and snare, in her entering unannounced and eventually effectively tying him in her girdle (1183, 1861).
These expressions of agency are then affirmed at the last, when, just as Lord Bertilak admits his influence over the actions of Lady Bertilak, he too admits the influence of Morgan le Fay over himself. In all things the constant powers are those possessed by the tale’s women, while the men, such as the Green knight, Arthur, and even Gawain, fluidly move among states of power and powerlessness.
The spaces in which the women of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight operate have a close relationship with the social abilities of those women, as those spaces are utilized and associated with each other. And indeed, the ultimate power in the poem rests with a woman. Morgan le Fay, however, rather than the most astoundingly beautiful woman, is, no less hyperbolically, the ugliest, who is “withered” and “wrinkled” (951, 953).
The implication here is that even the least among womankind wields a power unmatched by any man, or at least a power which, though stronger, expresses itself in subtler ways or is of an arcane variety in that context, like the unseen hand of le Fay in the proceedings.
There are good reasons to think that the middle ages had gender relationships every bit as complicated and challenged as we do today, and it would be a mistake to say that there were no voices of what we would today call feminism (e.g. The Book of the City of Ladies by Christine de Pizan).
There is no reason to think reductively or demeaningly about the past merely because it is the past, and there are many medieval cultural productions still available and well worth checking out. Perhaps I will soon write about literary juggernaut Geoffrey Chaucer for this series to further make this case, so stay tuned.
The Green Knight’s Wife: