Megan is a Graduate from Trinity in San Antonio majoring in English Literature with a minor in Women's and Gender Studies. Megan is currently the fundraising assistant in the Austin office. Feel free to comment about other poems you have read and would like to share your interpretations.
“A Bush of a Beard”: Masculinity in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
1. Throughout the poem, characters often respond to and act in accordance with others’ demands, actions, and words. What does this say about the organization of power, specifically male power, within Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’s Camelot?
The poem begins with juxtaposed descriptions of failed or unsuccessful kingdoms and Camelot. Indeed, it seems to be a common understanding that Arthur’s, “of alle þat here bult of Bretaygne kynges/ Ay watz [hys] þe hendest” (25-26). With its rooms full of music, dancing, and gift giving and taking, it becomes clear very fast that Camelot is a place made by Arthur in which “Þe most kyd knyȝtez” (51) and “þe louelokkest ladies” (52) gather. Any sort of hierarchy outside of these requirements set forth for those who dwell in Camelot appears minimal in the beginning of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. It’s only when the Green Knight actually penetrates the court that we may begin to dismantle the cloud of glee that hovers over Camelot’s chain of command.
The Green Knight enters during the forced measure of storytelling set forth by Arthur before dinner. While the king has the authority to restrain his subjects from eating until he is personally satisfied, he occupies a passive role in the action of the text. It is not Arthur who prevents the marvel of a feast from being consumed, but the Green Knight and his “haughty” (as Finch’s translation goes) entrance. As he rides up to the table, directly asking for “‘Þe gouernour of þis gyng’” (225), he overrides both the people’s feasting and all those in rank underneath Arthur’s jurisdiction. Arthur is challenged in this way. He answers the Green Knight with a welcoming and is again given an objection to his power in return. Espousing the renowned knights of Camelot, the green horseman accepts Sir Gawain’s appeal to take Arthur’s place in the Christmastide deal, further equating a knight like Sir Gawain, “‘þe wakkest… and of wyt feblest’” (354), with Arthur. Furthermore, the Green Knight tacks on a decidedly more arduous task of seeking him out in a year’s time for the knight, thusly giving him a greater opportunity for honor and glory than Arthur would have been accorded.
While Camelot is superficially organized in such a way that its king holds power, its underlying structures are much more complex. The Green Knight, an outsider, deems Sir Gawain, of a self-admittedly lower personage in Arthur’s court than most, commensurate and potentially more threatening than King Arthur. In turn, this seems to question Camelot’s rank and position within the world of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
2. Sir Gawain’s motivations are often driven by his adherence to those he sees as being above him. What sorts of jurisdiction are these? When does God come before King?
3. What role do buildings and kingdoms play in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight? How are these described within the text? What do the descriptions of the spaces say about the people within them?