Sunday, 13 December 2020

Advent 3: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

One of the illustrations by Oscar Senonez from “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” in “A Visit from St. Nicholas and other Merry Tales”, 2019 (originally published in “Storytime”, February 2015).

One of my favourite Christmas stories is “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”, a poem written in the 14th century. Obviously, being that old means it wasn’t written in modern English. It was written in Middle English. Thankfully, I studied Middle English for two years during my “A” Level English course at college and fell in love with it. The course involved reading and studying Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales” in its original language. Since then, any piece of Middle English has appealed to me and “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” was a poem I was desperate to read in its original language.

In 1999 I bought a paperback edition of “Sir Gawain” in Middle English and over ten years I read it every Christmas. I haven’t read it for a number of years because I couldn’t find the time, but this year there’s plenty of time to read it again because I’m on furlough from work.

As I mentioned last Sunday “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” is an early surviving example of the tradition of setting a supernatural or ghost story at Christmas. With the growth of queer theory that developed in the 1960s “Sir Gawain” has become subjected to analysis. This has been especially so since the 1990s.

More often than not I’ve read an academic paper on the queer interpretation of the poem and laughed out loud at its contrived and over-analysed pomposity. The majority of the authors are not medieval scholars. I don’t have any academic qualifications or letters after my name but, as I’ve already said, I did study the Middle English language literature for those two years in college. After that I spent eight years studying medieval culture when I was a historical re-enactor and tour guide at Gainsborough Old Hall. Then I studied medieval literature in detail for six years during my research into Sir John Clanvowe, the gay poet who may have written the most famous ballad about Robin Hood. I think I have sufficient knowledge in medieval history and culture to criticise those queer theorists with some authority.

Having given my personal opinion, why do I disagree with the queer theories of “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”? Let’s look at the section of the poem which all the queer theorists concentrate on. It’s a section in the second half when Sir Gawain has reached the castle of Sir Bertilak.

Sir Bertilak goes out hunting on three successive days. Each morning he declares to Sir Gawain that whatever animal he kills on the hunt he will give to him in exchange for anything his wife gives Sir Gawain in his absence. This sounds like a strange request to our modern ears, but in medieval literature this sort of pact is common. Medieval poems are full of these temptation challenges.

On the first day when Sir Bertilak is out hunting his wife slips into Sir Gawain’s room and tries to seduce him. All Gawain allows her to do is give him a kiss on his cheek. When Bertilak returns he gives Gawain the deer he has hunted down and Gawain gives him a kiss on the cheek. Bertilak is not alarmed by this.

The same thing happens on the next two days. Gawain receives two kisses on the second day and three on the third, and he gives them to Bertilak in exchange for a boar and a fox. However, as well as the kiss on day three Bertilak’s wife gives Gawain a green sash which she says will act as a talisman against the Green Knight he is to face in the coming days. Gawain doesn’t tell Sir Bertilak about this gift.

I won’t spoil the ending of the story as you may want to read it yourself – there’s lots of modern translations around. In fact I was surprised to see the story contained in a children’s book called “A Visit from St. Nicholas and other Merry Tales”, retold by Maxine Berry, on sale in the Pond Shop (Dollar Store) earlier this month (yes, I bought a copy, I couldn’t resist!).

What queer theorists always suggest is that there’s a latent homosexual, or at least a homosocial, motive behind it. This shows an obvious lack of research and understanding of medieval attitudes towards intimacy and knightly expectation. Like a lot of people today, they aren’t capable of separating a kiss from sex.

Kissing was, and still is (social distancing permitting) a common feature in Christian worship. Medieval chivalry was based upon it and knights would kiss their sovereign, on either the cheek or the hand, when they received their knighthood. The kiss of Christian love is also still common in some churches. Queer theorists fall into the 19th century trap of thinking that a kiss can only be sexual, they have no understanding of the social history of kissing.

Queer theorists also comment on long descriptions which the poem gives to the physical attributes of both Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Again, they suggest that there is some form of sexual or homosocial reason for this. These descriptions only serve emphasise their ability to be a perfect knight. Being a knight was not for wimps and the lazy. Gawain was a young man, and the poem is telling its readers that he is as strong and as able as any experienced knight to carry out his quest. Similarly, the physical description of the Green Knight only serves to indicate this power and strength, not as an appeal to the medieval reader’s sexual desire. I wonder what those queer theorists would think about sports commentators remarking on the physique and prowess of athletes. Are those commentators disguising a homosexual meaning?

Calling upon my extensive knowledge of the medieval period, its poetry, its culture, its chivalric ideals and Christian attitudes I find nothing in any queer theory of “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” that is valid or based on fact.

But I’ll leave you to make your own decision. “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” is a marvellous adventure story. I never tire of reading it and I recommend you buy a copy and read it yourself, there’s plenty of modern translations out there. Perhaps, like the Amelia Edwards Christmas ghost stories I wrote about last week, Sir Gawain will become popular again and rival “A Christmas Carol”. Speaking of which, “A Christmas Carol” is the final piece of literature I’ll write about next Sunday, the last Sunday in Advent.

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