IAS update #2 – Gawain and Guinevere, my two favourite Arthurian peeps

[Note: both these papers, and my recaps of them, deal with encroachment on personal and physical autonomy; the second in particular covered some distressing gendered violence in the narrative structure.]

The first paper I went to at Bristol was on what might just qualify as my favourite subject – the objectification (or, in this case, commodification) of Sir Gawain, in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

Warning against the wyles of women – David Sweeten

This paper moved very fast, especially in the middle, so I missed chunks of it, but I really look forward to reading a hard-copy version at some point

David began with this quote:

Medieval MSS llustration - couple embracingFor were I worth al the wone of wymmen alyue,
And al þe wele of þe worlde were in my honde,
And I schulde chepen and chose to cheue me a lorde

Þer schulde no freke upon folde bifore yow be chosen.

[ll. 1269-71,75; Tolkien & Gordon 2nd ed. (ed. by Norman Davies); my quotation, not David Sweeten’s.]

Gawain, or Gawain-as-husband, is something which can be purchased with appropriate wealth. David went on to argue that Gawain’s honour is also a commodity to be bargained for: he read the bedroom scenes not as Lady B’s attempt to sleep with Gawain (or purchase sex from him), but an endeavour to get him to accept the girdle. She takes her time setting up the appropriate stakes: first offering a too-high price (sexual favours for his honour) in order to make the lower price, the girdle, more acceptable. The values of the items in question – Gawain’s honour, and the girdle, seem slippery: Lady B. can reduce Gawain’s standing by questioning his identity; and her revelation of the properties of the girdle forces him to re-value the item within the context of the exchange.

As well as this reading, which was fun in its own right, David offered some historical context. He argued that the poem is both rooted in its NW Midlands homeland, and closely tied to London politics of the day. SGGK’s anxiety about women’s commodification of male honour he linked to contemporary anxiety about the position of influence held by Alice Perrers, mistress of Edward III. The nobility of the NW Midlands relied heavily on direct royal patronage: Alice’s strong influence over Edward threatened that relationship.

I really liked this paper. But then, I really like most things which have to do with someone bossing poor Gawain about.*

Next up, I missed the first five minutes or so (but enjoyed the rest of)….

The Queen was in her Parlour: Guinevere and Space – Kristina Hildebrand

This paper was in a session (“Women in Arthurian Literature”), which, perhaps due to its snazzy content and perhaps due to its respected moderator, Bonnie Wheeler, was so jam-packed that people (myself and David Sweeten included) were sprawled on the floor around the edges of the room.

Kristina argued that Guinevere marks out and defines royal space; her presence identifies civilisation in the text. This power is not to be confused with political clout, but it seems to be impossible to rule England without her.

Gwen, with crown

Guinevere is a stable figure at the centre of the court (for the most part), when compared to, say Iseult, who comes and goes from her husband’s court. She has a defined space, her personal chamber: Kristina talked about the stress in the social fabric of Malory’s Arthurian world caused by differing values placed on the queen’s space. To Arthur, he alone should have access to it; Gawain argues that because the queen has a public function as rewarder of knights, her chamber is a public space.

With this framework set up, Kristina talked about Guinevere in Meleagaunt’s castle: her space grows smaller and smaller; she attempts to defend a single room, and in the end she cannot even maintain control over her bed. This is a pretty distressing situation by any measure, but the framework Kristina set up around it, in which Guinevere’s space is not just about her person but her identity as queen, the whole process sent chills up my spine. Not-good chills, except insofar as I admire the careful authorial choices necessary to produce such effects.

Guinevere, then, is under constant threat: she is most safe inside Arthur’s court, but never entirely so. Kristina drew in Igraine, here, who was not safe even within her husband’s court; and then she asked if the convent to which Guinvere retires is a safe personal space at last? There, she has authority, and ought to be able to prevent male encroachments on her territory. However, Lancelot ignores her command and tries to see her. Kristina noted that Guinevere is saved, in the end – by death. Only God can protect her; and even then, only terminally.

I liked this paper! It was Relevant To My Interests, even if it was about Malory. Totally worth scrunching up on the floor for.

~

* I feel I ought to specify, since apparently many people assume otherwise, that I do not personally wish to shag Gawain! Boss him about, sure. My feeling on Gawain is that he should be my big brother, and his life would be much better if he had me to tell him how to run it.** And many other people’s lives would be improved because I would be bossing Gawain about, and not them. What, you mean you don’t all have fictional characters you want to adopt? *sidles off*

** I have a feeling the Maiden With Small Sleeves shares my feelings on Gawain, too.

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