I am, (un)fortunately, blessed with an innocent mind, and despite the best efforts of many of my friends and associates, sometimes, I just don’t get the dirty jokes. Fortunately, in the world of medieval literature, there is almost always someone who’s done a close text study of the dirty joke, and spelt it out in sensible terms like ‘symbolism’ and ‘inversion’ and ‘verbal echoes’, which is the only way an innocent nerd like me will pick up on it.
Tonight I have discovered, courtesy of one David Mills and the Journal of English and Germanic Philology, that the temptation scenes in SGGK are full of bondage jokes.1
I did realise they were an extended innuendo, I’m not that dim. Lady sneaks into Gawain’s bed, refuses to let him get up and dressed, baldly announces ye are welcom to my cors, and gloats about how many ladies wish they had him in their embrace, as she does here. Gawain, meanwhile, sputters and prevaricates, and manages, for three successive nights, to keep pushing their discourse back into the conventional exchange of loyalty and compliments between knight and lady. Amusing stuff, right? Is Gawain cleverly blocking her every attack? Or is he simply too dumb to pick up on what she’s offering? (The irony being that, even if he knows exactly what she’s offering, he can have no idea what game she and Bertilak, and Morgan behind them, are playing at.)
The factor that I’d not noticed until I picked up Mills’ article is that the Lady comes in and assumes the dominant role- not only by propositioning Gawain, but by doing so in the language of assault, restraint and servitude.
She addresses Gawain as a sleeping sentry, who ought to be on better guard: Ye ar a sleeper unslyge, Þat mon may slyde hider. Mills notes the use of the impersonal pronoun ‘mon’- while not specifically masculine, it removes from her any particularly feminine typecasting. Next, she announces I schal bynde yow in your bedde. Gawain picks up on this imagery of attack and conquest, asking her to deprece your prisoun, but evades the sexual innuendo, asking permission to get up and dress before he becomes the butt of any more sniggering jokes. The Lady refuses, announcing that Ye schal not rise of your bedde… I schall happe you here Þat oÞer half als, and syÞen carp with my knyght that I kagt have. In the next stanza, she alludes to other ladies, each of whom wishes she haf Þe, hende, in her holde, as I Þe habbe here. Politely speaking, many ladies wish they could hold Gawain in their arms… but the Lady’s halde on him is rather more forceful, a prisoun in spite of his attempts to extricate himself. In line 1257 she reduces him from Þe to hit holly in my honde Þat al desyres– which, as Mills puts it, ‘reduces him from a human-being to an object of desire’.
The symbolism here is working on several levels. The imagery of attack and capture parrallels nicely with the hunt scene in the previous stanza. I don’t know my courtly lyric poetry nearly as well as I should, but it strikes me that the Lady’s pursuit of Gawain is an inversion of the sort of hunting imagery associated with the ‘heart/hart hunt’ in The Book of the Duchess. Here, it is the woman who is actively hunting- and her quarry is not Gawain’s heart, but his body. (For one thing, that would be a damn sight less funny when it comes to the exchange of winnings at the end of the day…) Her ‘knightly’ role serves to create a link with her husband, out hunting and doing his knightly thing in the forest. At this stage, it looks as if there is a parrallelism forming between the two (Berty out in the forest, bravely hunting down what he wants… and the Lady, inside, going after her desire with the same dedication)- as the plot unwinds, it turns out they are in fact assaulting Gawain together, and, in hindsight, the Lady’s dominant role in the scene perhaps symbolises her husband’s masculine direction of her actions.2
Mills links the Lady’s sexual dominance with the genre of fablieux, which seems fair enough. It’s downright funny, watching poor little Gawain scrabbling to extricate himself from a sexual situation. Compared to the studly Gawain of the later Chevalier a L’Epee, whose lady-friend has to keep excusing herself from his attentions,3 our Gawain is far from the virile figure the Lady paints him out to be.
The joke goes further than mere sexual exuberance on her part, though. The Lady is offering Gawain the her body, to take his awen won from it. But how is she offering this service to his desires? [O]f fyne force, of course! By binding him in his bed and holding him against his will! What’s more, she intimates that any number of other women would love to dominate him in kind.
Now, this emasculation of Gawain is quite definitely not supposed to be read as the natural order of things. You could probably link it with the exchange of winnings and make a good homoerotic analysis out of it. And it all works wonderfully with the plot at large. But for the dirty joke to fly in the meantime, how much of an idea of erotic domination do you need circulating in your culture? It’s funny seeing a woman take on an unnatural role- but the intimation that other women would like to do the same suggests that the Lady doesn’t consider herself alone in her kink… and nor are the audience intended to.
I’m not suggesting that it would be encouraged or accepted, or that you could buy bondage gear on the streets of London. But it seems to me that the poem is suggesting that the Lady thinks domination would serve Gawain’s awen won (so therefore, the idea of domination as erotic can’t be completely foreign), and that the joke is on Gawain. As he scrabbles to escape, does he even realise exactly what she’s offering? Is he trying to preserve his honour by not sleeping with his host’s wife… or is he trying to keep his manly person out of the hands of this rogue domme and her unnatural tastes?
1. David Mills, ‘An Analysis of the Temptation Scenes in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’, JEGP 1968, p. 612-630.
2. But then, of course, there is Morgan Le Fay lurking around in the background, directing him. Gawain’s reduction to a sexual object in this scene may also be reflecting his reduction to the object of Morgan’s grudge against Arthur.
3. If you missed out on the fun, read about how Gawain keeps the ladies happy in bed here.