I said somewhere that I would write about what Gawain means to me, so here we are. This will be the last one I promise.
So I got very depressed and didn’t work on anything for a long time and spent a lot of evenings drinking and mainlining animated series on DVD (Clone Wars is a mixed bag with some very good elements, Avatar the Last Airbender is excellent).
As part of some research for another thing I re-read parts of Gawain and translated a bit of it.
Translating it was the only work I was capable of doing that didn't feel like I was grinding broken glass into my own face. I'm curious as to why that is. Perhaps its because my mind had something to look at that wasn't itself. (Inventing stuff sometimes feels very much like your mind looking at itself.) It’s poetry, which does often calm me down, I’m not sure why that is.
So I would go to work each day, (my phone tracks my movements like a stalker and thinks the library is 'work' because I go there during work hours), and translate a bit of Gawain.
It's set where I'm from. Not exactly, it spends a lot of time in Yorkshire and Lancashire, but the paths of my life and of Gawain’s journey cross quite a bit. I have family in the Wales he wandered around, I went to university in the Lancashire he travelled through and, most of all, I was writing in the Wirral he found such a grim place, at almost exactly the same period of the year that he was in it. The weather has not changed.
And the weather and the descriptions of it are some of the best parts of the poem, the ones almost all the translators seem to think are really good, especially considering the frequency with which they are translated.
(Poets are just good with wind I think.)
Yet all the travelling of Gawain takes place in a few pages and its barely relevant to the dramatic action of the story. It's mainly a courtly story about high status people having parties in rooms, or, essentially, about Gawain not having sex with a hot girl.
There is a lot going in in Gawain, let’s look into some of it.
TO GAY OR NOT TO GAY
Working out how gay Gawain and the Green Knight is, is a complex endeavour. The word 'gay' and the concept probably, don't exist for the poet. Medieval literature rarely (as far as I know) talks about, or names, non-hetro sexual practices, but sex does show up, in stuff like Chaucer certainly and almost everyone grew up in a hovel & probably heard/saw their parents having sex under the sheets, which was considered relatively normal I think. Sex and sexual desire is a key element in Gawain, which is quite a fancy upper-class courtly story.
So this certainly isn't a modern culture story, but it’s also not a Victorian or early-modern culture, which is what we first think of when we contrast a sexual culture to "us". It's not repressed in the same way. Doesn't have quite the same sharp duality. Although Certain Things aren't mentioned, it doesn't have the same feelings of denial. And like almost anything from before the modern era, there is a lot of sensual male contact that is just considered part of normal male behaviour, from guys being super-glad to see each other, even crying from happiness, to a lot of kissing, touching, grabbing or "laching", and a lot of frank appreciation for each other.
Guys in this era are just well up in each others business socially in a way not common to our own time.
So any modern reader feels a familiar internal monologue which goes something like this:
A - Wow some of these male behaviours seem pretty gay.
B - Probably you're just reading a sexual element into a behaviour that had no sexual element when it was performed as you have been perved-up by modern knowledge.
A - But surely some men did gay stuff in this period?
B - It's likely, but without any generally accepted and widely known awareness of homosexuality, a lot of quasi-sexual feelings are going to be absorbed by and expressed in general, warm homosocial contact.
A - Then surely that warm homosocial contact could itself be interpreted as being a bit gay...
B - NO! Stop trying to gay up history and see gay stuff everywhere!
A – Well it sounds like you’re in denial to me. Anyway, who says there wasn't any widely known awareness of homosexuality, or at least, guys getting busy with each other. I mean there was that king in Shakespeare..
B - They almost never talk about it.
A - But that doesn't mean it wasn't happening.
B - Even if it was happening that doesn't mean that all the stuff in Medieval texts that seems a bit gay is actually a secret signifier for gayness the way it might be in a modern or early modern text.
and so on and so on and so on.
So, with this in mind, reasons I interpret the behaviour of Bertilak/The Green Knight towards Gawain as more homosexual than homosocial are -
One - The Green Knight/ Bertilak remarks on their happiness at seeing Gawain and their desire to be in contact with Gawain a LOT. In Arthurs hall as the Knight, in his own hall in numerous ways, and again at the end as the Knight, he still just wants Gawain around him.
Two - Bertilk laughs and giggles when Gawain agrees to stay at his house, he acts as if he doesn't know what he's doing. This is from the guy defined in the text as being super tough and the most masculine guy ever, the guy who always seems to be in a dominant position and always knows what’s going on. Yes, in some translations its Gawain that giggles and loses control of himself, but I have re-checked my facing text and I think that it a bullshit interpretation.
“The lorde let for luf lotegh so myry,
As wygh that wolde of his wyte, ne wyst quat he might.”
Three - The sex game. "Ok Gawain, you stay here and I'll go hunting. Whatever I win out there I will give to you and whatever you win in here you give to me." Bertilak goes off & catches symbolic animals while his wife stays home and try’s to fuck Gawain. Then Gawain gives Bertilak his own wife’s kisses later in the day. Which Bertilak is quite pleased about.
So two things. If Gawain had fucked Bertilak’s wife, what would he have had to give Bertilak that night? And secondly, knowing this, what was going through his head when she flirted with him the second and third times? What does he think Bertilak thinks is going on? I mean, that’s a highly specific bet right? Is Gawain just super-innocent, or is he quite jaded and courtly and ‘cool’ and has a good idea of what is going in and just deals with it?
I refuse to accept that my interpretation of this as being a bonkers sex game is a modern interpolation of an 'innocent' medieval text. I believe that at least a fraction of the audience reading or, more likely, hearing this read out, knew exactly what was going on with this. I think most of them did.
Four - Gawain is feminised and Bertilak masculinised, a LOT. Gawain’s beauty is gone on about quite a bit, when he arrives in Bertilaks hall he is dressed in skirts and described (I think) as like a flower. Bertilak and the Green Knight are both described as super-masculine with specifically well-shaped limbs (especially thighs), narrow waists and muscular trunks. He's always called 'stiff' staunch' and strong. His beard is off the hook. He physically does things 'on camera' in ways Gawain does not. Gawain has some generalised adventures and battles on his way to the Green Chapel but they are never described action-by-action. Bertilak does a lot of stuff, he hunts, attacks, skins, fights and, most crucially, grabs. Gawains main heroic qualities in the poem as shown by action are him *not* doing things.
And Five - Bertilak grabs and 'lacches' Gawain a lot in his castle. Whenever he wants Gawain somewhere he 'lacches' the guy and basically moves him where he wants him to be.
I state this as a cornerstone of my theses, and its fucking ridiculous that no-one has said this directly before: The Green Knight Wants to Fuck Gawain.
RELIGIOUS YET WITTY VS WITTY YET RELIGIOUS
Tolkien described the poet as (I'm paraphrasing) a man of religious conviction and some humour. I tend to see him the other way round, as a funny man with strong religious feelings. That may just be the natural difference between Tolkien and I.
By the time we get to the poems end, it is very much a religious work, the finish is anguished and serious and very Christian.
But the rest of the poem, is, not exactly light, or humorous, but lively, witty and wry.
It's hard to describe how the Gawain poet is funny, there are very few 'jokes' and not many hard distinguishable moments where you can point at it and say "look, this is meant to be funny". Nevertheless, the image we get in our minds of the poet is someone with a wry, somewhat ironic, compassionate and rather rueful view on the world. The mild doubling of meanings, the understatements and the kinds of situations created: Arthurs court describing what they think Arthur should have done, Lady Bertilak duelling with Gawain, Bertilaks comments after some of the kisses, the nameless doomsayer telling him blankly to run, show someone who is aware of, and enjoying, the multiple intersecting levels of awareness, and wants you to be aware of them too.
There's a few medieval texts I think, where we see the warmth of the human lifeworld duelling with the totalising and annihilating power of the world of faith, with varying results. The Morte is a lot like this, with the faithworld stuff coming in hard during the grail quest and with Galahad. Both worlds are good at different themes and good in different ways. I tend to favour the human lifeworld, (as, I suspect, most modern readers), but even when the story is deeply concerned with human things, the faithworld is still there wrapped in in everything.
I doubt the poet saw them in conflict in any meaningful way, to the creator, I believe, it’s all one story with all of the elements making a neat whole (except maybe for the bit with Morgana's plot).
No-one in the poem ever says 'fuck' or anything close to it but I put the word in a few times. Even though I did a lot of specific stuff with the translation, this is the one that is going to stick out and if anyone notices it they are going to call it the "Fuck Gawain". So my excuses/reasons are;
One - It's a natural part of my internal repertoire. I say fuck in my head like its punctuation and my translation goes back and forth a lot between a very archaic representation and some very modern interpretations, depending on how I felt each part should come through.
This means my translation doesn't have a unified tone, at least according to the way an English teacher would describe it. But it does really because that is my tone and the pattern of my thought, it is natural to me, no matter what anyone else thinks of it and therefore is a reasonable pattern of translation.
In most cases I put in a fuck where I felt *that Character* might say it according to my own internal sense and what they were up to at that moment. There are only three parts where it comes in.
One - Arthurs Hall. I read this much like a Scorsese scene. (This probably isn't entirely accurate to the nature of the scene in its original context, but no translation could be). This is the moment when one masculine guy in a masculine culture jokethreatens another masculine guy in front of his male friends.
Many of you will remember this situation from school. The aggressor says something that could be a a joke or a threat. If you respond as if it’s a joke then you might be judged as if you were afraid to respond to the threat, showing lack of courage, so you lose face. But if you respond as if it is a threat, and the aggressor plays it off as a joke, then you look as if you ovverreacted, showing fear and internal weakness, so you lase face anyway. There is no good response to this. I read it pretty much as a Scorsese gangster scene and I thought the Green Knight might way say 'motherfucker' and it fit the sonic structure of that line so I put it in.
Two - The Nameless Doomsayer. This is the fuck I feel most fine about. This character is a churl who exists purely to lighten the mood of the last part of the poem before the scary bit and, as a churl, he is meant to show what a super-knightly guy Gawain is. He is the character most likely to say fuck and use low language and I had no problem putting one in.
Three – Gawain’s rebuke. This is the least likely. Right at the end, as Gawain realises he is alive after the axe comes down and leaps away drawing his sword, he rebukes the Green Knight and tells him quite forcefully that this is it, the thing is done, he is not going back under the axe. Gawain never uses low language of any kind, or even comes close, the worst you get from him is a bit of cold sarcasm at the end. But I felt the emotion of the moment and the extremity of the incident might allow it and I was a bit fuck-happy at that point so I gave Gawain a small fuck of his own. He had earnt it.
WHAT IS THE GREEN KNIGHT?
Well, this motherfucker is about twenty things. Let’s see if we can count them.
He's Nature - Well, he’s green. Plus he's covered in leaves and things. Plus he's literally carrying a branch. Plus many of the things that threaten Gawain on his way to the Green Chapel are nature incarnate, bears and bulls and wolves and woodwose. Plus at the end his chapel is in the wildest most barren place ever. Plus it’s called the Green Chapel. Wildness is not good in the medieval mind I think because they haven't yet invented Wordsworth and Shelly to tell them it’s ok.
Arthurs court is the epitome of civilisation. Nature BURSTS its way in to civilisation to say "Ha Ha! You thought you could forget me mankind, well here I am to challenge your weak assertions that you are something other than nature. How about that chivalric code you made up, reckon you can stick to it?"
He's Violence - He's carrying an axe. His contest is a murder. The axe is his prize. When we meet him again he has another axe and is sharpening it. As Bertilak he hunts and kills a LOT of stuff and this is described in the most detailed and gory fashion.
"Knights! You think you are pretty great hey? We have you noticed that all of you are KILLERS? And that all of your knightlyness is based on MURDER? You like killing so much, why don't you kill me tough guys? Hmmmm? Then I’ll kill you. Afraid to muderdie murderers?"
He's The Outside/Elves/Elvishness - He's clearly magic as fuck. Described as 'an elvish man' in the text. Exhibits magical regeneration, seems to change location near-magically, changes size and appearance magically. He's just very magic, he's a magic man. This is probably more real to the original audience than us. From a modern perspective we can add “He’s the Unconscious” to this one – see below.
He's Death And Winter - Turns up in one winter, meets Gawain in another. Carries holly which is strongest in green when the boughs are bare. Leading us to;
He's Rebirth And Summer/ The Unity Of Opposites - The Green Knight loves being opposite things. A super green guy in a dead white winter land. Carries a holly branch as symbol of peace and an axe at the same time as a symbol of warishness. Fucks with everyone but is a stickler for knightly conduct and oaths and fine legalisms of behaviour. Is the green-bearded Green Knight and the Red(ish) bearded Bertilak. Wants to fuck Gawain and tries to trick Gawain into sexdeath. Works to destroy Arthurs court but ends up giving them the green girdle that becomes a symbol of a knightly order. Schemes and lies to corrupt Gawain and forgives and reassures Gawain. Dies but lives. Likes dogs AND cats! And yes, sex and death. OPPOSITES. COMBINNNNEEDDDD.
He's Cycles - You have to wait a year to meet him the second time. He dies and lives again. Pluss see all summer/winter stuff above.
He's A Gay Dude/The Fear Of Being A Bit Gay - Wants to bone Gawain. You never know how fully Gawain notices this and exactly what his response to it is. Until he finds out Bertilak and the Green Knight are the same, he seems to be really fond of Bertilak, but also kind of glad to get away? We leave the story with one certainty: Gawain is definitely not gay, even a bit.
He's The Best Dude Ever - It's pretty great to be strong and manly with great legs and an amazing beard and your own castle. Wouldn’t you want to be that guy? or at least to hang out with him. Bertilak confirms, manliness, beards and roaring fires are the best. If the situation was reversed, Bertilak would definitely have fucked Gawains wife, and possibly everyone else in the castle as well, but Gawain does not do this. So, are you manly enough to not act manly? You enough of a real man to not be ruled by your virility? Another Gawain paradox.
He's A Threat To His Own Kingdom Somehow - This is an odd one that not many people bring up. On the way to the Green Chapel the nameless doomsayer tells Gawain that the Green Knight is super-dangerous and just kills the fuck out of people for no reason and has been haunting this area for ages. But the Green Knight is Bertilak, and this is not far from Bertilaks castle.
Possibly this is some black ops mission impossible shit where Bertilak gets this guy to talk up the danger of the place to see if Gawain will flinch. But if it isn't, then Bertilak is the monster haunting his own kingdom. He is the lord in the castle but also the terrible violent thing from the outside that kills at a whim. Which leads us to;
He's The Things That Are Inside Us That We Would Rather Were Both Outside Us And Very Far Away - See above, being gay, being violent, being a crazy ass murderer. Also possibly magic.
He's Mercy - Gawain is set an impossible moral challenge that leads directly from his desire to be the best possible knight and it inevitably leads to his destruction, but he isn't destroyed because he's willing to go through with it. So this is a Book of Job story maybe? Which is easy to crap on in a Stuart Lee or Ted Chiang way, because Job gets his 'stuff' back, so it seems like a fake moral message - pretend to go through with this apparently self-destructive moral code and I will reprieve you at the last minute. If you look like you are willing to die, you won't really have to.
It's kind of easy to make fun of from a modern perspective but I'm not sure that that’s what the original creators of those stories meant, or that we are fully understanding them. If you look at it from a detached, ironic, material perspective then it looks like a trick, if you look at it in the spirit and nature of its time, what is it then?
He's Kind Of Like God Maybe? - See above. I will add that in the last scene with the Green Knight, Gawain confesses his mild indiscretion when he had previously lied about it and the Knight says he is now "clean" as if he had been confessed by a priest, from the perspective of the story-world, it’s not clear where the fuck he thinks he is getting the moral authority to do this from. His words and his general air of moral assumption are not those of a trickster but a tolerant moral superior who is congratulating a student for finally seeing through a knotty problem and reaching a new level of awareness and understanding. He forgives like he's god, which makes the next bit even odder;
He's A Pawn Of Morgana La Fay - At the same time as he is forgiving Gawain the Green Knight gives him the backstory to what is going on, which to a modern reader (me) seems ridiculously thematically and dramatically disconnected from the rest of the text. Ok so it was a womanfight between Morgana and Guinevere. Was she orchestrating the sex game thing? You seemed super in charge before, and super in charge now, but in reality you weren't/aren't? Does she turn you into a giant green guy regularly? If she can do that, why not just send you to take out Arthur? Ok some of these are nerdboy questions, but still.
This also meshes with the poems turn towards misogyny in the last part. There seems to be some kind of divide between the poem and the poet on the subject of Lady Bertilak. From the poems point of view she's hot and funny, active, intelligent and has a lot of positive qualities. When the poet wakes up to what his heart is writing he has to remind us that she is sleazy and corrupt and kind of evil even though she doesn't seem it. Then he has the Green Knight effectively say that the whole thing was the fault of women and Gawain confirm it. To us reading, this is Gawain at his worst. I do wonder what the original audience would have thought of the whole thing. I do think, even from a Medieval perspective, it’s at least partly Gawain’s fault, yes you were assailed by magic giants and sexy girls, but it all interlaced with your own honour code and your own image of yourself, this isn't just me being 21stC, the poem seems to take a similar view, in its opening parts at least. And at the end the Green Knight wants to take Gawain back and reconcile him with his wife, his ‘opponent’ as if they were players in a game that is now over.
Would the original audience think it was good that Gawain didn’t back, bad? He’s refusing to go back into the sex/death house, but also refusing to be reconciled with a women/women in general.
VERY CHRISTIAN-SEEMING PARADOXES, THE NECESSARY IMPERFECTION
Finally we come to the end and Gawain crying and crushed because he failed, even though to us, to his opponent and to his friends, he scored 90% in a moral battle against a witch, a magic giant and a hot girl.
And Gawain never really cheers up, not in the narrative at least. We end on him sad, filled with a sense of his own failure. And we don't really know what to think of this. To Arthurs court it’s a failure that is not a failure. To Gawain it’s a success that is not a success. To the court the green girdle is a trophy. To Gawain a mark of shame.
We come back again to the unity of opposites, the necessity of imperfection in the search for perfection. Gawain’s failure is more humanising, and in a way, more noble than clear and direct success would have been. (Also a better drama.) Gawain’s super-brave and almost self-destructive honour code that first seemed bold, then dumb, then impossibly complex to maintain, then simple again just before the end, is now a weight for him.
What does it mean to hold yourself to an impossibly high standard? What does it mean to oppose death, nature, sex, the possibility of being a bit bisexual, hyper-masculinity, violence and a pawn of Morgana La Fay, and to fail, and yet to be forgiven? To be forgiven by all those same things?
I doubt I’ve got any close to “an answer”. I doubt there is one and if there is its probably obscure and theological.
I’m glad I got to meet the poet through the text. Gawain poet, I’m glad you wrote this. You can’t go straight from sad to being happy but you can go from sad to calm and your words helped me do that. And, if you’re also the ‘Pearl’ poet then I’m sorry about your kid.