The knight is a complicated figure in medieval romance. Judged as the ultimate demonstrator of honour and civility, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight gives him the potential for an entirely different role. This essay will analyse Bertilak, the Green Knight, and his effects upon society.

Religion is a key factor in Bertilak’s actions. His initial entrance ensures that ‘to answare watʒ arʒe mony aϸel freke,’[1] suggesting his operation through the agency of fear – or rather, erosion of faith. Indeed, his supernatural appearance guarantees comparisons with ‘the Devil’s agent–and more: a symbolic summary of all that opposes the law of God,’[2] which is actualised in his purported slaying of ‘[m]onk oϸer masseprest,’ (l. 2108). Yet despite this attack on ecclesiastical hierarchy, the Knight actually retains several aspects of Christian culture: he dwells in a ‘chapel of meschaunce,’ and Gawain swears oaths to him ‘[b]i God,’ (l. 2195/1110). Where Gawain never literally sees God, ‘he finds himself face to face with a power that can look down on him,’[3] in the form of Bertilak, the man who is also capable of death and subsequent resurrection. He takes this perversion of Christian imagery to its ultimate conclusion. By absolving Gawain ‘[a]s ϸou hadeʒ neuer forfeted syϸen ϸou watʒ fyrste borne,’ (l. 2394) he simultaneously negates ecclesiastical supremacy and installs himself as the “Redeemer” figure, who is capable of administering both justice and mercy when necessary. For despite Gawain’s shortcomings, Bertilak insists that the protagonist remains ‘ϸe fautlest freke ϸat euer on fote ʒede,’ (l. 2363) conveying the notion that fallibility is perfection. Indeed, such confidence reflects contemporary ‘eagerness of the knights […] to be recognised [as] good Christians and their distinct unwillingness to be dominated by clerics,’[4] who instilled capitalism into religious ideology, generating financial means of salvation such as indulgences. Thus, whilst the girdle becomes a ‘falssyng’[5] for Gawain, (l. 2378) Bertilak uses it in order to further distance himself from the false spirituality of ecclesiastical hierarchy; through it, he teaches that the necessary tools for religion are the chapel and its worshippers. And whilst this may not strive entirely towards the radicalism of Lollardy, there seems to be a degree of sympathy towards ‘Wyclif’s emerging idea of a desocialised religion, between God and the believer alone’[6] instead of corrupt ecclesiastical doctrines that define and exploit – where instead, the perfect man is the sinner.

Bertilak also questions gender roles. Ordering Gawain to ‘be in yowre bed, burne, at ϸyn ese,’ (l. 1071) he leads his court on the series of hunts, whilst denying the protagonist the opportunity to partake in an active assertion of masculine identity. Indeed, the narrator previously shows that when Gawain speaks with the Lady, their ‘play watʒ passande vche prynce gomen,’ (l. 1014) and he accordingly becomes ‘cocooned in a feminised world,’[7] in the domestic realm of the bed. In this suspended state, Gawain is deprived of all active means to reclaim masculinity, but by accepting the Lady’s ‘luf-lace,’ (l. 1874) he symbolically removes the item used to physically suppresses her sexuality, thus enacting a metaphorical form of adultery that reaffirms his manliness. Bertilak orchestrates this plot, though Morgan is in fact the architect; and yet, sitting at the head of Hautdesert’s table, she is never actively in control. Having ‘dalt drwry ful dere’[8] (l. 2449) with Merlin, her powers have masculine origins, whilst it is through Bertilak that she hopes to eradicate Guenevere (just as Arthur subsequently conditions his wife’s thoughts through “masculine” comfort). Although Morgan becomes a ‘goddes,’ (l. 2452) her ‘importance […] is not ‘justified’ by any presentation of her nature and motives, since she exists only as an emblematic picture.’[9] She becomes another static image (like Guenevere sat at the dais) whom Men apparently “worship” because her nun-like, restricted appearance (ll. 957-65) presents the idealised, submissive woman, who has realised her past sins and shows antagonism towards sexual independence within her sisterhood; she serves a male purpose. Indeed, Guenevere’s ‘glent with yʒen gray’ (l. 81) suggests a lively, physical temptation, foreshadowing her adultery and (more gravely) the consequence of Lancelot’s fraternal betraying of Arthur’s masculine supremacy – the destruction of Camelot itself. Thus, Bertilak calls the knights ‘berdleʒ chylder,’ (l. 280) suggesting underdevelopment – that they lack the knowledge of women’s destructive capabilities necessary for true, adult masculinity. Only through taking the girdle and compromising Bertilak’s manhood by “stealing” the Lady’s apparent affections does Gawain learn to ‘leue [women] not,’ (l. 2421) and to reaffirm his own identity by returning to Camelot to disseminate this message within the male community. He learns that ‘unrepressed eroticism destroys the society that tolerates it,’[10] and the girdle (symbolic of feminine constriction) becomes a ‘bauderyk,’ (l. 2486) thus being reconfigured into a military, absolutely masculine device. Men realise women’s “wickedness,” and the dais upon which Guinevere was previously admired – trapped – will remain intact for now.

By stunning ‘[a]lle ϸe heredmen in halle, ϸe hyz and ϸe loze,’ (l. 302) the Green Knight also causes discomfort throughout social hierarchy itself. Despite demanding to speak with ‘Ϸe gouernour of ϸis gyng,’ (l. 225) his inability to distinguish between Arthur and the court suggests a disregard for authority figures. He causes Gawain to convince Arthur to relinquish his axe (l. 369), whilst enabling Gawain to conform to the Romantic formula of temporarily becoming ‘both the king’s personal substitute and […] the representative of the whole court, who is to redeem their initial hesitance.’[11] As society’s spokesperson, Gawain is offered Bertilak’s kingdom in which to examine social statuses. For Hautdesert mirrors the feudalism of Camelot; Bertilak rules his castle as lord, and implements a hierarchy whereby ‘vche grome at his degree grayϸely watʒ serued,’ (l. 1006). Yet upon entering this court, Gawain is stripped of ‘his bruny and of hid bryʒt wedeʒ,’ (l. 861) suggesting the removal of the materials that symbolically define his knightly status. That the courtiers view him as a ‘prynce’ may just part of the ‘specheʒ of myerϸe’ that ‘dispoyled’ him (l. 873/860). For Bertilak’s kingdom ‘blocks out the possibility of private spaces and self-divisions,’[12] and re-educates individuals on their designated hierarchical, communal roles. As the ruler, Bertilak demonstrates judicial capabilities; he sends hounds to kill Reynard, the socially-threatening ‘ϸef,’ and those metaphorical subjects who refuse participation are forced to collude by being ‘chastysed and charred on chasyng,’ (l. 1725/1143). Only when confronted by Bertilak, the authoritative figure, for keeping the girdle and reneging the oath does Gawain truly understand his own subservience; he subsequently ‘kneels, receives a blow from a mature chivalric authority, and finds his chivalric virtue ratified [in a] rite of passage that turns a squire into a knight,’[13] and is thus rehabilitated into society by receiving his original status. Gawain may represent Arthur, but he can never be a lord himself. Perhaps the greatest analogy for communal roles comes from the girdle, which Camelot later renders into a symbol of ‘broϸerhede,’ (l. 2516). Here, ‘[h]is green sash is made into a festivity,’[14] that cannot be maintained by the individual, and must sacrificed for the collective benefit. Just as Lord Bertilak initially causes feudal disturbances, so he and Gawain ultimately conform to their socially-prescribed roles.

Perhaps the greatest concern that Bertilak challenges is honour. In declaring ‘recreaunt be calde,’[15] if Gawain refuses to track him down, (l. 456) Bertilak exploits a ‘shame [that] concerns one’s public persona,’ whose ‘public nature [gives Camelot] the right to judge Gawain and to determine what he should feel.’[16] Where one society obliges him to challenge the Green Knight, by agreeing to the “winnings game” and having ‘acorded of ϸe couenaunteʒ byfore ϸe court alle,’ (l. 1408) the protagonist also becomes ironically subjugated to Bertilak and the chivalric expectations of Hautdesert. Despite this, upon Gawain entering the Lady’s services (through her husband’s unseen influence) he attempts to assert individuality. Though by informing her ‘I schal kysse at your comaundement,’ (l. 1303) his sense of duty renders him a guiltless servant, he likewise promises to keep the girdle a secret from Bertilak (but is actually safeguarding his own life). In doing so, he effectively makes both oaths redundant, for he will inevitably betray one of the couple and consequently lose his honour. Here, chivalry requires a member of society to become ‘the prisoner of his reputation,’[17] and to obey superiors unquestioningly, even if this jeopardises their individuality – even their life. The citizens of Camelot lament Gawain’s seemingly inevitable demise, saying that they have lost a ‘lowande leder of ledeʒ’ through the ‘angardeʒ pryde,’ that Bertilak has initiated through the game (l. 679/681). Gawain, a potentially effective leader, must sacrifice himself for another’s “game” in order to maintain chivalric values, which become ‘a thin veil pulled over the realities of the harsh world, and completely divorced from grinding social tensions or violence.’[18] Bertilak forgives Gawain’s disobedience because ‘ʒe lufed your lyf,’ (l. 2368) and thus acknowledges that chivalry refuses to realistically accept human pragmatism to keep one’s life over honour. For feudal lords, Bertilak’s gesture articulates ‘questionable chivalry for an audience whose power and wealth depended on unchivalric practices.’[19] For these men, what was needed was not the fantasy of one fallible knight escaping death, but the execution of all “honourable” knights.

Whilst Bertilak’s arrival at Camelot generates numerous transgressions, societal values are eventually somewhat restored by his own doing. Hierarchical order is kept intact, whilst assertive femininity remains suppressed; yet change is hinted at through independent religious and chivalric attitudes. Collectively, this represents the idyllic fantasy of a feudal lord, whereby he exclusively ‘oversaw the economic, political, and spiritual life of the people who lived in his territory.’[20] Furthermore, the Green Knight appears soon after Arthur demands ‘sum auenturus ϸyng an vncouϸe tale,/ O sum mayne meruayle,’ (ll. 93-4) and through the role of storyteller, Bertilak offers a literal tale, in which society’s representative must be re-educated in his master’s superiority. To those subjects who would defend own version of order, the Knight says ‘be not so gryndel,’[21] (l. 2338) telling them to accept subordination. For as a feudal lord himself, Bertilak understands that his supernatural games highlight and here fulfil the leader’s natural desire for power. 

Footnotes:

[1] The Gawain-poet, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, ed. W.R.J. Barron, (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2001), p. 44, l. 241. All further references are to this edition and are given parenthetically in the text.
[2] John Gardner, ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’ in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: In a Modern English Version With a Critical Introduction, eds. John Gardner and Fritz Kredel, (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, Ltd., 2011), pp. 70-84  (p. 81).
[3] J.A. Burrow, The Gawain-Poet, (Horndon: Northcote House, 2001), p. 56.
[4] Richard Kaeuper, ‘The Societal Role of Chivalry in Romance: Northwest Europe,’ in The Cambridge Guide to Medieval Romance, ed. Roberta L. Krueger, 3rd edn (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), pp. 97-114 (p. 105).
[5] ‘token of my broken faith,’ [The Gawain-poet, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, p. 159].
[6] Stephen Knight, ‘The Social Function of the Middle English Romances,’ in Medieval Literature: Criticism, Ideology & History, ed. David Aers, (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1986) pp. 99-122 (p. 116).
[7] Corinne J. Saunders, Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance, (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2010), p. 195.
[8] ‘had very intimate love-dealings’ [The Gawain-poet, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, p. 163].
[9] W.A. Davenport, The Art of the Gawain-Poet, (London: The Athlone Press, 1978), p. 175.
[10] John Leyerle, ‘The Game of Play and the Hero,’ in Concepts of the Hero in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1975), pp. 49-82 (p. 66).
[11] A. C. Spearing, The Gawain-Poet: A Critical Study, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976), p. 183.
[12] David Aers, Community, Gender, and Individual Identity: English Writing, 1360-1430, (London and New York: Routledge, 1988), p. 167.
[13] Christine Chism, ‘Introduction,’ in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, ed. Joseph Glaser and Christine Chism, (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2011), pp. vii-xxxviii (p. xxxiv).
[14] John Leyerle, Concepts of the Hero in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, p. 53.
[15] ‘you are bound to be called a coward,’ [The Gawain-poet, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, p. 55].
[16] William Ian Miller, Humiliation: And Other Essays on Honor, Social Discomfort, and Violence, (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1995), p. 192.
[17] Stephen Knight, Medieval Literature: Criticism, Ideology & History, p. 116.
[18] Richard Kaeuper, The Cambridge Guide to Medieval Romance, p. 97.
[19] Stephen Knight, Medieval Literature: Criticism, Ideology & History, p. 115.
[20] Vladimir Shlapentokh and Joshua Woods, Elements of the Middle Ages in Contemporary Society: Feudal America, (University Park, Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2011) p. 26.
[21] “Do not ‘rage against what cannot be otherwise.’” [J.A. Burrow, The Gawain-Poet, p. 56].

Image: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, John Howe, 1993
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