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.

Why Fourteenth Century Knights Had Good Reason To Be A Little Angsty

I just finished a long and complicated article on what J.P. would call ‘Boy History’. Not something I’m used to dealing with- now many of his classes have the assessment blocks broken up so that you have to write one ‘boy history’ essay (politics, warfare, technology, economics, maybe disease and medecine?) and one ‘girl history’ (religion, women, books/literature/art, daily life), but I happily sailed through three years writing my papers on the Church (although in my defence, for JP’s classes I picked the ‘boy’ end- papal polcies and ecclesiastical politics. Have I mentioned my ginormous crush on Innocent III?), literature and women. Now, however, I find myself embroiled in a long paper on the Infantry Revolution of the Fourteenth Century. Tactics and weapons and all far too late for my taste. Why, you ask? Well, good question.

The last two papers I read- David L. Boyd’s Sodomy, Misogyny and Displacement: Occluding Queer Desire in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight1 and Donald R. Howard’s Structure and Symmetry in Sir Gawain, both made mention of ‘social tensions’ which were undermining the economic and political validity of the chivalric class. I can’t remember what Howard said about it, but Boyd’s argument was that this was *displaced* in the form of transgressive sexuality (threatening male social order) and the blame placed on women.

winterlillies,medievalI don’t think that’s entirely true. I think Gawain is, in himself, a barely-hero (not an anti-hero, but still not up to heroic standards), and I have an arse-kicking grammatical analysis to prove it. He’s not a perfect hero and his personal flaws lead to his downfall. However, it is true that he’s systematically disempowered throughout the text- I think his flawed character is such as to encourage this- and it seems that this reflects some anxieties on the part of the knightly class whom he represents. What could they be, though? To this end, I ploughed my way through Technology, Society, and the Infantry Revolution of the Fourteenth Century, an article by John Stone.

What I have learnt so far is:

* That in the fourteenth century, as anyone who has seen Braveheart will remember, infantry start defeating cavalry across Europe. Apparently the first such battle was at Courtrai in 1302, when Flemish commons defeated French horsemen.
So Thing One is: if infantry start replacing cavalry as Awesome Troops of Doom, perhaps the class of mounted chevaliers start feeling out-of-control.

* That in the fourteenth century, contemporary with these changes, come social changes which result in greater political privileges for the commons. Stone takes issue with some deterministic military historians who argue that technological innovations in warfare *create* social change, and argues for a combination of factors. He points out that the Flemish commons who defeated the French were defending their rights, not establishing them. However, he notes that the English case is quite different to the Flemish. Where the Flemish urban population had been experiencing relative peace in which to grow wealthy and powerful onmedieval,Monty Python the back of their textile industry, in England, resources had been funneled consistently into the Hundred Years War. This was causing resentment (and possibly revolts? I seem to remember hearing somewhere along the line that there were some revolts around about now? Wycliffites?)
So Thing Two is the commons agitating for (and gaining) political power. Do we have a House of Commons in England by now? I’m terrible with late medieval history…

* That Europe was in a period of economic prosperity, something which had been developing since the twelfth century. Prosperity means surplus resources, which means you can set up commerce and industry, which creates a liquid, cash-based economy. New commercial opportunities also means new power bases- this is the period where guilds become powerful, and where towns start setting up as communes. I’m not sure to what degree this is happening in England- the history teacher who taught me about guilds and so forth had no respect for geographical differences. But it’s happening, and even if it’s not on a large scale at home, the English do know what goes on on the Continent.
So Thing Three is: a flourishing cash-based economy with new opportunities for commerce and power is undermining the land and produce based economy which supports the feudal system.

medieval,Monty Python,silly,FunnyAll up, the chivalric class, collectively, have good reason to be feeling insecure in the fourteenth century. Hero-tales like the Arthur legends are a sort of group reassurance activity; they glorify the chivalric ethos, and reinforce the identity and purpose of the knight in the face of contemporary changes. I think Gawain himself, as a barely-hero with no control over his impossible situation, reflects the anxieties of the time. The poem glorifies the material and social world of chivalry, but it is at the end of the day a poem about failure– about one man who failed his code; about a code which fails to equip its hero with the skills to face his new situation.


1. SUCH AN AWESOME PAPER ZOMG. Really. Queer theorists take things like medieval kink seriously. Boyd’s footnotes include a paper titled ‘Anal Rope’, which from the reference Boyd made to it, looks like it deals with the bondage jokes that none of my class believe are actually there. I don’t buy Boyd’s ‘chivalry is all based on repressed homosexuality’, though. Dude. Chivalry is based on LOTS of things, particularly on the feudal system. And the feudal system is an economic and political structure wot is necessary for things like keeping Vikings out of your territory. Time goes on, a system becomes an ideology and it picks up things like the chivalric code, which may or may not provide a way of chanelling mano-a-mano desires, but you don’t seriously think ALL homosocial activity is repressed homosexuality, do you? And I have a rant coming up about the way Boyd completely sidelines female sexuality.