The Homosexuality Discourse in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
While Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is, for the most part, a heroic poem about a heroic knight who resists temptation, the story also has an interesting dialogue on sexuality interwoven in its lines. From King Arthur’s “ebullience” (line 86) all the way to the sexually charged trades with the lord near the Green Knight’s residence, the poem can be taken to have a positive view of homosexuality, an almost unthinkable thing at the time. To find this endorsement of homosexuality, one must look at the portrayal of men in the story versus women, and take that thread to one of its many logical conclusions.
The poem opens with a description of a lavish Christmas party with the legendary Knights of the Round Table; the narrator takes great pains to describe the setting, and states that the Queen Guinevere was “studded with stones and stunning gems beyond pocket or purse… but not one stone outshone the quartz of the queen’s eyes.” (Lines 78-82) While this romantic description of Guinevere is breathtaking to think about, it has very little to do with her beauty. In fact, portraying her eyes as quartz, rather than a more suitable gem such as emerald or sapphire, gives Guinevere an almost alien, otherworldly feeling. We can compare this to the full description completely following it, that of King Arthur. According to the poem, Arthur brims “with ebullience, being almost boyish in his love of life.” (Lines 86-87) King Arthur is described as charming, handsome, and generally a pretty nice guy to be around. This by itself would by no means be shocking, as Arthur is a mythical hero in British history, but his description being the sole character description given two full pages into the poem is interesting to say the least.
The next major character introduced in the poem is the eponymous Green Knight, and if one thought they were safe from homoerotic overtones since this character is the enemy, they would be sadly mistaken. This character is “a mountain of a man, immeasurably high/a hulk of a human from head to hips/so long and thick in his loins and his limbs/I should genuinely judge him to be a half giant.” Ignoring the low-hanging fruit about a rather muscular man’s loins we have here, the description of every single garment on this knight and how beautiful of a man he is goes on for over a page. By the time the author stops describing the knight his description is a quarter of the poem written so far. This description both makes the knight larger than life, both physically and as an enemy for Sir Gawain to confront, and also makes him strangely alluring as a character. At this point he is the most interesting character in the poem, by virtue of being a hulking man who just seems to show up out of the blue, or green, as it seems, and basically hijacking the narrative flow to be all about him for a significant time. The Knight shows up, lays down his challenge, and after some prodding and King Arthur nearly taking this challenge for himself, Sir Gawain accepts the challenge instead, saying that he is “weakest of (Arthur’s) warriors and feeblest of wit; loss of my life would be least lamented.” (Lines 354-355) This distinction between the Knight’s superhuman nature and Sir Gawain being portrayed as a modest, heroic knight sets up the conflict of this story. Gawain, of course, cuts the Green Knight’s head off, which doesn’t seem to faze him all that much, and then sits around for most of a year dreading his return blow.
After a short description of the months in between the Knight’s challenge and Gawain’s departure, we get to see Gawain leave for his own challenge, and at this point we get a physical description of Gawain as he puts on his armor, speaking of his “thick-set thighs” (line 579) and how in his armor he “seemed fabulous, famous.” (Line 590) Again in this sequence we see a fascination with the male body, and musculature and masculinity in general. Gawain seems to be shown as the epitome of masculinity and virtue in his armor, as opposed to the almost monstrously masculine form of the Green Knight. The next message of note is the Sir Gawain’s scarlet shield. The shield has a five-pointed star on it, and the narrator describes the fifth reason for the five points on the star, which is also the one given the most detail. “The fifth set of five which I heard the knight followed/included friendship and fraternity with fellow men/purity and politeness that impressed at all times/and pity, which surpassed all pointedness.” (Lines 651-654) Friendship and fraternity with fellow men seems like a virtuous thing, and likely was at the time, but in order for one to fully interpret this, one must look a little closer. The description of “fellow men” likely does just mean men, as all women in this poem are either completely devoid of character or actively seductive and subversive.
As a good, pure knight, Gawain is not allowed to fall victim to the wiles of femininity, and instead must seek solace in the comparatively virtuous company of men. The idea that female sexuality is an enemy is an intriguing one, and one that is drawn attention to near the end of the poem, as Gawain says to the Green Knight: “It’s the way of the world. Adam fell because of a woman/and Solomon because of several, and as for Samson/Delilah was his downfall… all were charmed and changed/by wily womankind.” (Lines 2416-2426) Gawain obviously condemns female sexuality here as something foreign to him and hostile to his intents as a knight. Gawain, however, seems to be mostly alone in this heroic mentality, as his fellow knights in Arthur’s court are happy to be involved with women, teasing them and playing games with kisses as forfeit. Gawain is portrayed as a more pure knight due to his complete lack of interest in female sexuality, and as such one can draw the conclusion that his lack of a heterosexual drive is replaced with something else entirely, which in the author’s eyes is vastly superior to the other knight’s heterosexuality. To support this somewhat outrageous claim, we go to a later point in the poem, where Sir Gawain is welcomed into the castle of the lord who is the Green Knight, by a porter who not only welcomes him enthusiastically, but also is described as being one of many who had “knelt in the frost in front of the knight/to welcome this man in a way deemed worthy.” (1Lines 818-819) If the homoerotic imagery stopped there, one could merely attribute it to a misinterpreted image, but throughout this entire section, we make references to Gawain being “assisted by several men,” (line 822) and having people eager “to serve this noble knight.” (Line 827) After this assault of what seems to be vaguely hidden sexual imagery, we finally meet the lord of the manor, who he immediately links arms with and is taken aback by the man who is “powerful and large, in the prime of his life/with a bushy beard as red as a beaver’s/steady in his stance, solid of build/with a fiery face and fine conversation.” (Lines 844-847) Gawain seems very entranced with this man who he’s basically linked arms with like a married couple, and the men of the manor also seem to be entranced with Gawain, as after they help him into a robe, they find that “so alive and lean were that young man’s limbs/a nobler creature Christ had never created, they declared.” (Lines 868-869) While at this point they do not know the identity of the knight who rode into town, after it is revealed that they have Sir Gawain in their midst, the knights in attendance at their supper talk amongst themselves, saying “We few/shall learn a lesson here/in tact and manners true/and hopefully we’ll hear/love’s tender language too.” (Lines 923-927) The knights may be exhorting to God about how they want to fall in love, but given the nature of the line and how they seem to be speaking of Gawain in an almost reverent tone, it is not an unreasonable stretch to believe that Gawain is actually the object of their affection at this point.
After this dinner, Gawain drinks and feasts with his new friends for multiple days until the Christmas feasting is over, and then he resolves to set out to find the Green Knight. However, the lord stops him, saying that by some strange coincidence the Green Knight’s castle is only a couple of miles away from here, and if Gawain would only stay here until New Year’s Day, the lord would make sure that he gets to the Green Knight’s dwelling safely. To celebrate Gawain’s good fortune, they decide to play a game, which is rather strange as it sounds anyway. The lord will go out hunting every day until Gawain has to leave, and he will bring Gawain what he has caught. Gawain, however, will stay at the court, and he will give the lord whatever he has gotten in the court. This game is somewhat befuddling, until Gawain awakes the first night and is promptly accosted by the lord’s wife, who attempts to seduce him. Gawain, however, is incorruptible, and the wife merely succeeds in coaxing a kiss out of him. This is where it gets interesting, however. Gawain, as per the terms of the game, must give the lord what he received while the lord was away. So day after day, the lady tries to seduce Gawain, but only gets kisses for her efforts. And day after day, Gawain happily kisses the lord of the castle, who he has already been shown to be rather taken by, and rebukes the supremely attractive lady of the castle. This, combined with the aforementioned condemnation of women as snakes near the end of the poem, makes Sir Gawain seem rather rejecting of female charms regardless of who they are given by.
This promise of camaraderie with all men, and this summary rejection of all feminine charms, makes it easy to read Gawain as a closeted, or perhaps not closeted, gay knight. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, masculinity is appreciated above all else, and the feminine body is shown as a harbinger of evil, to the point that Gawain would seemingly rather kiss a man than a woman. This full-fledged approval of masculinity, and the rather homoerotic undertones throughout a majority of the poem, seems to make a strong case for Sir Gawain being a gay man in King Arthur’s court. And if this is true, perhaps the temptation he was supposed to resist wasn’t as tempting as it was made out to be.
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