Roland and Gawain- further expoundings

I foolishly drank red wine at Formal Dinner, and got all teary over a UNICEF presentation, and now I don’t feel like doing any work. So what I’m going to do is, I’m going to trick myself into writing my commentary for my Gawain class tomorrow by putting it online. Sound fair?

First up, if you’re wondering what’s going on, read this morning’s post about the parrallels between the Charlemange/Roland and Arthur/Gawain relationships. (note- thanks for the tip-off about Ralph the Collier, Jeff. I’m going to see if Middle English Reading Group will help me out with it.)

This morning, I looked at the structural relationships between Roland and Gawain in the courts to which they respectively belong. (Now, I must note that it’s over a year since I read Roland, in translation, and my copy thereof is now in the hands of the Goblin. So I’m really pulling things out of my backside here.) There are two further aspects of the two heroes which I feel worth investigating: one, their personal natures, and two, their wider settings.

The Character of the Hero

No one ever accused Roland of being the sharpest sword in the armoury, did they? If I had my copy (I think it’s the Penguin?) here, I would quote to you from the introduction, but as is, you’ll have to trust me when I say that the editor, whose name I’ve forgotten, talks about just this fact. Roland isn’t the quickest of wit, or the wisest. Not much of a tactician, nor, one suspects, was he really one for courtly poncing around. Rather, he is young, and beautiful, and brave, and that is all that is required of him. See enemy, hoist banner, charge. Instant hero.

The editor of my Roland (damn, I wish I could remember her name…) had some very eloquent phrases to the effect that ‘The phrase ‘Middle Ages’ are a misnomer… these are the young ages’- young, good-looking, brash and overconfident. We’re talking about eleventh century Francophonia1 here, the height of the Feudal era, but before the chivalric code and courtly literature had really taken off. Roland and his cohort are defined as knights by two things: their relationship with one another, and their courage. Intelligence and refinement are not held at a high premium.

Now, turning to Gawain. He’s a knight cut from the same mould as Roland. He is young, and beautiful. He is known for his valiant courage, and demonstrates this against tangible enemies in the wilderness of the Wirral. He loves his uncle the king steadfastly. Intelligence is not his strong point. (I have a complicated anaylsis of this, but a) i’m not that generous with the internet, and b), it’s really kind of boring to sit through.) Suffice it to say, Gawain is perfectly equipped to deal with the dangers right in front of him, but he is completely flummoxed by the otherworldly machinations of The Green Knight, Morgan and the Lady. He just plain doesn’t know what’s going on, or how to deal with it, and in the face of these mind-games he is lead into a spiral of deceit, cowardice and sin.

Which brings us to…

The Hero’s world

It doesn’t matter that Roland isn’t the pointiest pike in the rack. His world- or his poet, if you like- doesn’t ask it of him. It asks only beauty and courage and loyalty, and these he has aplenty. Gawain, likewise not the bendiest bow in the rank, would be quite at home in Roland’s world.

* Roland’s life is defined by deep homosocial relationships.2 Roland is off with his troops, under the command of his uncle, supported by his foster-brother Olivier. Gawain, meanwhile, is off on his journey alone, into a world where the homosocial is undermined by the homosexual. Does Gawain even know what he would have to give to the Lord if he had his way with the Lady?

Gawain’s masculinity is at stake. Before I go on talking about hetero/homosexual, it’s worth making the disclaimer that I know these categories don’t cookie-cutter fit the Middle Ages. I prefer a disctinction which David L Boyd makes and then passes over, which is that (high) medieval (western european) sexuality is a binary not of hetero/homosexual but top/bottom, the former being appropriate to a man and the latter to a woman. M/M sex is dangerous because it feminises one or both of the participants. Boyd argues that Gawain would be feminised, in that he would have to offer what the Lady gave him, a ‘receptacle’. He doesn’t go that far, happily (for him, if not for future slash fans), but there’s a whole lot of complicated scholarship (see Boyd and Shiela Fisher, for starters), explaining how the girdle is feminising and the axe-wound is a vaginal symbol and so on. Point is, the whole setup runs Gawain in circles, and is a far cry from the straightforward manly bonding of Roland.

As someone known as Nathaniel (sorry, I don’t remember where you blog…) pointed out to me the other day, fourteenth century England had good reason to be concerned about the erosion of boundaries between the homosocial bonds of the feudal order and potential homosexual bonds, in the form of Edward II and his ‘favourites’. Gawain, and the straightforward heroic order he represents, are threatened.

* Roland’s world is utterly devoid of female sexuality. It’s not devoid of women: Bramimunde, in the Saracen court, is an active character. But on Roland’s side, there is only the distant Aude, a token passed between Olivier and Roland to cement their brotherly affection. This looks like a perfect example of Boyd’s heterosex-as-vehicle-for-homosexual-desire trope, but I don’t buy it, in this case. Marrying sisters is a good way to tie two men and their families together in a political as well as affectionate alliance. (And if you like your sister, you’d probably rather her married to someone you know and trust…) IMHO, it’s significant that Roland never makes it home to Aude and the marriage (and the sex) never takes place.

At Hautdesert, however, heterosex does imply some kind of homosexual exchange, as I noted above. Gawain can’t be quite certain of that, though. What he can be certain of is that he’s faced with transgressive and aggressive female sexuality. I’m digging in my heels and maintaining that the Lady is dominant, at least in the first temptation scene. At the very least, the boundary between masculine/top and feminine/bottom is blurred.

Furthermore, the machinations of female sexuality are behind all this confusion. As Boyd points out, the blame for transgressive homosexual desires is shifted onto women; his women-as-objects-between-men thesis can be inverted, and the men become ‘taken men’ in women’s power, as Shiela Fisher argues. Sadly neither of them consider the sexual implications of this- what does it mean for the Lady to instigate a homosexual exchange? If Gawain knows he may have to ‘pay back’ Bertilak, does he think Bertilak has orchestrated it, or the Lady? And then, at the end of the poem, we find out that Morgan is behind the whole operation. As a result of his ‘trafficking’ with women, as Sheila Fisher puts it, Gawain dons the girdle and loses his heroic standing. Women, to put it bluntly, are dangerous and they’re undermining the masculine warrior code by which Roland lived and Gawain ought to live.

* Roland’s enemies are this-worldly and they stay that way. He’s facing a whole pile of Saracens, all he has to do is charge them down and die heroically. His conflict is that between sensible tactics and his stubborn pride- pride wins, and he gets to be a hero. Bonus points.

Gawain’s enemies, on the other hand, can’t make up their mind if they’re otherwordly or thisworldly. First off, he has the otherworldly Green Knight, who is scary as hell. Next, he has the Lady, who ought to be thisworldly but is behaving very transgressively. Then there’s the fact that his host, apparently thisworldly, is also the otherworldly Green Knight. And finally we find out that the whole apparently thisworldly castle of Hautdesert is ruled by Morgan ‘the goddess’, and she orchestrated the entire sequence of events. Poor ole Gawain just can’t keep up. He doesn’t have the information he needs to understand what’s going on around him, but what’s more he just doesn’t seem to try. He just bumbles along trying to keep his head on and his masculinity invoilate from moment to moment.

* Finally, and this is a point I haven’t investigated properly in relation to either poem, there’s the question of economic anxiety. I have a book waiting to be read called ‘The Poem as Green Girdle’, which is all about commercial imagery in SGGK. For now, suffice it to say that in Roland, everything is shiny and beautiful, while in Gawain, everything is shiny and beautiful and has a definite price, even Gawain himself. Roland associates display with nobility and worth; Gawain associates display with wealth and commercial value. Roland’s worth as a hero is displayed in his rich ornamentation; Gawain’s worth as a hero is measured and curtailed by pricing. I need to poke into this a bit more, and have another look at Roland (in the French… blerg…), but I venture the suggestion that the later poem is evidencing an anxiety about the burgeoning market economy, the nature of wealth and the possibility of it amassing in non-noble hands, a concern which simply isn’t relevant in Roland.

What I’m trying to say here…

is that Gawain is an old-skool knight, a big, pretty, kinda dumb warrior of the Roland type, completely at sea in the confusing and threatening world of the fourteenth century. A good three centuries separate the two poems, and in that time a whole courtly culture has had time to develop, on the foundations of the feudal society in which Roland is located, and is now threatened by all kinds of things. The poet emphasises this disparity between the heroic past and the unstable present through the character of Gawain- not through a great courtly knight like Lancelot, or even the later French incarnation of Gawain, but through a Gawain who bears more resemblance to Roland, and who simply cannot cope with the confusion of his new situation. Perhaps this is why the poem shows such leniency toward Gawain’s cowardice in saving his own life- a hero used to facing down his enemies in combat shouldn’t be expected to unravel the twistings of monsters and Morgan.


1. As Keith Busby pointed out to the CMS the other night, a good deal of medieval ‘french’ literature is preserved in English manuscripts. Nobody mention this to the French department, ok?
2. If you try to tell me Roland and Olivier were having slashy gay buttsex, I will cry.


5 Responses to “Roland and Gawain- further expoundings”

  1. Jonathan Jarrett Says:

    Disclaimer: I don’t know either text at all well. However, this sounds well reasoned, and the work you cite on m/f as top/bottom can be parallelled by other work on Old Norse literature too. Mind you, you still get this: when one young male wishes to taunt another, he accuses them of taking it up the rear, not giving it… Anyway. The only work I know of on this is that of David Wyatt at Cardiff, but I’m sure you could find more if need be. The only thing I would say however is:

    … fourteenth century England had good reason to be concerned about the erosion of boundaries between the homosocial bonds of the feudal order and potential homosexual bonds, in the form of Edward I and his ‘favourites’

    I’m pretty sure you mean Edward II. Gotta watch those Plantagenets…

  2. highlyeccentric Says:

    >when one young male wishes to taunt another, he accuses them of taking it up the rear, not giving it…<

    Well, yes. Taking it up the rear is more degrading than putting it up the rear, so to speak, because the putter-upper maintains his top/masculine role, while the taker-upper has to be bottom/feminine.

    Edward II. Right. Fixed.

  3. B. Hawk Says:

    What a wonderful post!

    Like I said in your previous post about these ideas, there’s a lot here. You’ve tackled a lot just in this post, and each of these points has myriad directions to follow–and it all sounds interesting! Of course, I’m still thinking of the literary history behind these parallels and how they work–the sources, the analogues, and the Anglo-Norman cultural problematics at play.

    There are several questions that crop up from this line of inquiry, I think (but, of course, they’re to ponder more than to answer). What about the Celtic and Norman influences that are at the origins, and what cultural parallels might spark intersections? Or are they all parallels born out of the chivalric tradition rising? Also, I find it interesting that you mention the “disparity between the heroic past and the unstable present”–because both works emphasize a heroic (even <imythic, in many definitions of the word) past for whatever reasons. From this idea, how do the literary/cultural traditions of such a past enter the present–i.e. how do we reconcile the convergences of Celtic-Germanic-Norman influences in SGGK or Roman-Germanic-Norman influences in Song of Roland, and what about the intersecting parallels conjoins these views and interpretations?

  4. B. Hawk Says:

    About the Norse stuff, and sexual insults in Germanic word-duels, there’s some discussion in (an article about Beowulf, but with broader cultural discussions imbedded) Carol J. Clover, “The Germanic Context of the Unferth Episode” Speculum 55 (1980): 444-68, and Clover provides some great footnotes to such word arguments, insults, and questioning the sexuality of one’s opponents. Using an idea like “Germanic” culture (about which Clover discusses), this is widely applicable to both stories: the Frankish-Germanic Roland and the Celtic-Germanic Gawain, both seemingly (arguably controversial, though, in how you identify/discuss this issue) out of a generically Germanic cultural heritage.

  5. highlyeccentric Says:

    Oh, wow. *blinks* I think those comments are far too dense for me to take in at this hour of the morning.

    I can say I’m not too interested in Celtic ‘stuff’, although I suppose I should be… it tends to just lead down tangled and unprovable routes.

    Um. And I hadn’t thought about applying a kind of pan-germanic approach to it. I don’t think I’ll have space or relevance to do that in this essay, but if I ever chase it up properly I’ll try to remember to do that…

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