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The Complications of Sexuality in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Gawain’s travels in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight suggest a world in which home–i.e., Camelot–is “normal,” while away–the opposing castle of Hautdesert where Gawain perforce spends his Christmas vacation–is “other,” characterized by unfamiliarity, dislocation, perversity. And in fact the atmosphere at Hautdesert appears somewhat peculiar, with various challenges to “normal” sexual identity, and with permutations of physical intimacy, or at least the suggestion of such intimacy, that are, to say the least, surprising. The typical journey of medieval romance juxtaposes a “real” world where things and people behave according to expectation with a “magical” world in which the usual rules are suspended. According to this paradigm, we might expect that this poem would place Hautdesert outside the bounds of tradition, separated by its difference from the expectations that govern Camelot and the remainder of the Arthurian world.

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However, Gawain’s journey away from Camelot and back is framed by references, in the first and last stanzas, to the journeys into exile of Aeneas and of Brutus, the legendary founder of Britain, that complicate this apparent opposition. As this paper will argue, this framework complicates the poem’s presentation of gender and sexuality. Rather than a clear opposition between, say, marital sexuality and everything else, we find a situation in which potentially adulterous acts and kisses among men are vested with varied–and shifting–values. The poem uses references to the (imagined) British past to complicate any simple reading of the tale it tells in terms of sexual morality or transgression.1

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight opens with a summary of the events leading from the fall of Troy to the establishment of Britain:

Si?en ?e sege and ?e assaut watz sesed at Troye,

?e borgh brittened and brent to brondez and askez,

?e tulk ?at ?e trammes of tresoun ?er wroght

Watz tried for his tricherie, ?e trewest on erthe:

Hit watz Ennias ?e athel, and his highe kynde,

?at si?en depreced prouinces, and patrounes bicome

Welneghe of al ?e wele in ?e west iles.

Fro riche Romulus to Rome ricchis hym swy?e,

With gret bobbaunce ?at burghe he biges vpon fyrst,

And neuenes hit his aune nome, as hit now hat;

Tirius to Tuskan and teldes bigynnes,

Langaberde in Lumbardie lyft…

…e is once again surrounded by the familiar faces of Arthur’s knights, this return cannot undo what he has experienced, does not unwrite what the poet has written. The return of the endless knot to the place of its beginning does not negate the existence of the pattern that has been created.

Bertilak “reads” the ominous and the disruptive in Layamon’s depiction of the origins of Britain. By locating the story of Gawain’s flirtation with Lady Bertilak within the context of Layamon’s chronicle of treason in Troy as well as at Camelot, the Gawain-poet complicates any reading of Camelot and Hautdesert as opposed places with opposed valuations. Treason is already and always present at Camelot, named with obscure referent in the first stanza of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight–and this very obscurity points to the difficulty of reaching any conclusions surrounding gender or sexuality in the poem. The use of history shows that femininity, masculinity, normative sexuality and transgression are all difficult, perhaps impossible, to define. Gawain, of course, does not read Brut, and is therefore left floundering in search of a finality which is unobtainable within the world of this poem.

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